Michigan's Stenberg Bros. Is A One-Stop Shop

Michigan’s Stenberg Bros. provides diverse wastewater services and party supplies under one big tent to keep customers coming back for more.
Michigan's Stenberg Bros. Is A One-Stop Shop
The Stenberg crew includes, from left, Matt Stenberg, Jeremy Vandermissen, Lance Possi, Mitch Dagenais, Carl Stenberg, Wayne Stenberg, Rob Gerstner, Mark Stenberg and Dave Falish. The company’s JAG Mobile Solutions restroom trailer is in the background. (Photos by Holly Richer)

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When a portable restroom operator caters to a large, mostly rural and sparsely populated area, it often pays to offer more than one service rather than keep all of its proverbial eggs in one basket. A good example is Stenberg Bros. Inc., a well-diversified, family-owned company that provides its customers in Michigan’s central Upper Peninsula with everything from portable restrooms to party/special-event rentals to septic tank pumping and excavating.

“To keep everyone busy and generate sufficient business volume, we found we had to do more than just one thing,” says Wayne Stenberg, the company’s general manager and one of four brothers who are minority owners of the company, based in Bark River, Michigan. Their father, Carl Stenberg, is the majority owner, and brothers Mark, Matt and Todd round out the other three co-owners. “The more diversified you are, the better off you are, especially up here … it’s better to not be too dependent on one market.

“Plus, most people would rather deal with one company than multiple companies, so the more services we offer, the better it is for our customers,” he adds.
The add-on services didn’t come about randomly. They were similar enough to avoid a huge learning curve in terms of equipment used and markets served. Or they leveraged an existing base of customers, which minimizes the need for additional marketing efforts and makes the most of customer points-of-contact. A good example of that synergy is restroom and party rentals. And as a bonus, a wider array of services provides more consistent cash flow and can help ease up-and-down fluctuations or offset seasonal downturns in business, Wayne says.

Carl Stenberg founded the company in 1970, primarily as a septic tank pumping outfit that dabbled in portable restrooms and general excavating on the side. Today, septic services account for roughly 35 percent of the company’s business volume, while portable restrooms contribute 50 percent and party rentals generate the remaining 15 percent. The family also owns an industrial-cleaning and hazardous-waste-hauling company called UP Environmental Services Inc.

“We were already a service company bringing in restrooms, so party rental was a natural fit,” says Mark Stenberg, who heads up the company’s portable restroom operations. “We built it up slowly because chairs and tables and tents are pricey. Getting into party rentals helped make us more competitive … customers like the one-stop-shop concept.”

MORE SERVICES, MORE EQUIPMENT

Providing so many services requires a large inventory of equipment. On the portable sanitation side, Stenberg Bros. owns approximately 600 restrooms, primarily from Satellite Industries, PolyPortables LLC and Five Peaks; about 50 hand-wash stations from Five Peaks and PolyPortables; and two restroom trailers from JAG Mobile Solutions Inc., used mostly for weddings.

The business runs five restroom service trucks, all built out by Imperial Industries Inc. with Masport Inc. pumps: a 2015 Ford F-550 with a 1,100-gallon wastewater/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank; a 2008 International with a 1,200-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank; a 2000 Ford F-650 with a 1,000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2006 Ford F-750 with a 1,000-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank; and a 2006 GMC with a 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater slide-in steel tank.

In addition, the business owns a 2004 Ford flatbed rack truck carrying an Imperial slide-in aluminum tank (400-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater). The tank is mounted crosswise on the flatbed, behind the cab, leaving room to haul six restrooms.

On the septic pumping side, Stenberg Bros. owns four pump trucks: a 2008 Freightliner with a 3,600-gallon aluminum tank and a Challenger pump (National Vacuum Equipment), outfitted by Imperial; a 1998 International 4300 with a 2,300-gallon steel tank built by T-Line Equipment Inc. with a Jurop/Chandler pump; and two 2000 Sterling trucks, one built out by T-Line with a 2,300-gallon steel tank and a Jurop/Chandler pump and the other outfitted by Imperial with a 3,400-gallon steel tank and a pump made by Fruitland Manufacturing.

For dirt work, the business owns a backhoe, a bulldozer, two wheel loaders and a tractor, all John Deere models; an International quad-axle dump truck with a 20-cubic-yard dump body; a multi-terrain track Case loader; and a pipeline inspection camera system, a portable drain-cleaning machine and a portable water jetter, all from Spartan Tool LLC.

To support the party business, Stenberg Bros. owns about 150 plastic rental tables (either 8-foot-long or 5-foot-diameter round tables), an estimated 1,000 chairs and more than 30 tents.

STRATEGIC GROWTH

To expand the company’s territory and boost business volume, Stenberg Bros. acquired five other restroom companies over the last 15 years, either because the owners were retiring or wanted out from part-time operations. “That’s the main way we gained market share,” he notes.

But just as importantly, the company kept those new customers on board by providing great customer service – doing things like cleaning restrooms thoroughly and continually reinvesting in newer, nice-looking restrooms, he adds.

To provide faster service, the company opened a second facility in Gwinn, which is about 80 miles north of Bark River and close to Marquette, the largest city in the Upper Peninsula. “It takes about an hour and 30 minutes to drive from Bark River to Marquette, so it was hard to justify doing all that driving – a three-hour round trip,” Mark explains. “So we have four guys up there that run two septic trucks and two restroom trucks. We do some party rentals from up there, too.”

Stenberg Bros. collects about 1.3 million gallons of waste annually. Fortunately, waste-disposal facilities are conveniently located: one in Bark River and one in Gwinn. Any waste collected within a 25-mile radius of Bark River must be dumped at the Bark River treatment facility. The same rule holds true for waste collected in and around Gwinn.

To reduce operating expenses, the company also land-applies waste collected beyond a 25-mile radius around Bark River. During summers, the company applies the waste on about 40 acres of farmland the company owns, using a Challenger TerraGator land injector. Drivers first off-load waste into two 25,000-gallon and one 10,000-gallon steel holding tanks before pumping it into the Gator’s 3,000-gallon tank for land application, Mark says.

NOT NECESSARILY A BARGAIN

Providing good customer service offers another benefit: It helps Stenberg Bros. ward off fly-by-night competitors who try to gain market share by offering low-ball prices. “It’s fairly easy to get into septic pumping or the (portable) restroom industry in Michigan,” Mark points out. “You get a permit and buy a truck – it’s not very complicated. As a result, we see a lot of guys that get into either business on the side and start under-cutting on price.’’

This is where customer education kicks in. The Stenbergs stress that low-price companies may not be as responsive to off-hour calls for service, while an established service provider has a reputation to protect.

“Under some circumstances, we’ll match a low-ball price. But most times we explain to customers that if there’s a problem, that guy is not as likely to take care of you because it’s not how he makes a living. But we always will,’’ Mark explains. “Customers can call us 24 hours a day and someone will answer the phone. You just hope customers realize that.”

To increase operating efficiencies, the company cross-trains employees so they’re just as adept at pumping out septic tanks as they are at servicing restrooms; this also illustrates the benefits of adding complementary services. The company’s various divisions also borrow equipment from each other when needed, which minimizes capital expenditures, Mark notes.

“That’s how we’re able to make things work to our advantage,” Mark says. “Almost everyone in our company can jump into a different truck and do the job. A guy on the environmental side, for example, might help set up tents if things are slow for that division. We’re all pretty versatile, and part of that comes from hiring drivers with commercial driver’s licenses so they can drive all of our heavy trucks.”

Clearly, diversity – whether it’s employee skills, equipment or services – is a vital part of Stenberg Bros.’ strategy for success.



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