For 25 years Minnesota’s On Site Sanitation has artfully adjusted to customer demands and grown every step of the way.
Every portable sanitation company is going to face ups and downs over the years, whether the challenges are brought on by a rollercoaster economy, seasonal spikes in demand for service or workforce issues. The Holm family, owners of On Site Sanitation in St. Paul, Minn., has spent 25 years meeting those challenges with creative solutions and measured business gambles to chart a course of service diversification, geographic expansion and steady growth.
In 1989, Karen and Dave Holm started On Site with 25 units and one vacuum truck. Today they’ve got over 5,000 units, 45 vacuum trucks, 65 employees and four locations.
Karen is the CEO of the company and Dave the president. Their kids, Molly Leonard and Russ Holm, grew up in the business and have joined the ownership team as well. “That was our summer job for many years,” Molly says. “But officially Russ started about 12 years ago and I came in about 10 years ago.” Russ is the sales manager, Molly the controller and head of human resources. Russ’ wife, Nichole Holm, also started about 12 years ago and is now the office manager.
Dave worked for his father, Alan Holm, managing his portable restroom business in the ‘70s. Then he worked for the three succeeding companies that took it over. When the last one laid him off he was ready to make a change. “Karen and I decided we’re going to start on our own and we’ve never looked back,” he says. Karen provided the seed money out of an inheritance from her grandmother, which qualified her as a 51 percent majority owner and gave them woman-owned business status.
They bought a couple dozen units from Satellite Industries, and Dave went to Boston to pick up a used truck. “On the way home it broke down,” he says. “I ended up on the road fixing it. Fortunately, I had taken a tool box with me on the airplane.” That was just the beginning of the wear-all-hats nature of the job – “I had to be part mechanic, part salesman, part everything.”
They still get their units, Tufways, from Satellite – “teal green for special events because it’s brighter, livelier, more festive,” Dave says, “and willow green with brown fronts for construction” – as well as their 45 Ford F-450s and F-550s (none more than 6 years old) with 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tanks. Two are aluminum, the others steel, which Dave prefers. They’re outfitted with PTO-driven Conde pumps (Westmoor Ltd.). Restroom transport trailers, mostly 16-place, are from Ameri-Can Engineering.
To provide an upscale alternative to their portable restrooms, in about 2006 they purchased two restroom trailers from Advanced Containment Systems Inc. Unfortunately, the market wasn’t as quick to embrace them as the Holms had anticipated.
“Nobody knew what they were, and there was no market for them,” Karen recalls. “We basically sat on them for a year or two.” When the company finally got them into some corporate events and VIP concerts, it started to take off. Those two trailers are at the lower end of the luxury scale, but the company still gets a lot of requests for them, along with its 18 higher-end models in a variety of sizes from Black Tie Products, Comforts of Home Services Inc., JAG Mobile Solutions, NuConcepts and Satellite.
The company has also picked up two shower trailers – an eight-stall unit from JAG and a two-stall unit from Wells Cargo – used for disaster recovery, movie shoots and special events such as mud runs.
Although the company’s core service territory is a 60-mile radius around each office, it rents its trailers throughout the Midwest. The Holms generally contract out the delivery and setup of the units, but do have employees willing to travel if an event needs attendants.
AVOIDING THE WINTER SLUMP
Perhaps the biggest addition to the company’s service offerings – and one of its bigger risks, being a departure from sanitation equipment – is temporary climate-control products. The heaters, air conditioners and dehumidifiers are occasionally used for special events but primarily for construction – which doesn’t let up at all in the winter, Dave says. The company also offers temporary video surveillance and motion detection systems.
A recurring problem for the company had been seasonal fluctuations in business. It played havoc with the labor force, usually requiring winter layoffs, which made it hard to attract and retain employees. As the Holms considered various options – storage trailers, snow plowing – in 1996 they found this solution, which gels well with the rest of their business as it uses their existing customer base, software, vehicles and labor. Despite that, there was a huge learning curve, they admit, and a lot of licensing requirements. “We started on a very small scale the first couple years, just learning as we went,” Karen says.
Their direct-fired, convection and indirect-fired heaters run on liquid propane and natural gas and range in size from 150,000 Btu per hour to 3.5 million. They also have electric heaters for small spaces. Units are manufactured by Heat Wagon and L.B. White. Air conditioners are from Topp Portable Air and range from 1 1/2 to 50 tons. Dehumidifiers are from Phoenix Restoration Equipment. They also have Wacker Neuson hydronic ground heating units used to thaw frozen ground, cure concrete and prevent frost buildup. This is the most labor-intensive aspect to the climate-control business, Dave says – laying out hoses or concrete curing blankets – and really keeps all the guys working year-round.
On Site’s geographic expansion began in 2003 with the acquisition of a St. Paul company that had a branch office in Rochester, Minn., about 80 miles away. The company kept that office, and today it’s staffed by seven people.
In 2005, a large national homebuilder who was having trouble finding climate-control services in St. Louis asked if the Holms would consider opening an office there. Russ went down and started up an operation out of nearby Chesterfield. They had a couple of very good years until the recession hit in 2008.
“We ended up with excess equipment we wanted to utilize so I did some research and tried to find a market for it,” Russ explains. He learned that Omaha, Neb., 400 miles away, was not suffering as much from the recession and could probably use their services since there didn’t appear to be similar companies in the area. In 2009, he opened an office there.
It turned out to be a good move. Today each remote office is staffed by two employees and offers climate-control equipment and luxury restroom trailers.
The company has avoided seasonal layoffs, but competition for workers has picked up with the improving economy, leading to changes in hiring practices. “We’re trying a new strategy this year,” Molly explains. “We’re hiring earlier for summer work and hiring more than what we would normally do. And everyone is hired as full-time permanent employees, not seasonal.”
Hiring earlier also means they’ll find out sooner rather than later who’s really going to stick around, she says. Before, by the time someone figured out this wasn’t the job for them, it was the height of the busy season and they’d leave at the worst possible time.
The company believes in taking care of employees. “We want to invest in our employees,” Dave adds. “Obviously you have to have good wages, but we also have good health care benefits and 401(k)s.”
They constantly look at wage rates, Karen notes. “That’s one of the challenges our industry faces, just being able to pay the people who support this industry, the people who really work hard. We need to think about those people when we’re pricing and bidding. We need to treat them like professionals and pay them like professionals. Sometimes it’s hard to do with the competitive nature of our industry.”
On Site protects employees from harmful chemicals by using environmentally friendly products from Satellite and Chempace Corporation. “We’ve always used formaldehyde-free deodorant in the units,” Dave says. “We don’t want our workers or customers exposed to anything like that.”
In 2008, the company decided it was time to update its image. Although the changes coincided with the economic downturn, the decision was made to move ahead with the initiative, which the Holms feel worked to their advantage. “It helped establish us as a thriving company,” Russ says. “I think it really went a long way with our customers.”
They developed a new logo and spent the next few years changing letterhead and business cards, painting the trucks, replacing decals on all the units, revamping the website and buying new uniforms.
The last step was to remodel their 8,000-square-foot headquarters building. In 2013, everyone moved to the basement while the upper level was gutted and rebuilt. The result not only improved the appearance but was more functional.
“I always consider dispatch as the heart of the operation,” Karen says. “And our dispatch office was in a nasty little corner and just wasn’t very functional. So we moved them front and center, and now everything flows through to them.” They also put in a conference room, small meeting rooms, open offices and a kitchen. In March, family, friends, customers and suppliers were invited to an open-house celebration to show off the new space.
ON TO THE FUTURE
Although the revamping was a drawn-out process, the Holms couldn’t be happier with the results, and it’s just what they needed to take them into the next 25 years.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve built here,” Dave says. “And we know Molly and Russ are going to carry it on in the future.”