Suzanne Huisman, European Business Development Director at PSD Codax Limited, was introduced to the car wash industry early in her life. “My parents had a gas station with a car wash when I was young,” Huisman said. “I was almost born into it!”
Her parents sold the business when Huisman was six or seven, but neither she nor her parents were able to stay away for good.
Huisman studied archeology in college, but realized she wasn’t cut out for a job where she sat behind a desk all day. “I started working different jobs, going from waiting tables, to factory work and working in the field as an archeological aid,” she said. But things really started to click when she worked as a flight attendant. “I noticed I really liked to be around people,” she said. “When my contract finished, I started working as a train conductor at the Belgian railway. I did that job for four years and had a great time. I was on the road all day, among colleagues and travelers.” Huisman became active in the union, which helped her become a voice for her colleagues and develop skills for coordinating seminars, organizing meetings with management and representing cases that needed attention.
While Huisman was building her skills, her parents realized they missed the car wash industry. It was her dad’s lifelong dream to build a tunnel car wash. “It started out as a hobby, but in only six years, the business grew to a 50 meter tunnel, four self-wash bays, a large in-bay automatic wash for larger vans and 20 vacuums with a complete self-service area,” Huisman said. She started helping on weekends and days off, but eventually couldn’t resist the business.
“The soap got into me,” she said. “A year and a half after opening, I quit my job and moved back to start working in the car wash. I was so interested in everything: washing cars, the technical aspects, the marketing, improving your business. All aspects interested me.”
Huisman has been enjoying herself ever since. She loves the day-to-day challenges that come up, but definitely has her areas of strength. “I am not the most technically strong person, but I can do basic maintenance on a machine so that I can run a site on my own, like solving everyday problems and determining what is wrong if I can’t fix it myself,” she said. “But since this is not my strong suit, I’m more involved with social media, marketing, promoting the business and back-office management. This helps me a lot in my current job at PSD Codax where I can bring my practical experience in the field together with my ideas and the possibilities I have in my head.”
“The world of car washing is pretty small. You can fly halfway around the globe to meet up with next-door operators, and contacts are made very easily internationally. This has resulted in friendships around the globe, all with people involved in car washing.”
Huisman also legitimately loves a clean car. “One thing I love about the car wash industry is the end result,” she said. “I really enjoy a shiny, clean car. When a dirty, muddy, hasn’t-been-washed-in-two-years car comes in, I can’t wait to see when it comes out!” But the people are what keeps her going. “The world of car washing is pretty small,” she said. “You can fly halfway around the globe to meet up with next-door operators, and contacts are made very easily internationally. This has resulted in friendships around the globe, all with people involved in car washing.”
At only 28, Huisman is already an advocate for the industry and those who are a part of it. “A little more than a year ago, I took the initiative to found the BBRV, the Belgian Car Wash Association,” she said. “There had been talk about it for a number of years, but no one found the time to take action. After my father mentioned the unfairness in the Belgian law multiple times, I did some research and contacted all the car wash owners I could find to set up a meeting. We got together, and it became clear that the illegal hand-washing was having an effect on our industry and that, aside from some individual actions, nothing was being done.”
The Association was created to improve conditions for the industry in Belgium, bring operators together and open the lines of communication, become a go-to instrument for the government when an issue concerning the business arises, and educate customers.
Once BBRV identified illegal hand-washing as an issue, it got to work. The Association drew up the Fair Competition Plan with State Secretary Philippe de Backer. Now, that plan is being used as the basis for increased reports of illegal washing facilities and closures of those facilities. “We are seeing more and more reports from municipalities that are actively involved in tackling car wash companies in violation,” Huisman said.
Huisman is the kind of person who notices a problem and wants to find the solution, like she did with the founding of the association. “There was a need for a branch-specific association since the problems that our industry encounters are very specific,” she said.
“We’ve partnered with the government on a number of initiatives, and we are on a task force that’s part of a program called CONFINE, a European project against human trafficking and fraud that focuses on massage salons and illegal hand car washes,” Huisman said.
This fall, the group will introduce a new quality label they developed at a networking event for all wash owners in Belgium.
Huisman said her short time in the industry, her age and gender can sometimes cause people to second-guess her. But, she’s never felt out-of-place. “Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to convince people that I know what I’m doing,” Huisman said. “But, on the other hand, it’s sometimes easier to find a way in since people are curious about what I have to say. When I’m at a show or on a visit, I’ve never felt out of place – I’ve always felt accepted in our industry.”
Huisman sees a bright future ahead for the industry. “The car wash industry is on the rise all over the globe,” she said. “I see a lot of automation in the future – not only in the paying, but also the prepping and washing the car. This will save costs and also provide a consistent end result.”
Huisman also thinks the customers and their needs will become more and more central to the direction the business moves in. “Customers are looking for convenience and they will want to wash, vacuum and clean their interiors while grocery shopping or on the way home,” she said. “I think the tunnels will become smaller, but the services outside will increase. Gas stations, especially in Europe, will focus more on the forecourt instead of selling fuel. This will mean an increase in self-serve, in-bays and even small tunnels. There are new markets appearing, such as Eastern Europe and Asia, which could be shuffling the cards for suppliers.”