As his company grows organically and through acquisitions, Scott Thone embraces new ways to create a memorable and universal brand identity.
It’s not unusual for contractors to view websites and social media as nothing more than expensive business window dressing – about as beneficial as putting gold-plated rims on a 20-year old vacuum truck. Sure, it looks a little nicer, but it’s still an old pump truck that runs the same as it always did. So why bother?
Scott Thone, the president and co-owner of Portable Sanitation Inc. (dba Arkansas Portable Toilets) in North Little Rock, Ark., prefers a different take: If your competitors use websites and social media to market and brand their companies, you’d better dive into the digital age quickly, lest you get left behind. And even if your competitors aren’t digital-savvy, your customers most likely are – and they expect you to be, too.
Just as importantly, digital marketing can improve restroom operators’ professional image, as well as offer customers conveniences that provide a competitive advantage. And in an age where getting noticed is increasingly difficult amid the marketing din, that’s invaluable. And it may not be as difficult – or as expensive – as you think.
Thone, 42, and his partner, Bubba Wood, who is the company’s vice-president, have fully immersed their company in digital media. One prominent new advancement? The company’s website features “scaling,” which makes it easier to view on smartphones and tablets. Plus, a new app for those devices allows contractors to link to the company website with the touch of a finger, then order restrooms online, the same way consumers order goods from e-tailers like Amazon.com.
“It gives construction contractors who work out of their pickup trucks a new level of convenience … that takes them right to our website, where they can order restrooms from their mobile devices,” Thone says. “It also helps us create a professional corporate image.”
PREPARING FOR THE CLOUD
Thone says the company – about 60 percent construction and 40 percent special events – will soon convert to a cloud-based computer networking service. After that, he plans to add a portal to the company’s website that will enable customers to check their account balance, pay with a credit card or see how many restrooms they have at different sites.
“I’m not sure how many more people it’ll convince to do business with us, but if we get them as a customer, we’re certainly giving them more reasons to stay with us,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m renting them a portable restroom and so is the guy down the road. That guy may clean his restrooms as well or better than me, and his unit might cost $5 less than mine. There’s no reason for someone not to save that $5, so you have to create value by doing things that make it easier to do business with us.”
Twitter and Facebook also factor into the company’s marketing efforts. For example, after a local television station ran a feature story about how Arkansas Portable Toilets helps support the Little Rock Marathon, Thone obtained a link to the broadcast from the TV station and posted it on Twitter and Facebook.
“I have people who follow the company on Twitter or Facebook because they think it’s funny to follow a portable restroom business,” Thone says. “Some of them are even from out of state and we’ll probably never do business with them.
“But you never know where that’s going to go,” he adds, noting instances where the company has randomly attracted new customers through Facebook. “They may never rent a toilet, but who’s to say they won’t? Or that maybe they know someone who might? That’s the beauty of social media – it spreads like wildfire and you don’t have to pay for that. You just have to be somewhat creative. Once you figure out how it works and the way people use it, then you can custom-tailor your message.”
Thone graduated from high school in 1989 and earned a business degree at Arkansas Tech University. After graduation, he worked for his father, Don, who ran a nonhazardous liquid-waste transportation business. His father sold the company in 1993 to Synagro Technologies, and the younger Thone eventually became Synagro’s Arkansas district manager. He left Synagro in 1999 to start a restroom business with his father.
“I wanted to be an entrepreneur and do my own thing … be my own boss,” he explains. “I’d watched my dad do it for years and the timing was perfect for me to give it a try. So my father and I started from scratch. Construction at the time was pretty good, so there was a need there for portable restrooms. And the business was very similar to what we did before, so it was a logical extension for us.”
From the start, Thone strongly believed in creating a professional image to differentiate from competitors. He did this by promoting that Arkansas Portable Toilets offered new restrooms that would be cleaned by the company’s owners. He figured that if potential customers knew he’d be cleaning the restrooms, they’d have more confidence the job would be done well because they knew he was trying to build a business.
Thone also took pains to dress well and take a business-like approach when meeting with customers. “When I’d go talk to an event planner at a chamber of commerce, I didn’t want to look like just a guy running a business out of a truck, with no regard for what he was wearing,” he notes. “Presenting that level of professionalism resonated with people. My dad and I had business backgrounds … we were businessmen who happened to be in portable sanitation.”
EQUIPMENT NEEDS GREW
As the business grew, so did its fleet of equipment. The company now owns about 1,300 portable restrooms, mostly from Satellite Industries. That total includes about 25 handicapped-accessible units and ADA-compliant units.
For vacuum trucks, the company runs two 2014 Hino 268s, one with an 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater stainless-steel tank and Conde pump (Westmoor Ltd.) built by Best Enterprises Inc., and the other with a 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and Masport pump built by Progress Tank; a 2012 Ford F-550 with a 700-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump, made by Crescent Tank Manufacturing; a 2009 Freightliner M2 with a 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater aluminum tank with Masport pump built by Progress; and a 2005 International 4300 with a 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and Conde pump built by Best Enterprises.
Thone says he prefers large tanks because the local disposal facility charges a flat rate for any amount of waste up to 1,500 gallons. “So we try to maximize our loads for those rates,” he says. “I know some people prefer smaller tanks because you get better gas mileage, but we do a lot of big events, too, so bigger tanks save us a lot of time … We don’t need as many trucks at an event because we have enough volume on site to service it adequately.”
Thone lauds the Crescent Tank truck’s square-tank design, which effectively creates a truck bed capable of carrying up to eight restrooms. “We use it predominantly for deliveries because it cuts down on trips back and forth to the yard, which saves a lot of time and fuel,” he says.
The company also owns four restroom trailers: three made by JAG Mobile Solutions and one made by Bucky’s Portable Restrooms Inc. The JAG units are used for higher-end special events and the Bucky’s unit gets rented mostly for commercial use.
Thone says that at first, he was reluctant to invest in restroom trailers because he didn’t think they’d pay for themselves in a small state like Arkansas. But the first rental for the Bucky’s unit lasted eight months, which paid for about 75 percent of the trailer.
“The second one was more of a leap of faith,” he notes. “We went out and created a market for it because no one else in Arkansas had a restroom trailer at the time. Rentals were slow at first, but now about 25 percent of our restroom income comes from the trailers.”
By the end of the year, Thone expects to have all the company’s trucks decked out with new vinyl wraps featuring water graphics and rolls of toilet paper, along with the company’s playful slogan, “This is how we roll.” “People think we’re a dirty industry, so we try to have fun with it, but still create a professional image,” he explains.
The wraps may not be as high-tech as websites, cloud portals and Facebook, but they represent another tool that helps reinforce brand identity, Thone says.
“At the end of the day, you can be the best at what you do,” he points out. “But if no one knows that, it doesn’t do you any good. And I’m not a big spend-money-everywhere-you-can-spend-it kind of guy; you have to monitor what you spend and see what gets best bang for your buck.
“If your business base relies mostly on homeowners or special-events planners, there’s no question you need to have a website and a social-media presence,” he concludes.
“You can’t rely just on raising prices to make more money … it’s all about creating value and making it easier for customers to do business with you.”