Family Utilizes Construction Contacts in Growing Transformed Portable Restroom Business

The owners of a Canadian construction-related company transitioned to providing portable restrooms and now enjoy a thriving business serving their former industry.
Family Utilizes Construction Contacts in Growing Transformed Portable Restroom Business
The Affordable Portables team includes, left to right, Jake Baese, Dave Woodward, Dan Wingrove, Jack Jennings, Matt Baese, Sandra Dekeyse, Janet Brownlee, Tom Brownlee, Ben Brownlee, John Sherman, Mark Hall, Brian Barber and Al Sherman.

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Aswitch from the construction trade to the portable sanitation business has paid off in the long run for Affordable Portables of St. Williams, Ontario, Can.

Owned and operated by Janet and Tom Brownlee since 1992, the business fields about 1,000 restrooms. It’s located on the north shore of Lake Erie, about a two-hour drive southwest of Toronto. Offering a significant tourist clientele in warm summers, the winters often bring significant lake-effect snow and hazardous driving conditions.

“Before my husband Tom and I went into the portable restroom business, we had a construction company hauling sand and gravel that also featured some big septic pumping trucks,” recalls Janet. “However, one after the other we lost a lot of our good operators. Having done some work for portable restroom businesses, my husband thought it would be a better idea to sell the big trucks and try portable restrooms full time.”

The family started the business with 15 units from PolyJohn Canada and a solitary Dodge 4 X 4 with a 350-gallon tank, while Tom took on a position with the local municipality. Their son Ben was away at school, completing a program in mechanical engineering, but would return on weekends to help out.

“They would all pitch in and we would keep busy between portable restrooms and snow plowing contracts in the winter,” she says.

THE FAMILY COMES HOME

In 2000, Tom left his municipal job to join the business full time. With the business expanding, the company left the family home and moved to its own office and 1,000-square-foot shop built on the same 7-acre property.

Daughter Sandra left her position as a high school chemistry teacher to join the company in 2003. Her specialties: computerizing the office – and chemistry, of course. She automated the company’s books using Sage 50 software and plots route logistics. Ben joined the company in 2008.
Today, the company offers 1,000 units supplied by PolyJohn Canada, in addition to several specialty trailers.

“We have wheelchair units, pink ones for parties and breast cancer runs, women’s events and birthday parties, white VIP units and trailers for weddings and construction. If there’s something new, we want to be the first in the area to get it,” Janet says.

The company provides four single heated units, two of which were built in-house and two supplied by McKee Technologies. Six double heated units are also supplied by McKee. The lone wedding trailer is from Wells Cargo, with the company planning to shop for a second wedding trailer in 2014.

The business covers a radius of about 70 miles, in a semicircle nestled up to the Lake Erie shoreline. Routes are carefully planned both for delivery and service and for dumping at treatment plants. Provincial laws encourage operators to unload waste in the same region where it is collected.

About 40 percent of the company’s business comes from the construction industry, benefiting in part from Tom’s construction contacts. Construction continues year-round.

JOB SITE CHALLENGES

Winter and construction job site accessibility provide constant challenges for the Affordable Portables team. Providing consistent, clean service is a job they take seriously.

“We winterize all of the construction portables,” Janet says. “When we place them, we pack snow around the base of the units to keep wind from coming up through the floor. It’s the hardest time to keep the units clean because of the mud that gets tracked into them from the construction sites. For some of the more remote construction sites, we can’t even get the truck near to the restrooms. We have to go in with buckets of water to clean them to our satisfaction.”

In some cases, the construction company will deliver the units to the front gates for servicing, then move them back into place, according to Janet. 
Affordable Portables also provides high-rise construction units by PolyJohn, equipped with a crane harness to allow them to be placed on any floor of a building under construction.

“You have to keep updated on the latest changes to the law for construction sites,” says Janet. “Labor inspectors are active in that market.”

Some larger specialty clients include the nearby Esso Refinery and Hydro One, the province’s electrical utility. “For those runs we need to get through security checkpoints,” she says. “For the refinery, we’re required to bring a full fire suit as part of the safety requirements of the site.”

Local events served by Affordable Portables include concerts and bike rallies that require as many as 450 units at a time. Sleigh rides and other winter attractions help to keep the company busier in winter months.

Seasonal farming also requires portable restrooms to serve migrant workers. The area’s agricultural output includes produce, ginseng, apples and tobacco. Greenhouse farming for crops such as tomatoes requires units all through the winter.

Other seasonal work includes trailer parks, roadside rest stops, and marinas located along nearby Lake Erie.

“We handle eight to 10 marinas along the lake,” says Janet. “We might have as many as 150 portable restrooms devoted to marinas, of which some are serviced about three times a week. Occasionally, as the marinas are being shut down, we get a call from one of the bigger boats, usually a 30-foot pleasure craft, to pump directly from the boat before it’s harbored for the winter.”

During peak season, the business expands to about a dozen workers, including family members. The slower season begins in December, with business picking up again in April.

AN EXPANDING FLEET

The company currently operates nine vacuum pumper trucks, all outfitted with Wallenstein vacuum pumps, and steel galvanized tanks by Vacutrux Limited. The oldest is a 2005 Ford F-450 with a 420-gallon waste/240-gallon freshwater tank. Next up is a pair of Hino 185s, a 2006 model with a 600-gallon waste/240-gallon freshwater tank, and a 2007 with a 480-gallon waste/360-gallon freshwater tank. The fleet also features four Dodge Rams (a 2007 3500 model and 2008, 2009 and 2011 5500 models), each outfitted with 420-gallon waste/240-gallon freshwater tanks. A lone 2008 Sterling Bullet features the same tank configuration as the Dodges.

The company has two new additions to its mobile family. The first is a 2013 Dodge Ram 1500 4 X 4, dedicated to picking up parts and delivering restrooms. It can tow any of three haulers, carrying six units, 10 units and 12 units. Most of the trailers are built in-house, with an occasional trailer supplied by McKee.

The second new vehicle is a 2014 Freightliner M2 with Wallenstein pump and 1,200-gallon waste/600-gallon freshwater steel tank. A coil branching off the truck’s radiator heats the freshwater.

Long routes prompted the Brownlees to buy the truck with the larger capacity.

“We ordered this one because the routes are getting longer and this truck is as big as three of our regular tanks,” says Janet. “This will really cut down on hauling.”

Most maintenance is done at the company shop.

“We do everything from oil and tire changes to painting the tanks to major repairs – everything but the government safety check,” he says. “We save a lot of money keeping the work on site. The construction work is hardest on the vehicles because of the mud and the potholes. That results in a lot of replaced ball joints and suspensions.”

Rust undercoating and oil sprays play a big part in winter maintenance to protect the vehicles from road salt. “We use galvanized metal and brass fittings wherever we can, to keep ahead of the salt,” Tom says.

The shop also features its own truck-wash station, which cleans both grime and road salt off the vehicles daily.

FULL CIRCLE CHECK

Each morning, drivers perform a full circle check of their vehicles before going out on the road. Ministry of Transportation officials are strict with the rules and treat the work trucks like over-the-road haulers, pulling the plates at roadside for vehicles that don’t pass spot inspections.

Hiring qualified workers and professional development are important to the business.

“We’re very quick to send potential hires out on the road for the day so they can see what the job is like,” says Janet. “Once we hire them, safety and driver training are critical to us.”

Family members attend the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International each year, often bringing one or two drivers with them to check out the latest in equipment, and attend Education Day seminars.

Word-of-mouth remains the company’s best advertising, though the Affordable Portables website is getting more hits daily. The company also attends wedding shows and other trade events to promote its products and services. Daughter Sandra has also been active in developing pamphlets and brochures to leave as calling cards for the business.

Sandra and Ben will one day take over the business entirely, if all goes according to plan.

“We can pretty much handle it ourselves now, and we do for two or three days at a time,” she says. “For now, as long as our parents are interested in being part of the business, we can use all the help we can get.

MORE INFORMATION

Elmira Machine Industries/Wallenstein Vacuum - 800/801-6663 - www.wallenstien.com

Hino Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. - 248/699-9300 - www.hino.com

McKee Technologies - Explorer Trailers - 866/457-5425 - www.explorertrailers.com

PolyJohn Canada - 800/465-9590 - www.polyjohncanada.ca

Vacutrux Limited - 800/305-4305 - www.vacutrux.com

Wells Cargo, UltraLav - 877/301-3837 - www.ultralav.com



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