Entrepreneur: Justin, Benny and Jason Alford
Justin Alford probably has the most washed car in Baton Rouge. Every Saturday, he, his brother Justin and father Benny visit all seven Benny’s car wash locations. At every location, Justin gets a wash. “That’s how you see how things are working,” he explains. “What comes through that tunnel is what we’re putting out.” The father and sons run the family business started in 1951 by Benny’s father, who already had a car wash in Pensacola and opened one here, fittingly, on Florida Street. When the company decided to expand to Airline Highway in the early ’90s, the tradition of naming the car wash after its street hit a road bump. Benny suggested the nickname his mother and sister used. “Longstanding customers pretty much know me, but today there are people who don’t know there’s a Benny,” says the company’s namesake. “I’m flattered but kind of shy. I’m just like anybody else. I put my pants on one leg at a time.”
“If you’re making a hamburger, it’s all under your control for the most part,” Justin says. “It’s very hard to have consistent quality every time in car washing, because we can’t control what’s coming in.” A self-professed gadget guy, he is intrigued by such challenges. “It’s more than a mop and a bucket. There’s a lot of fine-tuning all the time depending on the time of year, the temperature, the vehicle condition.” In fact, Benny’s pioneered automated “modern day express car washing.” After visiting Germany in the ’90s, the Alfords brought home the idea of free self-service vacuums and wanted to use gas pumps as pay stations. They approached a company about making an unattended machine, which they discovered already existed, and added their own gate idea to keep cars in order for custom washes. “It’s worked and changed the whole industry nationwide,” Benny says. Will they wash driverless cars or drones soon? “I like to think we’re going to be washing something,” Justin laughs.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
The Saturday visits give the Alfords an invaluable chance to talk to their staff of approximately 300, too. “Our people are our biggest asset,” Justin says. “We have some fantastic folks with the right attitude—even a guy who was here for more than 35 years.” He also values when former employees stop by years later, like a dentist who came in once and thanked him for the opportunity to work when he was a teenager. “It’s humbling and uplifting to see how some of these folks develop. It means more to me than a big financial statement.” Overall, Justin says the company tries to be flexible with employees, giving them freedom to make decisions, do their best and have a life outside of work. For Benny, working with his sons is a dream, but one he never pushed on them. “To be with them, listen to their ideas and watch them expand is exciting,” he says. “That’s why I still come to work every day.”
Not every day is wonderful, Justin admits. Especially this year. Like in August, when he watched water come into the Greenwell Springs Road location while hundreds of his employees’ homes flooded. Or in July when the police shootings occurred at the Airline location when the car wash was just about to open for the day. Slain sheriff’s deputy Brad Garafola was a part-time employee of Benny’s when he was off duty, as was injured deputy Bruce Simmons. Garafola’s father is an employee, too. “It’s a traumatic event. I graduated from LSU with a degree in business. We never talked about what to do when something like this happens,” Justin says. But Benny’s is coming together and learning from it all—like setting up emergency communication programs, raising nearly $45,000 through their Fallen Officers Fund and spending time after work rebuilding homes. “I keep telling our folks and I keep telling myself there’s going be something good that comes out of this.”