Growing Portable Sanitation Business Utilizes Government Contracts & Construction Knowledge

Procuring government contracts and concentrating on quick-paying customers helped Georgia’s A-OK Portables build a strong business foundation.
Growing Portable Sanitation Business Utilizes Government Contracts & Construction Knowledge

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Talk about bad timing: In 2007, Lee and Mark Insley bought a small but established portable sanitation business in Warner Robins, Ga., just as a huge economic downturn was looming on the horizon. Of course there have been challenges along the way, but the business — which they renamed A-OK Portables LLC — is doing fine.

Lee Insley, the company's majority owner, credits two things for the company's unlikely success amid economic duress. The first is a con-ventional business strategy, based on providing great customer service and assembling and retaining a core group of top-notch employees. The second, however, centers on pursuing government contracts that provide steady business and a customer base that pays bills on time — and subsequently generates consistent cash flow.

"Mark and I weren't looking for this business," Insley says, noting they owned several construction-related firms when they learned that the restroom business, A & K Portable Toilets, was for sale. "It just fell in our lap, and it's been nothing but a blessing to our employees and their families and our family. It's kept food on all our tables. If we
had relied on only our construction businesses, we never would have survived."

COMPLEMENT TO CONSTRUCTION

A friend told the couple the portable restroom company would be a logical extension of their construction businesses. When she looked into it, Insley realized the business — which generated about 75 percent of its gross sales from construction rentals and 25 percent from special events — had potential, and could be easily integrated into the couple's
existing businesses.

"We had the administration in place to handle another service business. Mark has a mechanical background to handle the trucks and I have the financial background to handle the business side," she says.

But within a year or so, when "the construction world fell upside down," as Insley puts it, the business grew from a side dish to a full-course meal. At first, she concentrated on expanding A-OK's geographic base, finding pockets of business in under-served markets. But eventually, she also realized that government contracts — and other contract-based work — offered great potential.

For example, Warner Robins sits amid a large military market, so A-OK went after contracts to provide portable restrooms to more military bases, which regularly need restrooms to accommodate everything from construction work to training courses. The company also sought contracts to provide restrooms to local utilities, which require them during plant maintenance shutdowns and the like, Insley says.

"When we bought the company, there was one military contract in place," she says. "Now we have numerous military contracts. Why? Because during the worst economic conditions of our lifetime, the phone wasn't ringing (for construction-related rentals). But we noticed who was consistently paying their bills — the military and utilities.

"We decided that these regular-paying customers were the ones we should go after for our main customers," she adds. "From there, it was just a matter of learning how to find (contracts) and start bidding on them."

The strategy worked. By 2009, the company had doubled its first-year gross revenue, and by 2012, had quadrupled that amount, Insley says.

SHUFFLING PAPER

While the contracts offer great long-term rewards, there's much more work up front to obtain them compared to wooing non-contract customers. In particular, federal contracts require hours of compiling detailed information to certify a company is equipped to handle a job, Insley explains.

The first step is keeping an eye out for government solicitations for contractors, either by hiring companies that monitor requests for solicitations and forward opportunities as they pop up, or regularly monitoring various websites. Insley says she spends an average of 30 minutes daily checking websites where government agencies post solicitations. "We figure if we can do it ourselves ... we should do it instead of paying someone to do it," she says.

Federal-contract solicitations are the hardest to fulfill, while state and local solicitations are less onerous, she says.

"There's definitely a skill to answering those solicitations," she notes. "I understand why some people don't go after them. The information you have to produce about your company is tremendous. The biggest one we ever did was two inches thick and took more than 100 hours to assemble."

ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER

Most contracts last three to five years, though it varies from agency to agency. And terms are subject to change; for instance, Insley says A-OK has one contract with a military base to service 30 units on a daily basis, plus provide special-events service. But the base can reduce the amount of restrooms needed at any time.

One unexpected bonus from the contracts: They've provided entry into markets A-OK otherwise might not consider. For example, a contract to provide restrooms to a federal law-enforcement training center in Brunswick opened the door to another customer in the area. And providing service to a military base in Savannah led A-OK to purchase a small restroom business there, Insley says.

"In May 2011, a plumber in Savannah approached us about buying a side restroom business he operated," she notes. "That's turned into a good market for us. But had we not been there, he never would have called us."

IN THE GARAGE

As the company grew, so did its stable of equipment. Today, A-OK operates two full-service yards — one in Warner Robins and one in Savannah — and owns 1,500 restrooms, made mostly by Satellite Industries Inc. and PolyPortables Inc., and 16 portable showers and 75 handwash stations, made by both PolyPortables and PolyJohn Enterprises Inc.

The company relies on a wide range of used service trucks, including a 1987 International with a 1,500-gallon freshwater tank, used only for special events; a 2000 International with a 250-gallon wastewater/100-gallon freshwater tank and a Masport, Inc. pump (it also can carry six restrooms); a 2006 International with a 1,000-gallon wastewater/350-gallon freshwater tank and a Masport pump, built out by Abernethy Welding & Repair Inc.; a 1998 Ford F-800 with a 1,000-gallon wastewater/350-gallon freshwater tank and a Masport pump; a 2000 Ford F-550 with a 500-gallon wastewater/250-gallon freshwater tank and a Masport pump; a 2004 Ford F-550 with a 500-gallon wastewater/250-gallon freshwater tank and a Conde pump, a brand owned by Westmoor Ltd.; a 2006 Ford LCF with a 750-gallon wastewater/200-gallon freshwater tank and a pump made by Jurop (Chandler Equipment, Inc.); a 2006 Ford F-750 with a 1,000-gallon wastewater/400-gallon freshwater tank and a Conde pump; a 2006 Ford F-550 with a 500-gallon wastewater/250-gallon freshwater tank and a Conde pump; a 2008 Ford F-550 with a 600-gallon wastewater/200-gallon freshwater tank and a Conde pump; a 2000 Isuzu with a 1,000-gallon wastewater/300-gallon freshwater tank and a Conde pump; a 2001 Isuzu with a 750-gallon wastewater/250-gallon freshwater tank and a Conde pump; and a 2008 Isuzu with a 750-gallon wastewater/300-gallon freshwater tank, built by Crescent Tank Mfg. with a Masport pump (it also can carry eight restrooms). The majority of the trucks have steel tanks, with a few made of stainless steel.

PEOPLE POWER

Another factor in A-OK's success is a core group of longtime employees. To find employees with a solid work ethic, Insley targets a specific demographic: farm kids.

"My best employees are farm kids," says Insley. "They never complain about working in heat or rain, or when a piece of equipment breaks down an hour from the shop in an inconvenient area.

"They tend to be more self-sufficient," she continues. "It's how they tick ... they're not afraid to get their hands dirty. They get that it's just not good enough to remove graffiti on a restroom to the point where you can't read the words any more — they know it must be completely removed. It's all about work ethic."

To find such employees, Insley runs a local newspaper ad with general labor/farm job as the description. Then she does short telephone interviews with respondents, and says within minutes, she knows what kind of person they are.

"You know immediately because they either go, 'Eeeew,' when you describe the actual job, or they ask me to tell them more about it," she says.

From there, Insley narrows the field to five or six people, then conducts face-to-face interviews. After that, she selects two or three finalists to ride with a veteran A-OK driver for a half day so the prospective employees can "see the good, the bad and the ugly." This also allows the driver to get a feel for the potential employee, in terms of initiative and trainability.

The potential worker must pass a drug test before receiving basic training. After three or four weeks, the new hire goes out on their own, at first on smaller "baby routes to wean them into it," Insley says.

BRIGHT FUTURE

Insley feels A-OK is well positioned for further growth, especially if construction activity picks up. To handle growth more efficiently, she plans to start upgrading the company's fleet of older vehicles after the company is debt-free, which should occur in early 2013.

"We want to keep growing, keep the right employees, and get the right equipment in place," she says. "In fact, we recently purchased solid-waste roll-off containers that will further diversify our company."

Business expansion in an uncertain economy? It's not unfamiliar territory for A-OK Portables.



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