Going From Startup To Spinoff In Three Years

Determination pays off for Texas contractor Ryan Pierce, who goes from startup to spinoff in three years and stays on to manage the company he built.
Going From Startup To Spinoff In Three Years
Ryan Pierce supervises the setup of a load of PolyPortables restrooms at a running event in Austin, Texas. Several of the delivery trailers were built in-house with a rail system designed to eliminate the need to strap down units.

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When the portable sanitation company Ryan Pierce worked for was sold to a new owner, he was faced with the decision of staying put and signing a noncompete contract or moving on. He walked away and later decided to strike out on his own by forming a new company, Lone Star Latrine.

Pierce started the Austin, Texas-based company on a shoestring budget but quickly built it to the enviable position where a larger company took notice. After three years and growing to employ a staff of 17, Pierce sold Lone Star last September to regional trash-hauler Texas Disposal Systems. Today, Pierce remains at the helm of the portable sanitation arm of the larger company as green events manager.

Pierce’s story is a study in personal sacrifice and risk-taking; he cashed in a 401k retirement account and moved out of his home and into a work trailer to save money. Then he marketed his skills, built a corporate image campaign and started building equipment and running routes.

Would-be PROs preparing to take the plunge with their own businesses – or contractors considering a major expansion push – can take away a few lessons from Pierce’s business journey: Have confidence in your abilities and be prepared to work real hard.

BEST FOOT FORWARD

After leaving his former job, Pierce still had relationships in and a passion for the portable sanitation industry. He talked to family members about his feelings.

“Over a conversation at dinner one night with my sister and brother-in-law, I mentioned to them it would be really neat to get back into the toilet business, that I could hit the ground running,” he says. “They absolutely 100 percent said, ‘Let’s go.’”

To fund the operation, family members made an investment in exchange for part ownership (25 percent each) of the company. Pierce tapped his retirement money and took out a small-business loan. He bought a 2006 International vacuum truck outfitted by Best Enterprises Inc. with a 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank, leased a 3.5-acre property and put an office trailer on it. Then he rented out his house and moved into the trailer for eight months to save money.

It was October 2011 and he immediately landed an event for the following February – the Austin Marathon – which required 360 units. He worked with PolyPortables LLC to spread out three deliveries of 120 unassembled Integra units. By the time the marathon came around, he already had 150 units out on routes and had to order another load.

Pierce was getting up at 4 a.m. to run routes, selling during the day and doing book work at night. Family and friends helped assemble units, and he hired a yard worker and someone to help with sales and marketing.

EQUIPMENT CORNER

Growth came quickly. “We grew so fast I was constantly having to go out and find more route drivers and more office help,” Pierce says. Increased demand also meant buying more equipment.

The inventory now includes more than 2,000 portable restrooms, including 1,000 Satellite Industries Maxim 3000 units, 35 PolyPortables wheelchair-accessible and ADA-compliant units, 25 PolyPortables hand-wash stations and 22 PolyJohn Enterprises high-rise units. To serve high-end customers, Lone Star purchased two Forest River restroom trailers (a three-stall and a 10-stall), and six Porta-Lisa model restroom trailers and an eight-stall shower trailer from JAG Mobile Solutions.

The company added a 2013 Hino outfitted with a Southwest Products 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater steel tank; two 2007 Internationals outfitted by Progress Tank with 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater aluminum tanks; and two 2013 Peterbilt trucks from Satellite Industries with 1,400-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater steel tanks. All of these trucks have Masport pumps.

The company purchased a 2009 International from National Truck Center with a 2,500-gallon steel tank and a Masport pump and started pumping septic tanks and grease traps, and then a 2004 Mack when Lone Star added roll-off containers. Along the way Lone Star added two Dodge 3500 duallys, a Ford F-350 flatbed with a lift gate and a GMC Sierra 2500HD.

Lone Star uses RouteOptix Inc. management software. Every truck is equipped with a Samsung Galaxy Note tablet mounted on the dash, enabling drivers to see the route, communicate with the office and check off or add stops.

PROMOTION, PUBLICITY AND IMAGE

During the period of growth, Pierce marketed the business through memberships in various organizations – Homebuilders Association, Association of General Contractors, and Austin Young Chamber. The company is also active on social media. He also got good exposure for the company by managing to snap a few photos of celebrities visiting Austin and caught with his restrooms in the background – Jimmy Kimmel, Jesse James and Dierks Bentley – all of which he posted on Facebook. “We have fun with it,” he says. “And we encourage people on our Facebook page, if you see us at an event, take a picture with our toilets.”

Wanting to be environmentally conscious, the company uses formaldehyde-free products from PolyPortables and recycled bathroom tissue. This also gives them a marketing edge at certain construction sites.

“It’s allowed us to present to the customer if they have a LEED project [an energy and environmental design rating from the U.S. Green Building Council],’’ he explains. They have a similar program locally, Austin Energy Building, where contractors see benefits for using subcontractors who mirror their green initiatives.

A professional appearance is important to Pierce. Working with a designer, he developed a logo for the company. He also had a specific look in mind for uniforms. “I use Dickies shirts [Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co.]. On the left shoulder is a patch of the state of Texas, on the right shoulder is a patch of the United States and then I have our logo and employee name on the shirt.”

LOOKING FOR WORK

Today the company’s portable restroom business mix is about 80 percent construction and 20 percent events. But Pierce has looked for different niches. He partnered with the film industry, for example, which is popular in Austin. “We do lots of work for Paramount Pictures and NBC,” he says. “We provide air-conditioned restroom trailers, portable restrooms, cast trailer pumping.” Another is food vendor trailers. Pierce says there are about 1,300 in the city and Lone Star hauls graywater for 600 vendors.

He has also started providing adjunct services at events, for example RV management. “We get everybody parked in their spot, make sure they’re taken care of, they’ve got electricity,” he says. They’ve handled as many as 1,500 campers at one venue.

At other events where he was bringing in portable restrooms, he also began using attendants to keep the grounds clean, remove bagged trash, and stock and clean restrooms and trailers. Team members are identified and work safely with high-visibility fluorescent shirts.

Another service Lone Star provides is disaster relief. “We are on the list to shoot down to the Gulf if a natural disaster hits,” he says. Lone Star also has a service technician temporarily stationed in Brownsville, Texas, to provide units along a 100-mile stretch of border patrol areas, servicing them daily.

PUZZLES, NOT PROBLEMS

Pierce enjoys a portable sanitation challenge. For example, when some of his customers needed freshwater systems, he created his own solution. “We took 350-gallon totes, mounted a pump system on the side and built a freshwater system for some construction trailers that may not have access to on-site water,” he says.

In addition to two restroom transport trailers from Bragg Trailers and three other flatbeds, Pierce and his father built four more. “We’re doing so many events where we’re on streets with road closures, I wanted to be able to load from the side as quickly as possible,” he says. “So we built a rail system that locks the toilets in place when you close the rail and you don’t have to strap them down.” They also custom fabricated a trailer that accommodates five wheelchair-accessible/ADA-compliant units.

His solution to requests for gender-specific restrooms is to stock red women-only units that now account for 30 percent of Lone Star’s inventory. “They’ve really taken off,” he says. “I have hand sanitizers mounted inside all the units, shelves, purse hooks, optional lights and they do not have a urinal.” They went with red instead of pink to be different and to match the blue and red colors of the company logo. Unisex units are blue.

Lone Star is addressing a need for diaper-changing stations at events. “I took three wheelchair units and opened up two ends, so you can walk in either way,” he says. Inside a hand sanitizer, trash box, shelf and baby-changing bench with pad were added.

HANDS-ON APPROACH          

Lone Star has outgrown the small trailer Pierce lived in while getting the business off the ground. After selling the business and staying on as an employee, he plans to keep his hands in everything to some degree, whether it’s posting to Facebook, assembling units or being the first to drive a new truck.

He doesn’t often clean units anymore but won’t hesitate if needed. “We got ourselves in a bind and I was short a driver,” he says. “I got on what I call my ‘git dirty’ clothes, went out and started servicing equipment. And I’ve got to tell you, it was a lot of fun.”



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