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Profile - Shaun Nordgaarden

The High School job that turned into a career
4 minute Read

Shaun Nordgaarden isn’t afraid to tell you what brought him into the car wash industry. 

“When I was 16, a high school friend of mine walked into class with a big stack of money,” Nordgaarden said. “I asked him how he accumulated so much money being only 16. He told me it was at the Waterway car wash down the road, and they’re hiring. I applied immediately.” 

Twenty years later, he’s still with the company. 

Nordgaarden loves the always-changing aspect of working in the car wash industry. “There’s always a new challenge,” he said. 

And his most recent challenge is his involvement in the company’s move into the Chicago market. In his role as Vice President of Operations, Nordgaarden supports the operations leaders in the company by making connections between the support staff and operations teams. 

“I see my role as a servant leader,” he said. “I’m helping location leaders be successful and making sure we’re all in alignment with the company’s core values and objectives. I’m talking with employees and customers all day – I don’t consider what I do to be an office job at all.”

Waterway has invested in ensuring their customers receive the best experience each time they visit a Waterway location. “Our customer service is how we differentiate ourselves,” Nordgaarden said. “There isn’t much to differentiate one car wash from another. The customer experience is it. We’re going to get to know you personally as a customer. We form unique relationships with personal touch points.”

Nordgaarden said it’s important to create “wow” moments – those high-impact moments where the experience is even better than expected.

And in order to create those moments for customers, according to Nordgaarden, Waterway puts a huge emphasis on finding the right personality when hiring its people. “When we’re hiring, we’re looking for people who smile,” Nordgaarden said. “We want people to smile and interact with our customers – that’s key. Every one of our employees has a touch point with customers at some point. Beyond that, we’ll teach people what they need.” 

The career development paths Waterway creates for all employees, from line associates through multiple levels of management, feed right into Nordgaarden’s passion for working with people and teaching. 

“If I wasn’t in the car wash industry, I’d be a teacher,” he said. “We drive everyone to develop themselves and make themselves better. And it’s not just about working at a car wash, it’s about learning about themselves, developing their skills and having made themselves better for whatever their next move in life might be. We know not everyone will be with us for their entire career. That’s OK – this work is a great stepping stone into the next chapter of their lives.” 

For some employees, future career paths include law, the medical field and even internet startup companies. 

“And they all come back,” Nordgaarden said. “They come back to us as customers. Thousands of young people have come and worked for us and have gone on to be very successful in their lives. That’s very important to us, and makes what I do very rewarding.”

Nordgaarden believes that a focus on the people, whether the customers or the employees, is really the key to everyone’s success, not just those in the car wash industry. “That’s always my biggest piece of advice to others: If you focus on the people who work for you and show them that you care about them and where they’re going in life, they will do what it is that you need them to do,” he said. “People want to feel like their work has purpose behind it, and it’s your job as a leader to provide that purpose and understanding.”

After 20 years in the industry, Nordgaarden remains excited about the work he’s doing, and the industry itself. One area of interest for him is the car wash industry’s ability to look ahead to the future and adapt to the ever-changing technology coming its way. “I think it’s awesome that the ICA is focused on future vehicle technology,” he said. “Not only on the safety and damage-prevention side, but also looking ahead toward the vehicles of the future.” 

Nordgaarden said that technology has disrupted the business models of so many industries, and oftentimes those industries are left behind. “I feel like our industry, and the ICA, has been out front in order to make those changes in advance,” he said.

But the changes in technology and the industry aren’t what has kept him at Waterway for 20 years. 

“When I started 20 years ago, I never would have thought I’d be doing it forever,” Nordgaarden said. “But that’s what this is all about: one big family and we’re all in this together. That sense of community is why we do what we do; so many of us have grown up in the company. Many of the higher level leaders started like I did, working their way up the line. I love what I do.”   




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