STEADY as She Goes

While a young Virginia PRO takes on a new role in the family business, Johnny Blue follows a winning strategy to outlast the recession

When Kristen Emerson was 4 years old, she spent her days riding in her dad’s vacuum truck. In fact, she still has the photo to prove it.

These days, however, Emerson is a grown-up 25 and she’s not just along for the ride. She’s the newly appointed vice president of Johnny Blue Inc., the Winchester, Va., company founded by her grandfather, Everett Emerson, in 1975 and currently led by her father, Dan. The Shenandoah Valley business that started with 60 portable restrooms now has more than 1,200 units and hovers around $1 million in sales each year.

“I think that I always enjoyed it,” says Kristen Emerson, who was promoted to her current position last November after working in the family business for 11 years. “It just became second nature. Johnny Blue is more of a family than it is work.”

And the Johnny Blue family, like just about every small business in America, is facing tremendous challenges as a result of a lagging economy. But the Emersons forecasted the tough times ahead and made several decisions that have allowed them to continue without layoffs and sustain the business. It’s been an interesting time to take on a new leadership role, the youngest Emerson says.

FORWARD THINKING

Even though Emerson earned a business management degree, she says she didn’t plan to join the family business. But working there half-days during high school was a great experience, and she enjoyed working alongside her father.

“I’m always learning,” she says. “Dad’s always saying, ‘Meet this person, or sit in here with me.’ As things come up, he wants me to experience more. I guess his intentions are for me to be where he is someday.”

While she’s not quite there yet, Emerson has a good feel not only for how the business runs today — but also for how it might operate in the future.

“I’d like to find ways to be more efficient and learn all the things that Dad knows … maybe not do everything the same way he does it, but not change it in a way that would damage what he’s done,” she says. “It’s easy when you take on a new role to go in and change things, but you have to understand why they are the way they are before you make changes.”

Among her first forward-thinking priorities is making Johnny Blue a bit more “green.”

“I would pay a lot of attention to how things are being used,” she suggests. “There’s always room for improvement. One way that we make sure we’re green is we try not to waste anything. You buy what you need and use what you can without having to throw away a lot.”

Emerson is also investigating bio-friendly chemicals and toilet paper made from recycled products. “If we can find products that help the environment and work well for the company, it’s definitely an avenue we’ll pursue. It’s a good thing to say, too, that we’re doing our part,” she says.

In addition to being eco-friendly, Emerson plans to tackle the tough issues of time management down the road. “We have consolidated our routes a little more,” she says, noting that the company does not currently use GPS technology. “That would definitely be something I would consider,” she says.

BUILDING INDUSTRY RELATIONSHIPS

While Johnny Blue has 34 years of relationship-building behind it, Emerson hopes to create and solidify her own relationships with the vendors, suppliers and clients who have been loyal supporters of her family’s business — and forge ahead with new prospects. Even though she’s young, Emerson realizes how such relationships can strengthen a business.

That’s a lesson she learned firsthand this February as she attended her first Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International in Louisville, Ky.

“It was so neat to meet people,” she recalls. “When you talk to someone on the phone, you try to imagine what they look like. It felt like family when I met them.” Emerson says she walked away with one clear impression after meeting vendors and fellow PROs.

“Everyone wants you to do better,” she says. “Everybody there wants to make you the most efficient company.”

Increasing efficiency can also lead to better customer service — an important tenet of Johnny Blue’s business. “Granddad could talk for hours about when he first started the business … and the importance of taking care of the customers because our service is what makes us stand out,” Emerson says.

At the Expo, Emerson heard many other PROs giving the same advice. She said she heard one contractor say that “times like this separate the good from the bad. Make sure you have sound practices and good morals because right now it will show. You have to be the best you can be to keep sales up and rentals going. If not, (customers) will go down the street to your competitor.”

She says she found such words inspiring. “It makes you realize that people are experiencing the same things you are. It’s nice to be able to ask people for their advice.”

TOUGH TIMES, SMART CHOICES

Emerson is being tested early in her new leadership role. Times are tough, and a down economy can be especially harsh on small businesses. But with 11 full-time employees, Johnny Blue has weathered the recession extremely well. “We have not laid anybody off,” Emerson says. “We’re like family; we’d hate to have to let someone go.”

To keep costs down and staff secure, however, Johnny Blue has instituted a slight scheduling change. “Every third week, a driver has to take a day off,” Emerson explains. “They’re only going to notice a small decrease in their monthly wages. It’s working well for us.”

Emerson says her staff was anticipating layoffs, so they have taken the change well. “It took a big weight off their shoulders,” she says. “It’s kind of like sharing the burden. Some of our drivers have (even) volunteered to take the day off.”

In addition to the personnel changes, Johnny Blue is also selling surplus inventory; they have sold 200 restroom units to a non-competitor. “That’s added to our revenue and given us a bit more yard space,” Emerson says.

Johnny Blue grew so fast during a boom in housing development in 2005 and 2006 that it purchased the extra units, which no longer are needed in the current market. While the company still services commercial construction accounts (construction is usually 70 percent of their business), “Residential building has pretty much come to a halt,” Emerson says.

“We’re phasing out old inventory, repairing things and doing the things we didn’t have time to do when it was booming like crazy,” she adds. Johnny Blue has been careful about equipment purchases and only buying necessary big-ticket items. “We don’t have a lot of debt,” Emerson says. “We’ve been preparing; that’s really helped us to feel more secure.”

IN THE YARD

In addition to being devoted to keeping costs in line, Johnny Blue maintains loyalty when it comes to both restroom units and vehicles. Most of the company’s more than 1,200 restrooms and 45 ADA units are from PolyJohn Enterprises Corp.

And as for the truck fleet, “We’re a Chevy family,” Emerson says. At its one-acre site, the company keeps 11 trucks (2001-2007 models, including 10 Chevrolet/GMC 3500 series and one 4500 series). The seven service trucks are outfitted with 700-gallon stainless steel tanks (500 gallons waste/200 gallons freshwater) from Best Enterprises Inc. and Conde pumps. The company also has three Stellar Industries lift units with several attachments.

THE BUSY SEASON

Emerson says Johnny Blue is anticipating the busiest part of the season, when special events really pick up — generating as much as 40 percent of summer business. With more people taking “staycations” close to home and hosting house parties, the company has seen increased use of its restroom trailers — like the Super Twin, with one side for men and one for women. Emerson’s father, Dan, designed and built the first Super Twin in 1998. In 2004, he hired Advanced Containment Systems Inc. to build two additional custom units, which Johnny Blue uses primarily for weddings and other small upscale events.

One of the company’s biggest events — which they’ve serviced since 1975 — is the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. Johnny Blue supplied more than 200 units to the four-day festival in May.

Emerson’s career has just begun — though she fondly remembers those days as a 4-year-old in her father’s truck. Those deeply rooted family memories guide her decisions today.

“It’s just the sense of pride. If I come to work and do my best, I’m helping to make my family a success,” she says. “I do my best to make them proud and keep my guys working. It feels good.’’



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