A love of cars and a solution to suit Australia’s drought-stricken climate proved to be the perfect drivers for Stewart Nicholls and Jim Cornish to set up Ecowash, a mobile waterless car wash franchise.
Starting in 2004, it took Jim Cornish and Stewart Nicholls just two years to go national with Ecowash. Not long after, recognising potential in the water-starved Middle East, Ecowash started to export its service and hasn’t looked back, counting 11 countries in its stable of export success.
These days export makes up about 40 percent of overall Ecowash business, and Cornish, managing director, is confident that’s going to grow. “Our overseas markets continue to grow dramatically. There is a shift in the volume happening now, which I expect to become more pronounced,” he says. “I expect it to be more like 50/50 by the end of December, and that’s taking into account Australia continuing to expand.”
Fuelling growth is the mutual love of cars Nicholls and Cornish share, both former rally drivers. “I have been obsessed with cars for as long as I can remember–apparently my first word was car, to the disappointment of my parents at the time,” says Cornish. “So I was always looking for a way to be in a business where I could be around cars, with people who share my interest in cars.”
The dynamic duo decided to partner up while sitting around at Nicholls’ mechanical workshop, where they first met. “Jim would bring his car to me and with our related motor sport backgrounds and interest in all things with wheels, we developed a great friendship,” says Stewart Nicholls, operations director. “Jim would often drop in just for a coffee and a chat. This is also how Ecowash started, with us always talking about business opportunities and, of course, cars.”
Though, there was more to their decision to create a mobile service than a desire to spend all day around cars. “We basically saw that there was a need in the market for a company like this,” says Nicholls. “There was no one out there who could deliver a car-cleaning service to the client in any location.”
Their starting point was quite simple. “I knew of the waterless technology and Jim and I got talking about the concept and its potential as a franchise system,” explains Nicholls. Within two months, Ecowash was up and running, with two cars ready to go.
Starting A Franchise
The partners have never looked back on their initial decision to begin a franchise. Ecowash currently has 50 franchisees and even more mobile units in Australia alone. Their approach to exporting has been a little different, and the partners believe the master franchise system, where they establish the business in a country and then sub-franchise under that, works better for them.
Their success, however, is the product of a solid foundation and an enormous amount of hard work, says Nicholls. “Everything we did being documented and systematised, Jim and I worked seven days a week, doing 12-to-16 hour days, for months.”
While their work hours have decreased, the time spent on research hasn’t. “All of the markets are key markets for us because we don’t go anywhere that’s going to be a slow market for us,” he explains.
Significant time is also set aside to build the Ecowash family. “All of our franchisees have complete access to both Jim and myself,” says Nicholls. “They also meet with us regularly when we can, either at state or national conferences.” Good relationships are key to running a successful business, he explains.
Though, there is a second key. “Branding has been a big point with overseas and domestic marketing,” adds Nicholls. “It’s really important for everything to be formally branded and professional-looking. If you’re offering a service, it doesn’t matter what it is, it has to be a professional-looking service.” He believes this is the best way to convince customers about the business’ legitimacy. “They’ve got to know that you’re not some fly-by-night company.”
Far gone are the days of car washers with ripped shirts and torn jeans. The Ecowash crew has gone to another extreme. Every employee across the globe wears an orange polo shirt, with black trousers or shorts and black shoes. And to top it off, the Ecowash fleet matches in brightness and is plastered with logos and marketing material. “You can see them from a mile away, and that’s been pretty important,” explains Nicholls. “So all of our marketing material, everything has a brand. There’s a brand guideline that we stick to, and that means no one can produce anything in the company unless it matches the set guidelines.”
The bright orange shirts do come with another advantage. When wearing them, each employee is compliant with occupational health and safety guidelines. This ensures they are easily visible and safer in garages and carparks.
Image is important to the business, but so is demonstrating the quality and convenience of their service, and the partners have a simple approach to marketing. “We think the best way of getting out there and showing people what it is that Ecowash does, is actually getting out there and showing them,” says Nicholls. “We know what our targets are, and the sorts of companies, fleets, government departments, and consumers that are likely to use our service. The marketing overseas has really been no different to here.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, using this marketing approach to convince customers of the quality of the clean has actually been easier overseas. The benefits of the Ecowash clean weren’t questioned in the Middle East, and the offering was accepted in the US and Europe soon after being demonstrated. It was not nearly this easy in Australia. “Most people don’t understand or realise these sorts of things are possible. Once they see it, and experience it, then obviously they enjoy the service. Not only from a cleaning perspective, but also from a convenience perspective,” explains Nicholls. “We’re now in a position where we have a lot of credibility in Australia, and that’s taken quite a while.”
Difficulties When Exporting
“Setting up companies in another country can be difficult. You need to gain the right advice,” says Nicholls, adding that everything takes longer to do, especially when you don’t speak the language.
Naturally, the pair work with export partners who can speak English as well as the official language of the country they are exporting to. “From that perspective it actually is quite easy to deal with them, but when it gets down to showing them how to train staff, and things like that, there still can be a language barrier. But when you’re involved with good people those sorts of things can be sorted out quite easily.”
Nicholls and Cornish have also had to deal with copycat businesses. “Some people have tried to start a similar business to ours, but they usually fall by the wayside,” says Nicholls. “We were the first of our kind in Australia, and when someone’s trying to look at your model and replicate that, there are some key fundamentals they don’t start with.”
Ecowash’s greatest barrier when exporting is the differences in each country’s legal system, especially in the US. “Here we have the Franchising Council of Australia. We also have the Franchising Code of Conduct, which is the ACCC’s trade practices act for franchising. That gives everyone a balanced approach, everyone knows where they stand, everyone knows what format they’ve got to go through in terms of disclosure.” Having been accustomed to this system, the difficulties in setting up a master franchise in the US came as a shock. “In America every state has their own set of rules, so it’s been quite difficult to actually find out what all the different state regulations are.” But this wasn’t the only difficulty Nicholls and Cornish faced in the US. They were also surprised when finding themselves unable to open a bank account. “You can’t actually open a bank account unless you’re a US citizen,” explains Nicholls. “Something as simple as that, if that proves to be difficult, then a lot of people throw their hands up in the air and just walk away. You’ve got to have the resolve to get to the bottom of those issues.” So how did they solve this and other problems? By hiring a good US attorney who was familiar with franchising legislation. Now with their own in-house attorney as well, the duo believe they have their bases covered in the US, as well as in other export markets. “It’s got to be handled by someone who knows the legal issues of operating in a country. You’ve got to actually go through the proper channels,” says Nicholls.
Their persistent approach has paid off, and Ecowash is gaining increasing acknowledgement for its achievements. “Last year was easily the biggest in terms of recognition,” says Cornish. “In September we received the 2007 Australian Business Award for the enterprise in our industry category and were named the 2007 Franchise Council of Australia Emerging Franchise System of the Year (NSW/ACT).”
The eco entrepreneurs have set even higher sights for this year, and plan to unveil a line of new products. Alongside the cleaning and detailing service, Ecowash will offer a deluxe service for showroom car maintenance, a polisher for aluminium car components like bullbars, and a protection product to be applied once yearly as a treatment to maintain the Ecowash clean.
Together with its new line, Ecowash is set to grow even further. “Our franchise target for Australia by the end of 2008 is 80,” says Cornish, who spends most of his time finding and working with the right export partners. Their planned overseas expansion for the same period is 200 cars.
Currently US expansion is their biggest priority, with two new master franchises opening in California and Florida. In Europe, Ecowash is being launched in Switzerland and Greece, with plans to spread to Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands soon after. “The Middle East continues to grow with master franchise operations commencing in Dubai, Abu Dubai and Jordan. We are hopefully not too far from confirming Sudan, Egypt and Turkey,” adds Cornish. “We are also now in the process of establishing Ecowash mobile Central America, starting in El Salvador.”
Completely focused on their overseas expansion, Cornish and Nicholls are making solid tracks to becoming widespread green and clean exporters.
Secrets to Success
1. Quality. Ecowash provides a quality service.
2. Convenience. Customers can be sitting at their desk while their car is cleaned. They can actually be productive for themselves without wasting their employer’s time.
3. Environmental awareness. People want to be seen doing the right thing, and Ecowash is finding that companies are specifically focusing on that aspect to improve their own environmental standing.
-Stewart Nicholls, operations director.
Ecowash’s Export Destinations
While Ecowash first began exporting in the Middle East, it now also exports to Europe and the US. The decision to branch out to these locations was based on the following research:
Middle East: with severe water shortages, similar to those in Australia, there was a need for a waterless car washing service.
Europe: a continent of car lovers, and so the Ecowash entrepreneurs found it easy to market their product to likeminded consumers.
US: service-orientated, the US is ideal for exporters who can demonstrate the worth and quality of their product.