By Julia Straka, ’21

Tyree Brown C’19, has one of the most demanding, highly esteemed jobs out there: he is the chief operating officer (COO) of a local car wash with seven locations and over 40 years of business. Brown was hired by the company’s founder to manage a new location right when business was booming and new shops were popping up all over the city. Now, Brown oversees all seven locations, a detail shop, and over 300 employees, whom he casually refers to as a “bunch of great people.”

Brown has an impressive job. But even more impressively, Brown attained his position without having a college degree — until this past spring. Brown graduated from the School of Professional & Continuing Studies at the University of Richmond with a Bachelor of Human Resource Management degree this past spring semester. 

Though SPCS was Brown’s first formal experience studying human resources, he was already well-acquainted with the field. Most of his responsibilities involve other people: from training new employees and problem solving with colleagues to working with vendors who sell products like soap and towels and communicating with customers. 

Interacting with customers in particular seems to be a highlight: “I truly enjoy the moment when the customer radiates a huge smile of satisfaction. We are in the business of making people happy, we happen to do it by getting their car clean,” Brown said.

Though Brown has an admirable amount of experience in the industry, he did not always plan to go into the car business. Brown attended Wilberforce University after high school; he was a biology major with hopes of becoming a pharmacist. After a family tragedy, he moved back home to Tidewater and took community college classes. 

However, school was not his main focus and he didn’t finish a degree. Instead, Brown got a job at the Gwaltney of Smithfield pig processing plant, where he worked on the packaging assembly line and “came home smelling like a slab of bacon” every night, he said. He moved to Richmond for a change of pace and lifestyle. He hoped to find a job running tests in a laboratory, but when that proved more difficult than he anticipated, he took an entry level position at a local car wash. 

Brown kept looking for better opportunities while he worked at the car wash, but every time he planned on leaving, his manager gave him a raise. Brown became the assistant manager within six months and oversaw the company’s free-standing detail shop. Though he had no clear vision for his future at the time, his experience as an assistant manager and in the detail shop exposed him to industry principles that are still relevant today. 

After four years, Brown was ready for a challenge; he wanted to lead a group of people. When he heard that the founder of Car Pool Car Wash was looking for a manager, he applied and “the rest is history,” he said. 

So what is Brown’s key to climbing the corporate ladder? He attributes his success to good mentors, but also to trying new things, adapting to different environments and keeping an open mind while doing so. He applies these same principles to his interactions with others: “I believe the key to success is to listen,” refected Brown. “To not only hear words and wait for a chance to speak, but to process with an open mind,” he said. 

This open-mindedness is what allowed Brown to take the risk of returning to schol after many years. And succeeding in academia did not come easy to Brown at first. One class he took, Knowledge Management, illustrated the clarity that writing gives to the expression of thoughts, but also humbled him: “I thought I was a pretty decent writer,” Brown said, “I found out how... not so much of a good writer I was.” 

Brown also learned that there is only one specific, correct way to complete some assignments, such as papers that require in-text citations and scholarly journal sources. He approached the challenges of going back to school the same way he approached other life challenges:

“Regardless of how well one plans, raising kids is not easy, getting them through college wasn’t easy, managing life can be challenging, my current job is not easy, becoming a black belt in martial arts was not easy, sometimes getting out of bed is not easy. Being difficult does not mean that we should not do it or run away from it,” Brown said. “When discussing challenging times or tasks, one of my mentors told me something that stuck. He would sternly advise me, ‘Don’t fight it, embrace it.’”

So why go back to school after becoming a COO? Many people asked this question when Brown told them about his plans to enroll at SPCS, while others assumed he was going back for an MBA. Though Brown had years of experience and mentors behind him, he wanted to test what he learned on the job at a university and challenge himself in a new, unfamiliar setting: “The biggest thing was to remove doubt that I was doing the right things. I didn’t want to do the team a disservice,” he said. 

However, most of what he learned on the job wasn’t simply affirmed or debunked in the classroom; it was enhanced and contextualized: “I have worked at Car Pool for 31 plus years. I always believed that refining my skill set is critical in remaining relevant,” he said. 

His open-mindedness not only empowered Brown to become a COO in the first place and stay relevant in his field by challenging himself and his work habits at SPCS, it also guided him through his SPCS journey. 

His favorite experience was an exercise in his Interpersonal Communications class where one student guided a blindfolded partner through campus. The exercise showed Brown the importance of trusting others when he couldn’t see his own path clearly yet: “That exercise somewhat embodied the SPCS experience. I came into the journey with little more than the research and the information session. I really could not put into perspective what to expect while I returned to college after a 32-year hiatus. The experience was filled with lots of help and guidance, but no handouts,” he reflected.