When the Dahm family sits down to discuss business, they don’t talk much about washing cars. Instead, they focus on their people, and that means both customers and team members. After all, says Mike’s Carwash founder Joe Dahm, “It’s the people who make the difference.”
Joe has lived by that principle since the day he opened Mike’s Carwash. “Your actions speak louder than words,” he says. “In a family business, you treat team members like family and you treat family like everyone else.”
Mike’s Carwash has been a family business since its founding in 1948. Joe, who was in his second year of college after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, received a call from his father about a new opportunity. Together with local businessman Norm Franklin, Joe’s father wanted to bring an automatic car washing service to Fort Wayne, and they needed someone to run it. Intrigued, Joe caught a train to Detroit to check out the equipment—called “Minit Man”—and immediately knew he wanted to make a go of it. Laughing, he remembers, “I told my friends I was leaving school to wash cars!”
Mike’s Minit Man Carwash, named after Joe’s younger brother, opened for business on June 1, 1948, on Baker and S. Calhoun Streets, where it still operates today. When Franklin left the business two years later, Joe’s brother Ed replaced him and together they built a reputation for customer service.
“Both my dad and Ed were role models for us,” explains Joe’s son Mike Dahm, who now owns the company. “One of the two of them always stood at either the entrance or the exit, thanking customers for their business.”
Their philosophy—focus on team members so they focus on customers—has remained consistent throughout the years. The company hires people very selectively and, once on board, each receives about 20 hours of classroom training that is primarily focused on customer service.
Mike’s Carwash invests heavily in its team members because how it serves customers affects the business more than any other factor. “Customers always ask us ‘Where do you get those people?’” says Joe, who is still active in the business. “It’s our people who keep them coming back.”
Mike shares his father’s conviction. “The boss at Mike’s is the customer,” he adds. “The customer is the one who signs our paychecks.”
That focus has helped the company grow significantly since it opened its doors in 1948. After adding a second location in 1971, the company began to expand more rapidly. The business continued to grow until it included locations throughout Indiana, as well as in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, and in northern Kentucky. Each time the company added a new facility, however, it stayed true to its focus on people.
“Treat people the way you want to be treated,” says a sign that adorns the Mike’s Carwash training center. That’s why managers work the floor and spray cars alongside team members. It’s the reason team members get time off for important life events, and it’s why team members are empowered to handle customer issues on the spot, without getting managerial approval.
“It just makes sense,” explains Joe. “If you treat team members like family, then they’ll treat customers that way.”
As part of the company’s succession plan, it was reorganized in 2014 and divided into two separate entities. Mike retained the Mike’s Carwash name and the facilities in northern and southern Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, while his brother Bill kept the central Indiana facilities and renamed them Crew Carwash, as a nod to dedicated team members. Both companies maintain the same high service standards and they still work together to cross-train team members.
With 17 Mike’s Carwash locations and two more in process, Mike understands the importance of standardization and using the newest technology to run as efficiently as possible. But while the initial investment of $35,000 in property and equipment has grown to around $4 million to open each new facility, Mike still believes that success comes down to finding the right people and keeping them.
“We really invest in our people and want them to stay,” explains Mike. “We don’t hire just for summer. We like a minimum of a year commitment, so we’re really flexible when our student team members need to go back to school or have other obligations.”
In fact, though many Mike’s Carwash team members start out as part-timers in high school and college, they often change their career plans and come back to work in management. They cite the flexibility, benefits, tuition reimbursement, professionalism and pay as key reasons they come back. But, in the end, it boils down to one thing Joe believes: “You have to like what you do.”
The Mike’s Carwash people-first approach applies not just to its team members and customers, but also to its communities. Whenever Mike’s opens a new location, for example, it designates a long weekend when it washes cars for donations only, and all proceeds go to a local charity. In addition, on certain days of the year, half the proceeds of specific wash packages go to a designated nonprofit organization, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society® or the Youth Services Bureau. Mike’s also provides discounted wash coupons to local school and service organizations to sell as fundraisers.
“Giving back is so important,” stresses Mike. “And the more we can do to help the community, the more we get back, too.”
As Mike’s Carwash approaches its 70th anniversary in 2018, Mike knows that what has brought the company this far is the people: the team members, the customers and the communities it serves. He reminds himself of that every day with a sign in his office that says, appropriately, “We’re in the people business. We just happen to wash cars.”
Owner(s): Mike Dahm
Address: 1310 E. State Street Fort Wayne, Indiana 46805
Phone: (844) 280-WASH
Years in Business: 68
Number of Employees: Approximately 400