Family-Built Side Business Overcomes Common Challenges, Enjoys Success

When nobody else in their South Dakota small town offered portable sanitation, Central Business Supply’s owners jumped in and built a complementary sideline business.
Family-Built Side Business Overcomes Common Challenges, Enjoys Success
Central Business Supply’s vice president Kent Leibel, left, and president Alan Rogers, right, along with waste transportation technician Mike Yeakey in the truck are shown in the front of Central Business Supply. The truck was built by Specialty B Sales with a Jurop pump. (Photos by Jay Pickthorn)

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Kent Leibel and Alan Rogers didn’t plan on going into the portable restroom business when they opened Central Business Supply Inc., an office furniture and supply store, in 1984. But Brookings, S.D., is a small town (population 23,000) and sometimes you have to fill a niche when no one else does. The company continually evolves to meet the needs of its community.

Their main business is commercial office furniture, design and office supplies. They also rent everything they sell. They’ve got two stores, one in Brookings, the other 45 miles away in Madison. Some 30 years ago they were the first company in Brookings to sell computers and copiers and do IT work for people, but they sold that business off four years ago. “It got to the point where everyone’s got their own computer and they can buy them online,” Leibel says.

The team stumbled onto another business opportunity about 22 years ago when they bought 13 acres adjacent to the local airport. They turned the high traffic area into an industrial park by putting up a building every couple years. So far it stands at 11.

When construction contractors, who often rented furniture and equipment from them, started asking where to get portable restrooms, Leibel discovered the nearest source was 60 miles away. So he thought he’d give it a try. He started with six dark green Satellite Industries Tufways in 1990 and now has 175, along with two ADA-compliant units, two wheelchair-accessible units and 12 hand-wash stations from Satellite and T.S.F. Company Inc. Some units are permanently mounted to company-built trailers for use by work crews in situations where units need to be moved as work progresses.

They like to stay within about a 30-mile radius and have worked for farm auctions, family reunions, golf courses, baseball parks and construction projects including multiyear projects such as wind farm developments and a natural gas peaking plant. To give back to the community, they provide free restrooms to Habitat for Humanity, firefighting operations and people who have lost their home in a fire.

“It’s actually an enjoyable business,” Leibel says. “It’s worked out well since we sell tables and chairs, and also rent them, as well as the big tent canopies. If someone rents a tent, they’ll need toilets. It’s a one-stop shop for a lot of things.”

FIVE CHALLENGES THAT AFFECT KENT LEIBEL AND ALAN ROGERS’ PORTABLE SANITATION BUSINESS:

Vacuum service on a small scale

When the company started offering portable restrooms they didn’t buy a service vehicle because Leibel never thought they’d need more than a dozen or so units. Instead, they developed a low-profile dump valve on the bottom of the units whereby the tanks can be drained into another tank, lagoon or RV dump station. They also designed and built special trailers for this purpose they called the “Spot Remover” (they call their units “Johnny on the Spot”). “The trailers have a series of rollers so one person can winch it onto a small trailer and move it anywhere,” Leibel says.

As the inventory increased, they eventually bought two 1-ton Ford vacuum trucks (2000 and 2003), one built out by Specialty B Sales with a 300-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank, the other by a local Hutterite religious colony that specialized in stainless steel work with a 400-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater tank. Both use Jurop pumps.

Handling usage spikes at sports venues

The company has had a longstanding contract with South Dakota State University to provide restrooms for the school’s Jackrabbits football tailgating parties. But they came up with a unique way to handle all the beer passing through partiers in the parking lot. In addition to providing 10 tents and 60 to 70 portable restrooms, they bring in a company-designed urinal tent. Their first one was a 10-by-10-foot sided tent with a 55-gallon barrel inside around which were placed four urinals with privacy panels. Now they’re up to a 250-gallon barrel. “It’s easier for us,” Leibel says. “It takes the load off the toilets and saves the University a lot of money because they don’t need to rent a lot of extra toilets.” The collapsible structure is easily transported with a pickup truck.

Beating off low-ball competitors

It was only a matter of time before the company would have some competition. Often out-of-town companies try to establish a base of operations in Brookings by initially charging very low prices. Although Leibel doesn’t believe in competing on that level, the reality is he’s had to make some adjustments. “We’ve lowered our prices a little bit in some instances,” he says. “But I’m not going to get that cheap. If I can’t make any money at it, I can be busy in other areas.”

Getting the name out

Leibel is not big into traditional advertising and marketing. Units display the company name and phone number, but only recently he put signs on his trucks. The company is in the local phone book and has a website but there’s neither a separate website nor a separate phone number for the portable restrooms – which makes for an occasional awkward silence when a caller assumes they’ve got the wrong number. But it’s a good conversation starter with the furniture reps who stop by almost weekly. “They’re more interested in the restroom business than the office furniture,” Leibel laughs. “It’s something different and they want to hear all about it.”

Although Leibel firmly believes word of mouth is the best advertising, he does aggressively go after business. “If I hear of any projects or new businesses coming in, we contact them.” He gets in early with construction projects, providing furniture and equipment to the architects and engineers, so when they’re ready to bring in crews they know who to call for portable restrooms.

Dealing with busy and slack times

There’s one dedicated employee for the portable restrooms but when business is slow he’s also trained to assemble, deliver and install furniture and equipment. Likewise, when he’s overloaded, the furniture installers are trained to help him out. Timing-wise it meshes well with their other work.

“With the portable toilets, as long as you’re servicing them on a regular basis it doesn’t matter whether we do them at 5 in the morning, 10 at night, Saturday afternoon or Sunday – which we do,” Leibel says. “It really doesn’t interfere with our other business which is more 8 to 5.”

And Leibel and semiretired Rogers provide backup, as well. “If our main guy wants to take off, we can take his route for a few days,” Leibel says.



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