More Than A Car Wash
Gleam Car Wash takes on social and environmental responsibility
Best for Colorado , a program of the Alliance Center invites Colorado companies to measure and improve their social and environmental impact, regardless of where they are on their corporate social responsibility journey. Best for Colorado offers programming and tools for all Colorado companies, including B Corps, to improve their practices and connect participating companies with local resources, education and support. By becoming a Best for Colorado business, companies can create higher quality jobs, build stronger communities, and preserve a healthier environment.
In this ongoing series, ColoradoBiz magazine sits down with a Best for Colorado company to learn all about the impact they have in our state. We sat down with manager Pat Lynch and owner Emily Baratta for this interview.
Best for Colorado: Present your company; a quick overview of who you are, what the organization does, how long the organization has been around and what differentiates you in the marketplace.
Gleam Car Wash: Gleam Car Wash is reimagining how a car wash can impact an entire ecosystem, from water use to employment opportunities to investor return to community engagement. Our goal is to change the standard for car washes. A genuine impact investment, Gleam is a mini-water-treatment plant, a power generator, a job creator and an extremely smart investment, with cash on cash returns in excess of 20 percent. Gleam has been open for two and a half years and in that time has saved over 20 million gallons of potable water while washing over 230,000 cars. It’s not just about washing cars, it’s not just about providing a quality product, it’s also about changing the way this industry operates.
Twenty five percent of our staff is autistic. Ninety percent of autistic people are considered to be unhirable, but in this industry, they are great employees. We want to implement these programs to not only change the way car washes hire people but the way all of Denver hires people. We want to bring attention to these types of special needs employees. In September we’re having a showcase here and various companies are coming out to see how we operate our program. We’re very much proud of our own success, but we are also into the success of our own communities and I don’t think a lot of car washes can say that.
BFC: Can you expand on the program with special needs employees?
GCW: We started out working with a company called Easterseals, we are now working with Laradon to supply those employees, but most of it has been elbow grease outreach to friends, family, people who have children or siblings with autism, friends of friends, etc. They are no different in our daily operations than anybody else on the team. We accommodate.
Industry-wide, the car wash rule of thumb is that the turnover rate is about 100 to 300 percent, and so everything that we did when we set up our car wash, whether it was from an environmental perspective or hiring perspective, we had to make an economic case for because we have investors, we have an SBA Loan and we have shared responsibilities. By identifying individuals with cognitive disabilities who are a good fit for our work environment, we are bringing that turnover rate down, which is good for our business. We retain a skilled and enthusiastic work force in exchange for putting in the considerable effort early on to recruit and train individuals with cognitive disabilities. It’s built in to the business model and it can be a model for other businesses, whether the model is car washes or not.
BFC: What is the value for your business to start this journey? What areas are you concentrating most on right now and why?
GCW: Gleam fills a community need: at some point, everyone washes their car, and there is no tunnel car wash within three miles of Gleam’s 38th Avenue location. The fundamental economics of car washing are sound. If executed properly, they are a highly profitable business.
Everyone should wash their car regularly because doing so is best for the environment. Cars pick up dirt and heavy metals as they drive around Denver to and from the mountains. At a car wash like Gleam, those chemicals are washed into our filtration system. If you wait for a rain or snow event to "rinse" your car, those toxins go straight into our stormwater system.
Building the business was an opportunity for us to make a big difference in terms of job creation, the types of jobs we were creating and the type of work environment we provide. Because car washing as an industry hasn’t seen a tremendous amount of change, ever, it presented a unique opportunity to catalyze an industry-wide change that would have real impact in terms of water use, energy reduction and awareness at the same time. Our corporate responsibility areas of emphasis are on our hiring practices and our environmental stewardship.
BFC: How did corporate responsibility emerge – was there a specific event or individual that inspired this action?
GCW: Gleam’s founders, Emilie Baratta and Rob Madrid, live in the same neighborhood as the Gleam flagship flex serve car wash and both agreed that a car wash lends itself to all sorts of corporate social responsibility initiatives and that those initiatives, if properly designed and implemented, could help improve the bottom line for their investors.
BFC: You reclaim 90 percent of your water and treat it all of it onsite, can you tell me more about this? How were you able to make this possible?
GCW: As a mini-water treatment plant, Gleam captures and treats 90 to 95 percent of the water used in the wash tunnel. We do this through a gravity-driven filtration system (four 1,500-gallon tanks, two micro-filtration tanks and UV treatment) that filter the water used in the tunnel and recycle it for reuse. The system is so good that we do not have particulates that are greater than 5 microns in our recycled water, because ensuring that we do not scratch cars is paramount to our business model. .
In two years, Gleam has washed over 230,000 cars and saved over 20 million gallons of potable water. A regular car wash – or you, with your hose, in your driveway -– uses around 100 gallons of potable water per wash. At Gleam we use around 120 gallons per car, but most of those are recycled. This results in very clean cars that use very little drinkable water. We have $200,000 in water and sewer discharge savings to date.
BFC: You’re also very energy efficient in the car wash tunnel. You have LED Lighting and Solar Panels. For a lot of businesses trying to take a step towards becoming more eco-friendly and energy efficient, the cost of such a transition can be intimidating. What would you say to a company or business owner who is interested to take this leap but hesitant about the initial investment?
GCW:There are two key metrics a small business has to take into consideration: 1. The initial up front equipment and installation costs and how to finance/afford those costs, and 2. the payback analysis, or how long it takes you to recoup your investment. Any solar installer will help to optimize the design of your array and the payback analysis, including tax credits if they apply. For other energy-optimization techniques like LEDs and VFDs, it helps to reach out to Xcel directly, as they have an entire design and rebate program to help small businesses decrease their overall energy consumption and, particularly, their peak energy consumption. Also, many local banks will help offset initial first costs by offering loans. Sometimes this makes the difference, economically, for a small business.
BFC: You do so much local work with the community by giving back, hosting fundraising events, and featuring local goods in your shop, can you expand on your experience with this?
GCW: With the shop, I would say 90 to 95 percent of the items we carry are local from either the greater Denver area or Colorado.
For the community service aspect, each year we pick two charities and a portion of two wash options will be donated (up to $10,000) to each of these charities. Right now we are working with SafeHouse Denver and Food For Thought. The first year Gleam donated to Children’s Hospital and Groundwork Denver. This round we had our members and customers take a poll to put in suggestions and we picked the two most popular ones.
We try to do two fundraisers each month, whether that is with a school or local nonprofit. For every customer who comes in and mentions the fundraiser or the school we’re working with that weekend, the organization will receive 40 percent of that wash.
We do all of this so we can make an economic argument in support of it for our investors. This is a way for us to give back to the community but also to raise community awareness about our business and about all of our business practices. It would be a good reason for other businesses to do this because it hopefully helps businesses to be more profitable in a more coherent and organic way.
BFC: Can you talk about Environmental Leadership Program Silver Certification?
GCW: The State’s Environmental Leadership Program is incredibly well-run and some of the very best Colorado businesses participate, so for Gleam, it’s great company to be in. It helps establish us as a leader, state-wide because we are the only car wash we know of that is participating in the ELP Program. Since it is our stated goal to help Colorado shift its legislation on how car washes deal with water issues, I think it’s nice positioning. But most importantly, from a business perspective, especially as we look to grow, they have a nice amount of peer-to-peer coaching and it’s helping us set up and Environmental Management System which is much easier to set up when you are small and grow as you grow then to retroactively fit. In short and long-term it is strategically a very good fit.
BFC: And can you talk about winning the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Green Business of the Year 2018?
GCW: We were so honored even to be a finalist – and then shocked and delighted that we were selected as the winner! The Denver Metro Chamber runs an incredible process to select their Business of the Year winners; they really help get businesses out there, they support networking, they offer amazing courses and sponsor impressive events. It’s been very validating to have recognition by such a well-run and influential group. We are small entrepreneurs, so votes of confidence are greatly appreciated personally, and to receive such a high-profile honor was impactful to our business as a whole. For the companies we were up against, we thought, “how are we supposed to compete? These are nationwide companies!” but it felt good, like all of the work we did has paid off. It was incredibly validating for the owners and for the staff.
BFC: What is most rewarding or challenging about this aspect of your organization’s work?
GCW: The most rewarding part of the business is seeing growth in the staff. We have seen tremendous growth from some of the people that are part of the program. They are thanking us and they are very appreciative. We have worked a people who were labeled as unhirable off of government assistance. They are fully staffed with us now and they are some of our best employees.
It’s also rewarding to see customers come in and bring hazardous waste and to know what we’re doing is working. Our membership data and retention rates reassure that we are doing the right thing. We do have a recycling center for e-waste and we’re getting more and more people bringing stuff in which means they are paying attention. People appreciate how we operate. They show their loyalty and use our services. Last year we diverted seven tons of recyclables from people's cars to the recycling center. Knowing this didn’t end up in a trash at another car wash means a lot.
A challenge is that most of our employees have never worked at a carwash before. The training is extensive and ongoing. People outside of the industry are drawn to the business because of the model not because of the car wash and that’s exciting for us.
BFC: Do you try to improve upon your impact year after year? How?
GCW: We had what we thought would be enough to brand us but we are now elaborating and expanding on that and seeking certifications that are going to credit our actions as well as show us where we need to improve. That’s what has us most excited about Best for Colorado, we can present this to our investors and say this is the standard, this is where we are and these are the tools we need to reach our goals. These certifications will guide us to being the best we can be as a company. Year after year, we're positioning ourselves to set new standards
BFC: Shifting gears, why did you join Best for Colorado? What are you hoping to gain from this partnership?
GCW: Gleam has benefited by being a part of Colorado’s most influential networks, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the ELP program. We believe that the company you keep, as a business, reflects on how you do business, and we always want to strive to be best in class. We see the Best for Colorado program as a key partner in this endeavor. Also, we like to work with other industry-leading businesses, and programs like Best for Colorado tend to attract some of the most strategically forward-thinking business owners. Gleam hopes to inspire long-term change in the car washing business, and it’s likely that a combination of legislation and state-sponsored financing mechanisms will be the vehicle for transforming all car washes from water hogs, using primarily potable water, to water treatment facilities, which preserve one of our greatest natural resources while continuing to do great business. For this sort of industry-wide change, a program like Best for Colorado could provide resources.