Diversify Your Service Offerings to Dominate the Marketplace

A successful portable sanitation specialty evolved from a broader tool and equipment rental business at Indiana’s Midwest Rentals.
Diversify Your Service Offerings to Dominate the Marketplace
From left, owner Ruth Schafer and Nancy and Paul Fassnacht are the leaders of Midwest Rentals in Lafayette, Indiana. They are shown in the company yard with restrooms from T.S.F. Company. (Photos by Marc Lebryk)

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In 1953, a couple of U.S. Army buddies opened up a tool rental store in downtown Lafayette, Indiana. It was slow going at first for Jim Schafer and Chuck Selby at Midwest Rentals, and after about a year Selby decided it wasn’t for him. Schafer plodded along, always looking for new services and equipment to offer customers. He insisted the company not specialize in any one thing, because if that thing ever went out of style they’d be out of business. He believed diversity was the key to success.

“Jim Schafer was one of those guys who was always hanging the carrot out in front of you,” says Paul Fassnacht, operations manager. “He’d say, ‘Go find me something that’ll make me money.’ That’s the reason the company (offers) so much.”

Those rental items include tools, equipment, fencing, storage containers, tents, party supplies, costumes and portable restrooms, which the company splits up into two broad categories — the events division in Lafayette and portable restrooms a few miles away in West Lafayette.

Much has changed since Midwest Rentals was first featured in PRO more than a decade ago. The company continually evaluates its roster of rental offerings, expands its portable sanitation services, and follows progressive employee-retention strategies.

CAN-DO PHILOSOPHY

Schafer died in 2000, but his family — three generations — still operates the company under this same philosophy. His widow, Ruth, is now the owner, still on site daily and actively involved at 80. Her daughters help manage the company — Nancy Fassnacht (Paul’s wife) is CEO, and Karen O’Leary is CFO. There are about 30 people on staff, including three of Schafer’s grandchildren — Nancy’s daughter Amber Caudill, the office manager, and Karen’s sons: Greg, a shop mechanic and route driver, and Ben, the warehouse manager.

After spending many years expanding his services — including adding portable restrooms in 1979 and constructing a 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art party supply store in 1985 — a major change occurred in 1997 when Schafer moved the tool division to a busier location. “As soon as we did that, all the big-name companies started looking at us and one of them bought the tool division,” Nancy Fassnacht says. Schafer used the funds to buy a portable restroom trailer. “That brought a lot more people and events to us that we would never have done.”

In 2007, the family decided to get back into the tool business. “The big tool companies were taking care of the big companies, but there was a niche still for the homeowners that wasn’t being met,” Nancy explains. More recent service additions have included fencing and storage containers.

New services and changing times also called for updated marketing techniques. In addition to networking through the American Rental Association of Indiana — of which Nancy is the statewide president — and each year sponsoring a bridal show highlighting their party supplies and theme-decorated portable restrooms, the company is now working with a marketing company for social media advertising. And for the first time they’ve hired an outside salesperson.

SERVING EVENTS

Paul joined the company in 1979, initially as a small-engine mechanic. He quickly got a dose of Schafer’s can-do attitude when Schafer bought 22 portable restrooms, handed him a list of their tool customers and said, “OK, we’ve got everything in motion; now you’ve got to go sell them.” To service units he used his personal truck, a 3/4-ton Dodge pickup, and a 300-gallon tank.

Today, the company has over 1,000 units from PolyJohn Enterprises and T.S.F. Company, and four restroom trailers, two 24-foot and two 28-foot, from Advanced Containment Systems (ACSI), Black Tie Products and Ameri‑Can. They’re adamant about keeping the trailers in top condition, Paul says. “If we don’t like an event, if it’s rough or whatever, we turn it down. If someone’s paying a lot of money we’re going to deliver quality equipment.” They normally stick to about an 80-mile radius with portable restrooms, but will send trailers anywhere, even out of state.

The company does numerous events in the summers. “There’s times I’ll do four events in a weekend and never bring the equipment back to the shop,” Paul says. A major year-round customer is a nearby university, whether it’s parties, games, events or construction projects. Paul is a hands-on manager and says everyone helps out at events, including owners and managers. “Nancy will even drive trucks out in the middle of the night when we need it,” he says.

Midwest sometimes loads units a little differently than most companies, Paul says. “When we’ve got something like 100 units going out to an event, the guys will get them washed, put in paper, water and (REZ Blue deodorant from R.E.Z. Packaging). We load them on the trailers ready to go, so the truck can unload and come back and not sit there filling the units with water.”

Other additives the company uses for its equipment include PolyJohn chlorine tablets for hand-wash stations (also PolyJohn). “I do believe that’s a must,” Paul says. “The health guys check my hand-washers and we’ve never had any problems.” And in the winter they put a salt brine solution in holding tanks to prevent freezing.

TRUCKS AND TRAILERS

Midwest has three transport trailers — 20-unit, 17-unit and 10-unit. “Way back in the day when we slowed down, Jim ordered a bunch of steel and we built the trailers from the ground up, and they’re still in use today,” Paul says.

Most of the company’s nine International vacuum trucks were built by Abernethy Welding. One came from Wee Engineer. “It’s simple, it’s designed right for what we do, it’s easy to work on,” Paul says. They’ve got one older unit, 1995, mainly used to haul container boxes; three brand-new ones; and the rest range from 2003 to 2014. The steel tanks hold 1,000 gallons of waste and 300 to 400 gallons of freshwater. Waste is conveyed with Masport pumps.

Drivers do their own routing, but the company also uses StreetEagle GPS software from InSight Mobile Data to track the fleet. The software has been used to show they were at a site when a customer accused them of not performing a service. And it has proved they were not at a location where someone said their truck ran them off the road, possibly preventing a lawsuit.

In 2003, the company began offering storage boxes — 20-foot and 40-foot sea shipping containers. “We buy them at the ports, like Chicago, when they bring in a big ship full of them,” Paul says. Customers include homeowners or small businesses that want to store equipment. But the company has been coming up with new ideas for the containers. One is a durable version of a restroom trailer designed for construction sites.

“We take a 40-foot box and split it between men’s and women’s restrooms and put in flush toilets,” Paul says. “We put the holding tanks inside the box because of the freezing weather.”

The unit is heated and air-conditioned.

Another idea is to build offices for use at events and construction sites. “Every construction job has an office trailer, but this is better because you don’t have to stake it down, you don’t have OSHA issues,” Paul says. “I can just take it in, slide it off, they bring in the electricity and it’s secured and ready to go.”

SWEETEN THE POT

One of the company’s biggest problems these days is finding and keeping good employees. Not only are they competing for labor against universities and manufacturing companies in the area, but they have special requirements. “It’s tough,” Nancy says. “We’re regulated by DOT, plus all the health licenses we have to obtain; drivers have to have a clean driver’s license for the insurance, and if they pull a trailer they have to have a Class A license. And then there’s the drug screening.”

To attract good people, the company offers a generous benefits package. In addition to above-average wages, employees get health care and 401(k) plans; nine paid holidays; six sick days; 10 to 20 days of vacation, depending on length of service; and a bonus to stay through the busy season.

The company also offers commissions. “We make a game out of it to keep the drivers motivated and also to help them,” Nancy says. “If they sell a restroom they’ll get a commission, and the one with the most sales in a month gets a $100 gift card.” The shop guys get a commission if a customer mentions they were courteous and helpful.

To pay for all these benefits, the company has to charge more for its services. “I remind the guys that we’ve got to give the customers something extra because of it,” Paul says.

Although they’re always looking for more help, Paul and Nancy couldn’t be happier with the team they’ve assembled, from the office staff to the drivers and mechanics, many of whom have been with the company for 10 years or more.

“I can’t say enough good things about all of them,” Paul says. Midwest is the kind of place that once they take you in you’re family. “We’re a tight little team down here. We help each other and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

DEPTH AND BREADTH

Their higher rates, contrasted by occasional low-ball competition, has cost the company some work, but they don’t back down. “Sometimes you’ve just got to say no,” Paul says. What they’ve found is very often lost work comes back to them because of the amount of resources they have.

“If a truck breaks down I can call in two more,” Paul says. “Or I can call the shop and say, ‘I’m getting behind, send another truck.’ I’ve got extra trailers to haul stuff — whatever they need.” In addition, they can call on their other division for emergency or last-minute needs for fencing, tools or equipment.

Customers have learned Midwest is a one-stop shop for just about anything they need, Paul says, and that can provide an edge. “We’ve got resources most companies just don’t have.”


They love a parade

The annual Christmas parade in Lafayette, Indiana, showcases local talent, including creative employees from companies who build floats for the event. Perhaps no business could be more suited to the job than Midwest Rentals.

“We have an advantage over anybody else,” says Paul Fassnacht, operations manager. “Because we rent all this stuff — generators, a PA system, bubble machines, fog machines.” They’ve also got costumes, confetti canons and heaters.

The company has built two floats over the last three years. The team of 30 comes up with the theme and is given free rein to raid the shelves. “We just back a trailer into a corner of the shop and say, ‘Here you go, have fun,’” Fassnacht says. Employees work on it when they’re not busy, which is usually the case during November, but they take it seriously and often come in after hours.

The 2013 float, “Tinkle all the way,” won the Mayor’s Choice award. It featured an outhouse sitting on a sleigh, confetti blowing out the stack and animal-costumed employees. The 2014 theme was “Christmas rap” with rap music and a bubble machine.

The floats have been real crowd-pleasers, Fassnacht says, which gives the team a great feeling. “You turn down that corner at Main Street and all the kids go, ‘Oh!’”



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