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Michigan’s Kerkstra Services Inc. parlays targeted advertising, promotional videos and a reputation for clean service to create a business-building juggernaut
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The Kerkstra team includes (from left) Kate Dennis, Mike MacDonald, Jordan Scharphorn, Ryan Van Rhee, Tim Bosch, Randy Hyma, Rick Holy and Randy Van Rhee. The company’s fleet of service trucks is from Prime Industrial Tanks Inc., Imperial Industries and Satellite Industries. (Photos by James Markus)

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If there are ways to make the portable sanitation business “cool,” Ryan Van Rhee plans to pursue them. With unit upgrades and aggressive, high-tech marketing, the 31-year-old is on a mission to grow the company that he played a part in starting with his father, Randy, in 1996.

At 15, Ryan assembled 20 portable restrooms to start things rolling. Now, with 2,500 units, the younger Van Rhee uses modern ideas to manage the portable restroom side of Kerkstra Services Inc. But he also respects and follows the emphasis on quality and common sense that his father established.

 

SMALL START

“I worked for a septic tank company (Kerkstra PreCast) and bought the septic cleaning part of the business,” Randy explains. “There wasn’t enough work in the winter, so I bought 20 portables.”

Located in Hudsonville, Mich., near Grand Rapids, the first portable sanitation customers were construction companies and a produce farmer who wasn’t satisfied with a competitor’s service.

“The next year we had 30 restrooms at a big nursery, which gave us a big boost,” Randy says. In his area of western Michigan, Kerkstra identified three potential markets – construction, events and agriculture.

“Hudsonville is called the salad bowl city,” he explains. Area farmers grow apples, strawberries and other produce crops. They need restrooms that are stationary, plus units on trailers that can be moved from field to field as workers move.

Area nurseries also require restrooms. Gradually, Randy built his inventory to 300 units, a service truck and a flatbed delivery truck. Then opportunities came up to expand in all directions by buying out five existing restroom rental businesses. Owners were retiring or had small operations, and Randy picked up 65 to 350 units at a time. He created satellite shops in Muskegon (northwest) and Ionia (east). In 2009, he set up a shop in Morley (northeast). Each shop has two or three employees. The Van Rhees work out of Hudsonville and cover the Grand Rapids area and south to Kalamazoo.

Currently, Kerkstra covers six counties and about 26 communities. About 40 percent of the business is for events and weekend rentals. The other 60 percent is monthly rentals for construction, agriculture and nursery customers, and camp-grounds, county parks and school sports fields.

At the Morley shop, Kerkstra also does RV and houseboat pumping.

 

STICKING TO STANDARDS

“The industry has grown and changed over the years,” Randy says. “Everybody used to call them portable johns. Now it’s a better image, calling them restrooms. We are doing more upscale. You have to do a better job to keep customers.”

He recalls the good years in residential construction from 2000-2005. When the economy crashed, Kerkstra lost residential contractor business. Competitors slashed prices.

“We lost some customers,” he notes. “Then a year down the road, they came back to us.”

Fortunately, commercial construction held its own, especially in Grand Rapids, with new medical facilities, other downtown buildings and a new downtown campus for Grand Valley State University.

Whatever the economy, the Van Rhees emphasize professional service. Workers wear uniforms and keep their appearance – and their trucks – clean.

“Our employees care about the business,” he adds, and turnover is low. The Van Rhees pay a decent wage and offer benefits including health insurance, paid vacations, cell phones, uniforms and a retirement program.

The Van Rhees believe that keeping loyal, respectable employees is important to the company’s success. They must also understand regulations. At one training session, for example, the Van Rhees brought in a retired Michigan Department of Transportation employee to explain how to properly fill out paperwork.

 

COMPLETE FLEET

Kerkstra’s prices haven’t changed in the past five or six years, though fuel and expenses have increased.

To compete, the Van Rhees focus on adding services and equipment. Because they bought out businesses, they inherited a colorful assortment of portable restrooms from a variety of existing and defunct manufacturers, including Satellite Industries, PolyJohn Enterprises and PolyPortables Inc., and a three-stall bathroom/shower trailer from Rich Specialty Trailers.

As they add new units, they shop locally at Five Peaks, based just five miles from their Muskegon satellite shop. The Van Rhees own 700 Five Peaks Aspen and K2 restrooms, about 100-trailer-mounted units from various makers, and hand-wash stations from Five Peaks, PolyJohn and PolyPortables. They also carry 20 250-gallon holding tanks from PolyJohn, Satellite and Five Peaks, as well as five 100-gallon freshwater tanks from PolyJohn.

The hand-wash stations are required for agricultural clients and stocked with unscented soap to meet GAP (good agricultural practices) mandates. Most of the units hook on the back of the trailers.

“Farmers are audited every year, so we make sure to keep up on the regulations,” Ryan says, including how many restrooms are required according to the number of employees and the distance they walk. Kerkstra provides farm customers with a spill response sheet that explains the plan of action if a restroom tips over.

The 100-gallon freshwater and 250-gallon waste holding tanks help Kerkstra meet commercial construction clients’ needs for water in office trailers. Contractor customers also appreciate Kerkstra’s crane racks, which they fabricate themselves, and PolyJohn high-rise units. One customer had a 32-story building project, and the wheeled units made it easy to bring the restrooms down an elevator for servicing.

The service truck fleet includes several Ford F-550s with 550-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater steel tanks; an F-550 with a 1,050-gallon waste/450-gallon freshwater aluminum tank; an F-550 with a 650-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater steel tank; an F-550 flatbed truck with a 475-gallon waste/275-gallon freshwater steel tank; an F-350 flatbed truck with a 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank; a GMC 3500 flatbed truck with 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank; two International 4700 trucks with 20-foot flatbeds 250-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater steel tanks and an International 4700 20-foot flatbed truck. The trucks range from the late 1990s to 2012 and all have Masport pumps, and vacuum systems from Prime Industrial Tanks Inc., Imperial Industries Inc. and Satellite Industries.

“We fabricate most of our trailers, or extend smaller trailers,” Ryan says. “We built bigger trailers to haul bigger loads. One hauls 22 units.” The other transport trailers include four 20-unit haulers, three 16-unit haulers, two 14-unit trailers and three 10-unit trailers.

A full-time mechanic in the Hudsonville shop keeps the fleet maintained, does body work and switches out pumps and tanks.

Kerkstra purchased a U.S. Cutter Laser Point to make all of its vinyl signage.

 

COOL MARKETING

One tip Ryan picked up at a Michigan Septic Tank Association meeting was to embrace Internet promotion.

“We looked at all our advertising spending in phone books, and we were shocked,” Ryan says. He downsized the ads and invested money with a marketing person to help Kerkstra brand itself and create a new logo.

“The logo has been all over the place in the last 13-14 years,” Ryan explains. “We needed something with a clean and fresh look to be consistent on our trucks and clothing.”

But, the Van Rhees maintain one fun tradition with their trucks. Each has a mural with a bear on the door with the truck’s name, such as Honey Pot and Honey Holer. “My dad’s first septic truck had that on it. It’s something we got to be known for,” Ryan says. Though everything else is vinyl, they hire the same artist to airbrush murals on their trucks.

Ryan says the Internet also attracts customers, and he uses it to counter people’s fears of portable restrooms. The home page takes the mystery out of the process with a video of Ryan cleaning a restroom and then showing the units they have for different needs.

“I want to be the ‘cool’ portable restroom company,” Ryan says. “We want Kerkstra to be the first name people think of.”

Since social media is “cool,” he started a Facebook page that chronicles events where Kerkstra portables are used. He posts photos and makes comments about what’s going on behind the scenes.

As he expands advertising on the Internet, television, radio and billboards, Ryan notes he is working on tracking where people learn about Kerkstra, to effectively spend advertising dollars.

 

EVENT GROWING

Located along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Kerkstra’s service area offers opportunities in tourism and events. Kerkstra has a proven track record covering small to large events. Their largest contract to date was for 1,200 units at a music/art event a few years ago. NASCAR, the circus, car shows and music events are the most common. Ryan notes he pumped motor homes owned by country singer Taylor Swift and her entourage at one event.

“When we do big events we pull in the septic guys (from the other part of Kerkstra’s business),” Ryan says. “A lot of events we stay on site and camp all weekend. We have travel trailers to stay in, and a tanker on hand to transport the waste to the treatment plant.”

 

FUTURE

At 52, Randy appreciates having his son in business with him. Randy oversees the septic side of the business, pumping tanks and grease traps for restaurants, as well as environmental recovery work for things such as gas spills. He manages the office and paperwork.

“It works pretty well, because he lets me do my thing, with more and more responsibilities,” Ryan says. He enjoys getting out of the office to make deliveries and pickups, and he runs a service route once a week.

“I’m kind of a competitive person and I want to see how it can grow and what we can do with it.” Ryan adds. “We’re all super hard workers.”

There are no plans for buying more businesses or growing the service territory, but there is always room to add more customers and provide more services.

“We can do anything in the portable restroom industry,” Ryan says. He’s pleased with the response to the website and confident that technology and new ideas will take the family business in new directions – hopefully some “cool” ones.



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