Mark Curtis, founder and CEO of Splash Car Wash, at left, is shown at the Greenwich company’s Darien location, joking with Omar Locke, a manager.
Mark Curtis was a young commercial loan officer at a local bank in Greenwich, where he grew up, when he saw an ad for a single-location car wash for sale. It was 1981 and he called his buddy, Chris Fisher, and said, “We’ve got to buy this place!” They had washed boats together as teenagers and they renamed it the Tahiti Auto Spa, so named because their goal was to earn enough to buy a boat and sail to Tahiti. They renamed it The Car Wash of Greenwich in 1985 and later, Splash Car Wash when they expanded to full-service, hand-washing services.
They started with four employees but cut back to just Curtis after the Mianus River Bridge collapse choked off Route 1. Today the company has 21 locations in Connecticut and Westchester County.
In November, the partners sold a majority stake to a private equity firm. Curtis, 64, remains as CEO and the management team is the same. It’s common to find Curtis out talking with the crews, having fun. That spirit earned him the Top Leader award for midsize employers in the 2019 Hearst Connecticut Media Top Workplaces competition.
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“We get the opportunity to make thousands of people happy every day, because everybody feels better when their car is clean. We get the ability to put a smile on people’s faces.”
My first manager we found stealing from us. And the dilemma we found firing him was he was the only guy who knew how to fix everything on the site, and there was a lot of stuff to be fixed on a daily basis. We inherited him and one of the employees who didn’t speak English called me one night with an interpreter to tell me they had washed some number of cars that day. When I went in the next day, I found the cars that he had reported were less. So I came on an off hour and found that he had disconnected the counter. I fired him, and then I just tried to find somebody to help me, I actually found somebody who was mechanically inclined and hired him.
It’s more difficult to do that. I have to be far more intentional about it. But I think the important thing for Splash, and why I think we’re able to deliver friendlier service is that we treat our people better. You can’t mistreat somebody and then turn around and expect them to treat the customer in a better fashion. So it’s incumbent on me and the other senior managers to go out and meet people and understand their personal situation, and joke around with them. A lot of these guys have been working with me, Gonzalo and Julio, for 25 years.
We’ve been trying to be very aggressive in staying ahead of minimum wage. An entry level guy might come in at minimum wage but if he’s worth anything we’re going to move him up. And because we’ve grown, we’ve provided a lot of opportunities. I could probably name six or seven of our managers that started out as vacuumers or window guys or even ninjas that we’ve promoted through the ranks. A Ninja is the guy that does the hand washing in the tunnel. Our CFO started as an assistant manager and then there are guys that never want to move. They like their job. They don’t want the stress of a promotion. They have vacation, hospitalization, 401(k), tuition reimbursement. The way we treat them, they’re not interchangeable parts.
We’ve got guys that have “Working at the Car Wash” as the ringtone on their phones. The philosophy that we have, that we want to share with each person that works with us is, we get the opportunity to make thousands of people happy every day, because everybody feels better when their car is clean. We get the ability to put a smile on people’s faces. The only way that we can screw that up is if the people they come in contact with aren’t happy. So the way we keep our clientele, our personnel happy, is we get rid of all the unhappy ones.
The crews at the washes are very selective of who they work with. They tend to help with that process. Because if you’re not going to fit in, if you’re not going to do your job, if you’re not going to be a nice person, get along and have fun, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. So these guys generally self-police. They can generally cajole the guy, like “you need to step up.” Managers are ultimately the ones that make the decision.
I would definitely say I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I think that’s where it starts. I love being in a business I get to run. But one of the greatest aspects of business is the personal aspect of it, both in terms of delighting customers and having great people that work with us and providing a good workplace for them where there’s opportunity to grow, and get paid a fair wage. Being in business and delighting in the things that were around me, I don’t think I learned that until later. [Originally] the primary driver of me getting into business was being in charge and making a lot of money. But now I think it’s evolved.