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Wednesday, Jan 22 2014 06:00 AM

Sail-Thru Car Wash is 'Small Business of the Year'

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Tehachapi's Sail-Thru Car Wash has been named "Small Business of the Year for 2014." Pictured, from left, are Kim Koenig, Rachel Avery, Monica Garcia, Taylor Main-Mejia, Heidi Bartow, Nicole Garcia, Brett Carroll, Emily Mejia, Karina Coghlan and Bill Kotz. Tehachapi News photo.

Bill Kotz never intended to start another business. He just wanted to be able to get his car washed quickly in Tehachapi. In August of 2007, he opened Sail-Thru Car Wash with a partner from Bakersfield. Today, the fundraising opportunities the car wash has provided to local non-profit youth groups has helped Sail-Thru earn the Small Business of the Year award for 2014 from the Greater Tehachapi Chamber of Commerce and the Tehachapi News. A "small" business is one with fewer than 10 employees.

Kotz has owned a State Farm insurance agency here for 22 years and commutes up from Bakersfield every day. He said he likes being able to get a quick car wash without having to get out or his car or use the sprayer himself. In Bakersfield, he said, he could just "sail through" a car wash.

For at least five years, he discussed the need for this type of car wash with several potential partners. Finally, he was able to team up with a high school friend Bill Thomas of Bakersfield (not the former Congressman), and realize his dream.

"So many people work out of town," he said, "and they can wash their cars on the way to or from work." Sail-Thru opens between 7 and 8 in the morning, depending on the weather, and closes around 6:30 at night. The business employs mostly high school students or new graduates, and has a low turn-over rate.

At Sail-Thru, they keep the process simple. They have only a few choices in the kind of wash, with free vacuums and a self-detailing area behind the building. Kotz said they might slowly add other services. Kim Koenig, with on-site help from her husband, Greg, manages the business aspects, from hiring and scheduling to finances.

"It kind of runs itself," said Kotz. "If something breaks I'm called in, and I then call someone more mechanically inclined. My knowledge extends to knowing how to turn the water off. Then I call a plumber."

During the recent cold spell last December, the car wash had a frozen water line. "Luckily," he said, it was the irrigation valve and not the main wash line." They only had a few delayed openings due to the freezing temperatures.

Kotz's wife, Lisa, is an ESL reading teacher in the Panama Buena Vista School District.

He said they would love to live in Tehachapi when she retires. Meanwhile, they participate in Tehachapi, attending events, being a member of Rotary, Kawanis and the Chamber of Commerce. Their two children both attend the University of Oregon. Daughter Lauren is a senior and plays on the softball team and son Mason is a freshman.

The family was heavily involved in sports as the children were growing up. Kotz was on the board of Little League and AYSO soccer and learned first-hand how expensive these sports could be. To off-set costs, particularly for families who couldn't afford it, he said, the teams would have fundraisers. These usually involved buying chocolate or some other item that the kids had to sell. Sometimes, they wouldn't even break even.

Kotz wanted to provide a fundraising program that would be simple and not require money to be put down up-front. "We didn't want an accounting nightmare."

What he came up with still requires the kids to put in effort, but not money, he said. The team or club picks out a Sunday and Monday and they give out coupons that people surrender when they buy a $10 "The Works" car wash on those days. Sail-Thru donates $5 for every coupon turned in with the wash.

"It's up to the students to give them out and get people to come and wash their cars on those days," said Kotz. He also said that Sail-Thru does not break even for those washes, but "it's better than just giving the team the money. This way, they have to put some effort into it. They can interact with the community by standing out on Tucker with signs." He said they have fun doing this, and it gives them a way to bond with the community.

Some stand outside K-Mart or Albertson's and give out the coupons. "There's no risk but talking," Kotz said. Teams can raise as much as $1,500 this way. The Robotics Club and Little League are two of the groups that have used this program the most to fundraise, he said. "People will wash their cars, anyway. It's not a hard push."

Kotz said the program is open to all non-profits, but their particular emphasis is on youth clubs and teams. The program runs from November through March, to coordinate with the school schedule.

Sail-Thru contributes to the community in other ways, as well. From the time they opened, they have washed the City of Tehachapi police cars for free. They also donate to Rotary, the Warrior Boosters, the Association of Realtors and Kawanis. Free car wash passes are given for use in raffles and door prizes at community events such as Concerts in the Park.

"This community has been really good to us," said Kotz, adding, "You have to give back."

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