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How to Make a Great Living Detailing Cars for the Rich and Famous

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“I didn’t get this far by charging rich people more…I’ll charge you like I charge a poor person; I keep that price the same, I never change.”

Platinum Shine, Elthridge’s business of 27 years. You can also check out the quality of his work on Facebook.

-Ethridge Miller

Ethridge believes that one price fits all and the more you put into something, the more you get out.

In this interview he also talks about:

  • The importance and advantages of networking.
  • How the price of convenience can become profitable.
  • Building and rewarding both customer and employee loyalty.
  • The advantages of targeting wealthy owners (without overcharging them).

Ethridge how long have you been business, and why did you choose to start a car-detailing service?

I’ve been in business since 1999, but I’ve been doing it since I was 18 years old. I used to work for Tom Benson at all his dealerships. So I got into detailing when I was…thirteen, actually, and I started detailing cars in the neighborhood. I said one day I’m gonna get the money and put it all into a van and start a mobile detailing service. 27 years later, that’s where I’m at today.

How many years later?

About 27.

27? Wow. So what’s the most you’ve ever profited in one month?

About 10,000.

That’s great. What was it about that month that made it so profitable?

I’m linked in with Land Rover New Orleans as their primary detailer. You buy a car from them, they give you my business card. I also work with Chevrolet. Adding vans, training people that want to work, and know what they’re doing.

How many vans do you have on the road?

Today one, but come next week I’ll have three.

So you buy a van. How much do you invest to get each van equipped?

I wanna say I spend about 7,500 to 10,000. I try to buy vans used. I don’t try to go out and get a new van, and since I have such a good relationship with dealerships and body shops they work with me on parts and prices.

Okay so you get a good deal on the van, but after you buy the van how much do you invest on equipment?

I buy equipment as I go, about 2,500 throughout the year. I already know what I’m setting myself up for throughout the year; I buy this and that, and just piece it all together. I also deal with Car Brite, which is about another 2,500, so altogether about 5,000. I make my money back in about a month.

Right on. Do you bring a water tank wherever you go?

Yep, everything is self-contained. We don’t need anything but the keys.

So you got a water tank, you have a pressure washer, do you have a generator?

Yes, and an inverter just in case.

That’s kind of a large investment. A lot of people don’t bring water, they don’t bring a generator to supply their own elecricity, they sort of use the customer’s electricity and water. Have you found that bringing your own water, and bringing your own electricity pays off over time?

Yes because I don’t have to wait for the customer to answer the knock at the door once we get out of the van, or if they’re gone or on their way. When they get back we’re pretty much halfway done with the detail. I find it really convenient to just have everything, and not really hassle for anything. We even bring our own water and gatorade.

Okay, so it’s more expensive but the time savings of getting in and getting out, it’s not long until you’ve got that money back and you’re making money on those investments.

Right, correct. See with me I have too much…not that I try to have a thousand, it’s just word of mouth, but I have way more than what I wanted to do.

You ever, in 27 years, you ever buy something that you never end up using?

Maybe a certain kind of product, like a gel. Everything else I pretty much use, or I know I’m going to use it.

What is your most reliable source for new customers?

The most reliable source? The dealerships.

Are you talking about doing the dealership’s cars, or are you talking getting referrals from the dealerships to private customers?

Yeah, getting the referrals.

Do you still do car detailing for dealerships?

Yes, Land Rover of New Orleans. I’m their official detailer for new cars.

New cars? So you don’t do any used car detailing for dealers anymore?

No, not for Land Rover. What it is with the dealerships nowadays they want an arm and a leg, and they want it for pennies. So why pay me? I’m too highly qualified to even try to do a full detail. I think a dealership would only pay $125, and my details go up to $300-600; we do boats, buses, RVs, we do ’em all.

That’s interesting: you get referrals from car dealers that don’t even use your service anymore?

Yeah they use me. Let’s say if you buy a car today, and six months later you bring it in for service I would be the one that cleans in the service aisle. Like, you bring it in and want the full detail, I’m the one that’s going to clean it. The used cars? No I don’t do that anymore.

Ah, I see what you are saying. So they tell the customer come back for service, we have a retail detailing service, and they call you up and you do the job and they take a cut.

Exactly.

And they’re okay with maybe sometimes customers just say look, I can’t drop my car off, do you know anybody who can just come to my house because I’m really busy, and make my car look spotless, and they’re happy to hand out your card.

Exactly.

And over 27 years you’ve done enough business through car dealers, and you’ve never let them down, ’cause their reputation is on the line, that you’re their go-to guy, you’re their go-to reference.

Yes.

Okay, so this is how you found a way to get business from car dealers without just losing an arm and a leg doing their used cars all day for $100.

Right.

That’s a very interesting strategy, because a lot of detailers, they just wanna run out to the dealers and say what do you pay for a detail, I’ll do it for $20 less. And five weeks later they’re just like boy, do I really regret that decision.

They just give you so much volume, and you look at the income and its just not enough.

It’s just not adding up. So you say look, I’m not here to do your used cars however if you’ve got retail customers that come in, I’ll do it for you; I’m gonna do it for a lot more than $100 but I’m gonna do it right. That’s how you manage to get by with the dealers.

I’ve been with Land Rover almost five years. It was like an accident: I went to trade in my car and they asked who detailed it. I said I did it and the guy was pretty surprised. He said they were going to give me a car and I said no worries I’m going to buy the truck, I mean the truck you see on there? That’s my Range Rover.

It was a business strategy: I said I’m going to there and buy a Range Rover, and make it my flagship car. So now I’ve got a picture of my Range Rover on my van, I bring it back to the dealer and once he saw that and how I had the van set up? The sky’s the limit from there.

That’s creative. You buy a car from them, you tell the world “I bought a car from Range Rover, I love Range Rover, I’ll put a picture of it on my work vehicle”.

Right, and as I sell a car I give you a brochure with a Land Rover in it, and you know I’m networking with them. I’m more like these street thieves, but at the same time I’m making money.

Right on. So you got a big crew? How many people do you have working for you?

At the moment it’s me and other guy, because I hate riding with three guys in a van. I usually have up to 4-5 people. My little brother, he’s in school. He get out at 12:00, he’s 17 and I can promise you just how young Tiger Woods was with golf, he’s that with detailing.

A lot of detailers, when they’re trying to expand they have a hard time finding good help. You got any tips for people?

Stay loyal. You want to treat your employees like if you were an employee. If they do a good job, damn right, give them a bonus. Give them an incentive. Make them work, let them know you’ll help them as best you gain.

If they go do a car like a four-door BMW, that’s a $50 job. I’m gonna try to let them make money, meaning that if the car needs wax, then you need to explain to the customer that they need wax and upsell. If they upsell their detail, I give them another $15.

Okay okay, so instead of paying them by the hour you’re going to make what you earn. We’re gonna set this up so that the more you do, the more you sell, the more you make, and they’re hungrier that way.

Yeah, I put that hunger in them to make them more money. I’m not going to pay someone $10/hour to do a detail. If it takes them three hours, that’s only $30. I can’t pay anyone $30 when they did all the work. If the job costs $275, I give them $75.

This has been a good interview because it’s going to reach a lot of guys who are running one van, and they just don’t know how to go about getting to two vans, to three vans, and expanding. What you’ve shared with me is going to really really help them out.

Right, and they want to network; when you put your network in you get with some good people. I don’t do Tom Benson no more, but I do a majority of the players and the players have more than one vehicle. So I might do, lets say, Curtis Lofton, but he has five vehicles.

I do mostly high-end, I don’t do the average. I’ve got over 500 clients on my own that I have to maintain, and I don’t even do that. So I get them how they come. I tell them now today you have to call me, due to the bad weather I can’t stay on top of my books anymore, so it’s easier for them to just call and schedule.

I do a lot of people that own marina ships and barges. Once I got with Betsy Laborde, and she said that everybody else was overcharging and overpricing her. I said that I didn’t get this far by charging rich people more, I just charged her like I would anyone else. I’ll charge you like I charge a poor person; I keep that price the same, I never change.

One of the ball players,he left $25,000 in the car, didn’t even know he had it in there, and I didn’t take a nickel. I look back today and tell you that’s how I grew. I mean I just went out the roof: honesty. You get some people and you test him. All the guys that work for me have been tested. What I do is leave some money out, and you know what they do? They leave it on the seat.

Once they past that test, I appreciate them not messing up my business, so I’m going to reward them. It’s the reward that will keep them loyal. One guy I’ve had off and on for 3-4 years. He’s got some stuff going on in his life, but if I tell him I need him, here’s there and he knows I’m going to take care of him.


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How We Started

It was 2006. A car detailer couldn't find affordable, easy-to-use add-on equipment to grow his business. So he made it himself.

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