The Busy Season Is Hectic For Minnesota’s Northland Portables

At Minnesota’s Northland Portables, the pace is hectic during the brief busy season, and the crew stays busy with accumulated shop work during the long, cold winter.
The Busy Season Is Hectic For Minnesota’s Northland Portables
Owners Brad and Amy Beier are shown with a service truck Brad built out himself using a tank bought from another contractor and a Conde pump.

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After 10 years in the portable sanitation business, husband and wife Brad and Amy Beier of Northland Portables in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, know how to build a better business. Literally! It starts with restroom transport trailers – which they build themselves – and trucks they customize to their needs. It’s all part of making their small family-run business more efficient and competitive.

With only four full-time employees (and one part-time seasonal worker), Northland Portables runs nonstop during the busy summer season. As busy as they are in the high summer tourist season, work slows when temperatures drop and snow blankets the countryside.

“It’s so busy between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” says Amy Beier. “Then it slows down dramatically.”

“You barely make it through winter,” adds Brad. That means that being frugal and keeping busy during the offseason has been one key to the company’s success. Among the company’s main tasks in winter is storing all fleet and units indoors, conducting a thorough inventory, as well as cleaning and winterizing. That dedication to their equipment in winter is what keeps everything running smoothly all year, Brad notes.  

Northland Portables services a 60-mile radius of Grand Rapids, a city of 11,000 located 180 miles north of Minneapolis. It owns about 240 standard and 25 ADA restroom units and 16 hand-wash stations, all from Satellite Industries, and covers parts of three counties, meeting corporate, construction, residential and special event portable sanitation needs. “We do at least one special event a weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Amy says.

The Beiers have a fleet of five trucks – all with steel tanks and all F-Series Fords – two 1999 models with 270-gallon waste/130-gallon freshwater tanks; and 1999, 2002 and 2003 models with 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tanks. Some of the tanks are from Satellite; they all have Conde pumps (Westmoor Ltd.).

1. BUILDING SOME EQUIPMENT OURSELVES

With a background in auto body repair and custom car restoration, Brad has lent his expertise to his business. That allows Northland Portables to customize whatever it needs on its trucks. “He just designs the trucks around what he wants,” says Amy.

While they haven’t built their own tanks, Brad does modify them for each truck. He says, “We plan to make the tank on the current truck we are building in-house.” One modification is to add storage boxes behind the cab for easy access rather than hanging them below the tank.

In addition, Brad built a transport trailer with a flat deck, but 45-degree angled side edges for easier loading of up to 16 units. The design eases lifting and allows a technician to handle loading alone. Building his own trailers allows him to beef up the specs, particularly with heavier frames and axles and better tires. He pays more for materials, but says it pays off in durability.

“We sandblast all our trailers before we paint them and use good epoxy and primer on them,” he adds, also noting that they use durable composite decking and shrink tubing connectors for all their wiring. Their single-unit haulers have drop decks to meet U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules.

2. MODERNIZING THE MARKETING PLAN

After Northland Portables started in 2004, the Beiers did not consider building a website. After a busy 2014 season, the company started developing one and it went live this year. Working with a local Web design firm has allowed Amy to focus more on the company’s day-to-day operations and sales.

Down the road, Brad says they would like to expand into having a social media presence. Besides the website, the Beiers are also establishing a local networking base. “We’re big into working with the chamber of commerce and a local builders’ association,” says Amy.

They also work closely with the tourism industry, since they service some of northern Minnesota’s resorts and cabins, the Northern Minnesota Builders Association to connect with builders, and they network informally through the Northern Cruisers Car Club. While the latter is Brad’s hobby, many club members are also business owners. It adds to their word-of-mouth marketing.

3. THE REALITY OF OLD MAN WINTER

According to U.S. Climate Data, the average low temperature in January in Grand Rapids is -3 degrees. Surviving Minnesota’s winter is tough for everyone, but especially difficult when a revenue stream is weather dependent. Northland Portables grosses enough income in winter to handle its expenses, but winters are long and it can be uncomfortable to work outside. Amy estimates the company does about 70 percent of its business in summer and only 30 percent in winter.

“When it’s cold, a lot of construction companies just shut down,” Amy says. “As a result, it doesn’t pay for us to run a route.” Those are the times the small staff works inside on maintenance.

“Everything gets winterized,” says Amy. “Come January, that’s when the contractors start finishing the inside of houses.

“Brad does all the mechanical; we literally upgrade all our equipment. Restrooms get antifreeze on the construction sites, but also they are winterized in the yard; we pump them and clean them, do an inventory, sort them by grades [construction units, etc.] and inventory anything that needs to get fixed.”

Some construction projects run though winter, especially larger ones, such as upgrades to a coal energy power plant.

Northland creates a salt brine methanol mix – “That’s an OSHA standard for restroom maintenance all portable restroom companies do in Minnesota,” says Amy – and that mix normally varies on the temperature and changes on a daily basis. “We watch the weather 10 days out all the time,” Brad says. “We have a tendency to aim on the colder side.”

And in terms of cleaning units, since they can’t pressure wash the units outside when it’s freezing, they carry warm water in the cab of the trucks for weekly cleanings. An auxiliary tank compartment is used to carry the brine, while the freshwater tank is shut down entirely in winter.

The Beiers also have two additional tricks up their sleeve for restroom maintenance in winter. “Some of our older units [prior to 2013] had plastic screens for ventilation,” says Amy. They replace the screens with plastic to seal off the ventilation and provide less airflow.

And about 85 percent of the units out in winter include small heaters bolted to the ceiling. The Beiers include this value-added service, at the client’s request, at an upcharge of $3.50 per week. Northland owns about 60 to 70 of the small heaters, which cost about $40 apiece, Brad says.

4. CATERING TO EVENT CUSTOMERS

Northland Portables relies heavily on special event customers, and that doesn’t stop in winter, with events such as ice fishing tournaments and snowmobile races. The Grand Rapids area has several lakes, and that translates to tourism, even in the winter.

Some of the smaller community events, like car shows every July, have been the company’s bread and butter. Amy says they often have 20 or more units on site for these shows, as well as five on the adjacent campground. They serve a variety of other events, such as tractor shows, music festivals, themed community festivals and historic sites.

And it’s an efficient system. “Brad and I have developed a system where just the two of us can go out and clean the restrooms early in the morning and we’re done for the day,” says Amy.

Northland Portables also partners with other service providers outside their area, sharing units and workload for larger events. This has been good for both businesses, since neither becomes financially strapped by large inventory. “We all win,” says Amy. “That’s one way we’re trying to maintain cost-effectiveness.”

5. PROMOTING THE FAMILY BUSINESS 

Working crazy hours during times of peak demand is part of what owning a family business is about, the Beiers know. “You have to be here 24/7 … you just can’t pass it off to anyone,” says Brad. Still, they believe that’s a huge benefit over more corporate competitors with larger staffs. “You have better service; you can know about everything that’s going on,” he says.

The Beiers are working to promote the family-run aspect to potential clients. Both Brad and Amy grew up in Grand Rapids, so they know most of the community; that’s networking and word-of-mouth marketing. And their son, Adam, 17, recently came on board to help, possibly ensuring the future of the family business. 


“Take 5” is a feature in which one PRO or industry leader shares unique business challenges with the entire portable sanitation community. It’s a chance for service providers to meet over the back fence – and across the country – to learn more about each other and promote industry excellence. If you know a PRO who would be an interesting subject for “Take 5,” send their contact information to editor@promonthly.com.



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