Pennsylvanian Business Owner Conquers Challenges Via Creativity

Winter weather and seasonal slowdowns pose challenges, but the owners of Pennsylvania’s Bill’s Services keep finding creative solutions.
Pennsylvanian Business Owner Conquers Challenges Via Creativity
The Bill’s Services team includes (left to right) Bill Fleming, Chuck Conner, Cindy Knight, Mark Knight, Darl Schrecengost, Jake Knight and Terry Knight. (Photos by Bob Napoletan)

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After 21 years running their own company, Mark and Cindy Knight know a thing or two about keeping a small business humming along. They are the third owners of Bill's Service in Knox, Pa., which they bought after Mark had worked for the previous owner.

They have about 500 restrooms, about 80 percent from PolyJohn Enterprises and the rest a mix from Satellite Industries and PolyPortables, Inc. and cover 14 counties in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, about 70 miles east of Youngstown, Ohio, and about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The economy is steady but not spectacular, Cindy Knight reports. The area was never part of the housing boom, so although it did not reach economic highs, it also didn't fall into a deep hole when the bubble burst.

There is some business from the region's natural gas boom, Mark Knight says. But those contracts can be very demanding because drilling crews come from out of the area, work seven days a week, and expect the PROs serving them to do the same.

The Knights' trucks spend a lot of time on the road. The most distant job—at a national archery competition—is about 100 miles one way.

Including Cindy, Bill's Service employs six people. Its territory includes small towns and state and national forests that draw tourists and campers. They have a contract to supply restrooms in state forests, another for the state transportation department, and in fishing season they supply units along Lake Erie and its tributaries. A number of war re-enactment groups gather in Pennsylvania. They want several handicapped-accessible units because those are large enough to be used as dressing rooms where people can change into period costume.

Hours they can service restrooms are restricted at many special events. At the archery event, for example, Mark and his crew clean 35 restrooms every night on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Knight does the night work himself, with other employees when needed. He works the larger events personally to ensure that everything is done right, and he feels it's the right thing to do for his customers and his employees.

"My workers give 100 percent during the day, and any one of them would volunteer in a heartbeat to go out and work at night for me, no problem at all," he says.

EXPLORE FIVE CHALLENGES THAT AFFECT MARK AND CINDY'S PORTABLE SANITATION BUSINESS:

Retaining workers

Even though winter slows down the operation, Mark Knight has found it better to pay his workers on salary rather than an hourly wage. For workers, the advantage is a steady, predictable stream of income even in winter when the workload drops from about 50 hours a week to about 25. Knight gains more predictable costs, and he doesn't have to train replacement employees. Turnover is very low.

Knight is also flexible about working days. If service drivers want to work their 25 winter hours in three days and have a four-day weekend, that's fine with him as long as the work is done. One employee, for example, is a hunter and appreciates having more time to spend in the woods, Knight says. The same flexibility extends to storms. If the weather forecast is sketchy, Knight tells his drivers not to come in. They will work other days. "Their safety is more important than getting restrooms serviced on a certain day," he says.

Building efficiency in the yard

Knight has workflow arranged so tasks are completed with a minimum of lost time. Units coming back from a site are dropped in one corner of the lot with the doors facing in a certain direction. The employee whose sole job is maintenance washes all the units, makes necessary repairs, and lines the cleaned units up in the opposite corner of the lot. Drivers don't waste time looking for units ready to go out, and customers are assured of receiving clean, well-maintained units. Chemicals are mixed in bulk at the yard, ensuring a consistent mix of deodorant, and then tanks are refreshed before heading out.

Keeping customers happy

For the Knights, building long-term relationships with customers is all about keeping restrooms fresh. They spend extra money for deodorizers they think work best, Cindy Knight says. "It's very important to us that they just smell good. We get a lot of compliments on that," she explains.

The military re-enactment groups are a good example. At one encampment, Mark Knight was on the grounds at 7 a.m. every day to service 24 restrooms, Knight says, and he overheard people remarking to an event organizer that they had never seen restrooms so clean. The organizer replied, "The difference here is, the man that pulls in on the truck every day is the owner of the company, and he cares."

Overcoming winter weather

Harsh winters are a reality for this corner of the country, and Mark Knight meets the bad weather with a few special procedures. Starting on Halloween, he mixes a salt brine solution for his restrooms using a homemade setup of two 55-gallon drums lying on their sides and connected to a 700-gallon bulk tank from a dairy milking parlor. The drums are filled with salt, and a pump moves water from the bulk tank up into the drums to dissolve the salt. Gravity pulls the water back into the bulk tank where the solution is mixed by the tank's built-in stirrer so the salt remains dissolved. Knight varies the concentration of salt with the weather. It takes only 30 minutes or so to dissolve the salt. Then he tests the mix with a salinity meter and adjusts as necessary. Salt works only down to 6 degrees, but only one month is cold enough to require mixing the strongest brine possible. The Bill's Service trucks stay protected inside during the winter so their tanks can hold freshwater, which means workers can keep restrooms cleaner.

Buying, caring for equipment

The Knights order restrooms as needed, usually buying add-itional units on the fly during the busy season. They are usually able to take delivery of new units in two to three weeks, which helps manage cash flow. Mark Knight helps keep a tight control on expenses by performing all his own truck maintenance. It helps that he spent about nine years as a mechanic, first at a local auto dealer and then at a trucking company. Take a vehicle out for repairs, and you're at the mercy of that mechanic's schedule, he says. He runs new vehicles as service trucks for about 200,000 miles. Then trucks are moved to delivery work, where breakdowns can be compensated for with another truck. After two to four years and at 300,000 or 400,000 miles, trucks are scrapped.

Knight runs two Dodge and two Chevy trucks, all 15,000-pound GVW. He also has a 26,000-pound GVW GMC truck equipped with a 1,000-gallon tank and an 8-foot bed so it can both deliver and service units at events. His tanks are stainless steel from Best Enterprises with a couple more homemade (one stainless and one mild steel), and one stainless by local welder Swartfager Welding Inc. Pumps are from Masport and Conde (Westmoor).



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