Employment for the Autistic with Thomas D’Eri of Rising Tide Car Wash | EDB 30


In this episode, Harold Reitman, M.D. speaks with Thomas D’Eri, COO and co-founder of Rising Tide Car Wash. Thomas discusses his family’s connection to neurodoversity, the primarily autistic staff of the car wash, and how employment can change lives for those on the spectrum.

For more information, visit: 

Rising Tide Car Wash Website: risingtidecarwash.com

Rising Tide U Website: risingtideu.com

Facebook RTCW: www.facebook.com/RisingTideCarWash

Facebook RTU: www.facebook.com/risingtideu

Nationswell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VULKzVZCso0

TEDx: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2ZI8u9rBuw

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR):

Hi I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains, and today we have Tom D’Eri, and Tom is one of the co-founders and the chief operating officer of Rising Tide Car Wash which you’re going to hear about in a little bit. And in the field of Neurodiversity, Tom is a champion and you’re going to learn why. Tom, welcome to Exploring Different Brains!

THOMAS D’ERI (TD):

Thank you Hackie, I’m really happy to be on the show.

HR:

Well listen I gotta tell you. When I got my car washed at Rising Tide Car Wash, my big Yukon XL, they did a great job, let me tell you, very professional. Why don’t you tell us about yourself, and about Rising Tide Car Wash, because I’m all excited about it, and I know about it, and I want our viewers to hear it right from the horse’s mouth.

TD:

Cool Hackie, so Rising Tide Car Wash was founded by my father John and I. We needed to think of a solution for my brother Andrew. When Andrew was 21 years old and it became really apparent that without our help, he wasn’t going to be able to find the meaningful employment and build that full independent adult life that he is so capable of. There’s about 80% unemployment among individuals with autism so we realized this wasn’t just an issue with Andrew or his specific situation, this was kind of a systemic issue across the autism community. So my dad is a successful entrepreneur. He’s built multiple businesses over the course of his career. I had just graduated business school and we decided to take action. We looked into a bunch of different things, found that the car wash really was a great fit, so it’s a conveyorized car wash, we do exterior car washes as well as full service and express detailing and with that, we have about 35 individuals with autism working for us, that makes up 80% of our staff. Hackie, as you mentioned, they’re really precise, they’re really detailed oriented, they really have a lot of enthusiasm for the work, and that creates a competitive advantage for our business and it also creates a really great tool to educate the community about how capable people with autism are, because as you saw when you leave, you’re left with a great quality of service and you felt that they did a great job and you got good customer service as well and it was done by pretty much everybody with autism. So that is essentially our goal with Rising Tide Car Wash is to show how capable people with autism are by delivering a better car wash product than a normal car wash would.

HR:

And even though Different Brains goes all over the world, in case anyone is local, why don’t you give me the address of The Rising Tide Car Wash.

TD:

Yeah. So we are located at 7201 North State Road 7 in Parkland, Florida so just north of Hillsboro Boulevard on 441 in Parkland.

HR:

Yeah so when I go to visit Rebecca who lives near Glades and 441 I come down 441, I pull in there, it’s convenient and it’s good, good bang for the buck and do a great job. Now let’s back up a little bit. Let’s talk about “Can Do Business Ventures.”

TD:

Yeah so as we started, we wanted to really take a research oriented approach to figuring out what type of business model we wanted to build. We had no experience in the car wash industry, and that was one of the kind of variety of industries that we looked at. We wanted to build a business that was consumer facing, that was really local and created a community of individuals with autism and also invited the broader community into that business. We wanted something that was kind of big and bold, and we wanted something that was scalable that could really be an answer for other families as well. So we started “Can Do” to kind of suss out what the actual business model was going to be so we did research by primary research going out into the autism community understanding what a lot of individuals with autism could be really good at, understanding why there is such high unemployment among people with autism and then trying to fit a solution around that and we found that our core reason we believe there’s such high unemployment among people with autism is that it’s looked at as a disability that requires sympathy instead of potentially really valuable diversity and that people with autism can be exceptional employees in a variety of rules, many individuals with autism have a great eye for detail, really follow processed instructions better than typical individuals do and that there is just a general enthusiasm among our employees that you don’t get with typical employees, honestly, because they haven’t been given the chance to prove themselves in a lot of other situations. For a lot of our employees, this is their first job and they have for the first time in their lives given the chance to say, “hey look I can be a really capable member of society,” and people thrive on that.

HR:

Well you know the vibes at The Rising Tide Car Wash even in the customer area are so good, and I think you’re killing about ten birds with one stone now. I just spoke up at FAU at their Autism Speaker Series and we had almost a fight break out amongst — you know people get passionate during question and answer periods and we had one person talking about her son with Asperger’s who’s trying for a job with Microsoft and kind of made, I don’t know a disparaging remark about there are a lot more jobs than washing cars or being a bag boy at Publix and of course other parents took exception to it and I did too. One of the things we do at Different Brains is try to get everyone to play nicely in the sandbox so I said, “Look my folks had a gas station, my mother pumped gas you know brought up four kids and everything and I’ve been to The Rising Tide Car Wash and they do exceptional work and it’s a great business model, too.

You know one of the things I like to stress is that it costs businesses about $30,000 for employee turnover and when you have someone with autism and we should stress as you do I know that “you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” I was looking at the people and interacting with them a little bit working at Rising Tide and they’re just as different as can be from each other and not out of a cookie cutter. The thing they have in common is they’re loyal, they’re honest, I don’t think they could lie if they wanted to, they love the attention to detail with repetitive things that so many of us don’t like to do and it’s a great thing. And I think that what’s happened in the public domain, you have Apple and Google and Microsoft for people with very high functioning Asperger’s who know all of those numbers, you know my daughter Rebecca was 1 in 9 women to get a discreet mathematics degree whatever that is, but you’ve made the point and I love the fact that you walk the walk, you and your dad and your brother and your family, instead of talking the talk. I want you to expound upon it a bit more. You see I’m approaching employers from Different Brains and saying, “Look, don’t do this to be nice. Do it so you can make more money so you can give better customer service. Do it for selfish reasons and here’s why. If you give these people a little bit of help that we all need because I have yet to meet the person who is the entire package themselves, so I’d like to expound upon it from the business man’s point-of-view why this is good for your business and if you could give some examples that would be great, too.

TD:

Absolutely, yeah so there’s a variety of competitive advantages that we have by employing people with autism. So first, as you alluded to Hackie, there is a wide variety with autism, not only working for us, but across the spectrum and our employees really work together in a variety of different roles so we have — 80% of our staff is on — so we have certain individuals with autism working and guiding customers onto the conveyor. We’ve had individuals with autism that can load over 100 cars in an hour and that’s at about 85% efficiency rate which is off the charts for our industry. Also, you look at the attention to detail and just the enthusiasm in customer service that you get, that is a thing that you don’t typically get in the car wash industry. And the turnover rate, our turnover is last year it was 30%. In an industry that’s average turnover is between 100 and 250% so it is drastically lower and that allows us to really invest in our employees in training and give them the tools to grow in our organization and provide us a great quality of service to the community and kind of when you wrap all that together, we took a car wash here in Parkland that was really struggling when we bought it.

When we bought it, it was washing about 3,000 cars a month to when now that because we’ve employed people that are really good at the work and create a great atmosphere and really take pride in the work, we’ve washed close to 17,000 cars last month. We washed 16,700 cars. We’ve really just blown the cover off the ball from a business perspective and that’s because of how great our employees are and it is our core competitive advantage and there’s a lot of different industries that this would also work in, so you know you’ve mentioned things like Microsoft and technology and mentioned that works for a portion of the autism community and I think that the key is that if you look at things that are detail oriented, process driven, most industries have those jobs in them, whether they be high-tech or something like car wash and there’s a subset, a meaningful subset of the autism spectrum that works well in each one of those so for someone who has IQ of 180 yeah that’s an awesome job to work at Microsoft and for people that are more impacted then something at a car wash, this is like you said, it’s real work, they’re providing value to the community and they take pride, they’re happy to be here. The impact that we’ve had on our employees from — you know a lot of our employees come to us really significantly bullied when they were in high school, this is the first time that they’re part of a community of peers and feel like they’re valued. This is we call it it’s kind of like their locker room and a lot of cases that they have finally a team that they believe that they fit in and provide value to now people like, one of our employees, Justin, came to us barely really ever spoke we didn’t — for the first three months of him working with us was really quiet and reserved because he didn’t have a whole lot of confidence. Today he’s one of our supervisors, he wears a radio, he’s actually super funny and that confidence came out, because he got the chance to prove himself in a real work environment and a real business.

HR:

Very cool! You know I know you’re a modest guy, Tom, but I want you to tell our audience about you know you were selected to speak at the United Nations World Autism Awareness Day Event: Employment, The Autism Advantage in April 2015 at UN Headquarters could you tell us about that?

TD:

Yeah it was a wonderful event and there were people representing large corporations like Microsoft and SAP and there were some smaller entrepreneurs like ourselves and Ultra Testing and I mean it was the first event I had ever been to where everybody was talking about autism not as a disability that we need to feel sorry for, but as a real advantage for their businesses and we all presented why we felt that way, a lot of us backed it up with data and that was a marked day for me because I had never been to anything that everybody really got it and I think that that message is what we need to get out into the community to really solve the 80% unemployment that our community faces.

HR:

You know it’s the entrepreneurial, the small businesses too, the mom and pops that the country was built on, course I’m a lot older than you, you know I grew up in the 50s in Jersey City and that’s where two people with high school educations could really start a business and make it go, and that spirit is not dead and it’s still very possible and now of course with modern technology and everything else is a lot of different ways to go. I think The Rising Tide Car Wash and the “Can Do Business Ventures” are great examples of this and what our country needs to give everybody the opportunity to be productive, happy, healthy, safe and have some kind of social life with their peers, you know work is a big part of social life. What have you done in founding, partnering with the community with different organizations and so forth? What’s been your experience?

TD:

So really positive, I mean our community has the Parkland community specifically has really rallied around the business. The local school district is our kind of our closet partner when it comes to recruiting our employees, the job coaches and the special education teachers play a vital role in both helping staff the business as well as helping us spread the word about our business to local community. And because of partnerships like the school district and Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at both University of Miami and FAU, the businesses worked really well and we’re building another store in Margate and that should employ another 50 individuals with autism or so so that’s about 4 1/2 miles from our first location and without community partners like the ones I’ve mentioned and Dan Marino Foundation and The Arc there’s no way that that would be possible, and you know further, one more thing about our community partners, University of Miami has been just an incredible partner, their CARD center under Dr. Michael Alessandri that they’ve actually helped us get some funding to spread this message across the country and spread that idea of autism entrepreneurship to communities all over the country and maybe even all over the world. I mean we wouldn’t be where we are today without community partners like we’re talking about.

HR:

Well that’s so encouraging to hear that. For our audience who might be thinking of starting their own business or a similar model for others, okay, so say there’s another Tom D’Eri out there and listening to this and they go, “you know I want to set up an organization and I want to do what Tom did. Now do you recommend they set up as a for-profit or a not-for-profit?

TD:

I think there’s advantages to both of those models. What we always say is that, “we want to recommend that people look at a business model that works and design a rich employment experience within that business model, so the car wash is an example of that. It’s a business model that we know works. There’s close to 20,000 of them across the country, it’s a very well defined business model, and we figured out how to design our employee experience that’s really empowering. Other than that if other people want to learn more about that model we do offer training to help people bring that to their communities. As far as other business models, it’s kind of the same approach and if the business model works, then you want to be a for-profit because there’s ownership in that. A lot of the times we’re starting these businesses almost exclusively, starting these businesses to either provide employment to ourselves if we’re a self-advocate or to a local and that we have, and ownership is a big part of that, and that doesn’t exist in non-profit models. I think the key takeaway though is regardless if you choose a non-profit model or a for-profit model, the non-profits are great if you’re trying to create a start-up and you don’t have any other options. We figure out a way that it’s sustainable with the actual work that’s being done and the income that’s being earned through the value of the service or product that you’re providing.

HR:

Very well said. Now I want you to tell our audience where all of your locations are for those of us who want to come out and support your businesses and where you might be thinking of opening next and any other business ventures you’re getting into with The Rising Tide Car Wash and with the “Can Do” business.

TD:

Yeah so right now we have our store in Parkland, like I said we’re building another store in Margate, Florida. We are actively looking for partners to help us grow this model here in South Florida as well as in other places across the country. We’re offering training at our store in Parkland and when the new one opens by hopefully at the end of this year we’ll be offering training there to other people that are looking to bring this model to their communities and as far as other business models, we’re really focused on doing what we do well, which is the car wash and then we’re working with, like I said University of Miami to spread the ideas like the broader ideas where people can kind of take it and run with it in their own concepts.

HR:

Got it, well that’s great and how do our viewers find out more about you and Rising Tide, what are some of the websites and phone numbers you want to tell us about?

TD:

Yeah so if you go to risingtidecarwash.com that provides a really good overview of the car wash — if you go to rising tide u letter “u” .com that’s a great overview of the training activities that we’re doing and if you go to our YouTube channel there’s a ton of videos there as well and our Facebook page that’s also a great resource to connect with the community of people that are really talking about this.

HR:

That’s great and now tell us about your brother, tell us about Andrew how he’s doing.

TD:

Andrew’s doing great. So Andrew, I’ll tell a quick story about Andrew and kind of talk about the impact that we have on our employees, kind of more broadly. Andrew has been working here since pretty much we started, about three years now. And when he started working with us, I think he exhibited a lot of the typical traits that a young man with autism may have, very I’d say a restricted diet, kind of thinking you know that whole theory of mind where he’s thinking myopically about his own point-of-view and not really thinking about what others think or how to empathize with other people and by working with us he’s grown remarkably in those areas, actually about a year ago now, we took a trip to New York which is where we’re from originally, it was myself, my dad John, my mom and Andrew and we were getting off the plane and all of a sudden we look up and we’re like, “where’s Andrew, where did he go?” We look up the aisle and he’s got all of our bags, carrying them out of the plane and we’re like, wow. A year ago there’s no way that Andrew would have thought to take everybody else’s stuff. He probably still would have been 50 yards ahead of us, but he would have just his headphones in and his iPad and would have left the bags to us, and things like that, thinking about other people and being part of a team and having the confidence to do things that he’s not necessarily comfortable with naturally are just super inspiring for others.

HR:

Well that’s a great story and a great specific and it sounds like he’s making great strides and you have a great model there. And so when someone wants to partner up with you, somebody wants to open their own car was in Fort Lauderdale or something, is it like a turnkey franchise kind of thing, or what’s the model you have when you help set somebody up or partnership, or how does it work?

TD:

Yeah so in South Florida we’re looking for partners, we’re essentially managing the operation and we have an investor in. We also are teaching people, we’re doing immersion programs where people come and spend a few days with us and learn the ins and outs of the business and they can then adapt that to their community. We’re not pursuing a franchise at this point that is something that I think as we grow and mature as an organization this is still an option, but today we’re looking at essentially partnerships, investor, as well as management training.

NTERVIEWER:

Well that’s great. I want to read for our audience some of the things I wish I had memorized this but I haven’t and I just want to — cause I know Tom you’re too modest to talk about this stuff. You attended the Unreasonable Institute Global, one of the most prestigious social impact accelerated programs in the world in the summer of 2014, Rising Tide was chosen from 240 applying companies worldwide as 1 of 13 carefully vetted ventures. You were accepted into the Young Entrepreneurs Council in 2015. Rising Tide has been featured in Forbes along with you. You and your dad were invited to speak at February 2014 at the TEDx in Coconut Grove. Tell us a little bit about the TEDx that you spoke at?

TD:

Yeah it was an awesome experience. I did it together with my father John and we really shared our story in a way we that had never shared before, I mean we practiced a lot to do that. It was actually, I had done a decent amount of public speaking, but that was the most nervous I had ever been and my father had ever been in front of an audience because it’s like it’s Ted, it’s this big giant event. The audience really embraced us and I think we really told the story in a concise way that hammered it home that I really encourage anybody to take a look at it, it’s on YouTube and it was a really special night for my family.

HR:

Is there anything else you’d like to say, anything you think we didn’t cover you’d like to emphasize differently?

TD:

So the only thing that I have in my notes that I wanted to touch on that I didn’t yet was that another huge advantage of employing people with autism is, so there’s two that I didn’t mention yet. So the first is that the word of mouth and earned media value of employing people with autism cause so many people care about this message is a huge advantage for a business specifically like ours that is specifically looked at as a homogenous good that is you’re not thinking about trying a new car wash, you just go to the one that’s closest to you and as long as they don’t really piss you off you’re just going to go to that car wash you’re not going to talk about it at dinner or anything like that. With us, people are willing to try us because of how capable or how inspiring our story is I should say, and they come and they get a great quality service and they keep coming back, so that behavior change tool is huge. The media loves us which is fantastic for the business as well, so we don’t have to spend anything in advertising because we get the exposure through media as well as that same mission uniting our management team and allowing us to attract really top talent. So I mean our management team is made up of two CPAs, my dad John and our CFO Tommy, an experienced restaurant owner named Kevin who is our general manager who had opened up 11 bars and restaurants before working here, our store managers Corey who was captain of the Lynn basketball team, Nick, his brother’s on the autism spectrum and he’s just an absolute stud and we’ve been able to attract not only really capable employees with autism, but because we’re employing really capable employees with autism it would attract excellent management talent as well.

HR:

Well that’s great. I am a customer there and they do an exceptionally good job. The best car wash I’ve ever had, the staff is happy, capable, they’re having a good time and they pay real attention to detail, so I want to thank you Thomas D’Eri and keep up the great work, and regards to the whole gang and your family there at Rising Tide Car Wash and we’ll see you there soon!

TD:

Thank you so much Hackie.

HR:

We’ve been speaking here at Exploring Different Brains with Tom D’Eri, one of the co-founders and the chief operating officer of Rising Tide Car Wash.

 

 

 

 

 

Author Image
Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, “The Square Root of 2” (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s “Scandal”), and is the author of the book “Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity” from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”

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