Virginia’s Tidy Services works harder and smarter to keep the restroom orders coming in a challenging economy
Since the Phillips family purchased a small portable restroom company in 1994, Tidy Services in Salem, Va., has grown from about 100 units to more than 800. Continued growth is in the plans for Alex Phillips, who took over operation of the family-owned business a few years ago from his parents, Gary and Jackie.
But expansion is going to have to wait. Near-term economic challenges made it a tough time for Phillips to take over such a big responsibility. With the almost unprecedented slowdown in construction business, Phillips believes the family has done a good job at maintaining profits through careful marketing, smart equipment upgrades and boosting special events business.
Phillips is pleased he’s kept fully staffed to help the workers who depend on him for their livelihood. “You always feel like you could be doing more,” he says, “but we haven’t had to cut back too much and we’ve kept all the employees and kept the trucks running. So be thankful for what you have.”
Like many portable sanitation companies, the construction business provides a good core of customers for Tidy Services. “We have a lot of construction units that stay out year-round,” he says. “With construction being slow, we’ve tried to expand the special events side of the business and get as much of that as we can.”
That includes offering more options to customers looking for more than a basic restroom facility. “We’ve had a lot of luck with the trailer rentals, which seems to grow every year,” he says. “We make sure we use green, environmentally friendly chemicals and recycled paper products.”
Tidy Services has portable stand-alone units from Satellite Industries and PolyJohn Enterprises. The company also offers restroom trailers including the 820 and 824 Traditional models from Ameri-Can Engineering, a Fantastic executive trailer from JAG Mobile Solutions, and two VIP units from NuConcepts carried on trailers from Mighty Mover Trailers Inc.
Weddings, concerts, festivals, athletic events and golf tournaments are among the fare the company has been going after to make up for lost construction business. One such event in the summer of 2011 was a benefit country music show requiring 150 units for a weekend. The company has contracts with annual events such as Roanoke’s Festival in the Park, a multi-day event in downtown Roanoke, Va., and the Blue Ridge Marathon, known as one of the most challenging marathons in the East. “The Roanoke Valley is a beautiful place to work and live, it seems like we have more and more outdoor events every year,” he says.
Along with contracts from area city park departments, Phillips has landed a couple of movie deals. “When they shot scenes for War of the Worlds in Virginia, we had a trailer we pulled around just for Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg,” he says. Tidy Services also provided services for a few smaller, independent movies.
About 50 percent of the company’s business is from portable restrooms and 10 percent comes from pumping septic tanks and grease traps. The rest comes from the 250 roll-off containers that have helped temper the soft economy. The environmental trend has helped in that segment of the business, which is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.
“We’ve grown a lot in recycling with green building and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) projects,” Phillips says. “We offer wood composting and recycling of metal, cardboard, concrete and brick. That seems to be the way of the future.”
Tidy Services sticks with International trucks. Four used for pumping portable restrooms are a 1995 International with 900-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel Abernethy Welding & Repair Inc. tank and Masport pump and 2002, 2007 and 2008 Internationals with 1,200-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel Abernethy tanks and Masport pumps.
A 2003 International septic pumping truck has a 2,100-gallon steel tank from Badger Vacuum Trucks with a Fruitland Tool & Mfg. pump. The fleet also includes a 2004 International with a 300-gallon steel tank and Masport pump from Lely Manufacturing Inc., four flatbed trucks with lift gates for delivering portable restroom units, five roll-off trucks, and a few pickups for the staff of 16.
Tidy Services processes its own portable restroom, septic and grease trap waste in a facility that was permitted three years ago. “The restroom waste goes through a Maximizer we got from Lely Manufacturing to screen out the solids,” Phillips says. “Those are disposed of in the landfill. All the liquid waste goes into the sewer system.”
Operating the facility is a bit of a hassle with permitting, inspections and reporting requirements, but it has paid off. Disposal cost is a bit lower for the dewatered effluent than dumping loads directly at the local septage disposal facility. “It saves us a lot of diesel and man-hours as far as running to a sewage treatment plant every time a truck is full,” he says. “We can dump anytime we need to. We don’t have to worry about the gates being open when we go to dump somewhere else.”
Phillips tries to present a good image by keeping a newer restroom inventory and working hard to keep units clean and in good shape. “We have sink options and hand sanitizers and we’re doing more of those every year,” says Phillips, who has 14 sinks. “We bought two of the first units that Satellite came out with and just started adding them to some events at no cost or a nominal fee to let people see them. Now, people seem to expect it more, especially if there is food involved. We have them at almost every event now.”
In addition to sinks in the restrooms, stand-alone hand-wash stations also are becoming more popular. He thinks it may be because local health departments are stricter on jobsites to make sure workers have adequate hand-wash facilities.
Restroom trailers have proven to be popular for backyard parties and weddings. “We have a few hand-pump flush toilets and set those aside mostly for weddings and they are popular. We have a handful of weddings every weekend.”
In addition to upgrading the inventory, Phillips concentrates on a commitment to personal service. The company promises to have a person answer every phone call during business hours, and has several phone lines to make sure customers can get through to a live voice rather than a recording.
“We have at least three full-time people in the office every day and try to answer the phone by the second ring,” he explains. “We meet same-day requests whenever we can. Even on weekends, you can get a cell phone number off the answering machine so you can get in touch with a person if you need something.”
Phillips grew up in the family business, working there on and off through high school and college. After a few years at various jobs, he returned four years ago. His parents still help out one day a week and his wife, Emily, does accounts payable about twice a week.
Phillips is starting to expand the company’s marketing efforts onto the Internet. “We started with a small homemade website and upgraded it last year,” he says. “We’re looking to improve it so we can have a nice footprint on the Web.”
There is one full-time salesperson whose main focus is the construction industry and larger special events. The company is a member of local Chambers of Commerce, industry associations and groups like the local homebuilders associations. Tidy Services belongs to the Portable Sanitation Association International, which it joined under the previous ownership as Churchill Portable Toilets, as one of the first members when the trade group formed in 1971.
Tidy Services has done some radio advertising, but perhaps the largest marketing effort is in sponsoring many of the local events the company serves. “With the majority of nonprofits, we’ll donate a portion of the equipment in exchange for putting up signs or being listed as a sponsor,” he says. “I think it helps a lot to show that we’re involved in the community.”
Phillips is not sure how much new business the pro bono work brings in, but those organizations do come back to Tidy Services every year.
“They try to spend the least amount they can, but portable restrooms make a big difference in how well the event runs,’’ Phillips says. “The main thing for us is helping out and wanting them to succeed.”