Taking a Fresh Approach on Portable Restroom Service

In his second go-round in the portable sanitation industry, Washington’s Jeff Wilson finds innovative ways to provide quality service to all customers.
Taking a Fresh Approach on Portable Restroom Service
The TPI crew includes, from left, Shae Schoonover, Becky LaFrance, Josh Sparks, Mike Tworzydlo, Jeff Wilson, Trish Wilson, Frank Shipley, Pete Wallin, Kaleb Barnum, Joe Milian, Larry Higby and Dave Epperson. The trucks in the background carry Brenner tanks and Masport pumps.

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When Jeff Wilson re-entered the portable sanitation industry in 2004 after a brief hiatus, he embraced the same philosophy he has always brought to entrepreneurial efforts: Customer service is the top priority. And he was excited to discover that improvements within the industry would allow him to provide that service better than he had before.

“Because technology has improved and products have improved, by the time I started the second company, I found I was able to provide a more upscale service,” says Wilson, owner with his wife, Trish, of TPI Portable Toilets and Septic Tank Services based in Longview, Washington. “That intrigued me because I always liked dealing with the customers. Customer service is always your priority.”

But those industry improvements aren’t the only factors that helped Wilson grow his business over the last decade. Outside-the-box thinking played a role in providing the high level of customer service he expects from his company.

“It was really about finding ways that we didn’t have to tell the customer no,” he says of his approach to the portable sanitation business. “Who wants to say no to a paying customer?

That simply wasn’t going to fly with us. We wanted to find solutions so we could say yes.”

BACK IN BUSINESS

Wilson launched his first portable sanitation operation in 1987 alongside an environmental cleaning company. By 1999, the company had grown to a point where Wilson decided to sell off the portable restroom division. Five years later, with a noncompete clause expired and the environmental cleaning company also sold, he was ready to get back into the portable sanitation game.

“I started with just myself and 12 toilets,” Wilson recalls. “Now I have over 2,000 units and about 16 trucks and 16 employees throughout Oregon and Washington.”

With an inventory of mostly PolyJohn’s Fleet Series, as well as some units from Satellite Industries and PolyPortables, restroom rentals make up about 50 percent of the business — the balance is septic and drain-cleaning work. Servicing those restrooms is a fleet of Ford, Dodge, International and Freightliner trucks. The trucks are mostly built out in-house with vacuum tanks ranging in size from 400 to 1,250 gallons from Progress, KeeVac, Brenner and FlowMark, and pumps from Masport and Conde (Westmoor Ltd.). One truck was bought from TankTec and built out by FlowMark.

Transport trailers from Featherlite and Wells Cargo are used for pickup and delivery. Among the deodorants used are the Safe-T-Fresh line from Satellite and products from J & J Chemical. Hand wash sinks are made by Satellite and PolyJohn. The company also owns MSA brand portable eye wash stations, and office and restroom trailers manufactured by Ameri-Can Engineering.

TPI Portables covers southwest Washington and northwest Oregon, maintaining several storage yards and two office locations.

UNORTHODOX SOLUTIONS

Wilson’s customer service approach is built around meeting challenges. For example, take two of the vehicles that are a part of his fleet (and that you’d be hard-pressed to find in another portable restroom company’s inventory): World War II DUKW boats.

The amphibious vehicles, designed to cross both land and water, were once used for transporting troops and supplies from ship to shore. Today, they are Wilson’s solution for placing restrooms on rugged, uninhabited islands in the Columbia River to serve private environmental contractors performing restoration work. Coming across that particular solution wasn’t difficult for Wilson given his interest in collecting and restoring old military vehicles.

“Some people have their car and truck passions. My passion has always been military vehicles; because of the importance of the history, but also because they’re unique, something different,” he says.

When presented with the question of how to not only transport restrooms across the river to an island, but also how to properly place them close to where the restoration work is occurring, the DUKW boats immediately came to mind for Wilson.

“I thought to myself, obviously the U.S. military figured this out in World War II in order to support amphibious operations. So I simply went out and acquired our first DUKW and we restored it,” he says. “Anyone can get a unit on a tugboat or barge and go out to an island. But what if you needed that restroom way up in the interior of the island? These are uninhabited islands. The DUKWs really solved the problem. We can drive them through the water, up on land, and place the restrooms where they need to go.”

Wilson acquired the amphibious vehicles about six years ago and though the demand for them isn’t high, he says they’ve been deployed fairly regularly to assist clients working on the islands.

“A DUKW can haul up to six units,” Wilson says. “Although the business isn’t steady, it seems that the last two years the DUKWs have put in countless hours delivering and servicing restrooms on the river for private contractors.”

He has also utilized other military vehicles he’s restored in his business. For public events like mud runs that are often held in more remote locations without good road access, TPI Portables will make use of triple-axle all-wheel-drive, medium-duty 6 x 6 military trucks. Wilson has added a slide-in tank on occasion to use the trucks for cleaning, but they’re primarily put into action for delivering units.

“If we have to go out in severe conditions like mud, deep sand and whatnot to place units, we’ll use the large 6 x 6 trucks,” Wilson says. “The military trucks have really given me complete coverage. Land or water, I have the means to get a toilet there.

“In this business you have a chance to be really good and be proud of your business, or you can choose to just go with the flow,” he continues. “We’re interested in giving customers their money’s worth and then some. It’s very simple to us. We treat our customers exactly how we would want to be treated. Quality in our business is everything.”

PUTTING THE CUSTOMER FIRST

Wilson admits his company isn’t always the least expensive option for customers. But he believes a heavy focus on price can sometimes be a detriment to the customer.

“In our competitive industry, sometimes people seem to worry too much about the competition instead of the customer,” he says. “Many companies will spend a lot of time focusing on just the cost, but in the total business, what you do is build long-term relationships. You have to study your short-term costs versus what you’re trying to do in the long term in order to keep a customer. When the customer spends money with you, you have to think, what if it was my money? What am I getting for it?”

At TPI, what customers get is a variety of color choices. “We have aqua to silver to teal, and then of course our famous hot pink,” Wilson says. The pink units total about 50, with other color combinations making up a more sizeable chunk of the 2,000-plus restroom inventory. Aqua is the most popular color choice among TPI Portables customers, Wilson says.

“The waste is the same, but people are different,” he says. “So we’ve created a menu where people can pick and choose some of their colors. Not everyone has the same desires. Instead of the market being stuffy and everybody only has gray and brown units, we decided we wanted to mix it up a bit and provide more diversification to whomever wants to retain our services.”

And each unit comes equipped with hand sanitizer and extra rolls of toilet paper — two simple items that can go a long way toward appeasing customers, Wilson says.

“Hand sanitizer is mandatory in our units. That is something we would never consider an option. We’re shocked that some in the industry still consider that an additional item.”

As for the extra rolls of tissue, that is Wilson’s answer to a chronic portable restroom issue. “Probably the No. 1 problem, besides odor complaints, will be people running out of tissue,” Wilson says. “That is unacceptable. So in every unit we own, we add additional rolls. All our units go out with four or five rolls minimum. That pretty much eliminated the problem.”

TPI Portables accomplishes this by mounting an additional roll dispenser to every unit added to the restroom inventory. The extra dispensers are purchased from either the restroom manufacturer or TOICO Industries.

TOW-AND-GO

One of the most popular restroom rental options since Wilson restarted his business has been the tow-and-go trailer. Again, they represent one of his solutions to a problem: How do you accommodate the last-minute customer?

The answer: a restroom mounted to a trailer that customers can pick up themselves, 24/7. TPI Portables has a fleet of 26 trailers, available in configurations of up to eight restrooms, some with sinks. All the DIY customer needs is a trailer hitch with a 2-inch ball to come and pick up one or several units. TPI Portables fabricates the tow-and-go trailers in-house.

The tow-and-go option has also allowed TPI Portables to cost-effectively serve customers outside the company’s core service area. Wilson says he doesn’t want to have to quote a high price to a customer just because a restroom placement isn’t along one of the company’s established routes. Nor does he want to raise rates across the board to cover such an expense. Yet he has to be mindful of the company’s bottom line.

“Some companies will drop a unit off anywhere, but we don’t think that way. Every job must try to be profitable,” he says. “But sometimes people want restrooms where we simply don’t have any established routes. So we’re able to offer them this self-service tow-and-go so they can service that area themselves. They’re also one of the most affordable ways to get a toilet from our company. They come at a cheaper price because I don’t have the labor and truck time included in the cost.”

Making it a 24-hour service was the final part of the solution.

“That eliminated the ability for a customer to miss the opportunity,” Wilson says. “There’s no excuse now for a customer not to get a restroom. This took care of all last-minute issues.”

KEEP ON DELIVERING

No matter what solution Wilson devises for a problem, whether it’s creating a fleet of self-service trailers or utilizing World War II DUKW boats, you can bet that it’s done with the customer in mind.

“It’s about pleasing the customers,” he says. “If you please the customer, they’re going to have no problem pleasing you through full payment for your services.” 


Community involvement at home and abroad

For most of his life, Jeff Wilson has called Longview, Washington, home, and he says he’s dedicated to helping the local community. His company, TPI Portable Toilets and Septic Tank Services, regularly makes contributions to various organizations, either a monetary gift or through donated services.

“It’s called good corporate citizenship,” Wilson says. “The community that makes our company successful and profitable is the same community to which I have to show appreciation for giving me that chance to be successful and profitable.”

Wilson’s loyalty to Longview isn’t changing any time soon, but over the years another locale has become important to him and his wife, Trish. In fact, the couple is currently in the process of establishing a second portable sanitation business there.

“It’s early on, but we’ve started the voluminous paperwork process,” Wilson says of the new business to be launched in the Asian country of Cambodia. “My wife and I have fallen in love with Cambodia. That’s our favorite country to travel to and we try to go every year, and enjoy the wonderful weather when it’s winter (in the Pacific Northwest).”

But some Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia are lacking in sufficient sanitation facilities and Wilson says that’s where he believes he can be of help. His plan is to set up a business that revolves around pit vault toilets and portable restrooms.

“There are a lot of simplistic improvements that can have a great impact on the health and welfare of societies in Southeast Asia,” Wilson says. “I have an expertise. I’m actually good at something when it comes to human waste and improving people’s lives because of the business I’m in. And when I travel to impoverished countries, I see that they quite frankly need that sort of assistance and expertise. I need to share it and apply it to make that part of the world better.”



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