Johnson Cleans Up On Business Plan

By Jeff Hidek, posted May 19, 2016
Mark Johnson started his company in 1988. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)

Mark Johnson is in the mafia. But instead of organizing crime, the owner of Buff Masters Hand Car Wash & Detail Center refurbishes vehicles. Johnson is part of the “Detail Mafia,” a group of professional detailers often recruited to work on high-end cars, airplanes and other vehicles for events, private collectors and others.

Recently, his mafia connections sent Johnson to Seattle, where he and a team of detailers worked on restoring more than a dozen Boeing aircraft for the company’s 100th anniversary. The planes Johnson worked on, including the first jet to serve as Air Force One and prototypes of the first 727 and 747, will be on display at The Museum of Flight’s new Aviation Pavilion.

The work was inspiring, Johnson said, but also “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s a really cool thing … being a part of preserving American history.”

Many of the planes, including a B-29 bomber, had been in storage for years and had layers of unsightly oxidation. Johnson and the other team members tirelessly restored their gleaming finishes by hand.

It’s a personal touch Johnson brings to his company as well. When he’s not out on special mafia assignments six to eight times a year, Johnson can usually be found at the corner of Wrightsville Avenue and South College Road, where Buff Masters has been operating since 2007.

Johnson had been doing detailing work on his own for years, starting in his parents’ front yard.

He officially started his company in 1988 and as his company grew, he realized he needed to find a place that would allow him to do high-end detailing but also give customers regular washes. So he teamed up with a client to move into the current retail location at 1202 S. College Road.

But that’s not the only place the Buff Masters team is working.

Johnson knows that the biggest reason most of us don’t keep our cars as clean as we should is time. People are busy.

Johnson knew he couldn’t just rely on people coming to him. So Buff Masters goes to them.

The company sets up hand wash locations at local businesses so employees can get their cars washed while they work. Dirty car in the morning. Clean car in the evening.

The setup is surprisingly sophisticated and eco-friendly. The Buff Masters crew washes an average car using only a cup of water, far less than the 75-100 gallons of water at-home washers use. That makes the setup appealing to businesses with no-runoff policies.

Alcami, PPD and CastleBranch Corp. are among the companies offering the service. And an improved web app is in the works to help customers track their car’s progress.

Last summer, Buff Masters brought the concept to Independence Mall, where customers can drop off their vehicles by the big blue awning near Independence Boulevard to be washed while they shop. A Buff Masters valet will drop them off at the mall entrance and pick them up when they’re done shopping.

The mall program has been a learning experience. “We’re always evolving,” Johnson said.

As with any pilot program, there have been some growing pains. Finding the best way to let customers know about the service before they set foot in the mall was one early challenge, and the demographics of the mall’s most consistent shoppers don’t always match those willing to pay about $25 to have their car washed by hand.

Still, Johnson sees enough value in the setup that he’s expanding it to other malls across North Carolina, including Triangle Town Center in Raleigh.

But it’s not enough for Johnson to clean your car where you work and where you shop. He wants to do it before the car is even yours.

Buff Masters works with car dealers to take over their in-house detailing and prep services. Cars need to be prepped when they arrive and leave the dealers, whether it is simply removing stickers and protective wraps or more intensive work on pre-owned models.

By outsourcing the work to Buff Masters, the dealers save on employee and insurance costs and earn profits from additional services they can sell to customers.

“We’re there to support them,” Johnson said. He works in several dealerships around Wilmington and “we’re in the process now of opening this facility for a dealer group out of Lillington and Fuquay. They’re going to run all of their dealership stuff through that.”

Dealers also get the detail specialists’ expertise.

“The technology has changed tremendously over the years,” Johnson said. Paint finishes alone have evolved so much that products and tools designed to treat older vehicles could damage the finishes on more recent models, he said. Ceramic coatings have replaced traditional waxes.

“A standard Chevrolet truck now is $50,000,” Johnson said. “You need to have a certain skill set to take care of that for people. It’s not just the kid, the bucket and the brush.”

A visit to the store backs up his statements. The detail shop was purposefully designed with large windows to create a fishbowl, allowing customers to see the employees in action and learn more about why detailing is important.

Johnson knows some people think detailing just makes cars look better, and that’s a big part of it, he said. But people are also paying for protection.

Spoken like a true member of the mafia.

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