Take 5...with Charlotte Ison: Windshield Time

Serving the sparsely populated Texas Panhandle, B & C Portable Toilets’ drivers endure long, lonely drives, violent summer storms and dangerous oil-field work sites

The population of Pampa, Texas, is only 18,000, but that makes it the second-largest town in the Texas Panhandle. This sparsely populated area is oil country.

Charlotte Ison, owner of B & C Portable Toilets LLC, says the company does some interesting special events — election day at The Little Red Schoolhouse, fiddle playing at the Woody Guthrie Museum, Judge Cook’s Cow Calling, a “Blessing of the Land” ceremony. “But at the end of the day,” she says, “it’s the oil and gas producers and servicing companies that keep us going — and they’re running us ragged.”

B & C began in 2001 when Ison bought an existing company from its retiring owner. It’s a family business. Ison handles finance and accounting, her son Brian Smith is operations manager, and his wife, Ronna, is the Internet technician and does electronic data invoicing. Their son Coby, a high school senior on the football team, works around his school and sports schedule. Son Tyler, 12, started in the business as an infant, riding along with his dad in the truck.

The kids are familiar with every county and farm-to-market road in the Panhandle and understand every aspect of the company, from cleaning units to working the 1999 Freightliner service truck with its 2,200-gallon Ibex Industries Inc. stainless steel tank.

The company’s 500 blue Satellite Industries Inc. units (mostly Tufways), and all vehicles are stored at their two-acre facility. Portable restroom rentals are 60 percent of their business. They also do septic tank and grease trap cleanouts, and have a fleet of specialty vehicles including backhoes, dump trucks, trenchers, and tractors. The company builds its own service vehicles with tanks from Best Enterprises Inc.

They work within a 180-mile radius of Pampa, across the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, most of it fairly desolate territory. Employees often drive one or two hours to get to service locations.

Explore Five challenges that affect CHARLOTTE’S PORTABLE SANITATION BUSINESS:

SEVERE WEATHER

The Texas Panhandle is in an area known as Tornado Alley. “The winds blow every day in Pampa,” says Ison. The company lost a dozen restrooms last year. On one occasion, Ison and her grandson, Coby, delivered two brand new units to an oil and gas field near Sweetwater, Okla., when a tornado struck the town. They survived the heavy rain and wind, but watched helplessly as the units imploded from the impact.

“It was like watching a candle melt,” says Ison. The company constantly emphasizes the importance of tying everything down, but in heavy winds that’s not always effective. Several tied-down units were recently sent crashing to the bottom of a mesa when a tornado hit. Ison is adamant that all vehicles have working AM/FM radios so employees will be alerted to weather warnings wherever they are. She also insists air conditioners and heaters be working.

FOSTERING TEAM SPIRIT

The four service techs and five drivers go out alone on their routes and are usually gone all day. Although they’re isolated, the company works hard to make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the team. The staff gathers first thing each morning for a quick meeting where assignments are handed out. In addition, once a month, everyone meets at Ison’s home where she serves up a bacon-and-egg breakfast. She calls it a “Breakfast Safety Meeting,” but it’s much more than that. “This helps the team members bond and it gives them a chance to just shoot the breeze with each other,” she says. It’s also a good time to talk about issues, concerns and policies so everyone’s working from the same set of instructions.

To help with loneliness, techs and drivers are allowed to bring along an unusual companion — their dogs. “The women especially love it. They just feel more secure,” says Ison.

SMALL TOWN SPIRIT

The company is community-oriented and always looking for ways to get involved. Summers, they hire high school students. “We like to help the teenagers,” says Ison. “A lot of them want to earn money.” B & C’s logo appears on mini footballs thrown out as gifts at high school football games. The company name also appears on county maps that are handed out to visitors. The company occasionally donates portable restrooms for community or charitable events such as a free fishing day for kids.

B & C’s relationship with its competitors is friendly and supportive. “They all have different strengths, so they send each other work and watch out for each other,” says Ison. “There’s more than enough work for all of us.”

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

Oil fields, rigs and refineries are hazardous locations subject to numerous mandated state and federal guidelines. To step foot onto these sites, B & C employees must suit up in fire-retardant coveralls, hardhats, safety glasses, and steel-toed boots — despite the sometimes brutal heat. “They have to do it so they won’t get hurt and we won’t get fired,” says Ison. “If they (fail to wear appropriate gear), the company will call us.”

Those boots are also useful in protecting employees from rattlesnakes that occasionally take up residence under the units.

Safety guidelines and policies are reviewed with the staff on a regular basis. “We tell them, ‘Don’t put your guard down. Make sure you’re watching your tie-downs, your trailers, and your chemicals,’” says Ison. A recent fatality involving a competitor drilled home the message. A vehicle struck the driver when he tried to retrieve a unit that fell off a trailer onto the interstate.

DEALING WITH DISPOSAL

The expense, inconvenience, and time involved in waste disposal finally got to Brian Smith. The company was spending four hours a day driving the 10 miles to the Pampa treatment facility to empty their six service vehicles, each vehicle using close to three gallons of gas. This year he came up with a better plan. The company installed a metered disposal line at their yard, licensed by the city. It’s a 2,000-gallon modified septic tank with a pipe connecting to the city sewer system. “It’s helped us tremendously,” says Smith. “I can dump 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” It cost $8,000 but with the savings in fuel, he expects it’ll soon pay for itself.



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