Money Is in the Detailing


Colby McGehee doesn't particularly like washing cars. But he's gotten used to it. Used to the cash flow of about $1,500 a week that allows him to pay for all his "toys"--the vintage cars he buys and customizes as street rods.

Current projects: a 1959 Porsche Speedster and a 1956 Ford F-100 panel truck that he's rigged out with 16-inch wheels.

"I have a passion for cars, which is why I stay [in the car detailing business]," he says as two of his $7-per-hour employees use his mobile car detailing trailer to spruce up a customer's Corvette outside a used sports car lot in La Habra.

"There's good money in it, and it beats working for someone else," McGehee says.

None of which would be all that remarkable if it weren't for McGehee's age. He's 19.

He still talks with a sense of loss about the 1965 Mustang he bought when he was 13, refurbished and finally sold last year for $10,000.

"I miss it. Man, that thing was nice. I could drive it anywhere," McGehee says.

Among clients at his car detailing business is Lisa Howell, who first noticed McGehee about a year ago as his crew worked on cars in the parking lot behind her flower shop in Fullerton.

A few months ago Howell began having McGehee's crew work on her cars, two every two weeks. While she knows McGehee's name, she knows nothing more about him than what she sees.

McGehee knows little about Howell. She tells him which cars to wash, writes the check and that's it.

For many people, picking a job can be a torturous exercise, requiring self-analysis and a weighing of passions and rewards.

But for McGehee, getting into detailing--the top-to-bottom cleaning of cars, including steam-cleaning upholstery--was simply a matter of figuring out a painless way of making some cash.

A part-time student at Fullerton College, McGehee plans to continue expanding his R-Smooth Car Care business while earning a bachelor's degree in business management and then a master's in marketing.

But he's in no hurry.

"I have friends who went to school, got out and they have no jobs," says McGehee. "I would rather live now and experience things."

McGehee plans to eventually sell the detailing business and take over his family's specialty firm designing and building X-ray rooms for medical complexes. He hopes to expand it nationally.

"Half the fun is just setting up the company," he says. "That's where the challenge is, figuring everything out."

Chickens gave McGehee his start.

As a 13-year-old, McGehee became active in the Fullerton chapter of Future Farmers of America. He went on to take classes through the agricultural program at Sunny Hills High School and eventually won state awards for raising chickens.

Along the way, McGehee acquired 75 commercial laying hens, which turned out 30 dozen eggs a week, which he sold to friends and neighbors. He expanded his business to include other livestock, and soon he was raising pigs, lambs and cows for slaughter.

By the time he dissolved Colby McGehee Enterprises at age 16, he was making $10,000 a year. And the only reason he got out of the egg and livestock trade was that he stumbled across a way to make even more money: washing cars.

McGehee learned the business from a neighbor and, as a senior in high school, began R-Smooth. His father helped him design and build a trailer with a 200-gallon tank for purified water--free of minerals, which can cause spotting--and pumps for pressurized hoses. The trailer also hauls a steam cleaner for floor mats and seat covers.

The work can be grueling. He starts at 7 a.m. and finishes up somewhere between 5 and 7 p.m., more than 10 hours a day of washing, waxing, polishing and driving around Fullerton and surrounding cities.

One traffic jam and the whole schedule is thrown off.

"It gets tiring," McGehee says. "You're in the sun every day, and you get drained."

The work isn't cheap. Basic washes cost $12 to $14, with full detailing jobs running $90 to $125. He targets owners of expensive cars, recognizing that someone who drives a dented-up road hog isn't likely to invest more than $100 a month to make it look nice.

Because he works six days a week, some of his other passions have fallen by the wayside. A certified lifeguard and scuba diver, he hasn't strapped on a tank since last year. He's only a few hours shy of getting his pilot's license but hasn't had a chance to get airborne in six months.

McGehee doesn't mind. He's still able to take in a movie or a band occasionally with friends. A few weeks ago he knocked off early on a slow Tuesday to go bodyboarding in Huntington Beach.

He has no romantic entanglements, and while he doesn't get to cruise in one of his customized cars as often as he would like, he still gets to tinker with them and take in an occasional car show.

From McGehee's standpoint, he's having a lot more fun and progressing faster toward his goals than many of his peers.

"Everybody's got to work," he says. "And everybody's got to make money."

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