Operator Spotlight: AutoBrite Car Washes

“New member – treat ‘em like family.”


It’s a familiar saying at AutoBrite, a small family-owned chain of washes across Vance, Granville, Warren, and Franklin counties in North Carolina.

Melanie Howell Hutson, the Vice President of AutoBrite, attributes it to her worker who says it every time they sign up a member to their express wash. To Melanie and the rest of the AutoBrite management team – which includes her husband Keith (operations manager) and her father (and founder) Thomas Howell – it’s become their motto.

A Humble Start

Thomas grew up as a North Carolina tobacco farmer, with a maintenance background through trade school. Taking up machinist work after graduating from Wilson Tech, he went to work at Burlington Industries. Working inside wasn’t for him, though – “I did electrical work and maintenance work… I just didn’t like being inside all the time, in the big factory.”

After going back to farming, he began to help a friend out at their self-serve washes. They brought him in to be the day-to-day manager of their sites. He exceled in this role courtesy of his trade school background and farmer’s ingenuity for maintenance and repair work. Over the years, that wash expanded, and Thomas bought in to the business. When his friend decided it was time to exit the business, Thomas stepped up and bought the three locations, founding AutoBrite.

Expanding the AutoBrite Footprint

Over the years, the AutoBrite roster of washes has grown steadily, as Thomas has seen opportunities come up throughout the region to expand the brand. Keeping an eye out for closing washes and distressed properties, AutoBrite expanded over time. The ability to expand came through the family’s willingness to step in and do the work themselves. They’re eager to get their hands dirty renovating and rebuilding troubled properties. Thomas recalls installing his own Belanger Vectors with his team while working through missing instructions – two of them are still workhorses for the company!

They finally opened their AutoBrite Express location in April of 2022, which came after a long build-out process. While the building was in good shape, the internals and machinery were in rough shape. “We just shut it down…” says Thomas. Melanie chimed in – “It took us about a year and half to get everything up and running, take everything out and put in all-new equipment.” But since the tunnel has been open, they have seen it become their top earner in the group!

Growing the Brand and the Team

This all came with some changes for the brand. For one, it changed how they work on their washes. Both Thomas and Keith agreed the electronic-based tunnel versus the mechanically-focused self-service washes provide a challenge. It’s simply a different ballgame to maintain and repair. It also brought about a change in approach – says Melanie, “We didn’t have a website and as much of a social media presence until we opened the express location up here.”

This all came along with a rapidly expanding workforce. Keith takes care of much of the day-to-day maintenance of the sites, particularly the self-serve spots. Patrick Glosson, Keith’s long-time friend, is the manager of their AutoBrite Express tunnel location – recalls Melanie, “We tried more than once to get him but he finally came over.” On top of this, they have two full-timers, and ten or so attendants and lot cleaners that work at the Express location.

Concentrating on Service and Product

Aside from being a family business, the AutoBrite team pulls in customers from near and far thanks to a focus on providing spotless cars and smiling service. Patrick is a big part of the interface with express customers, talking to them as they come through. “We got ‘em coming from Virginia, Louisburg, Oxford… yesterday I talked to a lady from Creedmoor that wanted to sign up,” he says. This personal connection has endeared the wash near and far!

Reaching out to the Community

Part of the success of AutoBrite has come through connecting with the communities across the region. “We did sponsorship of the local high school football team this past year” said Melanie. Patrick pointed out, “We did local advertisement for the Henderson radio and the surrounding county… we jumped in with the Chamber of Commerce, did donations for them.” Thomas chipped in about the efforts they make with the local school district, saying, “We made a package for the school teachers for the upcoming school year.”

They all agree, the development of the Express location has led them to change how they deal with marketing, social media, and public relations. They’ve been able to be more visible and aggressive with their advertisements, as Patrick says, “We’re getting more and more into it… this is really different from the self-serve side. This year we’ve been more involved with the local marketing.”

The Future of AutoBrite

Looking towards the future, AutoBrite is set – jokes Thomas, “We’re gonna build twenty more!” But realistically, they recognize that competition will dictate what they can and can’t do. With customers coming from far away, they understand the potential that there could be a give and take of territory.

We’re thrilled to have AutoBrite as part of the Kleen-Rite family, and we look forward to seeing the smiling orange AutoBrite logo for years to come!

Originally appeared in Kleen-Scene 42 by Drew Tyson.

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