In 1994, Jamie Nester was a new student at John Tyler Community College and looking for a summer job.
In his search he met Bob Schrum, then-owner of Flagstop Car Wash, who offered him a gig washing cars. Pay was $4.25 per hour, plus tips.
Nearly 30 years later, a lot has changed.
Nester now owns Flagstop, which boasts eight figures of annual revenue.
Nester has the company on the move, with three new locations in the works in the Richmond area: Stonebridge Shopping Center at 7000 Tim Price Way in Chesterfield; 360 E. Hundred Road in Chester; and on the site of a current Village Car Wash at 2806 Old Pump Road in Short Pump.
Once the three are open, which Nester aims to do by the end of 2021, Flagstop will have 14 express car washes in the region.
The company’s expansion comes as plenty of others in the car wash business are following a similar script, many of whom have the backing of private equity firms.
Green Clean Auto Wash, a chain from Hampton Roads, is working on two new locations in Henrico, while Michigan-based Tommy’s Express has three new spots in the works, including one near The Diamond on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Other local operators are making moves as well, as Hogwash Express Car Wash is about to kick off work on converting an old Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House on West Broad into a new location.
Schrum founded Flagstop in 1981 and grew it to eight locations with Nester working by his side. Schrum had an exit strategy in mind that involved a promise to turn the keys over to Nester.
“By (the late ’90s) I was pretty much Bob’s right hand. He’d always told me over the years that one day, when he was ready to retire, whoever helped him grow the business was who he was going to sell the business to,” Nester said.
“Over the years I had plenty of family members, colleagues and friends tell me, ‘Don’t believe that, people always say that to keep you there but when money comes knocking they’ll sell it in a minute.’”
The money did come knocking, Nester said, in 2015, when private equity firms began to show interest in acquiring the company. Rather than selling it himself, Schrum put the keys to deciding Flagstop’s future in Nester’s hands.
“We got a pretty decent offer. Bob came to me and said, ‘Hey we can either sell out and, after I pay off all my debt, I’ll give you 10 percent of whatever I’ve netted so you can go start your own thing and do what you want. Or you can take it over,’” Nester said.
“After many talks with CPAs, we made a decision for me to take it over.”
The deal that put Flagstop in Nester’s ownership closed in 2017. Nester owns a 70 percent stake in the business, and he divvied up the remaining 30 percent between his operations manager, maintenance tech and comptroller.
“I did that to keep around our good, solid core of people. Anytime you have a big transition like that, some people think about leaving,” Nester said.
Under Nester’s leadership Flagstop has grown to 12 locations, including the Village Wash in Short Pump, which he purchased. Nester said after razing and rebuilding that location it will be under the Flagstop name. The other Stonebridge and Chester locations will be ground-up construction.
Nester said Flagstop brings in over $10 million in annual revenue, and that he’ll usually invest about $4 million to $5 million in each new site. Company-wide, Flagstop has about 115 employees.
In his 27 years of experience, Nester said he’s learned the car wash industry is fairly recession-proof.
“When things are going well and people are buying new cars, they want to take care of them,” he said. “And when things aren’t going well, people want to take care of their cars and hold onto them longer.”
Looking ahead, Nester said he’d like to continue growing Flagstop’s footprint. By 2023, he’d like to have 20 locations throughout the Richmond region.
“Our office is on Iron Bridge near the Chesterfield courthouse, so if I can get there in 45 minutes, that’s somewhere we’d be willing to go,” Nester said.
“We’re looking in eastern Henrico and for probably 10 years or so we’ve been dying to be down in the Manchester area. We just can’t find a piece of property that works for us.”
Despite selling off the business, Schrum still comes by the Flagstop headquarters a few times each week to chat with Nester and work on a nearby subdivision he’s looking to develop.
“Bob actually kept his office. He still comes in two days a week and hangs out,” Nester said. “He’s one of those guys who’s come into the office every day since 1960-whatever and can’t help but get up and do something every day.”