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Small-scale Los Angeles newcomer A+ Portable Services Inc. is growing despite California’s rough-and-tumble economy
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A+ set up this row of PolyJohn Enterprises restrooms and a Bravo hand-wash station to serve the public at a car show.

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When Cathy Dorico and her business partner, Paul Segovia, launched A+ Portable Services Inc. in 2007, it was with a conservative approach not always characteristic of eager entrepreneurs. But, with a collective 34 years of portable sanitation experience, they had seen others fail by doing too much too soon – investing more than they should have, taking on too much debt, and not anticipating the ups and downs that come with running your own business in an unpredictable economy.

The pair pooled their savings, sold personal vehicles and bought the components of their first pump truck, a 2000 Ford F-450 with a 650-gallon waste/250-gallon freshwater tank, which Segovia and his uncle built out themselves.

“We didn’t want to finance anything because we didn’t want to start with huge debt,” Dorico explains. “We got fortunate because someone was selling one of the tanks, and we bought the chassis. (Segovia’s) uncle is a welder and builds tanks for another industry.”

The company, which operates within a 45-mile radius of Los Angeles, employs only family members. Segovia’s sister works in the office, and his son helps out in the yard and with deliveries, as does his nephew. Dorico and Segovia do a little of everything, though Dorico primarily handles sales and works in the office, while Segovia does pickups and deliveries.

Banking on the ability to offer the personal touch possible with a small, owner-operated company, the pair picked up the phones and started building a customer base any way they could get their foot in the door. Word-of-mouth and referrals helped after that.

“People were skeptical at first – they didn’t know us. It was a little difficult, but by 2008 we had grown quite a bit,” Dorico explains. The company’s inventory of PolyJohn Enterprises restrooms quickly grew from 15 to 150.

 

Explore FIVE ISSUES that affect A+ Portable Services Inc.:

PEOPLE DON’T PARTY LIKE THEY USED TO

During recessionary times over the past few years, people have curbed their spending. One of the first things to go? Pricey parties for birthdays and anniversaries. A+ has felt the sting.

“I noticed a drop in incoming calls,” she says. “Between 2009 and last year, probably a 20 percent drop.” For a company that draws 70 percent of its business from special events, compensating for that loss has continued to be a challenge. “We keep on calling and going to locations where we think they have a need. Sometimes it has worked out,” Dorico explains. “We just have it in our head that we’re here to stay.” The fact the company has no debt is a definite benefit, she says.

To make up for lost ground, A+ has stepped up its sales game, investing more time researching new business online and getting out to meet people. The two also have emphasized serving “permanent” portable restroom placements, including warehouses, truck yards or nurseries.

 

BEEFING UP THE ONLINE PRESENCE

Seldom do potential customers wade two or three pages into an Internet search when researching a portable restroom provider. So a search-optimized website has become an essential tool for capturing new business. An updated website helped A+ come out on top in that area. “I got someone to fix it and freshen it up and once we launched it you could find us through Google,” Dorico explains. “We ask customers how they heard about us and 98 percent of the time it’s through the Internet.”

For about $300, Dorico hired a freelance Web designer to add images and update the design of the existing site. Dorico wrote the copy. For another $70 a month, Dorico secures keywords that make her company name pop up before competitors. She also gets monthly reports that document traffic and search results.

 

CALIFORNIA IS CASH-STRAPPED

With California’s continued budget woes, the special events market has taken another hit. Events that A+ serviced in the past, including a Cinco de Mayo party and a Halloween celebration, have simply been canceled. “If an event costs $100,000, then it’s not going to happen,” Dorico explains. Adding insult to injury, Dorico often doesn’t hear about an event’s cancellation until it’s close to its regularly scheduled date. Six events – three of them significant – were canceled in the past year or so, cutting into A+ business.

For events they have served, A+ has reduced prices to compete … to a certain extent. But Dorico’s not afraid to stick to her guns when a low-ball competitor comes along. “I don’t operate that way. I tell (customers) just jump on that price then. You’re ruining the industry by going so low.”

 

COMPETING WITH LARGER COMPANIES

The competitive landscape is challenging, especially when larger companies with lower prices are prevalent. But the big companies can fall short when it comes to customer service, Dorico says. “This is what I do for a living; this is my passion,” Dorico states. The company’s goal for quality service is that restrooms must be in a condition discerning females find acceptable.

A+ has made it a priority to ensure its restroom inventory is clean and sanitized, including unit ceilings. This commitment to service has aided word-of-mouth business and kept customers coming back for more. “I don’t sell product,” Dorico says. “I sell service. That’s a big reason we’ve grown.”

 

BEATING OFF THE PARTY SUPPLIERS

Party suppliers have increasingly joined the portable sanitation game, and according to Dorico, they often don’t play fair. In becoming a “one-stop-shop” supplier for parties and special events, these competitors can offer restrooms as an easy, affordable add-on. Or can they?

Dorico explains that the party supply businesses keep overhead low by merely offering the restrooms – they don’t have a pump truck or people to service the units. Instead, they’ll hire pumping contractors to do the work, while they pull in the lion’s share of the profit.

Dorico also has been approached by party supply businesses to provide restrooms. “Something’s wrong here, and I’m not doing that,” she says. “It’s not right, and they’re just going to keep getting bigger and bigger.”



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