University work keeps Florida operator going through recession. Now business is booming as construction work comes back.
Construction work is often a PRO’s bread and butter, but it can sometimes become undependable or dry up altogether depending on the weather, the economy or local circumstances. University life, on the other hand, tends to go on regardless of external circumstances. That turned out to be a life-saver for Bill Strauss and his company, Talquin Portable Restrooms, during the recent recession.
When we caught up with this PRO 10 years ago, the company was just getting started as a stand-alone entity. A big account for them was with Florida State University’s Seminole Boosters for their tailgate parties. They were also building up a healthy pipeline of construction accounts. But the following year the country headed into an economic downturn and their growth trajectory came to a halt. Construction projects declined, but they were able to rely on a steady stream of work coming out of the university. They made it through the recession and have been growing ever since.
The company operates out of a 6-acre property in Midway, Florida, a town of 3,500 in the middle of the Florida Panhandle about 15 miles from the state capital in Tallahassee. Strauss is the active partner in the ownership team that includes his parents, Deanna and Fred Strauss. He calls his staff “the heartbeat of the operation” — general manager Fill Griffith, who’s been there from day one; longtime service drivers Shad Wilson and Vince White; and newcomer Kev McDonald, who does cleaning and miscellaneous tasks.
Deanna comes in once a month to handle some of the office work.
The roots of the company go back to 1987, when Strauss’ father started a septic business. In 2002, acting on a hunch he’d had for years, he added portable restrooms. Strauss took on management of that part of the business. By 2008, the family felt it made sense to separate the two divisions, mostly for accounting and tax purposes. Lawyers and accountants took care of the details, but customers were unaware of the change as the two companies continued to operate out of a single facility.
Talquin’s service territory runs 20 miles north to the Georgia state line, 50 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico, and 100 miles east and west along the Panhandle. Other than restroom trailers, which Strauss says he’ll take anywhere, he avoids heading into nearby states because of licensing and disposal issues. About 66 percent of their work is construction, 13 percent Florida State University-related work, and 21 percent other events and restroom trailers.
TAILGATES AND TIGHTROPES
The company’s inventory includes 541 standard units (25 percent PolyPortables Integras and 75 percent PolyJohn Enterprises PJN3s); 23 PolyJohn ADA-compatible units; 30 wheelchair-accessible units from PolyPortables, Sebach and PolyJohn; 12 PolyJohn hand-wash stations; and 14 250-gallon PolyPortables holding tanks. They also have two 16-foot restroom trailers from Advanced Containment Systems. The four company-built hauling trailers range in size from 8-unit to 16-unit. They use J&J Chemical deodorant products.
A few of the company’s units are tan and white, but most are tan and burgundy to closely match the Florida State University garnet and gold team colors. During football season the company keeps 185 units at a storage facility on campus to be readily accessible for tailgate parties at the seven or so home games. They also set out units for the homecoming concert when it’s held outdoors.
At the end of the 2015 football season the university began a construction project, which lasted until the start of the 2016 season, to redo the south end zone of the stadium. The company provided three holding tanks and 22 units with twice-a-week servicing.
Perhaps one of the more unusual events the company does on campus is the circus. Since 1947, the university’s Flying High Three-Ring Circus has been offered as an extracurricular activity for registered students. It’s not really designed to train people for circus work, but just to give students a taste of the life — everything from trapeze flying, high-wire acts and juggling, to rigging, costuming, lights and sound (no animal acts). Performances are held a couple times a year, spring and fall. During each two-week performance period the company sets up one of their restroom trailers, and six standard and two wheelchair-accessible units adjacent to the school’s big top tent for use by attendees.
LESS IS MORE
While football and other school activities helped keep the company afloat during the recession, it was still a tough time for them as they watched construction dwindle. “We just held on tight,” Strauss says of that time period.
He thinks another thing working in their favor was that they were still a small, young company. “Since we started in 2002 we were still growing when it hit, as opposed to had we gotten big and then had to watch the bottom fall out.” Not having a large staff to support, Strauss didn’t have to face issues of finding enough work for everyone or laying people off. Mostly, he says, sales plateaued during the recession, then steadily climbed and over the last 10 years have increased by 60 percent.
DURABILITY VERSUS AFFORDABILITY
The company services 403 units every week on their regular routes. Route work includes construction projects (about half residential, half commercial), county boat landings along the Gulf of Mexico, and a year-round contract with the state to provide restrooms and weekly servicing at several state parks. Some of their non-route work includes black-tie fundraising events for the state, fishing tournaments along the coast, and local festivals such as Springtime Tallahassee’s Grand Parade. They also do a number of charitable events for which they donate units — Ronald McDonald House, the Salvation Army and several fundraising 5Ks.
Strauss says the company used to run Isuzu trucks, but about eight years ago he decided to transition to Fords. “Isuzus go forever but Fords are easier and quicker to work on,” he explains.
Today the fleet includes two pickup trucks, a 2004 F-250 and a 2013 F-350, and three F‑550 vacuum trucks — a 2015 with a 2007 900-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank from Engine & Accessory and a Masport pump, a 2013 with a 900-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and Masport pump built out by KeeVac
Industries, and a 2008 with a company-built 600-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and a Conde pump (Westmoor Ltd.). The company pays to dispose of waste at Tallahassee’s treatment plant.
When Strauss bought the 2008 vacuum truck he ordered it with four-wheel drive specifically to handle a National Forest Service contract they’ve had for the last 10 years to provide units in the nearby Apalachicola Forest for hunters. Eighteen units are set up in 13 primitive camping locations in off-road remote areas from early November to late February. The closest is 20 miles away, the farthest 60 miles. Service is weekly, usually on Fridays in preparation for weekend hunting. “It takes all day to service them because they’re scattered all over the forest and are down narrow, bumpy dirt roads,” Strauss says.
Strauss hasn’t felt the need so far to have tracking software to keep track of his trucks, but as a routing aid he uses an Excel spreadsheet. He says his routes are fairly established and grew slowly over time but admits if he had to start from scratch he would definitely get routing software. Their system is set up with an A route and a B route, with five days on each route. “We have our own way of doing it,” he says. “Just basically insert, copy, cut and paste.”
Strauss gets a lot of his customers through word-of-mouth, but also uses his website for marketing and continues to invest in phone book advertising. He also tries to keep up a Facebook presence, posting pictures and event information — “When we get around to it,” he says. “Half the time we’re so busy we forget.”
The best marketing tool of course is keeping customers happy. Strauss’ philosophy is pretty simple — “We provide as good a service as we possibly can, and we say what we do and we do what we say.”
Strauss doesn’t take his customers for granted. He says he loves them all and is constantly thanking them for their business. He’s always pleasantly surprised when they say,
“No, thank you.” He particularly enjoys hearing compliments about his drivers. If there’s one thing he appreciates as much as his customers, it’s his employees. “We call ourselves a family owned and operated business but in my eyes these guys are family too,” he says. “The best thing about this business is my customers and my employees.”
Subleasing restroom trailers
A routine request for service on another company’s restroom trailer about eight years ago led to the solution of a problem Bill Strauss, president of Talquin Portable Restrooms in Midway, Florida, had faced many times. He has two 16-foot Advanced Containment Systems restroom trailers, a five-stall and a seven-stall, but sometimes that wasn’t enough to meet demand and he’d have to turn down work. The problem didn’t occur often enough to justify buying another unit, but he doesn’t like to disappoint a customer.
Tidy Coast Event Services out of Hobe Sound, Florida, specializes in restroom trailers. They have a large supply of units in inventory and a service territory that includes Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Strauss became acquainted with owner Anthony Heath when Heath asked him to service a unit he had on contract for a local Home Depot. They struck up a friendship and since that time he’s been able to fulfill all his customers’ requests. “If I’m out of one, which happens often, I rent from him,” Strauss says. His trailer customers typically request units for weddings, black-tie fundraisers, and restroom remodel projects at businesses and restaurants.
Tidy Coast is about 400 miles from the company’s office. When Strauss needs a unit he’ll either send someone to pick it up or Tidy Coast will deliver it, depending on everyone’s schedules. The companies have such a good working relationship that sometimes Heath will even leave units at the Talquin yard. “If he’s bringing one back, because we have 6 acres and plenty of room, he’ll leave trailers here as a drop-off point,” Strauss says.
The arrangement has worked out well for both companies. Tidy Coast has gained a good customer and someone they can call on to service units in the Tallahassee area, and Strauss can feel more confident offering restroom trailers to his customers knowing he has a ready supply available.