Chuck Howard '71: Five decades at the helm of Autobell

Autobell CEO Chuck Howard '71 with Belk College Dean Jennifer Troyer
Thursday, February 9, 2023
Charlotte CEO, Belk College alumni speaks to students

More than 50 years after earning a bachelor’s degree in business, Chuck Howard ’71 still relies on lessons learned at UNC Charlotte.

The owner and CEO of Autobell Car Wash Inc., the largest family-owned chain of its kind, recently returned to campus to share wisdom acquired over decades of business leadership with students from the Belk College of Business for the spring 2023 C-Suite Speaker Series hosted by Dean Jennifer Troyer.

“Economics, budgeting, fiscal planning, and documenting and codifying company processes and policies were essential as we grew,” Howard told attendees. “Virtually everything I learned in the classroom I encountered in the business world.”

Howard was thrust into the position of Autobell CEO in 1986 after the death of his father Charles Howard Sr., the company’s founder. Established in 1969, Charlotte-based Autobell opened its first location in the 5000 block of South Boulevard. In college, Chuck Howard worked alongside his father as the chain opened additional locations, numbering 10 by 1986. Today, Autobell operates 87 locations in the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland, as Howard and his team continue to explore growth opportunities.

Benefits of family ownershipAutobell CEO Chuck Howard '71 with Belk College Dean Jennifer Troyer

Through expansion, Autobell was able to build out its corporate structure, adding human resources and marketing departments, along with accounting and controller functions.

“Now, we have a number of employees at the home office who started with us as teenagers and stayed after college,” said Howard.

As a family-owned enterprise, Autobell is not beholden to a board of directors or stockholders. The result, said Howard, is greater flexibility, quicker decision making and an ability to pivot in new directions when needed.

The global COVID pandemic offers a perfect example. Faced with the prospect of mandatory closings, Autobell deployed a disinfecting service to sanitize a vehicle before and after employees cleaned the interior. At the pandemic’s height, the company provided this service to first-responder vehicles, too. Initially free, it is now a part of paid service packages.

The pandemic, along with vehicular advanced safety features, prompted Autobell to alter its delivery model to require customers to remain in the car through the wash tunnel.

“This change actually has brought in more customers and enabled us to increase our efficiency,” noted Howard.

Emphasis on sustainability

Integral to Autobell's business is water, a resource Howard appreciates as limited and precious. With the company’s bio-reclaim system, virtually 100% of water used is recycled. “It can take water that looks like chocolate milk and turn it as clear as bottled water, although it’s not really drinkable.”

In addition, the company has sponsored a number of creek and water cleanups to preserve water and wildlife, a cause personally important to the Howards, avid outdoorsmen for three generations.

Left to right, Dr. Natasha Randle, Dean Jennifer Troyer, Autobell CEO Chuck Howard '71, and Chancellor Sharon Gaber

Managing culture, dealing with labor shortages

Howard has learned firsthand that investing in people pays off. With more than 3,000 employees across four states, Autobell devotes significant time and resources to communicating its culture of customer service. Comprehensive training materials help onboard new employees quickly, and monthly meetings with district and location managers reinforce messaging.

Constant investment in technology is essential for continued growth, he said. Standardized training materials can be updated and shared quickly, and instituting a state-of-the-art customer call center provides a method for instant feedback, much of it positive.

“COVID has impacted the labor market, but we are fortunate to employ students. For many, this is their first job. They come from great families who want their kids to gain experience working with the public,” said Howard. “We do extensive recruiting in all our markets, attend job fairs and visit schools and job counselors, but word of mouth may be our best tool. Many of our student employees recommend us to their friends.”

On defining success, legacy

While balancing work and life is easier for Howard now than at the outset, he acknowledges that to expand Autobell, he had to make sacrifices. He knew, however, that one reward of a well-managed family-owned business is financial security, not only for the owner but employees, too.

“Autobell is a seven-day-a-week operation that is open during daylight hours. Attention to its growth attracted people who appreciate the benefits the company provides,” he said.

In contemplating his legacy of leadership, Howard hopes he is credited for building a sustainable enterprise by instituting business systems and procedures that can be replicated virtually anywhere.

“My legacy – like that of my father– is caring about community,” he said. “Autobell delivers value to its customers, employees and all whom we do business with. I’m proud of our reputation as a good corporate citizen.” 

View photos from the Spring 2023 C-Suite Speaker Series

Faculty and students pose with Autobell CEO Chuck Howard '71