By Nick Fortuna
Rebecca Holmes had been working at one of Valet Car Wash’s nine locations in Ontario, Canada for almost three years when she was given the opportunity to make one of her dreams come true. Holmes dropped out of high school three classes short of graduating, and as she turned 30 she wanted to earn her diploma to set a good example for her stepchildren. A new program at Valet Car Wash presented her with the guidance, resources and support she needed to achieve that goal, and Holmes is now on track to get her diploma this summer.
Dream Clean, an initiative started by Valet Car Wash owner Mike Black, involves a “dream manager” hired to help car wash employees identify their goals in life and chart a course toward accomplishing them. Dream Clean is less than a year old, but success stories like Holmes’ are already emerging and the concept is resonating with employees and job applicants alike.
“Everybody’s trying to find employees, and we’re all basically advertising the same things,” Black said. “But in our marketing now, we also mention that we provide a dream coach, and when we interview candidates, they often ask about that. It piques their curiosity.”
Black, a past president of International Carwash Association, said he has been part of a car wash enhancement group for years, meeting regularly with other operators to share best practices. As part of their discussion, they read “The Dream Manager,” a book by Matthew Kelly that discusses the growing problem of employee disengagement.
In the book, the executives of a fictional company realize that motivating employees takes more than a bigger paycheck; it requires a company to take an active interest in employees as individuals. So, they hire a dream manager whose only job is to help employees better their lives.
Black wanted to create a similar program at Valet Car Wash’s nine locations in Ontario, so he had all of his managers read the book and began looking for a dream manager. A friend at the local Chamber of Commerce connected him with Murray G. Smith, an organizational consultant and president of Blue Canoe Consulting.
Black figured that a dream manager who wasn’t a company employee might have an easier time gaining the trust of workers who might otherwise suspect that management was trying to pry into their private lives. Strict lockdown restrictions in Ontario due to the pandemic prevented Valet Car Wash from launching the program until March 2021, but since then, more than 20 of the company’s approximately 100 employees have enrolled, Black said.
Each Valet Car Wash location has an express tunnel wash and at least one other revenue stream, such as self-service bays, a gas station, an express lube or interior cleaning and detailing, so there’s plenty of work to go around. The company is looking to hire 30 to 40 additional workers, and Black said he believes Dream Clean will be an effective recruiting tool.
“The premise, very simply, is that the more interest we take in our employees, the more interest they’ll take in our business,” Black said. “Today, it’s not enough just to hire the right people. You have to have the ability to attract, engage and retain that talent, and that should be the number one strategic objective of every successful leader and business organization today.”
Smith said Dream Clean is a change of pace from other consulting projects, which typically involve working directly with executives to improve their businesses. This initiative takes a different strategy toward that same goal by focusing on entry-level employees and managers.
“When Mike presented this idea to me and I read the book, I got excited about it,” Smith said. “Often, in the leadership work that I do with business owners, the conversation comes around to how do you treat your people? What kinds of relationships do you have with your people? Do you know what they want besides the paycheck that they’re working for?
“This Dream Clean idea marries those fundamental leadership and relationship concepts into a practical thing that can be done by businesses to increase the value that they place on their employees and, as a result, get better outcomes.”
Before launching Dream Clean, Black wrote a letter to all of his employees to outline the program and its intentions. Valet Car Wash began with a 10-employee pilot program and later expanded it to 20. Dream Clean is now open to all workers, including new hires, who are told that if they choose to participate, Smith will contact them within a week to get started. Management largely stays out of it.
Early meetings took place on Zoom, but with some COVID-19 restrictions lifted in the province, Smith is now able to visit each location. Participants schedule individual meetings with Smith on company time, but prior to that, they’re asked to come up with several goals that could be accomplished within a year, between one and five years, between five and 10 years and beyond.
Participants are then asked to choose the one or two goals that are most important to them and to complete a “goal planner” for those. That form asks participants why that goal is important to them, how they’ll go about achieving it, the obstacles in the way, how they’ll measure their progress, their timeline for completion and more. Lastly, they must sign the form, signifying their commitment to achieving the goal.
Smith usually meets with participants monthly, though he stays in contact with them through email and phone, encouraging them to continue making progress. While some employees have big dreams that require detailed plans, many workers choose modest goals that nevertheless will make a real impact in their lives, such as getting a driver’s license, earning their high school diploma or enrolling in college or a vocational program.
“A lot of these dreams aren’t earth-shattering,” Black said. “They’re often not what we as business owners would necessarily think of.”
Smith said some participants initially are hesitant to share their personal goals with a stranger, but by being a good listener and taking a genuine interest in their lives, he usually wins them over.
“By the time we get to our second or third meeting, most of them begin to open up quite surprisingly for me about the things they want to accomplish, and then we narrow it down to something that we can work on and build a plan together,” he said.
“It really works by being present and having people believe in themselves, believe in Valet, believe that this thing is real and then begin to see progress,” Smith added. “Once that starts to happen, it becomes a snowball effect. More people begin to be curious, and it has an accelerating impact on the organization.”
Going Back to School
In order to finish the credits she needed to earn her high school diploma, Holmes worked with Smith to enroll in an online school that allows adults to complete assignments at their own pace, working around job and family obligations. She recently earned a passing grade in a class on travel and tourism and in November was concentrating on an English class that would leave her one credit shy of her goal. Holmes said her managers have been supportive, giving her the scheduling flexibility she needs to study.
“Whenever I have time, like before bed or on the weekend, I work on it,” Holmes said. “If I’ve accomplished something toward my goal, [Smith] is the first person I call. It’s definitely pushed me to where I need to be and gave me that added initiative that I didn’t have myself.”
Holmes said her initial goal was to graduate before turning 30 in December, but “life got in the way.” She may have become discouraged had it not been for Smith, who told her that since she was setting her own timeline, it was okay to adjust that timeline, so long as she kept making progress.
“He said I could work at my own pace, but the goal was to get it done,” she said.
Holmes said that after graduating, her next goal will be to save up to buy a house, and she’ll be asking Smith to help her form a plan.
“This program is great, and I would recommend that every company do this because it makes a personal connection, and it makes your employees feel good about themselves – that they can actually accomplish something, and that owners and bosses care about more than just signing your paycheck,” she said. “It’s more personal now.”
Sam Crouchman-Dunphy, an assistant manager entering her fifth year with Valet Car Wash, said she always wanted to pursue a postsecondary education, but she entered the workforce right out of high school and it just never seemed like the right time to get started. Then came Dream Clean, and she realized that the time is now.
“That’s always been one of my biggest dreams to be able to accomplish, so I figured that with a little added help and guidance in the right direction, that could be something I could work toward,” Crouchman-Dunphy said.
“I’ve worked for quite a few different places over the years, big businesses and small businesses, and not one place has asked what they could do for their employees that doesn’t have anything to do with work,” she said. “It’s a good business practice because word of mouth spreads. If you talk about a business doing these things for their employees, that’s going to get around. It’ll benefit the company in that sense.”
Valet Car Wash hired Smith on a one-year contract to launch Dream Clean. After that, the company will bring the program in-house, hiring a dream manager from outside the business who has experience with career counseling, life coaching and other skills.
Holmes, one of the employees in the pilot program, said having a dream manager from outside the company made her more comfortable sharing her personal goals. Looking ahead, Black said he believes Dream Clean’s early accomplishments and positive reviews from participants will allow the program to succeed as an in-house initiative.
Dream Clean is helping to prove that car wash jobs don’t have to be dead ends, Black said. The program is expanding employees’ horizons, whether they intend to stay with the company or not.
“I think the strongest currency in corporate culture today isn’t money,” Black said. “A lot of people think it is, but I don’t. I think it’s appreciation. Investing in our employees’ dreams and goals is way more meaningful than just getting a few extra dollars added to their paycheck at the end of the week. We’re trying to give our employees the tools and skills to become successful in their life and to be better employees, so I think it’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
Nick Fortuna is a freelance writer in Ocala, Fla., who has held reporting and editing positions at Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and Daily Racing Form.