Starting nearly 50 years ago with plywood restrooms he built himself, Arkansas PRO James Murdock has stretched and grown along with industry technology advances.
Diversification is one key to longevity for James Murdock’s portable sanitation and septic pumping company, which has been serving the communities of the Arkansas River Valley for nearly 50 years. When customers in one segment of the business falter, others keep chugging along.
Or when the economy takes a downturn, he has clients immune to recession such as schools and agriculture. And even when the weather turns cold and construction work slows down, he always manages to keep busy by offering tools and equipment to tackle a variety of tough jobs.
Meanwhile, James’ son, Dawayne, had experienced diversification of his own in his career as an accountant. He spent 20 years working in various industries and businesses, small and large, public and private. He now brings that broad experience to his father’s company, overseeing accounting, marketing and business operations.
Murdock Portable Toilets & Septic Tank Service is located in Russellville, Arkansas. It operates out of a 64,000-square-foot facility, part of which is rented out to others. James, 79, owns the business with his wife, Anna Sue. Dawayne, 55, describes his father’s role as “general manager, truck driver and just about everything else, too.”
The team is rounded out by dispatcher Amanda Carey and three service technicians — 22-year veteran David Holiman, 10-year veteran James Jackson and relative newcomer Stuart Sayer. Drivers are cross-trained on all aspects of the business, including portable sanitation (about 75 percent of revenue), septic pumping, grease trap maintenance and line cleaning. They work within a 75-mile radius.
Before starting his own business, James was a crane operator, working in different locations around the country. But he always had an entrepreneurial spirit. “When my son started first grade, I said I’d never work for anybody else if I didn’t have to,” he says. At the same time, he moved to Arkansas, where he had worked on a project and told himself he’d return if he got the chance. “We came back here and started from scratch — and sometimes I’m still scratching,” he says.
His venture into self-employment included trash services, construction of prefabricated metal buildings, and swimming pool installations. But the winning ideas were septic service and portable restrooms — a fairly new concept in the area at the time but something he was familiar with, having worked on projects in New York and California that required them.
Dawayne’s trajectory with the company began as a kid, helping out all through high school and college. After graduating with a degree in business education, he worked for a number of companies, everything from large corporations to mom-and-pops. “It gave me a chance to see all phases of accounting, some of the marketing, and a little human resources,” he says.
At one point, he also worked as a business broker helping people sell and buy businesses, which he says gave him a new perspective on small business. In 2013, he returned to the family business. “The situation arose that I was in a commission job and needed a dependable paycheck, and Dad needed somebody he could trust to do the books. So we said let’s figure out something to make this work.”
Today, the company stocks 400 fiberglass portable restrooms, six Five Peaks flushable units, 10 PolyPortables hand-wash stations and Kentucky Tank holding tanks. The service fleet includes three 2011-’14 Ford F‑350s with 1,000-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater steel tanks, and two 2008 Internationals, one with a 2,300-gallon waste/225-gallon freshwater steel tank, the other with a 2,000-gallon waste/225 gallon freshwater steel tank. All have Jurop/Chandler pumps. They were built in-house and designed to be multifunctional. “The way Dad built his trucks was we run them primarily for portable toilets, but they’re large enough that they can also pump a 1,000-gallon septic tank,” Dawayne says.
The company also has three larger vacuum trucks — 2007 and 2010 Macks and a 2010 International with 4,000- to 4,200-gallon aluminum tanks and Jurop/Chandler pumps built out by Progress Tank. Most of the company’s septic pumping is for residential customers, about a third of which is emergency work.
“You try to educate people,” Dawayne says, “but the septic tank is hidden out in the yard, so it’s out of sight, out of mind until it doesn’t work.” A small portion of their business is pumping out grease traps for local restaurants and schools. And for line cleaning they use two trailer-mounted jetters from Spartan Tool, models 740 (propane) and 758 (gas).
“Any kind of pumping that’s nonhazard, we are capable of doing it,” James says. “And most of the time we’re capable of going with a couple hours’ notice anywhere in this area.” The company uses Verizon’s Networkfleet to keep track of where their vehicles are so they can deploy the nearest truck for an emergency.
The company also uses a Hotsy pressure washer and CPACEX deodorant products, and disposes of waste at the local wastewater treatment facility.
About 35 percent of Murdock’s portable restroom work is for special events, some of which include the country’s largest chuckwagon race at a private ranch in Clinton; swap meets and car shows at the Museum of Automobiles; local festivals — Atkins Picklefest, Johnson County Peach Festival, Valley Music Fest; the Petit Jean State Park Mountain Rendezvous; and races of all kinds. “And we get a lot of calls for family reunions and weddings,” Dawayne adds.
The Arkansas River is the site of many of the events. Murdock’s services portable restrooms on barges that pull into the nearest town when onboard units need pumping. They also do work for the U.S. Forest Service, pumping out vault toilets or bringing in portable restrooms for large group activities in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.
To get the word out, the company markets through its website. They also have a Facebook presence and belong to the local chamber of commerce. Most of the new business comes through word-of-mouth and referrals. The Murdocks believe a competitive advantage is their longevity and operating philosophy.
“Dad always said anybody can rent you a portable toilet,” Dawayne says. “But what we’re selling is service. We give you a clean unit and good service.”
Economic declines do not affect all industries equally, and the company was fortunate to have a number of clients fairly resistant to the downturn because of the services they provide. Some of those clients included poultry processing plants and farms, the Bridgestone Tire inner tube manufacturing facility, and two International Paper box plants.
“When they had what they called a recession in 2008, we never felt the downfall,” James says. “We stayed level.” The work they do on the industrial side is primarily cleaning lines, pumping holding tanks and furnishing portable restrooms for events and construction projects.
Another longtime recession-proof customer has been Arkansas Tech University. “We’re in a college town and a town like that doesn’t feel the slump,” James says. “The college has had a steady growth for the last 40 years plus.” The company provides restrooms for construction projects, outdoor student activities and sporting events such as the 2016 women’s regional NCAA softball tournament.
GAS RIGS AND NUCLEAR REACTORS
The oil and gas industry has had its ups and downs in Arkansas since the 1920s, but for Murdock the biggest benefit came in the early 2000s, when drilling rapidly expanded. The company provided portable restrooms and pumped out holding tanks for construction trailers and laundry facilities. During the boom, they expanded their service territory to 100 miles out.
When the price of gas dropped a couple years ago, drilling in the state came to a near standstill. It had been a big part of Murdock’s business, but Dawayne says the effect on the company, although substantial, wasn’t devastating. “We’ve always had other businesses besides that, so we just had to work that a little harder.” Plus they had some time to adjust. “It was not a sudden drop,” James explains. “It was a gradual drop-off because they have to maintain a certain amount of gas in all the big pipelines.”
At the other extreme of the energy picture, the nuclear industry has provided work for Murdock for nearly 50 years. It was a bit of good luck that just about the time James started the business, the Arkansas Nuclear One reactor was being built just a few miles away. He provided pumping and portable restroom services for construction of both the first unit, which came online in 1974, and a second unit in 1978. Today, the amount of work varies from year to year, but the company continues to provide pumping and portable sanitation services for various construction or yard projects.
JUST KEEPS GOING
As the company approaches its golden anniversary, James can’t say for sure what has motivated him to stay in the industry so long. “I stayed in it to buy groceries,” he laughs.
Dawayne elaborates — “Dad’s a people person,” he says. “He likes meeting people, he likes knowing people around town. He’s managed to stay busy all these years and enjoys the work and being a part of the community.”
But one thing that’s kept the business going for so long is not having all its eggs in one basket. “We’re diversified enough and with enough companies that we keep steady,” James concludes.
The evolution of portable restrooms
The history of portable restroom construction has played out on a micro scale at Murdock Portable Toilets & Septic Tank Service in Russellville, Arkansas. When James Murdock founded the company in 1970, he built his own units out of plywood. He even tried to set up a manufacturing operation, but never really had enough resources to do it properly. “Then I learned it was cheaper to buy them and not worry about the manufacturing part of it,” he admits.
The units he bought were made of molded fiberglass, the new material of choice in the 1970s. Fiberglass was lighter. It was also easier to clean, something Murdock was especially adamant about. In fact, that’s one reason for his color preference. “White has always been a choice for me,” he says. “It’s cooler and easier to keep clean — you can see where the dirt is.”
Murdock was so satisfied with the performance of the fiberglass units that it wasn’t until 2014 that the company purchased a few flushable restrooms made of the now-standard polyethylene. The flushable units are used mainly for weddings and other special events.
With the popularity of lighter poly restrooms, the fiberglass units they bought are no longer in production. However, Murdock still has enough in stock to hold them for awhile. “We’re probably one of the few companies that still uses fiberglass units,” says Dawayne Murdock, the owner’s son and company accountant.