Her Own Boss

Gretchen Menard once thought bigger is always better in the business world. Now the Michigan PRO is happy to go it alone as a boutique restroom service provider for special events and weddings.

Gretchen Menard prides herself in running a one-woman show. She does it all: sales, service, delivery and maintenance for her own small portable restroom company, Poopy’s Potties LLC, based in Swartz Creek and Holly, Mich.

But it hasn’t always been that way. At one time, Menard aspired to building a portable sanitation empire, and she was on her way to doing just that when she came to realize bigger isn’t always better. Now, at age 36, Menard has seen the ups and downs of running a small business — including expansions and contractions — and knows exactly what she wants out of her career. But it took her awhile to figure it out.

BOUNDLESS AMBITION

Menard was working as a Hooters waitress in 1998 when she quit to run the portable restroom company her then-husband had launched just months earlier. Menard was essentially thrown into the business when her husband moved on. With no prior experience or knowledge of the portable sanitation business, she met the challenge head-on, calling upon her customer service skills and a stellar work ethic to guide her.

When Menard quit her job at Hooters, no one was more surprised than her.

“I started with 30 porta-johns,” she says. “I forced myself to go clean the first one and the rest is history.”

Menard quickly discovered she enjoyed being her own boss, and that the timing was right for portable restroom businesses in her area — there was little competition and a booming construction industry that soon became the core of her clientele.

“I kept on getting bigger and bigger — every year I grew 10 percent. I was so excited about the growth, and it kept growing and growing,” she says.

A lot of sweat equity and willingness to learn fueled the growth, and Menard leaned on her customer service experience through Hooters as she sought out and won new accounts. Her future was bright and the money was rolling in, but Menard was putting in 80-, 90- or 100-hour work weeks, and she began to find herself losing the thing that mattered most: her happiness.

A somewhat common trait among business owner-operators, Menard found herself with five employees and 300 portable restroom units. She was grossing $300,000 annually, but struggled with delegating and entrusting others with certain tasks. Her do-it-yourself nature became more of a liability than an asset, and the long hours started to take a toll.

“I was doing everything,” she says. “I think about the things I’ve done, and I’d never do them now.” Like driving through a Detroit neighborhood to clean portable restrooms — by herself. “The truck broke down in a horrible area at night — you just do it because it’s your business.”

GROWING PAINS

And the more she grew, the worse things got.

“I felt like I was in a nightmare at times. I remember being so busy … literally, I was working 18 hours a day. I didn’t know what to do.”

There were other headaches besides the long hours. Maintaining her trucks and equipment, and dealing with problem employees consumed precious time and money. Menard doesn’t mince words.

“I don’t want to have an employee ever again,” she says. Employees called in sick far too often, and Menard ended up having to drive their routes in addition to her own duties. Then there were the frustrating issues when employees didn’t use common sense: One time, an employee, unable to track down the company’s signature gray portable restroom unit, instead picked up a competitor’s blue unit.

“He couldn’t find mine, so he just picked up whatever one was there. I had to call the competitor and tell him,” Menard recalls.

“I had another (driver) who called and said the truck broke down. I asked if he was sure he hadn’t run out of gas. He said it just wouldn’t start. I went out there and sure enough, he ran out of gas.”

The trucks were also a source of consternation. Menard’s lack of a mechanical background meant that every time something broke, she had to pay to fix it. “It was very expensive; if you can do (the maintenance) in-house, that’s the way to go. It made me sick to my stomach one year how much I had to pay to keep trucks on the road.”

All her trucks were only a few years old at the time, but Menard says if she had to do it all over again, she’d buy new. “I’d rather have a truck payment. If you get a day behind (because of a breakdown), it messes up your whole week,” she says.

It was a combination of all these stressors that pushed Menard to make a choice: either jump in feet first and grow bigger or scale back and attempt to have a “normal life, and not have porta-johns on my mind 24 hours a day,” she says.

“I was just going crazy. I was going to buy 500 units or try to sell the business and try to do something else,” she explains.

TAKE A STEP BACK

Menard found a solution that fell somewhere between those two extremes. In 2006, she hired a broker and put Poopy’s Potties on the market. After much interest and a few offers, the right deal still eluded her.

“So then I had the idea, I love the party part of the business, but I could never really get into it because the long-term and construction part was always bigger and more demanding.” She and the broker began to market the business a bit differently. They dropped the price slightly, and promoted it as a construction-focused business. Menard would keep 50 units and pursue the party market.

It worked, and the company was sold six months later. Menard retained 50 units from PolyJohn Enterprises Corp. and now services weddings, parties, festivals and other outdoor events from April through October.

“I’m so happy,” she says. “This is my first year of just doing parties.” Menard expects to work 40 hours a week and service her small inventory with a little help from her friends (her mom, Cheryl, and best friend, Brooke Martin, volunteer to help out when they can).

Menard’s service vehicle is a 2006 Chevrolet 3500 with a slide-in tank, which pulls a trailer that can haul up to eight units. She also has a trailer that hauls only handicap/flushable units. Her portable restroom inventory includes 35 PJ3 units, 10 sinks (six Bravo and four Applause), all from PolyJohn Enterprises Corp.; four Comfort Inn wheelchair accessible units; 10 flushable Fleet units with sinks and three SaniStand hand sanitizing stations.

NETWORKING WORKS

Initially, Menard’s business grew not only because of high demand, but also because of her networking prowess.

“I had always been a member of the builder associations, including the Michigan Homeowners Association. Every state and county has these associations, and when I signed up to join in 1998, I figured there would be other porta-john companies, too.” Surprisingly, there were none, and Menard found the connections to be the source of many business opportunities.

Another strategy Menard had success with was staying in the front of existing and potential customers with a seemingly simple marketing tool: the postcard. Her target market was builders, which offered year-round opportunities (a rarity in inclement Michigan winters).

“I got so many customers doing postcards,” she says. Menard’s message: “I would just say I was the cleanest, and always there on time … I was never the cheapest.”

Menard also stays up to date on her industry by reading PRO and Pumper magazines. “I get a lot of good, useful information from them. And when I attend my CSE classes, I always try to talk to someone else in the same line of business as me.” She currently has 34 Continuing Septage Education credits with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Though she wishes she was better at sales, Menard says she’s developed a reputation for quality, which feeds her word-of-mouth business to this day.

“I have a reputation of having clean, up-to-date units, being on time and providing professional service. My trucks and trailers are kept clean and neat. When I schedule my deliveries, I give the customer a one-hour time frame, and if I am going to be late, I call,” she says.

Customer service is the most important part of running a portable sanitation business, Menard says. “A big reason I’ve been successful is I’m happy to see my customers, and the customer is No. 1.”

Menard also advertises in local papers, and is a member of two area Chambers of Commerce, which gives her an in when it comes to their events.

As for her company’s tongue-in-cheek name, Menard says it, too, has been the source of new business.

“It was named after me,” she explains. “Every time I was in a bad mood, I’d say ‘I feel poopy today,’ and that’s how it was born. People ask about it a lot.” In 11 years, Menard says only three people have been offended by the name, but many more love it.

“I got one big account just from the name … it helps out a lot,” she says.

ONE-WOMAN SHOW

When an owner is the one providing the service, customers take notice. But when that owner is a petite woman, there is often another reaction.

“When I show up, seven out of 10 times people say, ‘Oh, there’s a little girl here to deliver porta-johns.’ Then the guys always want to try to help you, which makes it worse because if you don’t know how to move them, they’re not easy to move.”

Menard says the physical demands of loading and unloading the restrooms is probably the most difficult task she has now, and she’s proud of her ability to do it all herself.

Now in her first summer as a sole owner/proprietor, Menard feels nothing but excitement for her new endeavor — and lighter load.

“As I’ve learned now, bigger’s not always better,” she says.



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