When you take your car to the Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Florida, you will no doubt be greeted with enthusiasm by a top of the line, hard working team that absolutely loves providing you with a second to none product that far exceeds that of its local competitors.
A shining example of teamwork and commitment, some team members happily drive an hour and a half to get to work each day. It’s not at all unusual for someone to arrive an hour early for his shift, just in case he’s needed. You’d never guess that 80 percent of Rising Tide Car Wash’s exceptional team of employees are autistic — it’s something the growing business proudly considers its key competitive advantage.
In May 2011, John D’Eri found himself at a crossroads. His eighteen-year-old autistic son Andrew would soon age out of the school system, and needed a job.
His son Thomas, who had just graduated summa cum laude with honors from Bentley University with a degree in finance and sustainability, was looking for a job. A life-long entrepreneur with a background in accounting, and a primary business that involved litigation support, software development and electronic data discovery, John decided it was time to sell his current business and begin researching ideas for a startup that would best fit Andrew’s needs. Tom was soon inspired to follow in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps and approached his dad with the idea of joining forces.
Together, the pair was determined to do everything possible to ensure that Andrew not become one of the many young people who age out of the system and join the more than 90 percent on the autism spectrum who are unemployed, marginalized, and generally left to live a very lonely, unproductive life. They had to find something that wouldn’t just provide him with the perfect job, but would impact him, and hopefully others like him, in every area of his life.
The majority of Rising Tide Car Wash’s employees are on the autism spectrum, but their work gives them both joy and empowerment. | Photo: Rising Tide Car Wash Facebook
“The concept was to create an organization that was scalable, replicable, profitable, and sustainable,” John D’Eri told Opportunity Lives. “Not a nonprofit, and one where we could create a large community of like minded people — those on the [autism] spectrum.”
Because this was new territory, D’Eri explained, they enlisted the help of a corporate disability consultant and shared their desire “to impact the autism-centric employment issue from a business standpoint rather than a non-profit or charity standpoint.” Instead of creating a business where people come because they feel sorry for the individuals working there, they wanted to create an environment where Andrew and other members of the autism community would feel empowered.
“We are all defined by what we do every day,” explained D’Eri. “We are what we do. You’d be surprised how valuable it is for everyone, even someone with a social disconnect, to feel good about themselves when they’re productive. That, in itself, leads to a serious level of empowerment.”
For several months, the pair researched a variety of businesses and in August 2011, D’Eri came up with the idea of a car wash. Since neither had experience in that industry, they aligned with Sonny’s Direct, the world leader in car wash manufacturing. The father/son team explained their concept and the consultant, unsure the idea would be successful, instructed his team to give the pair everything they needed to test their idea and see if it was even possible.
Concerned that he had not set himself — or those within the autism community — up for failure, D’Eri and his team of consultants (including job coaches) created a test and set up an after-care process for their test employees at Sonny’s car wash in Homestead, Florida during the summer of 2012. “The test created a structured work environment out of the car wash back end business,” D’Eri told Opportunity Lives. “In other words, we broke the car wash process down into forty six steps. Those forty six steps, done in a row successfully on a car, would produce a good car on a car wash back end.”
The series of tests began when they hired the four individuals for the first two weeks, then seventeen for the second two. They carefully watched, filmed and documented all data to better help all involved gain an exact assessment of what was unfolding. Each employee was required to, as part of a team, complete all 46 steps three times in a row with 100 percent accuracy under six minutes, servicing customers who had no idea they had autism.
“You’d be surprised how valuable it is for everyone, even someone with a social disconnect, to feel good about themselves when they’re productive. That, in itself, leads to a serious level of empowerment”
D’Eri explained that the test alone was counterintuitive, since we’re told that individuals on the autism spectrum don’t typically work well together in teams, and aren’t competitive. Under this scenario, both proved false. The test employees not only worked beautifully as a team in the sweltering south Florida heat without complaining, they pushed each other, started over without complaining when they made mistakes, and worked so hard that in no time, they were accomplishing the task in an unbelievable three and a half minutes. And so it went for the duration of the tests, which continued through that summer.
The consultants, Sonny’s, and anyone else involved couldn’t believe the results. “I was amazed at the capability. I was floored,” D’Eri said. “In fact, I was worried that people wouldn’t even believe they had autism…that’s how good these guys were!” He explained that the 46-step process the test employees went through with such precision was far from easy.
“I was seeing employees that, based on my experience… I love ’em! They were doing exactly what I told them to do, no back talk, no nonsense, and I was like ‘this is awesome!’” said D’Eri. He explained that during the last phase of testing, they wore uniforms and the public was given the opportunity to tip, which turned out to be an incredible, unexpected motivator.
Obviously, at that point John and Tom D’Eri knew without a doubt that the idea would work, and so began the search for a car wash for sale. Not normally an easy task, they soon located one in Parkland, Florida, just down the road from another thriving car wash chain, and made the purchase. They closed its doors, something that is unheard of mid-season, and re-opened four months later in April 2013 with 25 employees and a brand new product.
For six months, with a deep desire to let employees earn respect for their hard work rather than sympathy because of a disability, they deflected every bit of media they could, and earn respect they did. Within six short months, they had broken even. When they purchased the car wash, it was servicing 3,000 cars a month, on average. Today, they’re servicing in excess of 18,000 cars a month and will soon break ground on a new location 4.6 miles down the road. With the creation of Rising Tide U, John and Tom D’Eri have graciously begun teaching others how to take what they’ve learned and create other successful businesses that employ individuals with disabilities.
To the average motorist, Rising Tide Car Wash may look like just another car wash, but to the customers who have come to know and love its employees, it’s anything but ordinary. It’s not just a lifeline for the employees who work so hard to provide excellent service day in and day out, but a business whose employees have become an inspiration to everyone they meet.
Tami Nantz is a contributor for Opportunity Lives and works as a social media and writing freelancer. She lives in Linden, Virginia with her husband and daughter. You can follow Tami on Twitter @TamiNantz.