At the car wash: At Octopus, having eight hands can't hurt

Today is not a good day by car-wash standards. A snowstorm dumped about 2 inches during the morning, and more is expected this afternoon. Jeff Jurkens, CEO, and Dan Sainsbury shake their heads. What are they thinking at this moment? “I wish I was in a different business,” Jurkens quips, half-joking.

Sainsbury smiles. He knows things will turn around, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, when drier weather follows and people are anxious to wash the gray gunk of winter off their automobiles. 

"Twenty-seven degrees and sunny is ideal." — Jeff Jurkens, CEO, Octopus Car Wash

Jurkens’ father, John, founded Octopus in 1956 — it was called Speed Queen then, and was located in Rock Island, Ill.

“He was so short on cash that he went back to his high school shop teacher and made it a class project to build equipment for the car wash,” Jeff laughs. Cars were washed by hand back then, and Jurkens remembers his dad coming home at night and collapsing on the floor from the rigors it took on his body. 

Eventually, the elder Jurkens, who has since passed away, owned dozens of full-service car washes across the country. “He took advantage of recessions,” son Jeff says. “He bought car washes that went belly-up — for a song. By the mid-1990s, my dad was the largest owner of full-service car washes in the world.”

To say his son eagerly accepted the family business is far from true. In fact, Jeff fought his dad every step of the way, it seems, though he has worked in the business on and off since he was 14. Now, he owns five locations (three in the Madison area, two in Illinois). 

Sainsbury, daily operations manager for all locations, has worked at Octopus since 1979, when he was just 16 years old. Like so many others, he started on the line, wiping cars. “The winters were better back then,” Sainsbury states. “I enjoyed it. It was fast-paced and time went by real fast. You didn’t have time to look at the clock.” Before long, he was working full time and driving cars off the conveyor while wiping inside windows. Later, he moved into detailing before being promoted into management.

Blustery blues

Because of the weather, only eight people are working at the Park Street location this day: four managers and four detailers. It’s 1:15 p.m. and 22 vehicles have been washed thus far. On a very busy day, the shop could handle two cars every minute with as many as 45 employees vacuuming, hosing, and wiping.

Park Street typically ranks first among the five area Octopus locations in terms of volume. East Washington ranks second. But for sheer longevity, the Old University Avenue location, Madison’s flagship, still leads the way, and is fast approaching its one-millionth wash.

From a glass-enclosed perch overlooking the finishing area on Park Street, Sainsbury can keep an eye on the end process — during which employees wipe down cars and, hopefully, happy customers drive away. While it depends on the speed of the conveyor and the number of employees on hand, cars can generally be turned around in about five minutes, start to finish.

Above Sainsbury’s desk, a video screen provides 16 different camera angles that constantly monitor every step of the car-wash process, from the cars lining up outside through completion. He can also access the cameras on his phone at any time. 

Once an hour, the five location managers forward Excel spreadsheets to Sainsbury reporting how many people are working at their locations, the number of cars washed or detailed, revenue, and labor costs. The unknown is always the weather, which can make or break the bottom line. 

Schooled by Mother Nature

Octopus Car Wash employs about 175 people, and most line employees call in or are called each day based on volume expectations that are driven by weather reports. “You start planning Monday for Friday and get all these people lined up, and then the forecast changes,” Sainsbury laments. It’s the nature of the beast.

He checks the computer. “This could be a good week,” he reports to Jurkens, looking at the forecast. “Tomorrow is going to be 21 degrees, and Friday through Monday are looking good.” 



Good is a relative term in this business. In winter, it means below freezing, for the most part. “Twenty-seven degrees and sunny is ideal,” Jurkens pipes in, “and in summer, droughts are great. We might have a snowstorm one day and have zero cars come through. Within three days, we have a demand for 1,000 car washes a day. It’s hard to keep people. Where do you find them, and how do you train them?”

The Octopus managers, he says, are getting better and better at predicting staffing needs. The calculation is 3.7 cars per employee. If a manager anticipates 90 cars an hour for the next day based on outside conditions, he’ll divide that by 3.7 to determine how many employees to schedule. Occasionally, a temporary agency will help fill in the gaps.

“We have a schedule we maintain, assuming the weather’s good,” Jurkens explains. “We try hard to see that hours are doled out fairly, taking seniority and the quality of work into account.” Employees demonstrating a solid performance history can rise through the ranks fairly quickly. Tips are pooled and shared with every non-management person on staff, and the company can sometimes add another dollar per hour to an employee’s pay.

Safety First

Although vacuuming or wiping off cars doesn’t require much training time, Sainsbury will take a full day to train an employee on driving on and driving off the conveyor, because cars are so different these days, he explains. Some operate with push buttons or have specific ways to shift in and out of gear, and if a car doesn’t get lined up correctly at the get-go, or is not put into neutral, it can wreak all kinds of havoc. “That’s the problem with a slow day,” Jurkens comments. “People aren’t as focused and their minds tend to wander.”

Customers’ minds wander, too. Once, an Octopus customer anxiously drove off in her newly cleaned car, completely forgetting that her child was still in the shop’s waiting area. Another time, a car owner drove off with a notoriously quiet Octopus employee still in the back seat of the vehicle. Both incidents ended quickly when the drivers realized their mistakes. 

To alleviate boredom on a slow day, the managers fill their time doing equipment maintenance and scrubbing dirt off the tunnel walls. There’s always something to do, Sainsbury says. 

Over the years, Octopus employees have discovered cash under floor mats, long-lost wedding rings, guns, cell phones, and iPads under seats. In the 1970s, finding stashes of marijuana was not all that unusual. “We’d take the roaches out of the ashtrays first, vacuum, and then put them back in,” Jurkens laughs. 

Octopus’ profits have been climbing, but the number of total washes has fallen, which has Jurkens stumped. “In 1978, 51% of customers would bring a coupon back. These days, only 20% will.” 

It takes about 45 gallons of water to wash a car at Octopus. The resulting mix of water, soap, and street grime then flows into sanitary sewers and is treated before reaching area lakes. By contrast, Jurkens says, a person washing his or her own car at home can use as much as 150 gallons per wash, and that dirty mix flows directly down storm sewers and into the lakes. “We’re very green.” 

If all goes as planned, all Octopus locations will see upgrades beginning this year, including a plan to enhance the customer experience, but Jurkens is keeping mum on the details. For now, he’s enjoying a winter that, in his words, is “blowing every other winter out of the water. We’re washing more cars in the most adverse conditions than I’ve ever seen. Maybe the recession is over for car washing. 

“A few days ago, we were doing about 100 cars an hour. It was poetry in motion.”

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