Photo: Rising Tide
Andrew D'Eri, 33 (right), and brother Tom D'Eri of Rising Tide Car Wash.
Rising Tide finds value in hiring people on the autism spectrum.
Tom D’Eri, 34
Rising Tide Car Wash, Broward County
After graduating from Bentley University in Massachusetts in 2011 with a business degree, Tom D’Eri joined his father, John, in starting a business designed to employ people on the autism spectrum. Tom’s brother, Andrew, who has autism, was aging out of the school system, and Tom knew Andrew’s chances of having a career were slim.
Tom and John D’Eri wanted to create a company that would not only employ Andrew and other people on the spectrum, but also create a community to empower them. They chose a carwash business because its detail orientation and process-heavy environment would appeal to people on the spectrum — plus it was a scalable business that would work in most communities. “We also felt it was a really interesting way to communicate to people how capable individuals with autism are.”
Tom and his father opened the first Rising Tide Car Wash in 2013. “We set the goal of employing people with autism for about 80% of our staff, and that goal really guided everything else that we did,” Tom D'Eri says.
A decade after its founding, Rising Tide Car Wash is one of the highest-volume carwashes in Florida. Now with three locations in Broward County, the business services more than 500,000 cars a year and employs about 100 people — 80% of them are on the autism spectrum. When the D’Eris bought their first location, in Parkland, it serviced just 35,000 cars per year; today, the location handles more than 170,000 cars annually. The second location, in Margate, was built from the ground up and broke even after only two months of opening in 2017. The third location, in Coral Springs, opened in 2022 and is one of the first known for-profit businesses to have 100% of its workforce on the spectrum, Tom D’Eri says. The company is evaluating expansion opportunities in South Florida and in other markets across the country, he says.
While other service businesses struggle to fill jobs, Rising Tide has always had a waiting list. When its Margate location opened, 500 people applied for 50 jobs, and Rising Tide’s employee retention rate is five times that of its competitors, Tom D’Eri says. Yet, Rising Tide also stands out from competitors because of its social mission. “That is what we stand for, and people want to be part of that,” says D’Eri, noting that its mission-related ads have been more effective than ones offering free carwashing or discounts.
- Ensure that you have a hiring process that is focused on the objective measures of success for any given role.
- Develop clarity in every aspect of your operations, including easy-to-use systems and clear success criteria. This doesn’t mean that people who may need things spelled out for them are any less effective in that role. It just means that they learn differently.
- It's important to look for certain character skills that are important for your work environment, but when it comes to hard skills, focus on training and developing employees.
- When employees are struggling, often the business itself is creating unnecessary roadblocks to their success. As an organization, remove those roadblocks. That also sends a clear signal that it's OK to make mistakes, and the company is going to use them as a learning opportunity to improve.
Scaling the Impact
Tom D’Eri and his father founded Rising Tide U, an online entrepreneurship course in partnership with the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, which focuses on helping other families with kids on the spectrum who are interested in starting businesses. Twenty-one people have taken the course, creating more than 100 jobs.
This year, through Tom D’Eri’s new book, The Power of Potential: How a Non- Traditional Workforce Can Lead You to Run Your Business Better, and speaking engagements, he and his father are sharing lessons with other small and medium-sized businesses.
Rising Tide is a success not in spite of its workforce but because of it, Tom D'Eri says. "I believe people with autism can be successful in any role in any organization."