Upbeat Down South

Long-established diversification, cost-cutting measures and a rebalanced marketing effort stage Georgia’s Nix Tank for an economic recovery
Upbeat Down South

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Instead of griping about a painfully slow construction economy, the partners at Nix Tank Company Inc. are looking for ways to increase the cross-selling of portable sanitation and construction site services to a large swath of metropolitan Atlanta.

Over the past year, they have tried to capitalize on the company’s decades-old diversification, carefully managed expenses and revved up their Web-based marketing to fight back against weak commercial and residential construction markets.

“We correlate pretty well. It helps us sell to the customer by offering them one less place to contact,” says Darrell Webb, who heads the Gainesville, Ga., company’s roll-off container and construction storage box division.

“I try to keep up with all commercial leads. We’ll quote them but we won’t necessarily get them,” Clay Crocker, manager of the portable restroom division, says of the Atlanta area’s challenging business environment.

 

A DIVERSE HISTORY

Nix Tank evolved from a producer of concrete septic tanks and grease traps to a company with four distinct divisions — septic tank manufacturing, septic and grease trap service, portable sanitation and roll-offs/storage boxes. The company has historically strong ties to the area’s construction industry.

Jim Curington, who holds a degree in civil engineering from the University of Alabama, acquired a precast concrete septic tank production business in 1968. He retained the well-known name of the previous local owners and continued to produce concrete septic tanks, grease traps and related products from his base in suburban Atlanta.

Now semi-retired from the business, Curington added septic and grease trap pumping in 1971. Portable sanitation followed in 1974. When he decided to add roll-offs in 1994, Curington hired Webb to run the business unit. Curington also built Nix Tank into a family-run business. Webb, 39, is a nephew. Crocker, 31, who joined in 2001, is married to Curington’s niece. Another nephew, Ray Matchen, who joined the company in 1998, runs the septic tank manufacturing division.

A fifth partner, Lanis Lee, has headed the septic and grease trap service division since 2004.

Although responsibilities are divided among the division managers, all four are capable of jumping in where needed. As Crocker puts it: “We all get in the truck. Nobody who’s a partner/owner is exempt from the dirty work.”

 

DIVERSE EQUIPMENT

Nix Tank’s portable restroom division has 600 units, all from PolyPortables Inc. The inventory includes a dozen flushing units, 10 handicap-accessible units and a Family Room model. There are also eight free-standing sinks.

The units are serviced with a 2003 GMC 5500 with 700-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump; a 2004 GMC 7500 with 900-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump; and a 1998 GMC 6500 with 1,000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tank and Moro pump. All three were built out by Abernethy Welding & Repair Inc.

Nix Tank also runs a Ford F-350 pickup that can haul up to six units and pull a flatbed trailer carrying up to 20 units.

The roll-off and storage box division runs five trucks, all equipped with bodies from Galbreath Inc. There are three Mack RDs ranging from 1997 to 2000 and a pair of Mack Granite models from 2005 and 2007.

About 350 roll-offs are from Lewis Steel Works Inc. and Rudco Products Inc. Nix Tank also has 50 former overseas steel shipping containers, acquired from Atlanta area shipping firms, available for rent as storage boxes. The storage box inventory is split between 20-foot and 40-foot sizes.

Nix Tank’s septic and grease trap service division runs two vacuum trucks, both built out by Abernethy. They are a 1998 International 4900 with a 2,200-gallon steel tank and a Masport pump and a 2008 Peterbilt 335 with 2,500-gallon steel tank and National Vacuum Equipment (NVE) pump.

Other equipment in the septic service division includes a 2001 Freightliner tractor, a 2007 Takeuchi excavator, an Electric Eel drain-cleaning machine and an electronic sensor.

In the septic tank manufacturing division, the company has four rigs, all equipped with Bethlehem Corp. bodies. They include a 2003 Chevrolet 7500, a 2003 International 7300, a 1993 Mack DM and a 1999 Chevrolet 7500. The latter rig has a dual purpose body that can handle roll-offs and a boom body that can be rolled up on the truck for delivering tanks and traps.

 

TWIN CHALLENGES

The company’s portable restroom and roll-off divisions grew and thrived during the area’s construction boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Commercial and residential projects kept the majority of Nix Tank’s 600 portable restrooms and 350 roll-offs rented much of the time.

“The period from 2002 through 2007 was great,” Crocker says. “But construction is just awful right now. Commercial is spotty at best; residential is almost non-existent.”

Webb says the business downturn arrived in November 2008 after both divisions experienced steady sales during the January through October periods of 2007 and 2008. Since late 2008, portable restroom sales are off 40 percent and roll-off sales have declined 45 percent.

“We also ended up with a lot of accounts that did not pay in 2008,” he says. To make matters worse, some customers filed for bankruptcy protection or went into foreclosure.

A second challenge was a flood of competitors in both portable sanitation and roll-offs that set up shop during the area’s construction frenzy. Webb says stiff pricing competition has continued through the downturn.

“It’s always good to have competition to keep things in balance. But what we saw was a lot of (newcomers) try to be the cheapest price,” he says. “That creates a real domino effect. Unfortunately, all of your costs keep rising, so you’re squeezed.”

 

AN AGGRESSIVE RESPONSE

Over the past two years, Nix Tank aggressively reduced overhead and focused on marketing the restroom and roll-off divisions. One position was eliminated in the restroom division and a vacancy in the roll-off division was left unfilled. Staffing levels have held steady in the tank manufacturing and septic/grease pumping divisions.

The purchase and use of all supplies, including chemicals, paper consumables and even office materials, is carefully watched. To keep the staff busy, minor repairs to the Nix Tank fleet are performed in-house. Webb also credits a team of experienced drivers for helping control expenses.

“Among all divisions, we have very good, experienced drivers who understand the equipment,” he says. “An inexperienced driver can be very costly to you. Fortunately, we have a good connection with our drivers that promotes taking care of the equipment.”

In 2009, Crocker and Webb started looking for ways to better promote their respective divisions. By already working together in the local construction market, the two divisions were helping fill seasonal revenue gaps for the whole company. That’s because special events are clustered around the spring and fall months while the construction season generally runs from March through November. The tank manufacturing and pumping divisions are less affected by seasonal business swings.

Crocker and Webb also turned their attention to upgrading an existing website and reviewed their use of Yellow Pages advertising.

A new Nix Tank site (www.nixtank.com) went live in November 2009, managed by Full Media LLC, an Internet marketing firm. The partners say turning the website management over to a third party has helped them market the restroom division for special events and freed Crocker for new business development.

Meanwhile, Nix Tank reduced the size of its telephone directory ad for the restroom division. A separate ad remains for septic pumping. “I think the (website) has done very well for us, particularly compared to the Yellow Pages,” Crocker says.

 

STRONG LOCAL PRESENCE

Economic pressure may have tightened overall expenses, but hasn’t reduced Nix Tank’s tradition of charitable giving. From the beginning, the company has donated the use of portable restrooms and/or cash to charities, including the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes, Habitat for Humanity and the Gainesville Jaycees.

“We’ll provide one or two units for small events,” Crocker says. “We like to give back what we can. It helps build acquaintances and friendships that you wouldn’t normally have.”

Adds Webb: “It’s another form of advertising. All it takes is for one person to say, ‘Call Nix.’ We’re glad we’ve been able to maintain that tradition.”

Crocker’s active participation with the Georgia Onsite Wastewater Association also has been a plus for the company. He is currently the only portable restroom operator on the GOWA board of directors.

In 2009, he worked with GOWA to get the Georgia Department of Revenue to issue a ruling that portable restroom rentals aren’t subject to the state’s sales tax. The issue had been the subject of confusion among operators and local governments for several years.

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Webb and Crocker are encouraged that sales have stabilized after the sharp revenue drop more than two years ago.

“In the past, there were more commercial jobs. They can range from six months to two-plus years. They may be completing a little faster due to trades (workers) being available to come when needed,” Webb says.

He also notes that the company’s lower overhead costs have made it possible to retain experienced staff and keep equipment in top shape. “When demand increases, we’ll be ready,” he says.

Adds Crocker: “We’re making it. We’ve cut costs to the bone and we bill more than we’re paying out. That’s a good place to be.”



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