Topeka Trifecta

Kansas contractor Larry Mather built a solid foundation for his 50-year-old business by mixing portable sanitation, traffic control and container storage services
Topeka Trifecta

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From a business standpoint, Larry Mather realized years ago that it’s risky to sit on a one-legged stool. That’s why Mather Flare Rental Inc. in Topeka, Kan., consists of not one, but three diverse yet complementary on-site-services divisions – portable restrooms, traffic control and temporary semi-trailer and shipping-container storage – that offer a more comfortable and secure perch.

Diversifying into three distinct yet related businesses made sense because one division often provides business leads for another. And in a relatively unpopulated area, serving three markets instead of one is often a necessity, Mather says.

“A good example is the restrooms, which is a good compatible business for traffic-control services,” he says. “If a project requires traffic barricades, there’s roadwork going on, and where there’s roadwork going on, there’s a need for portable restrooms.

“Plus, this is a small area, so you can’t generate the kind of sales volume (with one business) that you can in more populated areas,” he adds. “So you have to branch out in order to survive.”

The portable restroom branch of Mather Rental is A-1 Rental Inc., which does business as Johnny On the Job. Mather’s daughter, Carrie Kelly, and her husband, Jack, are in the process of buying out the business from him on a contract agreement. Mather and his wife, Cheryl, run the other two divisions: Topeka Trailer Storage and Traffic Control Services.

 

GIVE TRAFFIC CONTROL A GO

Mather and his father, Louis, started the company in 1960 when they bought a traffic-control services company in Topeka. Mather was 21 at the time.

“The business seemed lucrative enough,” Mather notes. “It’s cheaper for the state and local municipalities to rent signs and barricades than to own them.”

Today, the division owns more than 800 traffic barricades, mostly made in-house; thousands of self-fabricated highway signs; and eight electronic arrow boards. Four electronic message boards were made by Allmand Brothers Inc.

“We grew through personal contact with contractors and companies and by providing excellent customer service,” Mather says. “We’re always available on call, even in the middle of the night – we’re a 24-hour business. We take care of people, and they appreciate that, which leads to a lot of repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.”

 

NEW BUSINESS BRANCH

Based on his frequent contact with contractors and traffic-control customers, Mather decided in 1965 to acquire a small portable restroom outfit in a nearby town. The inventory: 16 plywood units.

Today, the restroom division of the company owns 600 standard restrooms, mostly made by Satellite Industries Inc.; a 40-foot restroom trailer made by Satellite Shelters; and a 34-foot restroom trailer made by Ameri-Can Engineering. The division’s business mix is about 60 percent special events and 40 percent construction rentals, Mather says.

To service customers, the division relies on a 2001 Ford F-450 with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2000 Ford F-450 vacuum truck with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2004 Ford F-550 with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2006 Ford F-550 with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; and a 2008 Ford F-750 vacuum truck with an 850-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater steel tank. Satellite Industries built out the trucks, all of which feature Conde pumps made by Westmoor Ltd.

The fleet also includes a 2006 Ford F-550 vacuum truck with a homemade 600-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2006 Chevy CK 4500 truck with a 1,000-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank, built by Tri State Tank; a 1997 Ford F-350 flatbed; a 2000 Dodge 3500 flatbed, and a 2001 Ford F-450 flatbed.

Johnny On the Job services a large area, and on many of the routes, bigger trucks don’t make sense, Carrie Kelly says of the division’s preference for smaller vacuum rigs. “Larger trucks cost more to buy and maintain,” she says. “We have two larger trucks that we use on the farthest routes in the larger cities. We also use the larger trucks more for the large (special) events.”

 

FAMILY STEPS IN

The Kellys started operating Johnny On the Job on their own about a year ago, although Jack had already helped Mather run the restroom end of his business for about 25 years.

“It just seemed like the right time,” Carrie says, noting she was frustrated with her job after 24 years as an accounting manager for a national shoe retailer, and her father was looking to cut back on his hours. “I felt like if we were going to run this end of the business after Dad retired, we needed to do it now or never, because we’re not getting any younger, either.”

During fall, local festivals and football games at Kansas State University in Manhattan, about 50 miles west of Topeka, and at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, about 25 miles east, keep employees hopping. Johnny On the Job restrooms remain on the university campuses for the season, which greatly reduces back-and-forth deliveries and setup times, Mather says.

Labor Day weekend poses one of the division’s biggest challenges: games at both universities, plus a major American Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) motorcycle rally at Perry Lake, about 30 miles away.

“It’s difficult,” Carrie says. “We try to set up ABATE a week before so we’re not doing everything at the same time. Dad takes the restrooms up to ABATE in a semi-trailer. We set up about 70 restrooms at Kansas State the Monday prior and at KU on Wednesday or Thursday.”

The ABATE event involves about 115 restrooms and twice-a-day service. A local treatment center that used to accept waste doesn’t do so anymore, so crews have to haul it back to Topeka for disposal.

Kansas State games receive only half-time service, which requires two trucks. A fair amount of people never go into the stadium for the game, preferring instead to keep tailgating in the stadium’s one large parking lot, which can make service a challenge. On the plus side, though, a treatment center in Manhattan accepts waste, she says.

Johnny crews service KU games on Sundays. The 60 or so restrooms situated at KU games are a bit more complicated to service than those at Kansas State games because the stadium is in the middle of campus. There aren’t many parking lots around it, so the restrooms are scattered around the campus.

 

REINING IN EXPENSES

Carrie says her biggest challenge is keeping costs down – especially labor costs. To minimize overtime, she relies on a Microsoft Streets software program to route trucks as efficiently as possible, although she notes that last-minute calls for emergency service tend to mess up even the most strategically planned day.

Johnny On the Job also relies on a global positioning system product from Advanced Tracking Technologies Inc., which collects data such as how fast drivers travel, how long they stop, how many miles they drive per day, where they went and other critical operational information.

The system provides good raw data, but the trick is to find someone who has enough time to review it. “It can spit out a lot of papers,” Carrie says. “Our system doesn’t operate in real-time. It downloads data from each truck into a database every night.”

To ensure a reasonable profit, Carrie runs a detailed cost analysis on all major special events, which tells her exactly what the cost of service is. “That analysis factors in everything from chemicals and toilet paper to fuel and labor,’’ she explains.

“The cost analysis also tells me how much I can pay employees to work at a special event. For special events, I try to pay employees a flat rate. During the week, we pay them hourly, but on weekends, I pay a flat rate. That way they can decide whether or not they want to service an event.

“It makes things easier because I know how much I’m going to spend while doing cost analysis, as opposed to guessing and paying a lot of overtime,” she continues. “Plus it gives them an incentive to get in and get out instead of messing around. They know how much they’re making and we know ahead of time how much we’re spending.

 

THE FAMILY LEGACY

Mather is pleased that the restroom business remains in family hands for the foreseeable future. He says it worked out well because Carrie, a Kansas State graduate, has an accounting background and Jack is mechanically inclined.

“They’re both hard workers, and they work good together,” he says. “Jack can fix just about anything – he keeps everything going.

“Sometimes it’s a little bit hard to let go,” Mather says about passing the torch. “But I just turned 72, so it’s time to step back a little bit and do a little fishing. I feel good about the fact that they’re still in it and making money and carrying on what I started. I still get a lot of calls from national companies that want to buy us out, but I’d rather see it directed this way.”

And keep that three-legged stool on solid footing along the way.



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