Mandi Brower’s first job with the family business was working in college as a cashier at the Quality Car Wash store on Eighth Street in Holland. After earning a degree in accounting from Davenport University and working elsewhere for a while, she returned in 2005 to a position in which she did “whatever needed to be done” and worked her way up. Brower today serves as chief operating officer, the top executive of Quality Car Wash. The operation is part of the family’s Vision Quest Companies, which includes Tim Horton’s restaurants and Tommy Car Wash, a seller of automatic car wash equipment. Quality Car Wash today has seven locations that include convenience stores. The firm targets 10 stores by 2020. Brower recently won the Small Business of the Year Award from the West Coast Chamber of Commerce in Holland. She spoke with MiBiz about her experience operating a family-owned small business.
What are the biggest challenges today with running a small business?
The hiring. That’s pretty common across the board for small and large businesses. We take a lot of pride in the people that we hire. We’re very picky and we hire the best of the best and we build a really good culture. We actually have a great referral bonus, because if you have great people on your team, they most likely know great people as well. We try to recruit internally as much as possible, but are actively getting into colleges and some of the tech centers to find people that we need.
What’s key to successfully overcoming that issue long term?
Training people and keeping your great people with you. On our management team, two of them have been with us over 20 years, starting when they were 16, and others have been here 15 to 20 years. Just create that bench and it really helps because they are training our new leaders. As we open new locations, they’re getting the same culture and that same training and that carries on the culture.
Does a car wash come with the job?
We actually give a free car wash to all of our team members because we want them to commit to wash quality. If they get a car wash and something didn’t clean right or whatever, they need to go back to their manager. So we want every team member washing their car every week to be able to make sure our wash quality is good.
When did you know that the family business was right for you?
When I found my niche of working with our retail locations. I’m an operations person, and being able to build a culture, and as we’ve been growing, with my organizing skills and planning and getting the right people in the right place, has made it pretty smooth of a transition for us. It just makes me feel like I’m in the right place. I’ve been able to help the family, I’ve been able to take a lot of stress off my dad and we’ve been able to keep growing without a lot of hiccups.
How do you navigate some of the unique dynamics of running a family-owned business?
We’ve been great in getting outside sources in, whether it’s family business consultants and things like that. In the very beginning, we were all overlapping and causing more stress. It was creating those lines of communication and the specific roles of who’s responsible for what. Communicate clearly and set expectations. You cannot over communicate.
How do you overcome different approaches family members take in the business?
Another thing that we really keep in mind is vision. Share the vision and (make sure) everyone knows the vision. Everyone in the family will have a different way to get to that vision. My brother (Ryan Essenburg, who runs Tommy Car Wash) sees the same vision. I will attack that process to get there completely different from how he attacks his process to get there. He manages completely different than I manage our teams and leaders. So try to be very respectful of that and know that everyone has a different way to get to the vision. Impact the people that you’re responsible for, let him impact the people he’s responsible for, and remember that everybody is trying to get to same vision. We just have different paths.
What advice do you have for other family-owned businesses in terms of planning for succession?
Not waiting is key. And I think that instead of calling it a succession plan, we would call it more of an exit strategy. Whether it is for the purpose of a succession plan, or a purpose of wanting to sell, or a purpose of dad waking up and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go do hotels tomorrow,’ just have some sort of exist strategy that the family all agrees on. That’s very important to have an exit strategy for the family as a whole, for the company, or for the locations or our brands … and then an exit strategy for each person individually.
Is the car wash business highly seasonal?
It is very seasonal. It is primarily December, January, February and March. It’s the road salt.
MiBiz small business news coverage is supported by the Small Business Association of Michigan, the statewide and state-based association that focuses solely on serving the needs of Michigan’s small business community. Visit sbam.org for information.