Jonathan Powell altered the service focus and tweaked the name of his family’s 40-year-old business to reflect new customer demands.
In May 2006, with diploma and job offer in hand, it looked like life for Jonathan Powell was headed in a certain direction. But sometimes fate has other things in store and you just have to go along with it.
Powell had grown up working in the septic company owned by his father and uncle, Powell’s Septic Tank, in Loris, South Carolina. After high school he headed off to Columbia, enrolled in the University of South Carolina and got a degree in information technology.
About the time he graduated, his father and uncle both started having health problems, and he could see the family business needed him. He turned down the job offer and headed back home. Unfortunately, only a few months later, his father passed away. At that point, Powell bought out his uncle and took over ownership of the company.
Although only 22 at the time, Powell seamlessly transitioned the business, worked hard to ensure customers got the same great service they were accustomed to, and added portable restrooms. With that experience under his belt, about nine years later, after another nudge from fate, he was offered the chance to buy out a portable restroom company. Once again, he worked hard for a smooth changeover.
The company, now called Powell’s Sanitation, is operated out of Powell’s 10-acre homestead. His mother, Frances, and wife, Kelley, take care of the office; technicians Rodney Boone and Jonathan Rhymer work on the portable restroom side; and James Berry and Allan Stroud handle septic work. Their service territory covers an 80-mile radius, which takes them south down to the Atlantic Coast and up into North Carolina.
The elder Powells, Windell and Elbert, started the business in 1975 — probably to get out of farming, Powell says. In addition to pumping and repairing septic systems, they manufactured, sold and installed septic tanks.
Powell learned the trade starting at an early age. “I’ve been working here since I was old enough to walk,” he says. Shortly after Powell took over the business, a chance remark by a cousin planted a seed in his mind. The cousin needed restrooms for a construction project and suggested Powell provide them. Powell bought 16 units and a vacuum truck, essentially starting a new line of business — even though he admits the timing might not have been the best.
“It was pretty much right when the recession was starting to hit hard,” he says. “It was slow to start with.” But Powell put on his sales hat and started talking to contractors, and gradually built up the business. After getting established with the construction community, he reached out to special event organizers.
In 2015, that side of the business took a major leap forward when Powell bought out another portable restroom company. The owners, who wanted to sell their 10-year-old business so they could relocate, approached Powell to buy them out. The main attraction for Powell was the customer list, mostly construction accounts, but he also picked up 125 construction units, 25 event units and a 1999 International vacuum truck in the deal, significantly increasing his capacity.
Both parties were motivated to make a seamless transition for customers. The owners sent letters to their clients to let them know what was going on. “When we took over we also sent out letters to all their customers and tried to contact as many as possible,” he says. They also brought on the company’s driver. The Powell’s team concentrated on providing the new customers superior service, and the feedback was positive. “They were all pretty understanding,” Powell says.
BROAD CUSTOMER BASE
The inventory now stands at 400 standard and nine wheelchair-accessible units from PolyPortables, PolyJohn Enterprises and Satellite Industries. Powell likes red because it stands out, but, as often happens in acquisitions, other colors crept in and he ended up with a number of green units, and a few pink ones. Other equipment includes 22 PolyPortables hand-wash stations and 15 250-gallon holding tanks from PolyPortables and PolyJohn.
Most of the company’s portable restroom work continues to be on construction projects. But they also do a number of events, local festivals and weddings. In 2015, for their wedding business, Powell purchased a couple of restroom trailers — a three-station Comfort Elite unit from UltraLav by Wells Cargo and a five-station unit from Rich Specialty Trailers.
Some of their larger events include the South Carolina Pecan Festival, featuring nut-related activities, including Bike Like a Nut, Run Like a Nut and the popular Act Like a Nut talent show. Another is the Loris Bog-Off Festival, a chicken bog cooking contest, which, unless you’re from South Carolina, you probably don’t know is a blend of chicken, rice, sausage, onion, celery and spices of choice. Coast-side, the company provides units for the annual Blue Crab Festival, one of the largest festivals in the Southeast, held on the historic waterfront in Little River where the 50,000 attendees sample the local seafood.
The company also has agricultural customers. From April through September they supply restrooms and hand-wash stations for seasonal workers at about 15 farms growing mainly tobacco, blueberries and cucumbers. Units are handed off to ranch hands who move them around the fields where needed on farm-supplied trailers. The company services them once or twice a week. Finding the units can be something of a challenge, Powell says. “Sometimes we have to contact the actual farmer to see where they’ve got them.”
LONG DISTANCE DISPOSAL
The portable restroom service fleet includes a 1999 International with a 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater steel tank built out by Abernethy Welding & Repair, a 2006 Ford F-750 with a 1,000-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and a 2016 Peterbilt with a 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank from Best Enterprises, and a 2016 Dodge Ram 5500 with a 750-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater steel tank from Crescent Tank Mfg. All carry Masport pumps. The flat-tank Crescent truck hauls eight restrooms, which Powell loves — “It saves time and money because it cuts down on delivery drivers.” Deliveries are also made using a Dodge Ram 2500 and two 10-unit trailers from F.M. Manufacturing, and one 14-unit trailer from Liquid Waste Industries.
On the septic side, they use a 2006 Ford F-750 outfitted with a 2,500-gallon steel tank and Masport pump from Abernethy. Other equipment includes a 2001 New Holland 555E backhoe and a 1990 International dump truck. For lifting tanks, they use a 1994 Chevy Kodiak crane truck with a Bethlehem Manufacturing body. The company is licensed in both North and South Carolina and does pumping, repairs, inspections and installations.
Although Loris has a municipal treatment plant, the facility will not allow Powell’s to dump, saying they can’t handle the volume. Powell has requested plant expansion several times, but without success. He says this is one of their biggest problems, as the two nearest facilities that will take their waste are both about 35 miles away, resulting in huge expenses in time and fuel.
About 20 miles from the Atlantic Coast, Loris was hit last October when Hurricane Matthew passed by.
“We were pretty fortunate,” Powell says. “We didn’t have too much damage. But a lot of the small towns around us got beat up pretty hard.” Working with the American Red Cross, they placed about 25 restrooms and eight hand-wash stations at churches and shelters in three nearby towns that suffered severe flooding. They also supplied 14 hand-wash stations and serviced 30 units for Emergency Disaster Services, a company from Kentucky that set up a center in Florence to provide meals for utility linemen coming in from around the state to restore power. And a vinyl manufacturing plant requested a restroom trailer so they could resume operations as their facility was being repaired.
Powell says disaster relief companies found him through his website, as do many customers. He also advertises in a few phone books, but says most of his new business comes from word-of-mouth referrals. He tries to compete on service quality rather than price, but it’s a balancing act.
“You have to compete some on price, but we try not to low-ball,” he says. “Our main thing is our service that we provide,” he says. “We try to really push that to keep it top-notch.”
New drivers are trained by riding along with an experienced technician. Powell keeps the drivers on their toes by conducting random inspections, and tries to have monthly staff meetings to keep the team working together. A big boost to efficiency came from bringing in fleet tracking software from Insight Mobile Data Inc. and a routing and invoicing program from Clear Computing.
Powell’s near-term plans include building a shop on his property so he can store some of his trucks inside and have a place to work on them. And he hopes to add another restroom trailer as that business grows.
Otherwise it’s business as usual for Powell. He doesn’t look back and question his decision to take over the company and says he’s happy to carry on the family tradition.
“I enjoy it,” he says. “We’re always doing something different. I enjoy being out with the public and dealing with different customers every day, and trying to do whatever we can do to make them happy.”
What’s in a name?
It’s a tough thing for a small, family-run business to change its name. The decision can even be an emotional one. But sometimes it needs to be done to reflect changes in service offerings. It took Jonathan Powell eight years after adding portable restrooms to change his company’s name to reflect the new reality.
For 40 years his business had been known as Powell’s Septic Tank, an important link to the legacy of his father and uncle, who started the company. And it was also the company many established customers knew. On the other hand, the name didn’t make any sense to new customers on the portable restroom side of the business. In fact, some customers, especially brides, were actually put off by the old name.
In 2015, after adding restroom trailers to go after the wedding market, and buying out another company that increased his client list and equipment inventory, portable restroom work started accounting for over half his business. At that point, Powell felt it was necessary to change the name.
He came up with the all-encompassing Powell’s Sanitation. His website designer helped create a new logo and his attorney made it official. Customers can still find their old website, and most of them just refer to the company as “Powell’s” anyway, so the transition was fairly smooth and painless. “We were just trying to brand it more,” Powell says, “and make it sound better.”