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From a Rabbit to a Rolls

Chip Burton ’70 gets cars clean in his environmentally friendly facility.

By Audree Penner

profile_burton_chip.jpgGrowing up in the beach town of Rehoboth, Del., water has always been a way for Theodore “Chip” Burton to express his passions.

His connection to water shows up in his career choices and avocation. In the mid-1970s, his entrepreneurial acumen led him to purchase a marina in New Smyrna, Fla.—and today he owns and operates several Florida car washes.

In mid-July, he opened his latest: the Top Shelf Car Wash in Deltona, Fla. The nearly 6,000-square-foot conveyor car wash was built using state-of-the-art technology.

Customers pay at a series of auto-tellers using a machine similar to those used in airports for printing boarding passes. “The customers stay in their cars throughout the wash, and the car comes out clean and dry with little or no labor. We’ve gone from 30 employees to about 12,” Burton says.

A wash and dry is $5 and includes free self-vacuuming in any of Top Shelf’s 20 bays. “If you want us to vacuum your car or do a hand-wax, then it’s an additional charge,” Burton says.

Top Shelf’s equipment is designed to wash 150 cars an hour. “On a typical day we wash 300 cars, on a busy day, 1,000,” he says. “It takes about three minutes for a car to go through the conveyor wash.”

All the products Top Shelf uses are environmentally sensitive. “We have a very sophisticated water reclamation and treatment system. We’re almost a small water plant,” Burton says.

Top Shelf recycles 40 to 50 percent of the water it uses. It then purifies the water on site with a reverse osmosis process. “The water we use to rinse cars is referred to as spot free. It’s nothing but pure water, and if there are any drops of water left on the car, they dry without spotting,” he says.

Burton’s leisure time is spent near the water, too. An avid fisherman all his life, he cooks what he catches from his 32-foot, sport-fishing boat.

The trials of owning a car wash come from demanding customers. “With years of experience, we try to anticipate their needs, such as dealing with the more fragile parts of a car. We designed the equipment to have the ability to retract over parts—such as antennas—on certain vehicles, so we don’t impact those components,” he says.

Top Shelf and Burton’s three self-service Laser Brite Car Wash locations in the metro Orlando area have washed virtually every make and model of car. “The only vehicles Top Shelf can’t wash are pickup trucks with dual wheels on the back,” says Burton, who drives a Chevy Suburban.

Burton first became interested in car washes in the mid-1980s, while doing research for a proposed auto-mall property in Orlando. He discovered that the car wash industry was underdeveloped there. In a city with one million people, there were just six car washes, he says.

“I began to visit other car washes in Texas and California that were considerably different than those in Orlando. At the time, Orlando car washes had no air-conditioned lobbies. You waited outside. It wasn’t a very customer-friendly environment. So I built a facility that looked more like a boutique. We put in air-conditioned lobbies, a shoe-shine guy, a snack shop; and we sold greeting cards and auto accessories. It was a new and popular paradigm for the car-wash industry in this area.

“The express model or flex-service model of car wash, where people stay in their cars, was a typical New England and Midwest model. I took advantage of that model and built the first express conveyor car wash in Florida in 1998 and combined it with an oil change, convenience store, and big gas station,” Burton says.

Burton has been active in the 3,000-member International Car Wash Association. From 1992 to 1999, he served on the association’s board and was board president from 1998 to 1999. He has become a trusted source of information to trade magazines who seek his input on industry topics such as how to make sure a car wash business can survive a hurricane.

“As I observed the industry in the mid-to-late-1990s, I found that time had become much more valuable to customers; and people wanted services done faster, better, and more inexpensively,” he says. “As an industry, I think we addressed that problem and are now able to clean cars more efficiently.”

—Audree Penner

One Response to “From a Rabbit to a Rolls”

  1. Excellent article, nice to see a car wash company going to such great lengths to ensure the wastewater is recycled, well done Chip.