Coming Clean

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Coming Clean

By Mitch Morrison - 11/18/2002
Ferdinand Gregorie never did like the retail end of business.

A Citgo jobber in the 1950s and '60s, the South Carolina distributor was more at home feeding fuel into people's cars and oil into their residences than serving up a pound of grits and three eggs as country stores of the South did in those days.

Over time, two of his children — Ferd and Shey — took over the family business, switched to the Texaco flag and built an impressive operation that featured the very convenience stores from which their father steered clear.

"In the early 1980s we saw convenience stores coming into their own, with gasoline," said Shey Gregorie, who, after completing a stint in the Marine Corps, joined Gregorie Oil Co. in the 1970s and toiled in the motor oil division.

Raised in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., a suburb of Charleston, the Gregorie boys opened their first convenience store in 1985 and grew the chain quickly, buoyed by a couple of acquisitions. Within a few years, they went from a handful of sites to 19.

Fatter revenues rolled in. So did headaches — employee turnover, personnel problems, competitive challenges. "We did all right," said Shey Gregorie. "We perhaps grew a little too fast. Before we knew it, we were losing some control."

In 1997, the Gregories sold their business to what was then an upstart investment-backed group called The Pantry Inc. Within a few years, The Pantry emerged as a southeastern retail powerhouse with more than 1,200 stores.

And Shey Gregorie emerged with peace of mind and a handsome check.

Not the type to take kindly to early retirement, Gregorie dabbles these days in car washes and boasts one of the more unusual designs — a two-bay glass wash manufactured by Autec Car Wash Systems of Statesville, N.C., that looks more like a greenhouse than an in-bay automatic system ushering vehicles of all dimensions.

Looking for a venture that he could control and run with little or no manpower, Gregorie took a crash course on car washes and, in February 1999, launched Wando Wash, the name drawn, in part, by the facility's proximity to the Wando River, as well as a pun on the wand wash.

Almost three years to the day, Gregorie opened his second wash. A car-

wash distributor at Nanco Services in Swansboro, N.C., told him of Autec's latest model — a stylish, see-through glass facility.

With that, Gregorie's flirtation with car washes turned into deep infatuation. "Most people build car washes hooked to the convenience store or gas. I wanted to build a dual-bay glass wash and found a great lot in Mt. Pleasant to put it on. It's the first double-window wash I know of in the country. I get calls from all over the country about it."

The investment didn't come cheaply. Gregorie said he plunked down about $750,000 for the wash and site improvements. He calls his newest site in Mt. Pleasant Jack Flash Car Wash.

Now, he's in the process of getting permits for three more glass washes across Greater Charleston. "This was such a good lot," he said of the Mt. Pleasant location. "Because of slow-moving traffic, I thought a one-bay wasn't much for a lot like this, a lot that should have a convenience store. I didn't want to leave anything off the table. If this was a one-bay, there would a long line and a guy might pass on by. Two bays doesn't mean double the business, but it's more inviting and sure pays for itself."

Interestingly, in this era of site maximization and creating multiple destinations, Gregorie sought a self-service system without frills — no vacuums, coffee or vending machines. And no employees. "I didn't want customers getting out of their cars, beating their floor mats on the post. I don't even have a Dumpster over there. I just didn't want any loitering or littering."

Big Crowds
Gregorie hoped to draw 3,000 cars a month after six months. The 3,000 vehicles came — in the first month. He credits the ease of use and the system's ability to automatically make the necessary calibrations for different-size vehicles.

"When I put in the stand-alone I thought there still might be a leftover perception that people have of that wash behind the gasoline pumps that is a bad wash but is free or only a dollar," he said.

It certainly wasn't for free. Jack Flash posts four offerings — from the $5 basic Flash wash to the $10 Rainbow that comes with triple foam and the high-pressure tire and wheel cleaner.

"What many people don't realize is that car washes are huge money makers," Gregorie said, a point frequently raised by the car-wash industry. Experts say a well-run program generates between 50 percent and 70 percent profit, a figure that is catching the ear of the convenience store channel, as well as that of several major supermarkets and mass merchandisers.

Most recently, Gregorie has started marketing a prepaid plastic card. "I'm offering $100, $200 and $300 cards at, respectively, 10, 20 and 30 percent off. So if you're a regular who comes a few times a month, you can get a $300 card for $210 (30 percent off). For customers, it's a great deal and a real convenience. And for me, it's $210 up front."