A Side Job? Not For Long

Colorado’s David and Tawnie Lucero had their minds set on running a small evening and weekend portable sanitation company. But soon the little venture grew into a full-blown, full-time career.
A Side Job? Not For Long

What happens when you start a side business and it soon takes over your life? Just ask David and Tawnie Lucero. Their plan to launch a modest portable restroom company turned out to be a lesson in what happens when you set a goal of doing everything right.

After the Luceros had their first child in 2000, they launched Alpine Portable Toilets and Septic in Durango and Pagosa Springs, Colo., as a small business Tawnie could run from home and that they hoped could help pay the bills.

“(David) was going to do stuff on the side, stuff on the weekend,” says Tawnie, 32. The couple knew some friends and family in construction work, so they felt they already had a network of potential clients.

“We were just thinking we could rent out to (friends and family), clean them on the weekends and (it would) give me a chance to stay home,” Tawnie says.

The couple started on a shoestring budget, applying for a $10,000 credit card, then using it to purchase a 100-gallon vacuum tank to put in the back of a Ford F-150, along with 14 modestly priced restrooms. Soon they were renting the units consistently and kept fielding requests that exceeded their inventory.

“When we first started, we started so small,” David says. “Most of our (jobs were) construction. That was the first we really marketed toward because we didn’t have the inventory (for large events).”

Tawnie adds, “We just kept doing the small scale, and we would always end up getting calls where we’d have to order more restrooms.”

About two years after they launched the business, “We got a call to do an event (a country music concert). They wanted 28 units,” Tawnie recalls. The event required additional restrooms and buying a second pickup truck and a 350-gallon slide-in unit to get the job done. The Luceros considered this a turning point in their business.

“That just kind of pushed us to another level,” Tawnie says.

Astounded with their early success, the Luceros remained pragmatic about their side job turning into their career. David was already a certified wastewater treatment plant operator, working full time at the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s facility. But as the business grew, David left his job to work full time with Alpine.

And Tawnie jumped right in running Alpine’s office. “Tawnie is a wonder woman,” David says. “She loves this business. It’s given our family the financial security we need, (and) people know we are a family oriented company … and they love it.”

FROM PUBLIC TO PRIVATE SECTOR

David’s wastewater background, the couple believes, helped them secure and maintain clients. And he uses expert knowledge of sewage and sanitation issues to tout his company’s attention to cleanliness.

“I’m really concerned and I really enforce health and safety,” he says. “When I was working for the sanitation district, I would write and enforce the safety policies. A lot of the disinfection and sterilization experience really pays off; it just carries over.

“Gloves, washing hands, handling the sewage … We’re really careful. We make sure that when we’re handling dump hoses and wands that it’s a requirement to wear gloves.”

David stresses safety with his staff, and makes sure all units have hand sanitizers to help kill pathogens. “That’s actually something we market,” he says.

He pursues continuing education in wastewater treatment to retain his licenses and passes that training along to his employees through meetings and seminars. But even with that background, David says he won’t likely take his business in that direction.

“I definitely have thought about going into the wastewater treatment end, but the permit process through the state is so expensive,” he says. “Realistically, what it costs to build a treatment plant and the minimal dump fees we pay … it’s worth it to have someone else handle it.”

David says his move from the public to the private sector was well worth it, even though there were some trade-offs, such as having to buy his own health insurance.

“We did lose a good group plan … We bought ourselves pretty good insurance just because we have four kids and we had to make sure that we were able to provide. I wouldn’t have been able to leave if I couldn’t get insurance,” he says.

And as much as David says he loved working more regular and predictable hours, he says, “It’s not worth the trade-off of being able to push your own business. I’m a very competitive person; I like personal challenges. I like the satisfaction of doing something and getting a reward from it … In the public sector, that’s not there.’’

SPECIAL EVENTS EXPAND BUSINESS

Special events make up about 40 percent of Alpine’s business. The company is located in southwest Colorado, home to several American Indian reservations — making tribal events a prime candidate for their services. One event Alpine landed the contract for is the Native American Sundance Festival. Alpine supplies 25 restrooms — which they clean twice a day — to the five-day event and neighboring campsites. The company also serves events for other tribal nations.

One of the company’s largest events is the three-day Blues and Brews Festival. The event, held in the upscale mountain village of Telluride (about 2 1/2 hours away), draws about 9,000 attendees daily. Alpine supplies 100 units, which they service three times a day. The company provides its restroom trailer, made by Rich Specialty Restrooms.

The luxury trailer has four women’s stalls, one men’s stall and three urinals. The trailer features an electric fireplace and other amenities that clients appreciate, Tawnie says. In addition to the upscale festival, the trailer is used for several weddings each year.

This is the second time Alpine has serviced Blues and Brews — which David admits is a challenging event. Their crews must get in and out quickly because of huge crowds. “We’re very experienced and we’ve put a lot of thought into it,” he says.

Maintaining customer satisfaction goes hand-in-hand with maintaining units, the Luceros believe — even more so than price.

“We’re just on hand and preach service so highly. Basically, we try to provide the best service for a good price. I think a lot of it is in selling guaranteed service,” David says. “You have to sell your sincerity. I’m giving you my word — these will be clean.”

Sticking to that mantra has brought word-of-mouth referrals. Satisfied coordinators of the Blues and Brews Festival pitched Alpine for jazz and wine festivals held in Telluride. “Immediately after that one, we booked three more,” David says.

With Colorado’s cold and snowy winters, special events are primarily seasonal, but David remains dedicated to growing that portion of the business. “There’s always something bigger and better,” he says. “There are still events I want to do. I constantly think about different marketing plans … how can I figure out a way to get these people?”

But since business slows down in winter, David always keeps an eye on cash flow issues. About two years ago, he faced financial challenges after buying another portable sanitation company, acquiring about 140 units.

“That’s when we had the inventory to go after bigger stuff,” David says. “My biggest fear was how do I now get out of debt so I don’t have payments in the winter?”

IN ACQUISITION, EXPANSION MODE

Alpine has 600 portable restrooms from PolyJohn Enterprises Corp. and PolyPortables Inc., as well as six PortaJane Inc. units, and five ADA units, nine upscale units and 10 hand-wash stations, all from PolyPortables.

The truck fleet now numbers five: a 1994 Ford L9000 with 3,000-gallon steel tank and Masport pump from Imperial Industries Inc.; a 2008 International 4300 with a 1,500-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump from Abernethy Welding & Repair Inc.; a 2008 Ford F-350 with a 500-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and Conde (Westmoor Ltd) pump from Best Enterprises Inc.; a 2005 Ford F-350 with a 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank and Conde pump from Imperial; and a 1998 Dodge 3500 with 300-gallon waste/110-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and Conde pump from Best Enterprises.

Alpine also provides septic and plumbing services. For those services, it uses a 2008 Chevrolet Kodiak box truck, a 2004 Ford service van and a 2008 Kubota mini backhoe and tractor.

To house the growing inventory, the Luceros bought a shop and yard to consolidate their equipment. Previously they were using several yards to store equipment. The new complex includes three shops, the biggest being 40 by 60 feet.

“We might start doing a little more truck repair,” David says. “At this point, it’s really more indoor parking. The winters are rough here.”

In addition to buying a restroom company two years ago, the Luceros purchased a drain cleaning business and expanded their excavation services. Alpine also has added septic system pumping, repair and installation to their offerings, as well as plumbing and heating repair.

David says he’s always in acquisition mode — an important trait, he believes.

“I think you need to do everything you think you can … but you have to do it all well. If you do a thousand different things and you’re not good at any of them, that’s not how you grow. You have to market yourself as the best.”

Even though Alpine is no longer just a business that Tawnie can do from home — the couple now has four children — the Luceros have come a long way in a decade. And David isn’t ready to slow down.

He believes 2011 could be another acquisition year. “I’m not sure. I know it will be a hard-pushed year … more plumbing, and we’ll continue to push excavation … the good thing is we have enough good (clients) under our belt that we have referrals.”

Continued success is all about building and keeping a reputation for hard work and integrity, he says.

“You have some sleepless nights,” David says, but adds that it’s important to “do what we say we’ll do. Good names travel fast; bad names travel faster.”



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