Small Business Owner Pays Attention to Minuscule Details, Reveals Soft-Side

Unhappy being cooped up in a factory job, Canada’s Dan Grenier found his dream job getting outside and running a portable sanitation service route.
Small Business Owner Pays Attention to Minuscule Details, Reveals Soft-Side
Construction projects around Waterloo, Ontario, keep 10 PolyJohn high-rise units working for Porta-Plus. Grenier inspects a unit to be raised for placement.

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Dan Grenier loves to work outdoors. So when he heard that his brother-in-law and his friend Wayne Fazzari’s cousin were selling a portable restroom business called Porta-Plus Portables, he jumped at the opportunity to leave a factory job in 2005 and enter a new career running a service route and meeting people.

“I’m just not an inside worker,” says Grenier, who once had a construction job. “I took the factory job because it was good pay, but I really wanted to get back outside. So Wayne and I looked at the business and felt we could do something with it.”

Today, Grenier and Fazzari co-own the company, which is based in Guelph, Ont., Canada, and employs two other workers. About half of the company’s business revenues come from construction (including high-rise restroom units) and municipal park rentals, and the other half comes from special event rentals. The company also provides commercial snowplowing to maintain cash flow during the winter.

The company owns about 350 restrooms, most of them manufactured by PolyJohn Enterprises and a few from PolyPortables Inc. The company also owns three service trucks: a 1997 Ford F-450 with a 350-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2011 Dodge 5500 with a 500-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; and a 2012 Dodge 5500 with a steel tank that holds 500 gallons of waste/120 gallons of freshwater and 180 gallons of brine water. Vacutrux Ltd. built all the trucks, which feature Wallenstein pumps, made by Elmira Machine Industries Inc.

Porta-Plus also owns three pickup trucks – a 2006 Ford F-250, a 2013 GMC 1500 and a 2013 GMC 2500HD – and two Western snowplows, made by Douglas Dynamics LLC.

Explore five issues that affect Porta-Plus Portables:

Raising the business to new heights
During the last three years, Porta-Plus has provided specialty, high-rise restrooms for workers at about a half dozen construction projects at a university in nearby Waterloo. Grenier says prior good service experiences with Porta-Plus prompted job site supervisors to ask the company to supply the restrooms for the projects (18-story, condo-style apartments for university housing).

The company owns 10 PolyJohn high-rise units. The restrooms are mounted on wheels and are shorter than typical units – only about 5 feet tall – so they fit into construction elevators. They are wheeled around the floor where they’re located – typically one unit for every three floors. “It’s a productivity issue,” Grenier explains. “If a guy has to go from the 16th floor down and back up to go to the bathroom, twice a day, you could easily waste 45 minutes a day … maybe even an hour if a guy has to wait 10 or 15 minutes for an elevator that’s also being used to move other supplies and tradesmen around.”

Workers bring the units down to a ground-level deck area for cleaning. “We come in before workers get there, usually around 4 or 4:30 a.m.,” Grenier says. “That’s a big selling point because we don’t have a truck there while other trucks are trying to deliver materials and supplies, which really frees up their job site in terms of traffic congestion.”

Landing and keeping municipal contacts
To ensure steadier work, maintain cash flow and increase scheduling efficiency, Porta-Plus relies on multi-year contracts with three local municipalities to supply and service restrooms for city parks. That usually entails servicing about 150 units located at recreation-related sites – soccer fields, baseball diamonds, tennis courts and the like – from May 1 through September or October. Contracts generally run for two or three years.

To minimize the odds of losing money due to rising business expenses, such as fuel, the first year or two are locked into a fixed price, with the second or third year open for renegotiation. “If the municipality is happy with the renegotiated price, the contract goes on,” Grenier says. “If not, the contract goes back to tender [rebid]. Hopefully, providing good service makes the difference. If you’re asking for a $2 or $3 increase per restroom per month, the service you provide has to be worth the increase.”

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow
Grenier had previous experience plowing snow, so it was a no-brainer to add that service to generate revenue during winter, when dramatically fewer restrooms are out on rental sites. “When we started out, we had only 24 or 25 units out in winter,” Grenier recalls. “So to keep cash flow coming in, we started plowing snow. We already had quite a few connections in town for that kind of work.”

Grenier runs one truck and hires a seasonal employee to run a second plow. “It’s definitely something you have to have a knack for … it’s not the kind of job where you can just put on a plow and start to plow parking lots. I’ve seen some guys see other guys plowing snow, then decide to go buy a plow and start doing it themselves. But if you get into a big storm and don’t know what you’re doing, you can get into trouble.”

Grenier says he’s always looking at the long-range weather forecast to coordinate plowing with scheduled restroom work. “But if a huge storm occurs, our customers know they won’t get serviced until the storm clears,” he adds. “I won’t risk putting my drivers on the road in a storm.”

It’s all about the relationships
A local truck-repair outfit that provides preferred treatment for contractors such as Porta-Plus is an invaluable business partner, Grenier notes. If a small repair is required – say, a burst hose, a broken fan belt or a flat tire – the repair shop will pull a mechanic off another job and quickly do the repair. “When we first started doing business with them, we had older trucks that frequently required repairs,” Grenier says. “We’re one of their larger customers. Now that we have newer trucks, repairs are drastically reduced, and the repairs we need are easy fixes. We’re lucky because there are about four different parts suppliers within blocks of the repair shop, so it’s not an issue to find repair parts quickly.”

Location, location, location
Grenier says part of providing good service to customers involves taking extra time to educate site supervisors about a small but very important aspect of restroom rental: easy access to the units. “Many times a guy will tell us to just put it in a corner, but I like to make sure it’s where we can get to it easily for service,” he notes. “So I talk to the job super and discuss the location. We want easy access for tradesmen and for my guy to come in and do service. They don’t always know how the truck needs to be situated to clean the restrooms. We’re looking at about 20-foot-long trucks, so I like to make sure our drivers have enough room to operate without causing headaches on a job site.”

Making a little girl’s Christmas dream come true

By nature of the business, liquid-waste professionals wear many hats. But Dan Grenier added a novel new one to the list this past holiday – a red Santa hat – enroute to helping a little girl receive a most unusual Christmas gift.

The co-owner of Porta-Plus Portables in Guelph, Ont., assumed his role as jolly old St. Nick after taking a phone call from Emma Palmer, also of Guelph, about one week before Christmas. Turns out that Palmer’s three-year-old daughter, Hannah, didn’t want a doll or even two front teeth for Christmas; she wanted a portable restroom.

“At first, I thought it was my friends playing a joke on me, because they’ve attempted it before,” Grenier says. “I thought they got a woman on the phone this time to throw me off.

“But as I listened to her story a little more, I realized she was very serious about renting a restroom for her little girl,” he continues. “We’d had a couple units out at a renovation project at a public school just around the corner from her house, and for some reason, her daughter was fixated with them.”

Palmer had talked to a dozen other area operators who wanted to either charge full price or declined to rent her a restroom. Grenier decided he could do it for $50 to cover the fuel and labor it would take to drop off and pick up a unit.

On Christmas Eve, Grenier delivered the unit while Hannah was at a grandparent’s house. He put it in a corner of the driveway and covered it with a tarp so Hannah wouldn’t see it. Later that day, he returned with a gift bag containing a small coin bank shaped like a portable restroom. It held a surprise for Hannah’s parents: the $50 they gave him for the rental fee.

“That way she could always have a restroom, and they could put the money in an education fund,” Grenier explains. “They were concerned how Hannah would react when I came to take away the restroom, and I figured the penny bank ­­– which I got from PolyJohn – would help ease the transition.”

Come the next morning, Hannah was disappointed when she didn’t see a portable restroom under the family’s Christmas tree. But she was elated when her parents led her outside and removed the tarp, revealing the restroom, complete with a bow attached.

“She wouldn’t even use the washroom inside the house while that unit was outside,” chuckles Grenier, who picked up the restroom the following weekend, under the guise that he was one of Santa’s elves assigned to bring the unit back to the North Pole.

All in all, Grenier enjoyed his brief stint as Santa Dan, noting he was happy to help make the little girl’s Christmas wish come true. And one imagines that Hannah’s parents are hoping that the gift their daughter wants most next Christmas will more easily fit down a chimney.


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