It’s OK To Partner With Competitors To Lower Equipment Costs And Improve Customer Service

New York’s Sabre Enterprises seeks out smart partnerships to improve customer service, lower the cost of equipment and supplies and make for friendlier competitors.
It’s OK To Partner With Competitors To Lower Equipment Costs And Improve Customer Service
Jerry Vecchiarelli, right, and Kyle Sarbou load Five Peaks restrooms onto the flatbed of a truck outfitted with a tank from Robinson Vacuum Tanks.

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When Jerry Vecchiarelli was invited to join portable sanitation company Sabre Enterprises, he brought valuable experience in the corporate world to the venture. Since then, the Syracuse, New York, company has grown steadily through various partnerships and acquisitions.

“There’s been a lot of names and a lot of moving parts in this whole thing,” he says. He currently operates the company under a hybrid ownership arrangement whereby it has the autonomy and control of a small business but the buying power and reach of a large company.

Vecchiarelli’s team works out of a 4-acre facility and includes three drivers and one logistics and operations manager who handles phones, routing, schedule coordination, invoicing, and Web and social media – “a jack-of-all-trades in the administrative world,” Vecchiarelli says. Vecchiarelli manages higher-level activities such as job quotes, decision-making, accounting and personnel. In the busier summer season he brings in a couple more drivers and yard workers.

STRUCTURAL CHANGES

Vecchiarelli worked 22 years in the loss prevention industry before his neighbor asked if he’d consider joining him in operating Sabre, a 5-year-old portable restroom business. Vecchiarelli was ready for a change, found the idea intriguing and in 2009 decided to make the move. It was quite a change from his work investigating retail crime, so there was a learning curve. “At first I wasn’t so sure it was the right move,” he says, “but as time went on and the company grew, I realized I had made the right decision.” 

When he joined Sabre, the company’s inventory stood at about 250 restrooms, and over the next few years the partners added accounts, brought in another partner, twice moved to larger locations and made a couple of acquisitions. “We also grew organically through good customer service, word-of-mouth and became recognizable as a brand in Syracuse,” Vecchiarelli says. 

By 2014, Sabre had 1,000 units and annual sales of $1.2 million from portable restroom rentals and ancillary businesses, including temporary fencing and property services such as snow removal and landscaping. At that time they were approached by another company, Crescent Moon in Rochester, New York, to discuss a buyout arrangement. “It was kind of a surprise,” Vecchiarelli says. “We knew the owners real well, had worked with them extensively over the years.”

The results of the ensuing discussions were that Vecchiarelli’s partners were bought out and took the ancillary businesses, Vecchiarelli stayed on with Sabre, and Sabre and Crescent Moon operated their respective companies under an umbrella corporation, Rochester Portable Specialties Inc., owned by Vecchiarelli and the three owners of Crescent Moon: Bryan, Jeff and Larry Moravec.

The two companies maintain their own billing systems and operating procedures. They service adjacent territories – Crescent Moon in west-central New York and Sabre in east-central – but under the new arrangement they each offer their services in the combined territory, a 200-mile stretch between Buffalo and Utica and the 150 miles between Watertown and Ithaca.

The deal also enables them to purchase supplies in bulk as a way to negotiate better prices. They now buy paper and chemical supplies (mainly Walex Products) by the tractor-trailer load. In addition, the companies have access to each other’s portable restroom inventory, vehicles and personnel when needed. They have a combined inventory of 4,500 units.

COMPANY ASSETS

Sabre’s own inventory stands at about 1,000 units. They’re from a number of manufacturers because of the company’s acquisition history, including Five Peaks, Satellite Industries, PolyJohn Enterprises and PolyPortables LLC. There’s also a variety of colors, but Vecchiarelli wants to standardize the event units and will start buying new orange ones this year.

“It’s a popular color. It’s eye-catching and we’re hoping it will add some pop to our brand recognition,” he says. Plus it’ll piggyback onto Syracuse University’s color scheme. He’s also thinking about the benefit of orange when those units are transitioned to the construction inventory. “I think having orange on a construction site is advantageous for spotting the restrooms,” he says.

The company has a couple shower and laundry trailers and 75 restroom trailers, mostly from Rich Specialty Trailers, Advanced Containment Systems Inc. and JAG Mobile Solutions. Sizes range from 10 to 24 feet in the luxury models and up to 32 feet in commercial-grade units. 

They have four vacuum trucks – a 2012 Ford F‑550 built out by Imperial Industries Inc. with an 800-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank, a 2013 Ford F‑550 built out by Robinson Vacuum Tanks with an 800-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank, a 2011 Dodge 5500 with a Crescent Tank Mfg. 700-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel flat tank, and a 2012 Dodge 3500 built out by Robinson with a 300-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater slide-in aluminum tank. All carry Masport pumps. The service vehicles can each transport at least two units, but the company also has 10-, 14- and 20-unit transport trailers.

Vecchiarelli says routes are structured so drivers end up near a wastewater treatment facility at the end of the day to avoid driving full trucks back to Syracuse. An empty truck saves on wear and tear and fuel, is safer to drive and can stop faster. The company has dumping permits at a number of facilities throughout their territory.

WORK BREAKDOWN

About 53 percent of Sabre’s work is on the construction side. Construction goes on year-round in central New York, even during the hard-hit winter months when there’s snow and ice on the ground and subzero temperatures. In fact, some of the resort areas allow construction only during the winter months to avoid disruption to the heavy summer tourist trade. Work stops only on the harshest of days.

The company uses salt brine, rock salt and salt pellets in their units to prevent freezing. “That’s what works the best and seems to be the most economical,” Vecchiarelli says.

Event work slows to almost zero in the winter, but the weather didn’t stop 100,000 people from attending Syracuse Winterfest in February, possibly the largest winter festival in the state, for which the company provided portable restrooms.

Requests for restroom trailers at graduation parties and weddings are increasing, Vecchiarelli says. Outdoor weddings have become popular in this scenic area surrounded by the Adirondack Mountains, the Thousand Islands region, the Finger Lakes and wineries.

CUSTOMER CONNECTION

Vecchiarelli relies heavily on Web marketing and social media to promote his business. After learning how to advertise on Google, Bing and Yahoo, he set up accounts and saw his business grow – but he cautions it’s expensive.

Although he and his operations manager spend a lot of time maintaining their Web presence, in the end he says customer service is the best marketing tool. “It’s the one thing you can differentiate yourself on,” he says. For him, customer service starts with a focus on employees as he believes happy, well-prepared workers make for satisfied customers. “I have a strong belief in keeping my most important asset, which is our employees, engaged and trained to keep our customers happy,” he says.

Every day starts with a team meeting. They go over assignments and discuss potential challenges for the day, as well as any problems that may have come up the previous day. They also talk a lot about the weather, which always affects driving conditions and maintenance of units, whether it’s winter snowstorms, spring rains, summer heat or fall winds. “All those things play a part in how we operate our business for the day,” he says.

Another big topic is driver safety. Not only are employees consistently encouraged to drive in a safe manner, but the company also does its part by ensuring vehicles are always in good working condition. They use a tracking system from Fleetmatics Development Limited, which provides data on vehicle speed and fuel usage, alerting them to potential concerns.

Customer service is another topic – “We talk about the importance of being pleasant on the job sites and engaging customers,” Vecchiarelli says. Customer contact can also increase sales. An offhand conversation could lead to a request for units, for example. Employees are rewarded with sales and customer service bonuses. “We talk about those things consistently and constantly,” Vecchiarelli says.

Customer complaints are rare but taken very seriously and are quickly investigated personally by Vecchiarelli. “Sometimes they’re not legitimate and sometimes they are.”

CONNECTING WITH PEERS

Vecchiarelli believes in developing good relationships with other PROs in the industry and enjoyed his first trip to the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show in 2015. “We had a good time, met a lot of good people and learned about some new stuff,” he says.

But even closer to home he thinks it’s better to be on friendly terms with his competitors than operate from an adversarial perspective. It allows him to know whom to tap for mutually beneficial working arrangements, idea sharing or even acquisition opportunities.

“We know there is a lot of growth potential in acquisitions, and we look to companies that are profitable and can stay profitable,” he says. “We have a lot of great companies that provide great service, offer great products and do it at a very reasonable, fair price and a price that is sustainable. There may come a time when an acquisition may make a lot of sense for both of us.”

ANTI-STATIC

Vecchiarelli has plans for growing organically through a focus on good customer service and through acquisitions. He says the current enhanced ownership structure is beneficial to him and to his customers. It’s still a fairly new setup and he’s open to tweaking the format as necessary.

 “That’s the current arrangement,” he says. “But that could change down the road as business needs change.” 



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