Old Dog, New Tricks

Forget the rocking chair. Georgia’s Tony Sinopoli started a new restroom business at age 55 and continues to run routes and please customers 15 years later.
Old Dog, New Tricks
Technician Robert Harmon pauses to sign the service record on a unit he’s just cleaned at a construction site on Georgia’s Tybee Island. (Photos by Jim Kneiszel)

Interested in Safety?

Get Safety articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Safety + Get Alerts

At 55, when many folks start to scan their 401(k) retirement accounts more often, Tony Sinopoli bucked convention and started his own portable sanitation business. Now 70 years old and as active as ever – and despite some hardships created by the stagnant economy – he has no regrets about the decision to become a late-blooming entrepreneur as the owner of Tony's Jons Inc. in Savannah, Ga.

"Sure, it was scary to open up my own business at 55," Sinopoli says of his decision in 1998 to leave a job managing a portable restroom business in Savannah after 25 years. "The hardest part was I went from making good money to virtually nothing ... For about a year and a half, we lived off my wife Athena's salary. We've definitely seen good times and bad times, but overall, it's worked out well enough ... I put my two girls through private school and college, and Athena was able to go back to college and get an education degree.

"I'm no spring chicken now, that's for sure," he adds. "But I really enjoy what I do. The day I can't get out of bed and go do it is the time to hang it up."

To hear Sinopoli talk, that's not going to happen soon. He still runs service routes Monday through Wednesday, and spends the remainder of each week delivering restrooms and "tending to business – trying to drum up new customers," he says.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

In a way, it's not much different than when he struck out on his own. At the time, he sent out a letter to everyone he knew in the industry, asking them for a chance to provide service if their current contractor wasn't performing well. He says he never tried to start a price war or steal customers, preferring to let great service sway potential clients.

Sinopoli started out with a major handicap: The publication deadline for the local telephone book had already passed by the time he decided to start Tony's Jons, so he went a year without a phone book listing. As such, the letter – and providing great service and obtaining word-of-mouth referrals – were the key to establishing a viable client base.

"That's the way I built my business," he recalls. "My granddaddy always told me your word goes a long way. If you tell someone you're going to do something, you've got to go out and do it and do it right."

Sinopoli also says he welcomes competition, pointing out that it keeps businesses on their figurative toes. "If you have a monopoly, you tend to think you can do what you want to do," he says. "But with competition, you know that if you don't do your job, there's someone else who will."

PREFERS COMPACT TRUCKS

Today, Sinopoli's equipment inventory reflects the success of his marketing efforts. He owns about 1,400 restrooms, mostly made by PolyJohn Inc., with some made by Satellite Industries Inc. and PolyPortables Inc. That number includes 14 deluxe PolyJohn units with sinks and flush toilets.

For service vehicles, Sinopoli relies on five Isuzu NQR cab-over trucks with 850-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater aluminum tanks, outfitted either by Keith Huber Inc. or Satellite Industries, with pumps manufactured by Masport Inc. He also owns one Chevrolet W3500 flatbed delivery truck, which can carry up to six restrooms; and one Isuzu NRR with an aluminum 300-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater tank, built by Satellite Industries. The truck also can carry four restrooms.

"I bought it because it allows me to deliver units and hand-wash stations and service restrooms, too, with just one truck," Sinopoli explains.

Sinopoli favors smaller, more maneuverable cab-over trucks because his drivers frequently contend with tight quarters at industrial plants and factories. Sometimes the tradeoff is more frequent trips to disposal facilities, but he mitigates that by routing trucks as efficiently as possible.

"The exception to that is holding tanks," he says. "If we pump out three holding tanks, we have to go dump. But in those cases, we try to work it out so the drivers aren't that far from a disposal site."

KEEPIN' IT CLEAN

A lot has changed in the industry since Sinopoli started his career 40 years ago. But one thing remains constant: Providing customers with sanitary restrooms leads to repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.

"You must provide sanitary units," he emphasizes. "The guys who work for me take pride in what they do. The only thing you have to sell in the portable-restroom industry is service. Anybody can go into business and put brand-new restrooms out there. But if you don't service them, they aren't worth a flip."

To kill germs, Sinopoli started using bleach in his scrub water years ago, based on information from his two daughters, who both are nurses. That willingness to listen to others goes a long way toward improving his business, he adds.

"I still learn something new every day," he says. "You've always got to leave yourself open to new ideas. Don't have a closed mind and think your way is the only way."

The company's business volume currently breaks down to about 30 percent special events and 70 percent construction placements. The company's revenue is down dramatically, due primarily to the nationwide downturn in the housing industry that began in late 2008. At its peak several years ago, Sinopoli had eight employees, and every driver had 25 to 30 restrooms to service on Friday routes. Now he has three employees, and a grand total of 14 restrooms to service on Fridays.

"It's been rough,'' he says. "We had a little nest egg that's wiped out. But I go by faith. The good Lord looks after babies and fools, and I'm no baby. I take things one day at a time."

MAKING A COMEBACK

Sinopoli used several strategies to compensate for the decline in business. At first, he cut back on hours, then eventually had to start the painful exercise of laying off employees. He also cut expenses wherever he could without sacrificing service. For example, his drivers used to wear uniforms, but now they don't, and he reduced the size of his telephone-book ads. He also re-examined routes to make sure service trucks run as efficiently as possible to reduce fuel expenses.

"But we're making it – things are picking up," he says. "At least my doors are open for business, because there's plenty that aren't. We never skimp on service or chemicals – just try to cut corners wherever we can and save every dollar we can. The drivers work with me ... they understand what's going on."

Sinopoli also says that to retain business, he makes a point of frequently meeting in person with jobsite supervisors and foremen, because they're the ones who know and remember what vendors do – not necessarily the owners of the companies.

NO QUIT IN HIM

For now, retirement isn't on Sinopoli's radar. He thoroughly enjoys his job, and loves meeting with clients every week. And the hardworking crew, including right-hand man Willie Reynolds, always help get the job done.

And Sinopoli is anticipating an economic rebound that will enable the company to bring back amenities such as uniforms for drivers, which he feels are just as important to creating a professional image as clean, well-maintained trucks.

In short, as long as his health remains good, Sinopoli is more than content to keep plugging along.

"Is it more challenging to do this job at age 70? Yes," he says with a chuckle. "I snap, crackle and pop when I get out of bed. But I still enjoy the job. There's nothing better than when someone calls to order another restroom because we provided great service. That's very satisfying."



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.