As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Kim, an entrepreneur and investor with a focus on real estate and small businesses with high growth strategies. He’s the Founder and CEO of Everclean, a modern, branded car wash. Its social mission is to enrich lives through opportunity and holistic mentorship. He and his wife, Evelyn, make their home in the Chicago suburbs. Hobbies include any sport under the sun (except long-distance running), foreign travel, motorcycles, hunting, and high-fiber breakfasts.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My dad left when I was seven, but I didn’t feel this gaping hole in my life. All I’ve ever known is older men, taking me under their wing and investing in me for reasons I didn’t understand. One example, I was an engineer at a privately-held lighting manufacturer. The President of the company showed me a valuation model of the private equity transaction. As an engineer, it was a foreign language. But I realized combining capital with value-added management is extremely powerful.
That’s when I started to think about investing and starting things.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
At Everclean, we’re growing and adding headcount. At first, we all worked out of my house. We just setup desks in my dining room and living room. Site Managers would come in the afternoon for meetings. We had a training room in our basement. Two of the managers lived with us. Team Dinners of 30 people were at my house. Once, a 53’ freight truck showed up trying to deliver a car wash tunnel (it came to the billing address instead of the shipping address). And it struggled to turn around in the cul de sac! Our cul de sac was an employee parking lot every day. It didn’t take long for the neighbors to report us to the village because of who lived there: the mayor and the former director of community development. I loved the arrangement, but it wasn’t helpful to our neighbors or my marriage.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, the story of my life. I shared one example above and happy to share another. I attended a small conference in New York for a close-knit community of leaders. I met the main speaker, whom I’d heard of through other talks or books he’d written. He gave me his phone number and invited me to visit him. So at a Starbucks café table in southern California, he asked me to tell him my whole life story, beginning with childhood. When I was done, he proceeded to give me some of the wisest counsel I’ve ever received — about who I am and in light of that, what would be helpful to me, and what would not be. He was spot on with a degree of clarity I never had. I went home and made a bunch of changes to my life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Everclean’s vision is to help drivers feel good about their cars, always. Our social mission is to enrich lives through opportunity and holistic mentorship.
We’ve created alternate pathways towards management and leadership than more traditional routes. 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. 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. We aren’t looking for college degrees. 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, nineteen-year old launching grand openings for brand new sites where they manage a P&L and lead a team.
I wish I could say I started Everclean with that social mission in mind, but it wasn’t that way. I just wanted to transform the car wash experience. The social mission came as I got to know the guys who were right next to me.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
My daughter, Mackenzie, was in the ICU since birth battling a heart and lung condition. It was nine months of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual hell.
I was very open with our team about what we were going through. I was brutally transparent about how difficult it was and invited them to follow our journey on our care app. To add to the stress, I let go of a two people around the same time, one for performance and one for chemistry, which on a small team is a lot. Some people questioned my judgment.
I gathered everyone together and shared:
“I’m going through the most stressful time of my life, and I’m going to need grace from you. But the grace I need is in the form of flexibility and understanding as I juggle the demands of the hospital versus work. I do NOT want grace in the form of excusing poor decisions or judgment. I’m asking you to tell me if you think my judgment is off. You’re not doing me or anyone else any favors by holding that back. This is an invitation, especially in this season of my life, to hold me accountable to making good decisions.”
I think that helped people realize I was just as committed to excellence of what we’re all building.
Then, while we were in the thick of our hospital battles, COVID broke out. Our visitor list, which were our reinforcements when we needed a break, was eliminated. Only one parent could be at the hospital per day. If my wife and I were together, then our daughter was alone. If one of us were with our daughter, then we weren’t together.
On March 19, I called an emergency meeting with the leadership to discuss the impact of COVID. We discussed the impact as well as best and worst case scenarios and developed a 3-Point Plan.
The next day, Illinois issued the “stay at home order”. There was some ambiguity about what whether Everclean Car Wash is essential business. Most car washes stayed open. My leadership team decided we’d rather err on the side of caution and send the right message to our Team and our Customers. We paid all our people for whatever hours they were scheduled to work.
One week later, the Illinois Department of Commerce released further guidance, specifically naming car washes as essential. We re-opened and rolled out Recession Protection, a program we’d prepared two years earlier for the next recession, not knowing when it would come but know it would.
Around that time, a mentor asked me what Everclean could do to serve the community in light of COVID. I remembered the equipment they would use to sterilize Mackenzie’s room when she went to surgery. (She had 13 surgeries.) We could sterilize the insides of people’s cars, so we got on the waitlist for electrostatic sprayers.
Mackenzie’s condition improved so quickly that we were getting ready to bring her home. I didn’t feel comfortable driving her in our car because I previously had a sore throat and quarantined for 2 weeks. “If only I had the electrostatic sprayer…” And that’s when I knew this was a real need.
The week we were supposed to bring Mackenzie home for the first time, she went into septic shock, and she passed away shortly after. We received the electrostatic sprayers around that time. Now, I feel one of the best ways to honor her is to tell this story and sterilize as many cars as possible. And we’re not charging for it. This is just us doing our part for our Customers and the neighborhoods our clubs are in.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
It crossed my mind — selling the business when Mackenzie was first diagnosed. But I didn’t think about that too long. First, I knew business still had a life beyond this crisis, if we could make it. Mackenzie’s sickness and COVID didn’t take away our business potential in the long run. Second, I believed too much in our social mission to enrich lives through opportunity and holistic mentorship. 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.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Communication — During uncertain times, teams need to talk way more than normal, and as a leader, it’s on me to initiate those conversations. Silence is your worst enemy. Every person formulates their own narratives about what is going on. Most people are digesting far more information than they can process. That gap only creates further anxiety. A leader can help by offering his or her perspective on the situation, which should be rooted in reality and possibility at the same time. No matter how bad things are you can always communicate a message that conveys solidarity and hope.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Share a bigger vision. Talk about the “greater good”. When you tap into the consciences of people, you call out more moral strength than simply trying to do their jobs or save a company. During COVID, team members saw us making tough business decisions as well as social responsibility. I think our team members saw us trying to do the right thing. They trusted us and joined us in that endeavor.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way is to do it in the first place, and the sooner the better. And I don’t always do this well, but do it with compassion and empathy.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to make assumptions, and you have to be explicit that your assumptions are suspect. Even if the plan is to create a new plan every week with the latest information, that’s still a plan. And it’s far better than no plan at all. A plan brings people together and gives them something to do. It allows people to direct their pent-up energy and anxiety somewhere. Plans offer more concrete hope, which is the next best thing to a guarantee.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Preparation — I believe tough matches are largely won not in the moment but during preparation. When times are good, we talk about when times will be bad. Not if but when. Recessions are always a matter of time. We talk about and create plans for it. So when it hits, it’s less of a shock. And you’re pulling a prior conversation from off the shelf rather than having it for the first time. It feels very different. If you avoid talking or thinking about the hard things, it’ll only be harder when it comes. That’s everything from a recession to an accident to death.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I think early stage and startup companies are better positioned for difficult times because we’re perpetually in crisis mode. It’s a larger dose of what we’re used to everyday. =)
I’ll share some of our own mistakes…
Living in denial. We despise the current reality so much that we won’t do anything that causes permanent damage to “our baby” — for example, laying off talent that you worked so hard to acquire, shutting down a location that you prize, etc.
Striving for perfection. In difficult times, sometimes we don’t shift gears adequately to “good enough”. When you’re just trying to survive, the normal standards of excellence and perfection have to get set aside. That can be hard to do.
Analysis paralysis. We want more or better information so we respond too slow. A B+ decision executed fast can be better than an A+ decision executed slow.
Missing opportunity. We’re in defense mode, which tends to make you shrink back. You can miss offensive opportunities. Perhaps the business can pivot, offer a new service or product, acquire another company at a discount. These feel like luxuries that you can’t afford.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We were hoping that similar to 2008, it would take some time for the economic environment to start shaping bank protocol. So we pushed any refinance activity through as fast as we could. We held back distributions from investors as reserves. Any underperforming personnel who were “under development” were cut immediately. We froze all new construction projects. We renegotiated or cancelled all new acquisitions. We took the PPP money.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Study history. Yes, read current events but supplement that with history. I’m not smart enough to predict the future, but I can learn what happened in the past. If you have to make an assumption about what is going to happen, a good place to start is what’s happened before. We based a lot of our early COVID decisions on a 2-year cycle with a second, worse spike. This is what happened with the 1918–1920 Spanish Flu.
Act fast. On March 19, 2020, I held an emergency team meeting and was the first to say, “We have a problem. Let’s discuss how this can play out. What are we going to do?” Obviously, I didn’t have to have all the answers, but I was willing to define reality and start the conversation. The Illinois “Stay at Home” order was announced the following day. My team wasn’t surprised and our plan was already in motion. Be among the first to shape your team’s paradigm regarding the current crisis.
Prepare. For some crazy reason, human beings don’t prepare for things they don’t like, particularly recessions and death, two of the things we can be absolutely sure of. You don’t have to be a genius to know a recession is coming. Three years ago, our management team held an afternoon meeting and created our Recession Protection Program. When times are good, that’s the time to talk about when times will be bad. Not “if” but “when”. Recessions are always a matter of time. We talk about and create plans for it. So when it hits, it’s less of a shock. Then, you’re pulling a prior conversation from off the shelf rather than having it for the first time. It feels very different. If you avoid talking or thinking about the hard things, it’ll only be harder when it comes. That’s everything from a recession to an accident to death.
Eat, sleep, exercise. When I was facing the challenges of our daughter’s hospitalization and COVID, simultaneously, sometimes I felt I didn’t have the energy to take care of myself. That was a lie. That’s exactly why I needed to take care of myself — so I would have more energy. So I installed a pull-up bar in her hospital room and worked out. I found a local juice bar to get my nutrients. I would have been ashamed to admit this before, but on traumatic days, I took sleep meds to make sure I was physically well-rested for the next day. It’s hard enough. I don’t need to make it harder by being the worst version of myself. So take care of yourself (as much as you can). The best thing you have to offer those you lead is a healthy self.
Cry if you need to. I’ve cried more in the past year than my entire adult life combined. I’ve learned that stuffing my emotions is not strength. Facing my emotions is strength. Being vulnerable is strength. Talk to safe people. Grieve and mourn your losses and fears. Get it out. If you don’t, it’ll leak out where and when you don’t want it to. Your only choice is to grieve on your terms or not on your terms. Not grieving is not a choice. It will always catch up with you. Doing has also helped me make better decisions that are clouded less by feelings I haven’t dealt with.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” (John Newton)
I have two parts of me always in tension. I try to be brutally honest with myself about the ways I fall short everyday. I’m rarely satisfied with where I’m at and striving to be better. But that mindset can be tiring, discouraging, and dangerous. So I look back on my life and look at the progress. Newton’s quote helps me be grounded in reality about the work ahead but grateful for past progress at the same time. It keeps me challenged and encouraged, a powerful combination of forces for my soul. Newton was a former slave ship captain who penned the famous hymn Amazing Grace.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Our website EvercleanCW.com.