Geoff Knautz should be a tired man. In the last 10 years, Geoff has either bought, built, or renovated 8 car washes in the Central Washington area. Although he is a busy man, we caught up with him to discuss how he got started and what key relationships from his past he still counts on today to aid in his business growth.
Getting into the Business
Knautz didn’t come up through the car wash business. In fact, prior to getting into it, he worked for Young Life Youth Ministry. However, Geoff had always been very motivated and knew he had an entrepreneurial spirit. In 2010, a friend approached him about getting into the car wash business. Even though Geoff had no prior experience, he recognized it as a solid opportunity.
He and his wife bought their first AutoSpa Central Washington, which is now their primary West Valley location in Yakima. “We went for it, installed a second automatic, and it started doing really well.” A fairly hands-on guy, they went at it pretty much alone for the first few years. With no car wash background, he had to learn the ropes and maintenance himself. “It was a rough learning curve at first, because I didn’t know much about the car wash business. I had to do my homework, build partnerships for parts and supplies, and we made it work – but it wasn’t easy. I literally couldn’t sleep if I had to cone off a bay or put up an out of order sign.”
Growing the AutoSpa Brand
After seeing Geoff’s drive and successes at the single location, another business mentor approached him about growing AutoSpa into a localized chain of stores. In 2013, they purchased a second location in Ellensburg, and continued to snowball, taking advantage of the sunny Yakima Valley days and the four-season weather. More locations in Ellensburg and Yakima followed, as well as into nearby Selah and now Wenatchee.
His previous time at Young Life set him up for success and growth. “Young Life is a group that tries to make an impact on teenagers, and the focus is on building relationships. That aided in my business – car washing is about relationships. It’s about my CFO, my technicians, my area managers and all these people I know and care about, asking them to join me in this journey in serving customers.”
It wasn’t without growing pains, though. He had to expand his work force, saying, “With one store, I could hire, I could train, I could fix, I could do that… when it got to two stores I knew it was time to start hiring different people. So when we got to three stores we hired Teresa to do the accounting, we hired a technician, and then I did most the management.”
Today, with 8 stores under the AutoSpa umbrella and 45 employees across the company, it’s a pretty big “small business”. With store managers and site leads, a finance team, marketing staff, a dedicated hiring and training manager, and a team of technicians, Geoff is no longer as hands-on as he was at the start. “I’ve transitioned to managing the managers,” Geoff says, “I still love the projects, still love the hands on, so it was hard for me to step out of the day to day.” That being said, he has recruited an incredible team and trusts them to reflect his values and uphold the business reputation of excellent customer service.
More Than Just Growing a Business
With the focus on quality over quantity, providing the same AutoSpa experience at every location and not spreading too thin, Knautz is looking at smart growth. “Really, the goal for me is ten to twelve locations, and then I think I’m done. I think that’s enough to take care of and enough of a business to say we have built something really special here.”
One thing is clear though, even as he considers capping the growth of his business, he sees the growth of employees as a focus of the company. It’s important to him to continue developing employees along the goals and guidelines of the Young Life ministry, which he is still involved in. “Young Life has been a longtime friend to me and a great resource – when I went to Ellensburg I contacted my Young Life buddy and said ‘Hey, we’ve got some openings, do you know some kids that need jobs?’ and then we did the same thing in Wenatchee.”
He continues, “I feel like it’s a great first job for a lot of teenagers. If we can teach them customer service, showing up on time, following the rules, and how we do things – I always tell them that this can be a great start to their resume. Someday, when they move on from the car wash business, I can say to future employers that they were fantastic kids, they showed up on time, they did the things we need, and they developed great customer service.”
His employees reflect this. The on-duty team at West Valley of Christian, Kacy, and Eli were all emphatic about the fact that they see the business as one where they’ve grown and developed, and has provided them with skills and a footing for the future, either within the business or as they move on.
Relationships Are the Key
One thing that is clear is that Knautz values relationships, and sees the industry as being built on them. Whether it’s his relationship with Kleen-Rite as a vendor, his relationships with his staff as a mentor as much as a boss, his ongoing relationships through the Young Life ministry, or his relationships with the community and local schools with support through fundraising programs, he sees them as core to his success and business growth.
In fact, it’s his primary advice for someone looking to get into the car wash business. “Focus on the customers, give them what they came for, build a good brand, and build relationships. If someone comes to our wash and doesn’t have a good experience, and they call or email, we get back to them the very next day. If something happened, we get back to them, ask how we can make it right.”
With such a focus on relationships inside the company and out, Knautz and the AutoSpa Central Washington team are set up for future success. We thank him for hosting us and sharing his story, and being a part of the Kleen-Rite family!