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Thursday, November 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Founder of Brown Bear Car Washes buys back chain, will polish it up

By Shirleen Holt
Seattle Times business reporter

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If the employees' white shirts and ties seem quaintly familiar at Brown Bear Car Washes, then so should the name of the new president: Vic Odermat, the man who started the business 41 years ago in West Seattle.

Odermat and his company, Seattle-based Car Wash Enterprises, have taken back operations of the 28-site chain — the largest in the Northwest — eight years after leasing the business to ConocoPhillips.

The company plans to upgrade equipment, introduce new products and launch a major expansion that would add at least two new locations a year in the Puget Sound area.

It also has resurrected some old practices, starting with the formal uniforms.

"That's been around since my Dad started the company," said 32-year-old Lance Odermat, vice president and legal counsel.

Indeed, the elder Odermat's fixation on customer service is central to Brown Bear's identity and growth strategy.

Managers are reducing wait times at the automatic car washes. The company is hiring mystery shoppers and adding area managers to make sure line employees are doing their jobs properly.

"We want to convey the highest level of professionalism in the car-wash industry," Lance Odermat said. "We really want to set ourselves apart."

The company runs 18 automatic and 10 self-service car washes in the Puget Sound area and Spokane.

Odermat did not disclose the terms of the deal, citing a confidentiality agreement with ConocoPhillips.

In 1995 Car Wash Enterprises signed a long-term lease that transferred all Brown Bear Car Wash sites and operations to Tosco Refining and Marketing Co.

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Tosco had originally planned to expand the chain to other Western states, but instead focused on gasoline retail and convenience stores. Phillips Petroleum acquired Tosco in 2001.

Longtime Car Wash Enterprises executive Tom North has been named Brown Bear's general manager and will oversee day-to-day operations.

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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