Case study: Frank Vekemans and Maarten Franken

It’s impossible to miss Washin7 on the Meerenakkerweg in Eindhoven, part of Frank Vekemans’ car wash formula. The building with the huge, bright orange letters where over 4,000 clean and shiny cars drive out of every week is a welcome sight for many car owners. At this venue, Frank Vekemans and Maarten Franken, owner of GoodHabitz, talk about their growth ambitions.

Text: Ronald Frencken 
Image: Eddie Mol

Washin7 and GoodHabitz have both been in business for ten years now. That’s pretty much where the similarities between the companies end. They operate in completely different markets and serve other target groups. Washin7 is aimed at car owners who want to drive a clean car. At GoodHabitz they get the staff of their clients studying, assisted by a very diverse range of online training courses. Frank Vekemans and Maarten Franken have growth high on their agendas. And that’s with good reason, too. The success of both formulas depends on offering their product in large volumes: car washes and online training.

“Growth means letting go. You can’t embrace thousands of people at once”

Customer database

‘If I’m not mistaken, Frank, you need to make a huge investment in property and machinery with every new branch. Once you pass a certain point, I imagine, you start making a profit.’

‘Investing in a new branch does run into the millions. We write it off in ten years. But there are considerable expenses involved. High energy and marketing costs, for example. At the same timed, we have relatively low staffing costs. Washin7 has to wash a huge number of cars to be profitable. Here on the Meerenakkerweg that number is 220,000 a year and at all sites combined, half a million.’

‘With us, the tipping point is also determined by volume, Frank. We offer 150 training courses, and each one costs 100,000 euros in production costs. If the training course is ready to go online in a country, we look for relevant clients. On the whole we spend an enormous amount of money in every new country. At a certain point we cover our basic costs. Things really take off for that branch once we’ve passed that point. Then a lot of money comes in.’

Frank has built Washin7 on three pillars. These give him the basis for the growth he is striving for, and an edge over other car washes: quality, speed and experience. ‘Our car washes are open twelve hours a day. That puts huge demands on the staff and on the machinery. I make no concessions in those areas. I think it’s horrible if my customers aren’t satisfied. Luckily I get a lot of positive feedback from clients about the friendliness of our staff and the quick service they get. It has to be quick, I think. People don’t like waiting long these days. Look at some supermarkets. If you have to wait too long at the checkout, they give you your groceries for free. At the Meerenakkerweg branch I can wash up to 240 cars an hour. I need this capacity to guarantee speed. After all, something always has to be happening here. Customers come here for the Washin7 experience: an automated washing process with no risk of damage to their car. Combined with an authentic polish job by friendly staff and often fun marketing promotions. It all helps enormously to encourage a repeat visit.’

Land grabbing

‘You strike me as the kind of entrepreneur who does everything for his customers and his employees,’ says Maarten ‘You feel responsible for them. That’s a good trait. But only one thing matters to me in the end: growing and becoming the very best learning company. I can only achieve that if I attract a large audience as quickly as possible. At GoodHabitz we practice land grabbing; old-fashioned takeovers, resulting in four new country offices a year. That rapid growth means I need financial resources to keep investing. I get them by continuing to push forward. Part of that tactic is daring to let go as a business owner, at the risk of things going wrong. It’s a mindset that fits in with my growth ambition. If I owned a Michelin star restaurant, I would probably do things differently.’

‘That’s good advice, Maarten. For businesses that are growing, it can often be difficult to let go. That’s how it is in my experience as well. I always had a clear vision of how I wanted to give shape to Washin7. I’m fortunate to have a management team that knows its responsibilities. Sometimes I catch myself doing things that are better left to someone else. The great thing about that learning process is that, since I learned to let go, I notice that it all goes a bit smoother. It’s good to know your strengths and weaknesses, and to act on them. It gets you further.’

Blueprint mode

Entrepreneurs often run into personal growth moments by chance. This is something Frank and Maarten also recognise. One time Maarten got quite a special tip from his management. He was looking into opening a new branch, whereupon his advisor made the bold suggestion to open ten in different countries. ‘It didn’t come to ten in the end, but it was good advice’, he says. ‘By working on several locations at the same time, you automatically go into blueprint mode. As an entrepreneur aiming for growth, you have to dare to let go of the daily worries with clients and staff. After all, you yourself are only so big, and you cannot embrace thousands of people. The warmth you create can work against you. By letting go, you can keep sight of the big picture.’

Washin7 would never have existed if Frank hadn’t experienced a personal growth moment of his own, against his will we should add. Before Washin7 was founded, there was the time that they sold the successful family business – a laundry with linen and clothing rental company – to an investor, with the aim of growing. Frank stayed on as managing director. ‘With hindsight, this turned out to be the worst choice I could have made. I had nothing more to say about the direction of the business. This resulted a lot of good staff being out of a job and the soul was ripped out of the company. I learned then not to go into business with investors: your company ends up in the hands of cold-hearted accountants whose only interest is making a quick buck. That wasn’t a good time for me, but it was a period that made me think. And one that ultimately brought Washin7 about.’

“I want to grow to no more than fifteen branches in South Netherlands, with a maximum of two branches a year. That’s still manageable for us,” Frank Vekemans – Washin7

Shirt sponsor

Maarten wants to add some nuance to Frank’s point on investors. A few years ago, he also opted to strike a deal with outside investors. ‘Of course I have to take their plans into consideration’, he says, ‘but that doesn’t mean I no longer have a say. If you work with investors, I think it’s important to stay in control, which I am. When I wanted to be a shirt sponsor for PSV a few years ago, everyone saw that it would be commercially quite risky, myself especially. But I still managed to get the investors on board with the plan, even with the worst excel presentation ever. They gave me their trust. Working with investors helps you focus on growth and make processes more efficient. This makes it easier to get new offices in different countries off the ground. We know the blueprint by now: we understand the marketing strategy that’s needed. We recruit a good country director, make sure we have a strong sales department and are getting much better at localising training courses. It makes our ambition to go live in four countries a year feasible. What about your desire for growth actually?’

‘In the coming years, I want to grow to no more that fifteen branches in South Netherlands, with a maximum of two new branches a year. That’s still manageable for us,’ says Frank. ‘We know by now what we need to take into account, such as spending enough time sourcing good locations. And a good marketing strategy is essential to Washin7’s success. We draw on our customer database intensively. We’re also getting smarter with catchy campaigns. Although they usually have a local target group, we attract a national audience. We had DJ La Fuente, who played tunes while your car was being washed. Customers came from all over. And one other time, René Schuurmans performed in our business for the staff of a large accountancy firm. These are fun initiatives we’re getting better at each time. We also frequently team up with local businesses with the aim of reinforcing each other. Besides that, our different subscriptions help to ensure customers come back. But that only works if they’re satisfied, of course. We also do a lot of local sponsoring. That exposure gives us more recognition.’

The foam machine in the car wash has just finished refilling. The idea is to re-enact the Washin7 experience for the photo, with both entrepreneurs in the foam. In the meantime, Frank asks Maarten where he sees growth opportunities for Washin7. ‘You take a very personal approach towards customers, Frank. You want to treat them well. It might be worth considering offering luxury subscriptions and work with customers who have an edge over other customers. They get slightly better coffee while waiting, served in a nice mug rather than a plastic cup, that sort of thing. You’re in a promising position. The mobility market is changing fast, just look at the booming car sharing market and electric cars. It’s a great opportunity for entrepreneurs. I’m very curious to see what i will mean for Washin7’s growth in the coming years.’

Washin7 has five locations, two in Eindhoven – on Meerenakkerweg and on the Kanaaldijk since the beginning of May – as well as in Roosendaal, Bergen op Zoom and, for the past six months, in Venlo. GoodHabitz offers 150 training courses that will soon be released in thirteen European countries, when the subsidiary in Denmark goes online.

“By working on opening several country branches at the same time, you automatically go into blueprint mode. You can then keep sight of the big picture.” Maarten Franken – Goodhabitz

Frank Vekemans about Maarten Franken:

‘I have to admit that, as an entrepreneur, I look up to Maarten a bit. He’s really going places with GoodHabitz. He is living proof that you have to aim high with your ambitions. By thinking big, you get into a flow and achieve your goals much faster. I’m experiencing this more and more myself. I used to be quite conservative, but now I’m betting on fifteen branches. That’s a different way of doing business. Much more focused on real goals and big ambitions.

However successful Maarten may be, he stays relaxed and abides by the Dutch saying ‘just act normal, as that’s crazy enough’. Thanks to his down-to-earth Brabant character and modesty, he is still himself. That’s how I want to be as a person and as an entrepreneur. Always. I saw in Maarten the confirmation that successful people don’t have to dress up in gold. You don’t have to shout out from the rooftop that you’re the best. That’s something I can’t stand.

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