by Heidi Smith
Neither Andy Ryder nor Liberty Hetzler ever planned to own a car wash business. He dreamed of becoming an orthodontist and had a fascination with politics, while she had a successful career at an engineering firm before joining the industry. But as is so often the case with best-laid plans, theirs took a turn.
Today, the former spouses are co-owners of seven Shur-Kleen Car Wash locations in three counties. Over the past two decades, they’ve developed innovations that impacted the industry, leading the charge on green cleaning products and inventing the Flex Serve Car Wash model. Ryder, who joined the Lacey City Council in 2010 and has been Mayor of Lacey since 2014, is CEO and Hetzler is the Chief Operating Officer in charge of daily operations.
Ryder initially connected with the industry through his parents. His mother Shirley was the president of the Northwest Car Wash Association, the first female to hold that role with any car wash association in the United States. She purchased her first car wash in 1985 and named it ‘Shur-Kleen’ as a play on her first name. Ryder grew up in the family business but had no plans to join it until one day in 1998 when an opportunity arose to purchase a car wash company in Lakewood. “The person selling it had been in the same location since 1951 and it had a built-in clientele,” he says. “It was in a great spot.”
One of his first innovations was the flexible wash model. The former owner offered full-service washes, which included the inside of the car. Employees had to drive the car in and out of the inside cleaning station, creating a degree of liability for the company which Ryder, as a new owner, couldn’t afford. But he noticed a space near the exit of the washing station where drivers who wanted full service could pull off to have it cleaned without ever needing a staff member to drive their vehicle. “I created two inside packages and that was the start of the flexible car wash model which you now see all over the United States,” says Ryder. “A good idea spreads quickly.”
By 2004, he had built a new car wash facility at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), the first public/private partnership to exist on the base. Hetzler, his wife at the time, was only loosely involved in the business But then tragedy struck. Ryder’s mom Shirley suffered a catastrophic stroke. She had been responsible for all the business aspects of Shur-Kleen and if the company were to continue, someone would need to step in. “I resigned from my job at the engineering firm that day,” says Hetzler. “It was the most overwhelming experience because I knew nothing about the car wash business.” She leaned into the business and operations side and hasn’t looked back.
In 2009, Hetzler and Ryder purchased the Shur-Kleen corporation from the family and became full owners. Their next innovation focused on developing environmentally friendly cleaning products for all their locations. Shur-Kleen had always recycled its water, but at the time, most businesses used hydrochloric acid and other caustic chemicals in the wash cycle. Ryder and his general manager flew to Atlanta to meet with representatives from Zep, the second largest provider of car wash products in the country.
“They asked us how they could earn our business, and I told them, ‘We need a green line of car washing products,’” he recalls. “We’re going to have to find a better, more environmentally friendly way to do business.’ So, we helped produce one of the first lines of green products. Today, you can’t find a provider that isn’t green.”
Although the company has evolved, one thing that hasn’t changed is its culture. “It feels like a family,” says Hetzler. “Taking care of our team and their families is our number one priority. Many of our staff start working with us when they’re in high school and come back on breaks from a traditional college or junior college. Seeing them succeed in life and knowing that we’ve had some impact and influence on these young people is an incredible feeling.”
Recently, Shur-Kleen added a new option for clients: a monthly ‘Kleen Pass’ that offers unlimited washes for a flat fee. Particularly in the time of COVID-19 and all the uncertainty it generates, the pass is a way to ensure stable income. “It’s become a very popular choice for our customers,” says Ryder. “They can wash their car every day if they choose and it’s all touchless, so they don’t have to hand us a card or interact with anyone.”
Shur-Kleen didn’t invent the idea, but it’s one more adaptive measure from a company that has been an innovator in the industry multiple times. “It’s just another fun project to get involved with,” says Hetzler. “There is always something new to focus on. We have a lot of exciting things coming up in the next year. We’re focusing on the monthly club plan and getting the cost of it to our customers as low as possible.”