Careful Customer Service Sustains Texas Business Owner’s Success

Texas PRO Lou Paulsen builds his Can-Doo Budjet Rentals on careful customer service, charging to turn a profit and a catchy TV jingle.
Careful Customer Service Sustains Texas Business Owner’s Success
Technician Rod Jones loads a restroom after servicing it at a construction site.

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Embracing productivity-enhancing technology ­such as GPS units and route-scheduling software, and modern marketing methods like radio and television advertising have enabled Lou Paulsen to build a thriving portable sanitation mainstay in Abilene, Texas.

But the real secret to 30-plus years of success for Can-Doo Budjet Rentals Inc. stems from something much simpler. As Paulsen puts it, everything boils down to just three words: service, service and service.

“We’ve been service-oriented since day one,” says the plainspoken Texan, who founded his company in 1981. “The first thing I tell a new employee is that if a restroom isn’t clean enough for his mother, wife, daughter or girlfriend to use, it’s not clean. And if he doesn’t want to clean restrooms to that standard, he can hit the road.”

To Paulsen, providing great service also requires further groundwork, such as having thorough discussions with customers to accurately determine how many units they need. That’s not always easy, because customers inevitably want to use as few units as possible to save money. He learned that the hard way while renting restrooms for his first special event: a Knights of Columbus brat fry.

The group insisted that four restrooms would be adequate, a number that ended up woefully inadequate when 750 or 800 people showed up. “They called and said the restrooms were overflowing,” Paulsen recalls. “So I spent the rest of that afternoon with a pump truck, servicing the restrooms. That was my initiation into the special-event business.”

Ready for anything

Quick response is another prerequisite for top service, which is why someone from Can-Doo is always on call, ready to answer the phone 24/7. That pays dividends in situations like the time a waterline broke at a local Walmart store, rendering the restrooms unusable. Within an hour, Can-Doo delivered 16 restrooms, which allowed the store to remain open.

Well-trained employees also are critical to providing great customer service. Paulsen says he trains employees in all aspects of the business, from knowing how to figure out the number of units required for various jobs to driving safety.

“The first thing we teach them about driving is that a vacuum truck is a work horse, not a race horse,” he emphasizes. “We don’t allow them to drive more than 60 miles per hour. It’s hard to get it through their heads that you can’t drive a vacuum truck 75 miles an hour and expect it to last.

“We also don’t allow our drivers to smoke and drive at the same time, or use a cellphone unless they pull off the road,” he adds, pointing out that years ago, one of his drivers had a wreck while talking on a cellphone.

Paulsen is also a believer in getting workers certified by the Portable Sanitation Association International. As a member of the PSAI board of directors for six years, he also encourages portable restroom operators to join the professional group.

“I got interested and became a member about 20 years ago, after I attended a [Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International] and visited a PSAI booth,” he says. “There’s no college or learning institution for the portable restroom business, but PSAI puts it all together. It’s worth it just for the knowledge you learn from other operators ­– you can’t put a dollar-and-cents value on what that’s worth. The annual fee is the best money you’ll ever spend in this business.”

Switching gears

Before he entered the portable sanitation business, Paulsen owned and operated a marina in Peoria, Ill. After deciding to make a career change and doing market research, he moved to Abilene and started out with 20 restrooms, a pickup truck with a 200-gallon waste/50-gallon freshwater slide-in tank and one employee: himself.

Today, Can-Doo employs 14 people in Abilene and a branch facility 90 miles southwest in San Angelo, Texas, and owns about 1,000 restrooms (including about 20 handicapped-accessible and four ADA units) made by PolyJohn Enterprises, Satellite Industries and PolyPortables. Its business volume is about 65 percent monthly rentals (construction sites, remote oil-drilling rigs and military bases) and 35 percent special-event rentals.

The company’s roster of equipment has grown dramatically, too. Paulsen’s truck fleet includes a 2008 Dodge 4x4 with a 650-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater steel tank; a  pair of 2007 GMC 5500 models with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2012 Dodge with a 750-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank; and a 2013 Ford with a 750-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank. All five trucks were built out by Lane’s Vacuum Tank Inc.

In addition, the company owns two trucks built out by Crescent Tank Manufacturing, a 2007 Isuzu flatbed with a 500-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and a 2007 Isuzu flatbed with a 650-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater steel tank. It also relies on three trucks outfitted by TLH Welding: a 2005 International 4300 with a 900-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank; a 2008 Chevy 3500 with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank; and a 2001 Isuzu NPR with an 800-gallon waste/400-gallon aluminum freshwater tank.

In addition, Can-Doo also has seven restroom trailers, most from Ameri-Can Engineering; three shower trailers, two fabricated in-house; and four flatbed trailers made by Lane’s Vacuum Tank Inc.

Turn a profit

“It was hard to get started,” Paulsen recalls. “For the first year and a half, I worked nights at a factory, assembling computers. I spent a lot of time just knocking on doors and relying on word-of-mouth referrals. It took about two years before I was well established. But one thing I know for sure: The harder I worked, the luckier I got.”

Paulsen says he benefited from joining both the local chamber of commerce and a local homebuilder’s association, which helped him get to know area contractors who otherwise weren’t generally available during his early door-knocking marketing efforts. “It was hard to meet them by going door to door,” he notes. “But at meetings, I got to rub elbows with them once a month.”

Paulsen also benefits financially by billing people in four-week increments instead of monthly. The way he sees it, renting restrooms is essentially a weekly business, so why not charge by the week and receive 13 payments a year instead of 12? “It just made sense to me to get an extra payment per year,” he says. “And most contractors rent equipment from supply houses by the week, so they were already used to that kind of billing cycle.”

Charging prices that account for all overhead expenses and still provide a sufficient profit margin is also instrumental to Can-Doo’s growth. Paulsen says he’s never the lowest-priced provider, and notes that providing top-notch customer service allows him to charge more than low-ball operators and still retain business accounts.

“You can’t give anything away,” he says. “If you have to drive 50 miles out and 50 miles back to service a restroom, you have to know what it’s costing you to do that. It’s a common failing in this industry … a lot of operators may be good mechanics or whatnot, but they simply don’t know how to get their costs right.”

Route density a key

A new market for Can-Doo – restroom rentals at remote oil-rig operations spawned by the fracking boom – illustrates the point. In an extreme instance, Can-Doo has to deliver and service units that are up to 160 miles away. Because road conditions are rough, Paulsen relies on four-wheel-drive trucks to clean these restrooms.

Oil-patch customers are very price sensitive, Paulsen says, so it’s sometimes more cost-effective to place two restrooms at a drilling pad instead of one, which reduces service calls from weekly to every other week. With a $2-a-mile trip charge, the less-frequent service calls also keep customers’ expenses down.

“We also look closely at what we can do to make it cost-effective, so we don’t have to charge an arm and a leg for fuel,” he adds.

To boost route density and improve efficiency, Paulsen uses software from RouteOptix Inc. that prints out a schedule for the driver, eliminating time-wasting and profit-killing crisscrossing of routes. The software analyzes daily service runs and develops the most efficient routes.

Along with that, Paulsen uses a fleet GPS program made by Teletrac Inc. It not only constantly shows where every Can-Doo truck is located, but also tells how fast a truck is driving, if it’s idling and many other factors. Paulsen says that the system has not prompted any resentment from route drivers. In the long run, they understand the system promotes efficiency, which is good for the company overall. It’s especially useful when an emergency run pops up and a dispatcher can send the truck that’s most conveniently located to handle the call, Paulsen says.

Bigger not always better

Paulsen does not anticipate dramatic growth in the years ahead. At one time about 20 years ago, Can-Doo had branch facilities in Fort Worth, Corpus Christi and San Antonio, along with the Abilene and San Angelo divisions. But getting bigger isn’t always better, he says, noting that the larger the company got, the harder it was to keep track of personnel and operations and maintain a high level of service.

“When you’re 250 miles away, it’s pretty hard to keep a finger on things,’’ he says. “You need to have the right people and the right controls.”

Having sold off the other operations, “Now I’m just content to concentrate on what I have,” he concludes.


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