1. Evangelical

Changing Lives Through Washing Cars

From where Thomas Alexander works at his car wash job, he can see the lottery advertisement in the window of the liquor store. In December the Illinois Powerball reached $304 million at the same time the Mega Millions was $310 million—the highest they’d been since June 2019.

“I’m out there working with customers, and it made me think, ‘Man, if I won the lottery tomorrow, what would I do?’” Alexander said. “Not much would change, actually. I’d still go to work every single day, because I feel like I have a purpose. I’ve found a way to change lives through this. I’d literally continue to work out here.”

That’s high praise from a 22-year-old who applied at Everclean two years ago because he could work the hours around his community college class schedule.  But Everclean isn’t your average car wash.

Montez King, manager of Everclean West Chicago, with a customer / Courtesy of Oliver Peng

Today, Alexander works full-time as an assistant manager. He’s been able to shoot up a growth track—when he returns from his military deployment, he’ll manage a location by himself. He helps Everclean recycle water, think of ways to save energy on equipment and LED lights, and choose the best chemical soap distributors. He regularly hands out towels and answers customer questions, checking to make sure everything is working and everybody’s getting a good wash.

“It’s crazy to me that I’m growing as much as I am and learning about myself because of a car wash,” Alexander said. “It’s crazy to me still—and I’m not new to it.”

Founder Thomas Kim built Everclean on clear moral principles—honed through a stint at Praxis—aimed at enriching the working class. Among them are holistic mentorship, economic opportunity (Kim’s aiming at a form of Jubilee for some), care for the environment, and encouraging contentment in customers (if you steward your car well, you’ll be less likely to want to replace it).

Kim’s Christianity “comes across in one of the most perfect ways I’ve experienced,” said Alexander, who was experimenting with Buddhism when he started at Everclean. Kim “knew what he knew and loved and he loved, and if you wanted to know more he was more than happy to share with you. . . . It was one of the first times I’ve seen [Christianity] executed in a way that was helpful to everyone around, whether they believed in it or not.”

Fatherless

Kim didn’t have a dad to show him how to do a lot of things––his left when he was 7 years old.

“But throughout my life, I always had an older man who was taking me under his wing,” Kim said. His uncle would stop by, slip him a $20, and try to make awkward conversation. A college student from church took him out to lunch and to see Michael Keaton play Batman in the theater. A string of teachers, employers, and pastors spent time with him, saw his gifts, and offered perspective, challenge, and encouragement.

Thomas Kim / Courtesy of Oliver Peng

“I didn’t know that wasn’t normal and common until later in my life,” Kim said. One of his mentors was his boss at the small lighting company where Kim worked as an engineer after college.

“Hey, I think you’d like to take a look at this valuation model,” the man told him one day. The company was changing owners, and Kim’s boss wanted him to see how anybody knew how much it was worth. Kim was a design engineer with no training in finance. But his boss was right—he was interested.

Armed with a little knowledge, Kim started investing. He bought a condo to rent out, and then another. He joined with some friends to start a steel ingot manufacturing plant in India. (Steel ingots are bars of steel that can later be shaped into something else.)

“We made no money, and it was really hard, particularly the government dynamics,” Kim said. “But it was fascinating. I found whenever I was working on things that had opportunity potential—even if it was unknown, higher-risk, and complicated—I was drawn to it.”

He was balancing now between the corporate world and the entrepreneurial world. But he was also pulled in a different way—between the office and the church.

Marketplace or Ministry

Kim grew up going to church. “The Lord got ahold of me when I was 12, so I knew that teenagers aren’t too young to get the gospel, and to sell everything in their lives—so to speak—to live for the Lord,” he said.

He began working as a youth pastor, and friends counseled him to go into the ministry full-time. He even took a few seminary classes. “But I sensed God in the marketplace too,” he said.

Everclean wash equipment in action / Courtesy of Oliver Peng

Kim’s resumé looks like it has attention deficit disorder: among other things, he spent some time as an executive recruiter, traveled to Haiti and Japan to help after their earthquake disasters, and started an early-stage venture fund. His work history is hard to keep track of—even for him.

In 2014, he heard about a car wash owner who wanted to retire and sell his business. “I didn’t take it seriously, partly because it’s a car wash,” Kim said. “And second, I had just watched Breaking Bad, so I knew that’s where you launder money.”

But when he started researching the car wash industry, he couldn’t believe the opportunities.

“At the time, car washing was a $10 billion industry, and didn’t have a single dominant player,” Kim said. “The top four players owned less than 5 percent of the industry.”

Where was the McDonald’s or Amazon of car washes? And why do Americans, whose cars are one of the most expensive items they own, only wash them a few times a year, and then try to do so as cheaply as possible?

“It didn’t make sense to me,” he said. He knew when his car was clean he liked it more, felt more content in it, and was less likely to wish for a different one. He wanted other people to feel that, too—it seemed like both common grace and common sense.

But if he was going to do this, he wanted to do it right—in a way that honored the Lord.

Honoring God, Employees, and Customers

Kim opened his third location just a few minutes away from Thomas Alexander’s house.

“I go up to the window, and they’re upbeat, telling me how they have an unlimited plan, so I can wash as much as I want,” Alexander said. He was so impressed with the friendly faces and the free wipes and air fresheners that “I signed up before I even tried the wash out.”

Recruiting event / Courtesy of Everclean

Later, when he needed a part-time job to work with his college schedule, he applied. In the interview process, he noticed the questions turned weird.

“Usually it’s, ‘What’s your work experience?’ or ‘What would you do in this situation?’” the 22-year-old said. “But they started getting into life aspirations, life goals, all these bigger picture things.”

Alexander liked the questions, because he was also “really getting into finding myself.” He’d been raised in the church but felt “it didn’t align with me.” After taking a break from religion, he was starting to think about spiritual stuff again, mainly by experimenting with Buddhism.

The manager explained the “master plan,” a clear, measurable way to work your way up from management trainee ($10 to $14 an hour, expected to last six months) to assistant manager ($41,000 a year) to site manager ($72,000 a year) to general manager ($101,000 a year) to district manager ($145,000 a year).

“Having it be management training instead of just an attendant job was foreign to me,” Alexander said. He loved it. Within months, he came on full-time.

Along with a living wage, the master plan comes loaded with mentoring. Kim had been taking guys out to lunch, to ask them what they liked to do, what they were good at.

“When I first started Everclean, a trusted adviser told me, ‘The bottleneck in your growth will be your people. You have to take the time to invest in your people and train them,’” Kim wrote. “I cringed when I heard that. It sounded slow, painful, and messy.”

But he also knew, having received it, that mentorship was powerful.

Messy Mentoring

“Most of these guys had gotten little to no mentorship their entire life,” Kim told TGC. In 2016, he was hearing about the overlooked working class being tapped by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And he was looking at them––working-class young men who needed more opportunities than were available. (One surveyshows that men ages 25 to 54 who aren’t working, in school, or looking for a job spend seven and a half hours a day in leisure activities—five of them in front of a screen.)

Everclean Hanover Park team members / Courtesy of Everclean Hanover Park Facebook page

“A lot of people think if they missed the boat with school and college, you’ve screwed yourself over and can’t really be successful in life,” Kim told Authority magazine. “That’s why so many people rack up a hundred thousand dollars in debt, to earn degrees they don’t really want and aren’t actually helpful in any way. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Everclean isn’t “looking for college degrees,” he said. “We’re looking for people who are street smart, good with people, and can hustle. Then, we invest in you, a lot. We meet one-on-one with hourly crew members over coffee. Then, we push you, a lot. We give a lot of authority and freedom to young people; [for example, a] 19-year-old launching grand openings for brand-new sites where they manage a [budget] and lead a team.”

In addition to building out the master plan, Kim worked on rhythms he could incorporate into the culture. One of them is paying for work before it’s done, which mimics working from grace instead of for it. Another is a monthly dinner—during healthy times, held in person—where employees can eat and play games and celebrate promotions. Kim reminds everybody of Everclean’s vision—to help people steward and be content in their cars, to care for the environment by recycling water, to encourage employees and help them to succeed—and its values.

“It changes the idea of what a workplace should look like and feel like,” said Alexander, who was invited to his first dinner before he’d even worked a shift.

Kim’s focus on honoring God by loving customers and team members was working. Over three years, his team grew to 30 people. (Two of his managers were living with him and his wife, Evelyn.) He expanded to two sites, then three, four, five. He had plans for more.

Evelyn gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and his joy was complete.

Then the calendar flipped to 2020.

Tragedy in 2020

Baby Mackenzie was born with a heart condition. The Kims spent nine months—most of them without support, due to COVID—in the hospital, watching her struggle through 13 surgeries. Only one of them could be with her at a time, which meant that somebody—either Mackenzie or one of her parents—was always alone.

Toward the end of the summer, Mackenzie was stabilized enough to go home for the first time. But that week, her body went into septic shock and she died. Her parents were wrecked.

Kim with his daughter Mackenzie at Lurie Children’s Hospital / Courtesy of Thomas Kim

The hours Kim wasn’t at the hospital, he was trying to pull his business through a year that should’ve bankrupted him. As offices shut down and workers were sent home, commuting plummeted. Vacations were canceled. Nobody was driving, and if they needed to wash their cars, they had plenty of time to do so themselves.

“We definitely saw a dip in business,” Kim said. But it wasn’t terrible. Everclean runs on a subscription model—you pay once a month and can wash as often as you want—and a lot of customers kept paying.

Kim was able to keep most of his workers, but had to let go of two—one for performance and one for chemistry. Both had spent hours growing close to the entire team.

“I’m finding when there is a work separation, people are far more hurt than they’d normally be at another company,” Kim said of the mentoring model. “I don’t want to give you a one-sided picture. There are a lot of good things, but some things are hard and broken.”

Briefly, he thought about quitting. But “I believed too much in our social mission to enrich lives through opportunity and holistic mentorship,” he said. “My team had fought too hard to get to where we were. I couldn’t imagine giving up on them and risking the cultural changes that often come with ownership changes.”

Looking Forward

In December of 2019, right around the time Mackenzie was born, Kim hired his pastor to work at Everclean. The two both loved the vision Kim had for serving customers and team members well, and when Jay Manguba sensed that his assignment at the church had come to an end, it was a natural switch.

“When my assignment at church stopped, I don’t know how many people called and said, ‘Hey, I heard you’re leaving ministry,’” said Manguba, who oversees Everclean’s leadership training. “I didn’t leave ministry. I’m working with people, and whenever you work with people, you’re doing ministry. Additionally, we do business with excellence—Colossians 3:17 says in everything you do, do it for God’s glory—and the world is attracted to that.”

I’m working with people, and whenever you work with people, you’re doing ministry.

Case in point: Alexander, who isn’t a Christian. “It’s refreshing to come here. It doesn’t ever get mundane for me. . . . It changed my mentality about religion as well. For a long time, [faith] was kind of an annoyance to me every time I had an interaction with [a Christian]. . . . I’d say, for the first time in eight years, it’s been on my mind in a more positive way.”

That’s exactly what Kim’s hoping for.

“Whether or not someone knows the gospel, if they stepped into Eden—or into heaven—they’d be blown away,” he said. “They’d be drawn to tears. They’d say, ‘What is this place? If you explain it to me, I’ll fall in love.’”

He knows Everclean isn’t Eden or heaven. But he wants it to be so different that his team and his customers fall in love—not with him, but with the Jesus he follows.

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