It's a Clean Sweep

Michigan’s PTS and UPCO Waste Services make commercial construction sites spic-and-span by handling both portable sanitation and trash collection

Providing everything a construction contractor needs in the way of waste collection, and marketing it wisely and aggressively, is driving growth at PTS (Portable Toilet Service) and sister company UPCO Waste Services.

PTS staffers have big-company and big-city experience, which they apply to their small business located 40 miles northwest of Detroit. And they aren’t content to stay a small business. They’ve added portable restroom services to their original trash collection business, and are expanding the portable restroom operations from construction services to fairs and festivals.

KEEP ON GROWING

“One of our theories is you have to keep growing or die,” says Stephanie Powell, wife of co-owner Robert Uphoff, who leads the company’s sales and marketing efforts.

It was that belief that led to the founding of PTS in 2005. Uphoff founded UPCO Waste Services in 2001 after working for other family members. He bought a truck and landed two large builders as clients, which got them off and running.

He was born in Chicago and has worked his entire career in the trash-collection business. Powell worked in New York for Liz Claiborne Inc. as a liaison between fashion designers and operations, and as a coordinator and commentator for local fashion shows. She also was a national sales manager for Citibank. They married in 1999 and moved to her Michigan hometown, considering it a good place to raise their children.

Construction contractors were and remain their biggest clients. The company was successful, but was looking for other avenues of growth as the housing market in Michigan slowed.

Their success is driven by the ability to pair restroom and garbage collection services to their core construction clients. They offer both to clients, and about 90 percent of the time get orders for both, she says. They are finding similar success in the festival market.

“Usually when they require both, we get both. They like writing one check,” she says.

BUSINESS BRANDING

One of her goals for the PTS startup was a professional-looking Web site. She is convinced too many people try to get Web sites on the cheap. She wasn’t going to do that.

“People don’t want to put the necessary money into a Web site. It takes only a couple thousand more to get a company that will do it correctly,” she says.

To get what she wanted cost more than $6,000, and quite a bit of time convincing the owners — her husband, her father-in-law and her cousin — to spend the money.

“I had to argue with them about the money I was spending,” Powell says. “They were not happy about paying the bill. I got two out-of-state customers (because of the Web site) that paid for it.”

She looked at the expense as would a marketing manager, and hired branding company Graphic Visions Inc. of Northville, Mich. The result, besides a Web site she’s happy with, is a corporate identity that is carried over to every aspect of the company. Their red, white, blue and gray colors are on everything, from trucks to business cards to portable restrooms and trash receptacles.

“If you put a roll-off trash container and a restroom together, you would know it was the same company,” she says. “The other thing we do, we spend a lot of time on our restroom stickers. You can see them from far away. You can see our 800 number from two (traffic) lights away.”

As to the Web site, Powell says it’s not just for information. “It works. You click on a box and it works. It’s designed the way people use a Web site.”

The Web site is reasonably simple. Sections are plainly labeled — Services, Fairs & Festivals, Products, and Contact Us — and information is direct and brief. There are photos of all the company’s products with bullet-point descriptions of each.

Initially, Powell wanted it to have a shopping cart function for the restroom site because she believes customers don’t like to wait for e-mail answers. She found, however, that there were too many variables to price portable restroom services effectively using Web contact only, especially for jobs requiring longer travel.

Powell backs up the Web site with good telephone customer support. PTS gets four to five calls a day as a result of the Web site, and customers can view portable sanitation products on the site while placing an order over the phone.

MAKING SALES A PRIORITY

Aggressive selling has always been important to their success. When Uphoff started UPCO Waste Services in 2001, he would drive around with a roll-off container and not come home until he found someone to use it.

The main salespeople for PTS are Powell, Julie Cox-Frazer and Cathy Chapa. All three come from the fashion industry.

The PTS sales team members came from corporate America, but they wanted to get out of the rat race and work in part-time jobs. Accustomed to a professional atmosphere, they bring excellent time-management skills, Uphoff says. And when on sales calls, they dress as if they are going to a corporate meeting.

“When we go to trade shows, we all wear black and white suits,” Powell says.

In the field, technicians wear jeans and plain T-shirts of their choice. They also wear safety vests.

The main focus of sales efforts has been construction sites. While homebuilding is slow, she says commercial construction and large remodeling jobs continue.

“Every construction site gets a trash container and portable toilets. Those are two things construction guys don’t want to deal with,” Powell says. “Construction was a natural growth area. We cross-sell everywhere. That seems to be how we are getting our foot in the door.”

AT THE OFFICE

Powell says anyone who answers the phone is trained to sell all services except festivals and special events, which she handles.

Amy Sonnenberg is the office manager. She takes over client contact once the accounts are sold and is the logistics coordinator for deliveries.

Uphoff says one key to success is a willingness to easily adapt to a customer’s needs.

“If you have to move 10 toilets over here, we are willing to do it,” he says. “My dad says you get done at dark-thirty. We have a corporate mentality and an everyday-Joe work ethic.”

Powell says they offer to pump campers and big rigs at fairs and festivals. They charge extra for it, but she says event managers tell them that is a service the competition doesn’t offer.

“That has proved to be a bigger seller than I thought it would be,” she says.

In 2006, they began edging into festivals and special events. They had 10 fairly large festivals in 2008, and with a little experience under their belts, Powell says they’ll be pushing for more.

“We don’t want to grow too fast,” she says. “The one thing we don’t do is go big and fail.”

She says they will do one big event per weekend. One weekend last July, they had two events and Powell says she won’t do that again.

“I’m not spreading ourselves thin and having one client mad at us,” Powell says.

PTS festival consultants work with clients from start to finish, making suggestions and a few common-sense demands.

“If we don’t get a map and look at the grounds ahead of time, we are pretty strict on saying we don’t guarantee our service,” she says. “At first, we may sound a little forceful, but when planning’s all done, that’s where we win them over.”

Powell says planning is the hardest part because most festival organizers are volunteers who typically don’t understand the most effective ways to place and service portable restrooms.

A sales consultant arrives with the initial delivery of units and meets with the client. “It’s bringing a professional level of business,” she says.

FUEL CONCERNS

The PTS fleet includes Ford F-550 and Ford F-450s with steel tanks from Satellite Industries, a Ford F-450 with stainless steel tank from Best Enterprises Inc., and a Ford F-250 yard truck with a freshwater tank. The F-550 is gas powered and the others are diesel.

On the UPCO side, they have seven Mack trucks with Galbreath Inc. roll-off frames.

The company owns about 500 Satellite Industries and PolyJohn Enterprises Corp. restrooms, including a number of handicap units, and hand-wash sinks.

They try to get the best equipment, Uphoff says. “We use technology to our benefit. We try to keep up with the latest trends,” he says.

PTS operates three restroom service routes four days a week, with 30 or more stops per route, each taking from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. to complete. They recently hired an additional worker to cover the routes, although they were trying to hold off due to the lagging economy. They have about 275 units out on average.

PTS charges fuel surcharges on trash collection, but the surcharges are not so readily accepted by portable restroom customers, according to Powell.

“People are starting to ask, do you have a fuel surcharge? Is there a delivery charge? I’m finding just raising prices slightly and giving a bottom line works best,” Powell says.

In an effort to look for greater efficiencies, PTS combined software systems to handle routing and billing. She says they use a routing system from DeLorme that was inexpensive and works well, and the Trash Flow program developed by Ivy Computer Inc. “Trash Flow does all our billing, but it doesn’t give you the detail for mapping,” she says, explaining the need for the DeLorme program.

NEXT ON THE AGENDA

The company recently bought a new 2,200-square-foot office in Milford with a 300-square-foot showroom, which is arranged to show customers what wedding or special event setups will look like. Powell says customers were asking for the showroom.

“If you have a wedding, which is going to be our next step, we will be able to show you how to set it up with a tent and everything,” she says.

In addition to the new offices, the company maintains a 3,000-square-foot shop, as well as yards in Salem, about 15 miles from Milford, and Westland, 28 miles beyond that, to provide centralized locations throughout their service area.

The companies continue to look for expansion opportunities.

“We are not doing septic because we don’t have a truck big enough, but 60 percent of the houses being built here have septic,” Powell says. “I believe next year we will look at septic and residential garbage.”



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