Carolina Car Wash & Detail has been in the Tucker family for 25 years. Here’s what they have to say about owning a small business, working with family and the way Carolina Car Wash & Detail has grown over the years.
by Hannah McClellan / Photography by John Michael Simpson
Long before Tom Tucker became a business owner and real estate developer, he was an eighth grader living on the west side of Chicago with his mom, grandmother and 10 siblings. He was working at a summer program at a nearby Catholic church when a visiting priest took up an offering collection for him after learning he was valedictorian at his middle school. The funds allowed him to attend Benet Academy, a nearby college preparatory high school.
It’s a moment Tom says changed his entire trajectory, one that led to his career in engineering and business. Tom moved to the Chapel Hill area in 1987 and worked as an electrical engineer. He began developing real estate and condominiums in 1997 as the principal of real estate development company Peregrine 9; he purchased Carolina Car Wash and Detail the same year. Tom knew from the beginning he wanted his family to be involved in the business, and hopes it stays that way for years to come.
“This is the first business that we have in our family,” he says of the car wash, located in Carrboro on East Main Street. “It’s a family business – we just try to do a good job and as long as we make enough money to keep the lights on and keep everybody paid, then we’re happy.”
Tom says he’s grateful to work in a place like Chapel Hill with so many great people. He strives to invest in the community, particularly through partnering with organizations. A previous Northside resident, he’s served on the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory and Neighborhood Watch committees. He also formerly served as the president of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.
In the last few years, Tom’s brother Bruce Tucker came on board as co-general manager to take over day-to-day operations. Bruce worked at the car wash when his brother first bought it, but left to pursue a career in engineering. Employee or not, Bruce would always visit the car wash to see their mother, Willie Dee Tucker, who has faithfully worked the cash register from the beginning.
“It’s a good one-two punch because we’re able now to tag-team things,” Bruce says. “He doesn’t worry so much about the day-to-day, and he can look down the road at some nice long-term projects that we have in mind for the car wash.”
When Tom first purchased the car wash, not much was automated. Since then, the car wash has expanded its services and offerings while reducing labor, electricity usage and costs through automatic services, including a wide array of wash, detail and cleaning options.
Many of the 10 to 15 employees have worked there for more than 10 years, so “they can do this stuff in their sleep,” Bruce says, adding that the car wash owes its loyal customer base to its “wonderful staff.” For example, Bruce says co-general manager Juan Diaz is the best sales person he’s ever seen and dedicates himself to helping every customer leave happy.
“We’re more interested in taking care of people’s cars and not necessarily interested in washing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cars,” Tom says of their business philosophy. “We’re not trying to gouge people, we don’t want to charge more than we need to charge. We’re just a family business – it’s probably not a real big business success story.”
Last year, the car wash’s sales were down nearly 40% compared to the previous year – losses the brothers attribute to the challenges of the pandemic. They’ve focused on providing COVID-19 safe services, remodeling the facility and offering monthly unlimited packages.
In addition to continuing contracts with the Town of Chapel Hill and Chapel Hill Police Department, Bruce says adding to their unlimited subscription base will be huge in making up for pandemic losses to stay competitive. He also plans to remodel the waiting room this year to add car merchandise and items. Even with the financial losses, Bruce says he doesn’t regret leaving his engineering career.
“It’s the best move that I probably could have made right now,” he says. “There’s a lot that I lose in not staying with that Fortune 500 job and the security of that nice cushy check that comes every month, but the joy of business ownership, this is something that can’t be underestimated.”