The Sales Force

Mary Henss employs tip-top service standards and outside-the-box marketing to grow Iowa’s Best Portable Toilets in challenging times
The Sales Force
Tom Henss inspects units tied down and ready for placement during a delivery.

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A thoughtful and thorough small-business marketing plan has made all the difference for Mary Henss since she dove into the portable sanitation business in the Des Moines, Iowa, area in late 2004. Despite a roller-coaster economy – first slowly climbing toward a construction peak in her early years, then making a rapid descent starting in 2008, and now slowly recovering – Henss’ Best Portable Toilets Inc. has managed to grow revenues by a steady 10 percent every year.

The personal attention she’s paid to customers and sales techniques she’s employed offer a clue to how Henss has managed to prosper in a competitive marketplace and topsy-turvy economy. Consider a few of the initiatives that have helped Henss’ small family company – and might help other portable sanitation providers navigate unpredictable times:

Networking: She’s a regular at local chamber of commerce and homebuilder events that provide opportunities to make new business contacts.

Relationship building: Henss regularly takes customers to lunch to talk about families, sports, hobbies – not just business.

Delivering something extra: Best’s VIP units are stocked with fresh flowers; hand sanitizers are included in all units.

Saying “thank you”: Henss has a tradition of preparing and delivering home-baked Christmas cookie trays to her biggest customers. “In December, it’s bake, bake, bake. I put together more than 50 cookie trays last year,” she says.



Henss was looking for a different business investment after she, her husband, Tom, and a silent partner sold a self-service storage unit business. Then she met Lee Cramblet, a septic waste hauler and truck builder at the time. Her new portable sanitation mentor offered a wealth of advice about trucks, pumps, restrooms and customer service, piquing an unexpected interest in the industry for Henss.

Henss found herself getting to work on a plan to join an industry that was foreign to her, and one she never imagined entering. She knew she needed to learn more about the equipment and the seasonal nature of the business.

“One thing Lee told us right away was, ‘If you don’t diversify, you’ll hate the Des Moines winters,’ ” she says.

With that in mind, Henss and her son, Scot, attended the 2004 Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International, where they covered the trade show floor looking for equipment and ideas.

Henss bought a load of 60 Integra-2 models from PolyPortables Inc. The color? Purple.

“We wanted to be something different,” she says. “At the time, Des Moines had two major (portable restroom) operators who were using all different colors. By choosing purple, I think we were able to stand out.”

From the start, Henss has been adamant that her company’s restrooms always be kept as clean as possible.

“I’ll be honest. I couldn’t stand using portable toilets. I’d leave an event because of the toilets,” she says. “That’s why I insisted on hand sanitizers in every unit. You need to think about the families who might be using them.”



Mary and Scot hit the road selling in the months before the launch. They made personal sales calls to construction firms, handed out cards at business events and did direct mailings to prospective customers.

“We did a lot of handshaking and many, many lunches,” she says. “Scot and I are still huge about that. We want people to know who we are.”

Best Portable’s revenues have weathered a stormy economy, and persistence might explain that. “I was scared I was going to fail that first year. I have that fear every year. That’s why I’m calling tons and tons of people, especially in January and February,” Henss says.

Scot, a certified septic system inspector, sells and services septic pumping, waste hauling, grease trap cleaning, pit cleaning and system inspection. Scot, Mary and three other employees are certified grease haulers. Mary’s other sons, Matthew, 29; Josh, 23; and Bryan, 21, have all worked part time or summers in the business. Husband Tom, who operates an auto repair business, lends a hand during summer special events.



As it turned out, Cramblet wasn’t just a mentor for Henss and her new company. He applied his rig-building know-how to a couple of Best Portable’s service trucks, including its first service rig – a 1994 International 4900 with a 2,500-gallon waste/125-gallon freshwater steel tank and a Powerflo PF540 pump.

The original Best service truck has been joined by a 2008 Ford F-650, built out by Crescent Tank Mfg., with a 1,200-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump. Another rig is a 2005 Isuzu, built out by Lee Cramblet and Tom Henss, with a 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater steel tank and a Powerflo PF540 pump.

Best also uses Ford F-350 and F-450 stake bed trucks for hauling, one equipped with a Tommy Gate liftgate. Two restroom transport trailers – a 12-unit and a 20-unit – from Stardusk Truck & Equipment, are also pressed into service.

All of Best Portable’s 350 units are PolyPortables Integra-2 models. The inventory includes 12 handicap-accessible units, 12 flushable units with the Ambassador upgrade package, nine units with sinks and eight hand-wash stations. A trailer unit, equipped with four women’s stalls, three urinals and a men’s stall, is available for special events.

Between rentals, the units are cleaned with a 3,000-psi hot-water pressure washer from Mi-T-M Corporation.

Holding tanks are charged with brine from a 300-gallon saltwater tank to avoid freezing in winter.

Best operates from a yard located in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny and an office in Urbandale, another suburb.



“You can’t take anybody for granted,” Henss says. That’s especially important in a metropolitan Des Moines market, where six portable restroom providers are competing for business.

She says attention to detail helped win – and keep – her largest special event, the Principal Charity Classic, a stop on the PGA Champions Tour golf tournament. The event, held at the Glen Oaks Country Club, raised $620,000 for charities in 2010 and was voted by the players as the “Best Managed Event” on the tour. Best has served the tournament for two years. In June, it began the first year of a new three-year contract.

“We took a map of the property and personally walked the course (to determine the most appropriate locations for portable sanitation),” she says. To minimize disturbance to the property, the F-350 is used to move flushable portable restrooms for servicing.

The attention to detail spilled over into the color of the units after Best’s first year with the tournament.

“They loved us but didn’t like the purple,” Henss says. So, she agreed to purchase green units at the tournament’s request. The event is served with 100 standard units, 10 handicap accessible units, five flushable units and the restroom trailer.

After seeing the green units at the Principal Charity Classic, organizers at the Drake Relays requested them for their event. “They thought green would look nicer with the field,” she says. Best is in its fourth year of providing restrooms at the track and field competition held each spring at Drake University in Des Moines.



The company’s portable restroom rentals are split evenly between construction and special events. Despite a couple of soft years, construction customers average 150 to 200 rentals with volume dropping to a low point of around 60 units from November through April.

Best’s route drivers are encouraged to keep an eye out for new construction projects. The drivers receive a cash bonus for every new construction site they report that yields a rental.

Overall demand has prompted Henss to add to the company’s original 60-unit inventory nearly every year. In fact, 2010 was an active year equipment-wise, as she added five handicap accessible units, the restroom trailer, two trucks and a 20-unit hauling trailer. “We’ll hold steady for 2011, but look to acquire more in 2012,” she says.

Henss is optimistic about 2011 as word of new commercial construction projects is encouraging and she beats the bushes for more special events.

“We’re going to hold on to what we have and bid on what we can,” she says.


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