Sunday 25 February 2018

Your Business: Water-free wash cleans up

Ex-pro driver, Emmet O'Brien, tells Sean Gallagher how he went from racing cars to leaving them sparkling

Emmet O’Brien of No-H2O with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Emmet O’Brien of No-H2O with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

We often assume that to be successful in business, a person has to come up with a totally new idea -something that has never been tried before. The truth, however, is that many great businesses are built on taking existing ideas and adding some new or innovative twist.

Take, for example, this week's entrepreneur, Emmet O'Brien. You may or may not have ever been a customer of his but if you have ever parked in Dublin Airport or any of Ireland's leading car parks, then you might readily recognise his company's name and its distinctive green branding.

Set up in 2007, Emmet's waterless car wash company, No-H2O, now has more than 30 franchise locations throughout Ireland, the Czech Republic and Dubai.

He has also successfully launched a range of eco-friendly car care products that can now be found on the shelves of retail stores across Ireland, the UK, UAE, Australia and New Zealand. With six staff employed directly and more than 80 throughout his network of franchises, he is on target to achieve a turnover this year of more than €1.2m. Impressively too, 85pc of this revenue now comes from exports.

But how can a car wash be waterless? I ask Emmet when I meet up with him in his company's headquarters in Sandyford's Beacon South Quarter, in South County Dublin. "Unlike regular drive-through car washes that use up to 132 litres of water per wash, we don't use any water. Instead, we use a special liquid formula that not only cleans the car but also leaves the most unbelievable shine," says Emmet.

As I delve even further into this liquid formula, I discover that there's a real science behind it. Applied using a microfibre cloth, the liquid contains a positive charge which, when combined with the negative charge from the cloth, causes the dirt to transfer to the cloth, leaving behind a polished finish unlike any other car wash product on the market. What's in the formula, I enquire? "That's a trade secret," says Emmet, smiling.

For Emmet, the journey to becoming an entrepreneur has been an interesting one. Having grown up in Monkstown, in Dublin, he moved to the UK to pursue his dream of becoming a professional racing driver.

"I spent nine years as a professional driver for BMW and the VW Group where I got to compete in a number of World and European Touring Car Championships. It was while attending one of the races that I first got introduced to the idea of a waterless car wash and I could immediately see its potential," he says.

By that time, Emmet had come to the realisation that life as a pro racing driver couldn't go on indefinitely. He knew that at some point he would need to find an alternative career but he was adamant that it needed to be something he was passionate about. This was it.

"I could see the gap in the market because of the convenience of the system but also because of the waterless aspect, given the growing restrictions on water usage," he says.

The following year, Emmet set up a new company, No-H2O, acquired a licence for this waterless car wash cleaning product and went in search of his preferred site location - a multi-storey car park in Dublin city.

"I thought this would be perfect because I didn't need water or drainage and I could simply set up next to where people parked their cars thereby offering the ultimate in convenience," he adds. However, finding a site would turn out to be more challenging than he had imagined.

"Car park owners laughed at me in the beginning. They just couldn't get their heads around the idea of washing cars without water," says Emmet.

However, Q-Park eventually offered him his first location and he gradually built up the business from there. Apart from washing cars for consumers, Emmet also began working on a B2B model where he washed cars for car dealerships on their own forecourts without having to move them to a wash bay elsewhere. Business grew steadily and soon he began to open franchise operations in other locations.

In 2014, Emmet made the strategic decision to buy out the intellectual property rights for the product globally. Now officially in the driving seat, he quickly turned his attention to expanding the business beyond the island of Ireland. Over the following two years, he won the European contracts to supply the Hertz and Europcar car rental networks with car-wash product. While the increased cash flow helped fund the growth of the business, it was the experience in exporting that would give him the confidence he needed to expand even further.

Soon after, he invested in developing his own comprehensive range of branded car care products for the DIY retail market including bottles of waterless wash, car polish, wheel and glass wash and even interior and soft top cleaning products. He went on to sign up distribution agreements with leading retail outlets in the UK, Czech Republic and Slovakia and today his products are available in more than 400 stores across Australia and New Zealand.

In tandem with growing the retail side of the business, he set up his first franchise model in the UAE in 2015 and the Czech Republic in 2016. Soon, the company will launch their own car wash app, with the aim of becoming the Uber of car washing.

"The app will allow customers to call a car wash on demand. Our mobile franchise operators will then arrive to the customer's location on a scooter and complete the car wash in situ. The ultimate in convenience, the operator won't even need to meet the customer because everything from booking to payment will be done electronically. This is going to change the face of car washing as we know it," says Emmet.

Before I leave, Emmet tells me that he is about to head to the US where he is to undertake a whirlwind tour of retail chains and manufacturing partners. It's an exciting time as he begins the task of breaking into the US market.

As we chat, I discover that one of Emmet's team has kindly washed my car, which is shining like new without a trace of the water. Demonstration is definitely much more powerful than explanation, I tell him.

"The pace is definitely slower than car racing but the satisfaction I get from seeing the business grow is equally rewarding," says Emmet.

An impressive, intelligent and focused young entrepreneur, Emmet has shown great skill and judgment in taking a simple business idea and by adding elements such as convenience and eco friendliness into the mix, transforming it into a rapidly growing international success story.


Company: No-H2O Car Care

Business: Waterless car wash & app

Set up: 2007

Founder(s): Emmet O'Brien

Turnover: €1.2m

No of Employees: Six in head office and a further 80 indirectly through a network of franchise operators

Location: Headquartered in Beacon South Quarter, Sandyford, Dublin 18

Emmet's advice for other businesses

1 Believe in yourself. If you want to be successful then you have to believe in yourself, your product and your brand. If you don't, then how can you possibly expect your staff, your customers or your investors to believe in you? Belief in what you do has to start with the business owner.

2 Pay attention to detail Paying attention to detail conveys the right intent and commitment to your customers. It makes them feel acknowledged and valued. It is also something that is sure to make your business stands out from that of your competitors.

3 Official work hours don't exist If you are really committed to being successful then you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. One of the first things you have to let go is the idea of a nine to five work schedule. To succeed, you have to be willing to work as hard and as long as it takes.

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