Vic Odermat remembers driving through Alexandria, Va., in the early 1950s and seeing a car wash for the first time. He paid $1.50, and a group of men thoroughly cleaned the exterior, Windexed the windows, and vacuumed the interior. “I was impressed,” the 77-year-old says in a deep, Johnny Cash–like voice.
At the time, Odermat, a Seattle native, had been stationed at the Marine Corps post in Quantico. When he moved back to Seattle in 1954, he decided to give the business a shot, creating Seattle’s first car wash. It was hard going at first, with little profit and not enough customers. But eventually, in 1957, he successfully formed and maintained what is today known as Brown Bear Car Wash.
“The customer is king,” says Odermat, who still shows up to work before 8 a.m. every weekday. “No one but the customer knows what a clean car is.” Odermat plans to keep running day-to-day operations because “it keeps me young.”
The business hasn’t always been in his hands, though. About 12 years ago, Odermat leased his operations to another company, which eventually left the brand name diminished and Brown Bear’s reputation severely weakened, the founder says. “I felt I had let my employees down,” says Odermat. “I had an obligation to try to correct the wrong.”
So, four years ago he took back the reins, just in time for commercial car washing to become the environmentally favored thing to do, with public-service ads encouraging people to patronize places like Brown Bear, rather than washing grease and suds down the neighborhood drain.
To adjust to the expanding market, Odermat brought in his son, Lance, a lawyer, as vice president. “Growth is my intention,” Lance says. “People say, ‘What about Oregon or California?’ But [Washington state] is still so untapped that there’s enough here to keep me busy my whole lifetime.”
Of course, Lance acknowledges, if he and Dad ever decided to exit the car-washing biz, they could make a killing off the real estate.
“My dad was very astute in his choice of properties throughout the years,” says Lance. “We have a lot of corner properties that are attractive to a lot of businesses. It’s quite frequent that we get inquiries throughout the region.”
But car washing remains the “first priority,” he says. “If we do sell properties, it’s with the idea of taking those proceeds and reinvesting them into growth.”— Various locations, www.brownbearcarwash.com.