Ditching the corporate life to give Southwesterners a clean ride

After spending more than 15 years in a corporate job at General Mills, Dan Poorman decided it was time for a change and time to live out his dream -- owning and operating a carwash.

In the past year, Poorman poured approximately $1 million into renovations and new equipment for "Dan's Nicollet carwash," 5925 Nicollet Ave., in the Windom neighborhood.

Leaders of the Windom Community Council praise Poorman for consulting them about his renovation plans months in advance, to assure neighborhood compatibility. In return, Poorman, a St. Paul resident, has hired only neighborhood residents and revitalized a carwash that has been in the neighborhood since 1961.

The road to Dan's carwash

Poorman said his carwash wish dates back to high school. Like many a teen grease monkey, he worked at a Shell service station. He said the station's young owner was always willing to answer his questions about how everything worked, from the carwash mechanisms to the business plan.

"I was always interested in the business model -- it's a very hands-on business, and I like that," Poorman said.

Although Poorman said the owner inspired him to be an entrepreneur, his father, a community college president, was not enthusiastic about his son's entrepreneurial desires straight out of high school. "For a moment there we had a clash," Poorman said.

Because education was so important to the family, Poorman attended college at Notre Dame, which catapulted him into a job as a financial manager, then marketing manager, at General Mills.

Poorman said he liked his time at General Mills. He said he got to travel to the Middle East and Europe, making commercials and marketing products such as the Betty Crocker and Yoplait yogurt lines.

Still, co-worker John Mendesh noted Poorman's entrepreneurial tendencies. He said Poorman talked often about his high-school service-station experience and his carwash dream -- but wasn't sure anything would come of it.

But when General Mills acquired Pillsbury recently, Poorman said he was part of the lay-offs and saw it as a natural time to get out. A friend had told him about the carwash, and colleagues such as Mendesh were willing to become silent partners. "After a while, it's time to follow your dream and do your own thing," he said.

Getting the plan in motion

Poorman said he looked forward to not traveling so much for work, and to being hands-on with operations. "In a small business, you're involved in everything," he said.

Although starting your own business requires financial risk, Mendesh said Poorman was very self-assured when he made the change and was confident that the business model he had schemed about since adolescence would work. "His personal values around entrepreneurship and running his own show overwhelmed any concern of risk," he said.

To finance his new business, Poorman said he used part of his severance package from General Mills, money he had saved, and assistance from a few silent partners.

He said initially the start-up and renovation costs cut his income in half, but because he'd saved, it wasn't a great hardship.

Poorman said the Windom carwash seemed just right -- with a built-in customer base including some who had used it since the '60s. But he said because the carwash had grown older, he still has the challenge of regaining customers who had left.

He purchased the building last June. Despite racing to renovate the wash in time for the winter season (the most lucrative for carwashes), he quickly sought approval form the community.

Pat Croal, president of the Windom Community Council, said Poorman visited their board more than eight months before renovations started and provided regular updates.

She said he was more involved with the neighborhood than other businesses have been. "We thought it was great," Croal said. "It needed cleaning up inside and out."

Poorman, Croal said, emphasized bringing more jobs into the neighborhood, which went over big with board members.

She said his personal interest in the community shows with his employees, too. "You go there, and he's out there helping the staff," Croal said.

Dan's business plan and facility changes

Poorman said he likes the carwash industry because consumers like having a clean, washed car. One of the biggest challenges is the industry's image -- many carwashes are not thought of as professional, he said, something he wants to change.

Poorman said he makes sure his facilities look clean, and so do the 22 employees on staff: he insists they be clean-shaven and wear uniforms. Poorman said he also wanted to attract a quality staff by offering development opportunities and employing people within the community. He said all of his employees -- many of them high school and college students -- live within a four-mile radius of the business. Poorman said it was his goal to keep his workforce similar to his customer base, 85 percent of which lives in a five- to six-mile radius of the business.

Poorman said he also employs three Richfield High School students who, along with being paid an hourly wage, get school credit for their employment and job performance.

To emphasize he is not the man behind the scenes, Poorman positioned his office up front, overlooking operations. But he said you wouldn't find him in there often. "I'm as likely to be out working with the guys," Poorman said.

In addition to the new carwash equipment, Poorman added amenities for customers as they wait, such as car accessories, greeting cards and a soon-to-be-built coffee bar.

Poorman said customers are greatly influenced by the quality of his carwash; the existing equipment hadn't been replaced for more than 20 years. On its busiest post-renovation day since reopening last December, the carwash scrubbed 420 cars, Poorman said.

He said in his business plan, his first-year projections for business are measured in car washes. Poorman said he hopes to wash 50,000 to 52,000 cars in his first year of business, totaling approximately $700,000. So far, he said, his investment has boosted sales; business was up 35 to 40 percent this winter. "I expect it to grow more," Poorman said.