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Ben Tresser owns Yellow Submarine Car Wash in Medford. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Home grown: Yellow Submarine Car Wash

Editor's note: This is one in a weekly series of profiles on locally owned and operated businesses in Southern Oregon.

What do you do and how long have you been doing it? Our bread-and butter-operation is a five-minute exterior car wash, using state-of-the-art, foam-washing equipment. We do detailing, headlight restoration and interior shampooing for cars, boats and campers. We're into our sixth year.

How long have you lived in the Rogue Valley? Off and on for about seven years. We split time between here and Lafayette, Calif.

What inspired you to go into this line of work? There was a car wash here called the Finish Line. I was driving downtown to a building we were redeveloping and I saw it was for sale. We bought it from a bank and rebuilt and retooled the operation. At the time I was used to building and selling buildings, but we kept this, and with real estate slowing down, I'm glad we did.

What decision or action would you change if you could do it again? We probably overbuilt initially, building a sandwich shop and a dog-wash area. We thought it would be a full-service business, while the dog was getting washed you could get lunch and wash your car. But we found people want to wash their car and get out. The sandwich shop did not do well, and the dog wash didn't work out. I feared a terrible mishap between dogs and cars, which don't mix. With the volume we do, it wasn't practical to have dogs walking around the site. It soon became clear it wasn't going to work. From a profitability standpoint, we needed a dog in there all the time. If there was more than one dog, they would start barking at each other, and it sounded liked a kennel.

We were one of many dog-washing places in town, but we were the only specialty car wash. We started our corporate and fleet business in the second year, and that's become one of the biggest segments of the business. Originally, we didn't recognize that would be a big part of the business. Basically, any police agency you see around here, we wash their cars, and we do Charter Communications, as well.

What's the toughest business decision you've made? What equipment to use. The equipment package runs $300,000 to $700,000. The decision was whether to try to refurbish what was there or go state of the art, and we went with the better equipment, figuring it was better to do it right from the start. It represented a large initial monetary investment. Once we made the decision, we were glad. The equipment lasts seven to 10 years before it needs repairs and 15 before it needs to be replaced.

Who are your competitors? Most of them are associated with oil-change locations. Crater Car Wash on Crater Lake Highway, Quench and Drench near Riverside and Barnett, and Oil Stop at the Medford Center.

What are your goals? We've started to create strategic relationships with Bill's Glass, doing windshield chip repair. We have a relationship with Jiffy Lube. They give you a coupon for a free car wash there and conversely we hand out coupons to frequent users for a discount at Jiffy Lube. We're in negotiations with auto repair dealers to wash every car after it gets repaired. This market is pretty saturated, so it wouldn't be in the Rogue Valley; it would probably be to the south when the economy picks up. We've looked at Redding as a second location.

What training or education did you need? I have a law degree from Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and an MBA from Haas Business School at the University of California in Berkeley. It helps with contracts and the legal end ... but I don't know if you have to be a litigator to run a car wash. A lot of car-wash owners were car guys. In my case, I had a lot of education, and I don't regret any of it. There's a lot of live and learn to keep cars running through and keeping customers happy.

What's your advice for budding entrepreneurs? You need to know the business. We didn't know much about car-washing, and it took a while to get to know the business. If you jump into a business you are not completely familiar with, it can be very expensive to get over that initial learning curve.

To suggest ideas for this column, about businesses that are at least five years old, contact reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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