Portable Sanitation Business Turns Profitable for Former Construction Worker

Nebraska’s Al Branding turned an injury into a new career — and a surprising expansion into other businesses.
Portable Sanitation Business Turns Profitable for Former Construction Worker
The crew at Al’s Johns includes, from left, Amy Hraban, Katt Bryant, Josh Bruhl, B.J. Helmstadter, Thressa and Al Branding, and Sara Martin. They’re shown with two service trucks from Satellite Industries. (Photos by Matt Ryerson)

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When a back injury sidelined Al Branding from a construction career, he applied for what he thought was a full-time waste hauling job in Kansas City, Kansas.

“Instead, I found out I was applying to drive for a portable restroom company,” says Branding. “I was hired, and I liked the job. I was paid on piecework and I was pretty aggressive. I soon figured out how much the truck cost and how much money I could make on my own.”

Branding sat down with his wife, Thressa, to choose a location large enough to sustain growth but where customers were underserved. They settled on Raymond, Nebraska, and a service radius of about 50 miles, including Lincoln.

“We bought 15 Satellite units and a GMC pumper truck from Lane’s Vacuum Tank in Kentucky and started up in 1995,” says Branding.

Twenty years later, Al’s Johns offers 715 portables, most of them by Satellite Industries. About 25 units are handicap-accessible models from PolyPortables LLC, and 15 PolyJohn Enterprises units mounted on trailers are fabricated in-house. Three luxury restroom trailers are all from Ameri-Can — a 2014 816 Oasis, a 612 Royale Dooley and an 814 Traditional. Branding also offers 25 hand-wash stations by PolyPortables and 12 hand-sanitizer stands from Satellite.

The company uses Satellite and Walex Products deodorizers.

The pumping fleet includes five vehicles equipped with steel tanks and Conde pumps (Westmoor Ltd.): a 2015 Hino (800 gallons waste/400 gallons freshwater); a 2011, 2012 and 2013 Ford F-550 (600 gallons waste/250 gallons freshwater), all outfitted by Satellite; and a 2006 7500 GMC flatbed with an unbranded 450-gallon waste tank. The company also runs a 2015 3/4-ton HD Chevy pickup.

The trucks haul two restroom trailers, a 10-unit and a 16-unit, fabricated by a local welder.

“I specialize in the construction industry and split about 70-30 between construction and special events,” says Branding. “I do weddings and festivals, mostly in Lincoln, and a lot of high school and college football. I sometimes have 200 units out for home games.”

Branding launched a rental service for 20-foot portable storage containers in 2006 (he uses a 2006 GMC 8500 for deliveries) and has operated four day care centers since 2007 (more on that later).

The company employs five workers on the portable restroom side and two managers who cover the three businesses, which employ a total of more than 60 workers. “We’re blessed with good employees and if you’re going to be successful, you have to treat them fairly,” says Branding.

The business has experienced steady growth since it was founded, only sidelined briefly by the 2008 economic downturn.

“We’ve not only gained back that ground,” says Branding, “we’re up almost 25 percent over our previous high before the downturn.”

EXPLORE FIVE ISSUES THAT AFFECT AL’S PORTABLE SANITATION BUSINESS:

1. RUNNING DISTINCTLY DIFFERENT BUSINESSES

Branding found that running a storage pod rental business dovetailed nicely with his portable restroom business. He’s also looking to launch a sideline business, refurbishing construction office trailers.

Running a series of day care centers? Not so much.

Branding purchased four day care centers in 2007 to help provide ongoing financial support for the Christian school his sons attend.

“I thought they could turn a profit with minimal attention,” he says. “It was enough of an adjustment moving from the male-dominated world of construction to the female-dominated world of day care. But the centers did not perform financially as advertised, so I had to take personal control and with a lot of time and effort eventually stopped the flow of red ink so they could become solvent.”

2. AND LEARNING TO DELEGATE

“Once I got the day care centers under control, I realized that between day cares, storage containers and portable restrooms I was stretched way too thin,” says Branding.

Soon after, Sara Martin was brought in to lessen that load, and she became Branding’s right hand for the day care business. Laurie Polivka now manages special projects, promotions and marketing.

“With Sara and Laurie dealing with other important business, I could focus more attention on the restroom business, and it was the smartest decision I could have made,” he says. “When you go from a mom-and-pop business to the next level, you need to take on a completely different mindset and set the overall direction for the company — not manage every detail.”

3. THE BEST PRICE, NOT THE LOWEST PRICE

Like many PROs, Branding faces pressure to play the low-price game.

“I have had people ask me to cut the total quote by 50 cents,” he says. “I haven’t played that game since I went into business. My price includes getting the job done right and done on time.”

On occasion, Branding has even recommended his competitors to clients who are unhappy with price.

“I’ve done that maybe five times in the past 20 years,” he says. “There are customers out there who will probably be unhappy and frustrated no matter what price I give them or how much service I provide them, and there’s no point going down that road with them again. By recommending them to a competitor I’m giving them both a chance for happiness.”

Branding’s philosophy extends to his own suppliers.

“I’m looking for good products, and if I’m satisfied, I won’t keep shopping the contract around,” he says. “I’ll shop for toilet paper if a supplier discontinues a line, but I won’t squeeze suppliers to death over a nickel or a dime.”

4. DEVELOPING IN-HOUSE EXPERTISE

If you want something done right, do it yourself. Branding’s team continues to perform routine vehicle repair and maintenance and is looking to bring marketing functions in-house.

“We change oil and do brake work on all of the hydraulic brakes,” he says. “It not only saves time, it saves money and keeps everyone busy in the few minutes of downtime we experience.”

Branding advertises in the phone book and operates a website, but hasn’t fine-tuned and optimized advertising opportunities as the business grows. He’s currently placing responsibility for marketing in the hands of special projects manager Laurie Polivka.

“I can come up with the projects, but I’m not nimble enough to follow up with the advertising as quickly as I need to in order to alert potential customers,” he says. “Laurie promises to help bring our marketing into the 21st century. I’d settle for bringing us into the 17th century.”

5. PASSING IT ON

Branding’s sons Isaac, 17, and Joshua, 15, help out in summers, while Caleb, 25, is finishing a term of duty as a U.S. Marine and is expected to join the business later this year.

“I like the idea of having each of them try their hand at taking over one of the businesses,” says Branding. “However, sometimes family businesses run into trouble because the old guard tends to micromanage and smother initiative. The younger ones have a ways to go, but when they’re ready I’m not simply going to hand them the keys. They will have a free hand, but with that freedom will come responsibility. Their decisions will have consequences and will have to be justified in the quarterly P and L’s.”

However, Branding intends to stay involved with the business for a long time to come.

“All I really want is to plan a cruise and then actually follow through and go on that cruise,” he says. “That will be a new phenomenon for me.”
 



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