He Grabbed a Diploma and Bought a Restroom Business

At just 22, Iowa’s Curtis English owns a profitable portable sanitation company and sets his sights on more growth opportunities.
He Grabbed a Diploma and Bought a Restroom Business
Curtis English is silhouetted by the sun as he makes the early morning service rounds. (Photos by Mark Hirsch)

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Curtis English has always possessed a strong entrepreneurial drive. Just four years after graduating high school, he’s the proud owner of Select Service Inc., a portable restroom business that’s tripled in size since he purchased it and is expanding into pumping service in a big way.

English lives in the small town of Anamosa in eastern Iowa. He completed the business administration management program at Kirkwood Community College in nearby Cedar Rapids in 2013.

“My first job after graduating was working at a truck-building company that did custom fabricating and machining,” he says. “But I was always thinking about owning and operating my own business.”

GETTING STARTED

Though he wasn’t thinking specifically about portable restrooms, English was presented with a business opportunity involving Select Service. The company had belonged to owner Mark Dlask, who had operated the company since 2001.

“Mark had sold the company and it was briefly operated by a new owner who wasn’t a good match for the business,” he says. “I saw an opportunity to buy the business and settle the remaining debt with Mark.”

At the time, the inventory included 130 portable restrooms, most of them from Satellite Industries, with a few from Imperial Industries. Assets also included three pickup trucks carrying vacuum units and a series of contracts, about 75 to 80 percent for ongoing construction, with the remainder in events, municipal park placements and sports fields.

English worked with his father, Matt, to secure a bank loan to cover the purchase. He began operating the business in December 2013 from a rented warehouse.

“I had about three months of PR work to do, meeting and speaking with customers to explain that the company had a new owner and that things were going to change for the better. I pulled into one customer’s premises and he met me with a tire iron and demanded I remove every portable restroom from his yard. After I explained I was the new owner and how I was going to take care of him, we haven’t had a problem since.”

Meeting personally with customers also helped English to provide more customized service. Some businesses, for example, preferred he provide service on specific days, although that might not have been stated in the contract.

LEARNING THE ROPES

Tracking down the portable restroom unit inventory was also problematic. “After a thorough search I discovered that I was seven short,” he says. “I never found them.”

English confesses that he didn’t know everything he might have needed to know about portable restroom operations at the outset.

“I started in December and I didn’t know about using brine or methanol to stop the restroom units from freezing,” he says. “I was using windshield washer antifreeze, which was way too expensive. I kept switching out the units that froze and defrosted them back at the yard. I must have switched out 50 of them between December and March. I also didn’t know that I could use the water pressure systems on the trucks to spray down the restrooms — I was hand wiping them. I’m now using Hotsy pressurized sprays to clean units on site.”

Today, the company owns 188 portable restrooms. The Satellite stock includes 137 Taurus, 15 Maxim 3000 and nine ADA-compliant units. Select Service also offers 27 units from Imperial Industries.

English has retired the original service fleet and now operates five vacuum rigs, all with stainless steel tanks and Masport pumps. They are: a 1997 Ford F-350 with a 500-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater tank; a 2009 Ford F-450 with a 1,000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tank; a 2008 Dodge Ram 4500 with separate 1,000-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tanks; a 1996 International 4700 with a 2,000-gallon tank; and a 2006 GMC 3500 with a 500-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater tank.

All tanks were either repurposed from his older trucks or sourced secondhand. English built out the trucks himself with help from local shops. He’s also recently purchased and plans to restore a 1978 Ford F-350 Camper Special for local parades.

Portable restrooms are hauled on any of four trailers. The largest is a 16-unit hauler by J.J. Merrill Custom Fabrication LLC of Anamosa. Three other trailers — a 12-unit, a four-unit and a single-unit — were fabricated by previous owner Dlask.

Select Service buys bathroom tissue at Sam’s Club and orders deodorizers from Walex Products.

HANDY WITH TOOLS

English now operates the business from his home. He has three buildings on site, including two unheated facilities: a 25- by 30-foot building and a 40- by 60-foot building. A heated 25- by 40-foot building houses his Ford F-450 and his garage tools, including an air compressor and torch welder. During the summer some of the trucks work hard, logging 600 miles in a week — 300 of them on gravel roads.

“I’m a handy guy and I can do just about everything, from most mechanical work to changing tires, wheel bearings and U-joints,” he says. “There are a lot of busted knuckles at 2 in the morning, but it’s saved me a lot of money and I enjoy the work.”

The service territory area covers a 50-mile radius that includes the larger population centers of Dubuque (60,000), Iowa City (72,000) and Cedar Rapids (128,000). All waste is hauled to the Cedar Rapids municipal waste facility almost 40 miles from the Select Service yard.

Initially, English enlisted the assistance of his mother, Luida, to take incoming calls, but he found that answering the calls himself via cellphone proved more efficient.

“If I’m the driver and I’m dropping off the units, it’s easier for me to clarify the order with the customer, instead of trying to translate an order taken by someone else,” he says.

His mother still assists him with bookkeeping, using QuickBooks by Intuit.

THE BUSY SEASON

English primarily operates the business alone, especially during winter when business slows down. He supplements winter work with snow removal services. During the summer, he works 70 to 80 hours per week. His largest event is the Jones County Fair in Monticello, Iowa, just northeast of Anamosa up U.S. Highway 151. The fair requires 200 restrooms.

“I use 100 of my own units and then make up the difference by renting some additional restrooms,” says English. “But in terms of being busy, it’s hell week. I have my own routes to drive and I call on Mark Dlask to help me out with service.”

Other summer events include weddings, pig roasts, sporting events and graduations.

One of the biggest challenges in portable restroom rentals is strong Iowa winds.

“If we get 40-mile-an-hour winds, they’ll blow over and make a mess and I’ve got to switch them out,” he says. “I use 14-inch stakes, which do a pretty good job of securing them to the ground.”

Other vacuum service is expanding, including contracts for pumping farm liquids, grease traps, car wash pits and flooded basements. English finds, however, that tight competition means smaller profits on septic pumping jobs.

“I’m thinking of buying a truck with a waste tank of at least 4,000 gallons,” he says. “If I could line up all of the septic work together and make one trip to the municipal waste facility, it would really make those runs more profitable.”

WWETT SHOW NETWORKING

English attended this year’s Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show with Dlask and is considering several purchases, including 50 more portable restrooms for the 2016 busy season.

“It was nice to meet the CEO of Walex, and my Satellite rep face to face,” he says. “Until then, I had never met many of my suppliers.”

Select Service is planning to hire its first employee later this year. “I don’t mind working alone, but you can’t do everything yourself,” he says.

Since English stabilized the business, revenues are up 40 percent.

“I’m running the business conservatively,” he says. “I’m comfortable trading out a (used) truck every two to three years instead of going into debt to buy the latest and greatest. According to my business plan, I’ll be debt-free inside of five years. That’s a great place to be.”


He’s got social marketing skills

When it comes to business marketing, Curtis English, owner of Select Service Inc., of Anamosa, Iowa, prefers the personal touch.

“I send out a coupon with a flyer once a month,” he says. “With that coupon customers can get a one-month free portable restroom rental. I like this approach because it allows me to meet personally with anyone who accepts the offer. Once they experience my level of personal service, I haven’t had a single customer who didn’t stick with me.”

English also scans the horizon for construction companies working in his service area.

“Marketing possibilities are always running through my head,” he says. “I write down the names of the companies and always call them later that night. I manage to convert a lot of these leads into contracts.”

Driving through small towns in his service area, English often stops at local restaurants or taverns simply to strike up a conversation with residents and business owners.

“I’m easy to talk to,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many business owners you meet who operate construction companies or might need what my company is offering. If they need portable restroom rentals or service, they know from talking to me that I’m a straight shooter. It’s resulted in a lot of contracts for the business.”



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