All in the family: Quebec’s Milot family look to the basics to steady gas and car wash business during the pandemic
Family owns and operates six multi-service outlets in Quebec’s Lanaudière region.
Maxime, Denis, Chantale and Macro Photos: Chantel Lecours
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns and decrease in travel have hit many Canadian gas and car wash retailers hard, especially those in major urban centres. But for one Quebec family with a group of six Petro-Canada gas stations, car washes and c-stores in a rural region that is still under maximum COVID-19 alert, the global health crisis has produced a big bump in their bottom line.
“Of course, the pandemic has been very challenging and created a lot of stress and anxiety for everyone everywhere,” says Maxime Milot. “But business-wise, things have been very good for us over the past year.”
Maxime and his two younger brothers – Mathieu and Marco – each own and operate two multi-service outlets in Quebec’s Lanaudière region, an area that stretches north from the eastern end of the Island of Montreal to the Laurentian Mountains. Like Montreal and neighbouring regions Laurentian and Montérégie, Lanaudière remains one of the last red zones on Quebec’s colour-coded C-19 alert map, with nightly curfews and other restrictions still in force as of late March.
The Milot brothers’ six businesses operate from leased premises in communities within a half-hour drive of one another in the southern plains and foothills of the Lanaudière region. All offer similar goods and services. Each site has eight pumps that sell gas and diesel under the Petro-Canada banner.
“We don’t have EV charging – at least not yet,” says Maxime Milot. “The equipment is too expensive for the demand, which still isn’t strong enough to justify the investment.”
The sites also have Beau-soir c-stores that sell everything from cigarettes, beer and wine to snacks, grocery items and lottery tickets. They also sell ready-to-eat items like croissants, baguettes and muffins made fresh daily at the group’s flagship store in St-Jacques.
“We do lots of wash promotions at our stores to take advantage of the fact people stop in to buy gas and to get cigarettes, beer or milk,” he says.
In addition to a standing $2 discount on the $9.99 base price of a car wash with a minimum $20 gas purchase at all six locations, the Milots offer a variety of specials that alternate and vary between their stores. They include a free basic wash with the purchase of two premium washes, or a free wash after six paid washes with a stamped loyalty card.
“Wash promotions are one of our best sellers,” says Maxime. Other popular promotions include the Petro Points program and weekly specials on c-store items like beer, energy drinks and chocolate bars.
Touchless sites are leased
All six Milot locations have car washes equipped with touchless units. Quebec’s two leading vehicle cleaning systems and equipment specialists - De Castel and Entretien de Lave-Auto Laval (ELAL) – each supplied three of the units.
The De Castel supplied units are PDQ Laser Wash 360-Plus systems, which provide a best-in-class, sub-three-minute base wash. De Castel is the sole distributor in Quebec of Wisconsin-based PDQ Manufacturing’s equipment and parts.
The ELAL supplied units, which include the two most recent additions to the Milot family stations in 2019, are Ryko Radius machines. ELAL is also the only distributor in Quebec for the parts and products made by American car wash equipment maker Ryko.
All six of the car wash units operated by the Milots were purchased and are owned by independent real estate developers who built the sites where the brothers’ businesses are located. As part of their rental leasing agreements, the Milots pay a percentage of car wash sales to site owners and pay all wash-related operating costs like maintenance, repairs, soaps and waxes.
“That’s a very common arrangement in Quebec,” says Jean-François Hamelin, accounts manager for De Castel. “Many independent car wash operators here do not own the equipment they use.”
Bernard Aoun, sales and marketing director at Entretien de Lave-Auto Laval, says that while ELAL sells 98% of their car wash equipment, third party car wash leasing agreements can work well for both renters and operators. “Both the parties, those that lease and those that operate the equipment, have a vested interest in making sure their units get the annual, monthly and even weekly maintenance they require to run properly,” he says.
“We see very few car wash operators doing lease equipment deals. We make sure all our clients get the service and maintenance needed once they purchase the equipment. One of the services we offer our clients is monthly visits to verify their chemical levels, inspect the injectors and an overall check on their equipment.”
Pandemic sales remained strong
The pandemic has not adversely affected car wash sales at the family’s businesses. All six sites have enjoyed increased sales, a boost Maxime credits to several pandemic-related factors.
A major one has been the dramatic increase in the number of people who have been working remotely from home or secondary residences in places like the Lanaudière region.
“Many people from Montreal have cottages here,” says Maxime. “Normally, we only see them on the weekends. But now they’re here all the time.”
“Going to the store, getting gas and getting your car washed is one of the few things people can do,” says Maxime, mentioning the lockdown.
His family’s businesses, he noted, are deemed essential services and have remained open throughout the pandemic. And, despite ongoing manpower challenges, he says all six sites have continued to operate 24/7.
According to Maxime, the pandemic has also altered how, when and where people shop, and the things they buy. More customers are also taking advantage of gas purchase-related discounts to get their cars washed during the pandemic.
“We’re doing more washes on the weekends because more people are coming to their cottages or coming to do outdoor activities in our region,” says Maxime. “But we’re also selling a lot more washes during the week because more people are living here now and working from home.”
Making room for family
The Milot’s parents, Denis and Chantale, started the family business in the early 1980s when they bought a c-store with a Sonic gas station (later converted to Shell, then to Petro-Canada).
In 2014, they bought a second gas station (a Petro-Canada) with a De Castel-equipped car wash 50 km. away in St-Jean-de-Mantha, the hometown of legendary Canadian strongman Louis Cyr. By then, Maxime, who played baseball in the US on scholarships, had returned home and joined the family business. He was joined by Mathieu a year later when the family bought a third store in L’Épiphanie.
The Milots later bought their fourth store in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines (Ryko Radius equipment) for Marco. They then added stores in St-Jacques-de-Montcalm (Ryko Radius equipment)and St-Roch-de-l’Achigan.
In 2018, Denis and Chantale sold all six sites to their sons – two each. Chantale continues to do the accounting and Denis is his sons’ man Friday.
“Having two stores allows each of us to earn a good living and to help and support each other,” says Maxime. “It’s a true family business.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of OCTANE.