Outback Success

Providing “dunnies with dignity,’’ Viking Rentals spreads its message of quality service and an expanded service menu across Australia
Outback Success
The Mega Trough broken down for delivery. The painted corrugated panels form the inside and outside walls of the large urinal unit. The base includes the holding tank.

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In some ways, the portable restroom industry is different in Australia. Restrooms, for instance, are called “dunnies.” Restroom trailers are known as “blocks.” And virtually all dunnies feature flush toilets – no drop-tanks or “straight drops,” in Down Under lingo, are allowed in the country.

But something is common to the Australian and U.S. markets: Offering great customer service and clean restrooms – along with providing diversified services – remains a tried-and-true growth formula. For evidence, look no farther than Viking Rentals, headquartered in Brisbane.

The numbers speak for themselves. When co-owner Jim Noort chucked a career as a patent-search consultant and founded the company in 2006, he was the sole employee and owned one service truck and 130 restrooms.

“I drove the truck with one hand, used a mobile phone in the other hand and used a third hand to take orders in a notebook,” he jokes. A year later, he had seven employees and 700 restrooms.

Today, driven by a series of strategic acquisitions and regional expansion, the company – whose slogan is “Dunnies with Dignity” – is a major player in Australia. Viking Rentals employs 35 people, and owns 35 vacuum trucks, mostly Fuso and Isuzus with tank sizes ranging from 800 to 4,000 liters (roughly 210 to 1,056 gallons), built by KeeVac Industries Inc. The company also owns more than 4,000 restrooms, mostly manufactured by PolyJohn Enterprises.

“There were growing pains, of course,” Noort says of the company, which now gets about 65 percent of its business from construction rentals, 25 to 30 percent from special events and 5 to 10 percent from high-end private parties. “But we managed it quite well. In late 2007, a private equity firm got involved, which removed a lot of the headaches – the financial constraints. Cash is an excellent aspirin.”

 

THE A-HA MOMENT

Noort’s entry into portable sanitation occurred in a roundabout way. He started his career as a mechanical engineer, designing mobile cranes, forklifts and street sweepers for various Australian companies. But he slowly realized he was better suited to run a company than serve as an employee.

“I had the entrepreneurial bug and knew I was destined to work for myself,” he says. “I always found myself looking at things and thinking I could do them better. When you’re an entrepreneur, you know it – you can feel it in your bones.”

Noort first formed a business with “computer geek friends” that helped companies manage their Internet customer databases. After the .com crash in 2001, he started a new enterprise: helping inventors go commercial with their products. That eventually led him to create a patent-search company – until dirty portable restrooms intervened.

“I was building a house and had to order a restroom for the construction workers. I was pretty disgusted with what they presented. It was terrible,’’ he explains. “But rather than complain about it, I saw an opportunity. I started calling builders and asking them about portable restrooms. Everyone was disgusted.” So Noort changed careers again, and within six months, he founded Viking Rentals.

 

GROWTH STRATEGY

Viking Rentals has grown by following a basic strategy: deliver dunnies on time and set a higher standard for clean restrooms.

“History has shown the construction industry responds very positively to a provider who makes a real effort to deliver products on time and keeps them very clean,” he says.

The company boosts profitability by using advanced technology to improve efficiency. Global positioning system units installed in all trucks allow route drivers to respond quickly to emergency requests from customers, and text messaging allows dispatchers to get critical information to drivers without interrupting them during services.

An online Intranet website also increases productivity. Every day, the company requires drivers to log on to the Intranet’s website address from home (owning a computer and Internet access is a condition of employment) and relay critical information to the main office.

“This way, everyone is fully informed about everything that happened that day,” Noort says. “If someone calls because a restroom was not delivered, our people in the office know why. In addition, drivers get their next day’s assignment the night before, so they know ahead of time if they need to get started earlier than normal.

“A lot of our drivers take their trucks home, and with the Intranet, they don’t need to waste time to come to the office to get a run sheet for the day,’’ Noort says. “I’m very driven by efficiencies. These may all sound like small things, but in aggregate, they’re significant.”

 

BROADEN THE BASE

To achieve larger volume and diversify the business, Viking Rentals acquired other businesses that build geographic scope and services. Since 2008, the company has acquired five companies and started new branches in Perth and Melbourne.

The purchase of Elite Portables in Brisbane in May 2009 offers a prime example of diversity through acquisition. The purchase made sense because Elite’s restroom inventory consisted mostly of PolyJohn units, and it also primarily served the special-event market. Moreover, it provides weekend work, which meshes well with the traditional Monday-through-Friday construction routes.

“Even in a down economy, we still grew the business from 14 to 24 employees in 2009,” he says. “The acquisition contributed strongly to our growth in 2009 and 2010 … it helped us stare down a decline in housing rentals.”

In 2010, the company acquired Southside Power Poles in Brisbane, renting portable restrooms and temporary power poles, which construction contractors need to bring electricity to the property.

“Here in Australia, people often get power poles and restrooms from the same company,” Noort explains. “The acquisition gave us exposure to the power-pole product line because the company owned about 400 poles. It’s been a good product for us.”

The company further diversifies its services by renting temporary fencing, another complementary business to restrooms and power poles.

In April 2011, Viking Rentals continued the acquisition push by purchasing Nitschke Hire in Adelaide in southern Australia, a one-person company with about 100 restrooms. Like Elite, the company’s primary focus is special-event rentals.

When acquiring companies, Noort firmly believes in the principle of KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The company centralizes all business operations in Brisbane, eliminating the need to train additional administrative staff from the acquired company.

“We just have their phones redirected to a special line, so we know when calls are coming from that acquired company,” he says. “I find it takes a lot of the headaches out of an acquisition. The other big element to a successful acquisition is having loyal and trustworthy staff. The downside is you send your best people away to another city, but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.”

 

DIVERSITY KEYS GROWTH

Noort says Viking Rental’s ability to offer more diverse services has been critical to its rapid growth.

“We’d only be half our size if we just concentrated on construction restrooms,” he says. “By moving into the events industry and adding other complementary products, we effectively doubled the size of the company. Had construction continued strong, it might have been a different story.”

To promote its services, Viking Rentals relies on a multi-pronged marketing approach. For the construction field, marketing includes advertising in trade magazines, direct-mail campaigns, and brochures drivers hand out as they run their routes. For special-event rentals, the Internet is the primary marketing tool, and the company also employs a full-time events salesperson who meets with event organizers and promoters, Noort says.

“About 98 percent of our party hires come from the Internet,” he explains. “We spend a lot of time and effort making sure our search results are ranked pretty high … we spend a lot of money on Google Adwords that boost our Internet presence.

“On the other hand, the construction industry is populated with a lot of older men who aren’t as Internet-savvy as younger people,” he continues. “So a lot of our construction work comes from guys who drive around and see our name and telephone number posted on restrooms.”

 

NEW REGIONS BECKON

In the future, Noort wants to firmly bolster operations in Perth and Adelaide, and establish a presence in Sydney.

“We have some customers that run festivals nationally, so we want to offer customers a national solution,” he says.

Which means providing more dunnies with dignity, delivered on time.



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