Growing a Portable Restroom Company from Scratch

Idaho couple builds company while also learning about the industry, tackling all the little bumps in the road head-first.
Growing a Portable Restroom Company from Scratch
Bear Necessities employees, from left, Randy Spencer, Lauraine Drown, Andy Drown and David Dewhirt, in front of the company’s Peterbilt 330 with a 750-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater steel tank (Crescent Tank Manufacturing). The truck also has a Masport vacuum pump. (Photos by Drew Nash)

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Truth be told, Andy Drown didn’t know what to expect when he and his wife, Lauraine, bought Bear Necessities Portable Restrooms in 2009 in Burley, Idaho. At that point in his career, he was unemployed and the business appeared to be a solid investment amidst a struggling economy that offered limited job opportunities.

“It was a bad time to be looking for a job, much less buying a business,” Drown says. “Quite honestly, the last thing I wanted to do was clean restrooms. The broker I was working with was hesitant to even tell me about Bear Necessities. But I had looked at hundreds and hundreds of businesses, and this was the only one I found that was making money. So when I heard about it, something just clicked, especially the name of the company.”

As luck would have it, the Drowns’ two young daughters, Jasmine and Evalyn, loved singing the song “The Bear Necessities” from the Disney movie The Jungle Book, and Drown’s nickname was “Bear.” “So everything seemed to be lined up, telling us that this was what we needed to do,” he says.

In addition, Drown knew from experience that a conscientious, customer-service-driven portable restroom operator just might excel in the market around Burley and Twin Falls, located in far south-central Idaho. As a contractor in the agricultural industry, he often used portable restrooms. In fact, one of the last large projects he worked on as a contractor required about 50 restrooms on site, and the company renting them was based in Utah.

“That made no sense to me at all,” he recalls. “And the restrooms were so nasty that I’d drive to a local big-box retailer to avoid using them. So I knew there was room for improvement.”

The next year or so tested the young couple’s mettle in ways they never could’ve anticipated while providing a baptism-by-fire education via the proverbial school of hard knocks. But seven years later, they now run a thriving business that’s grown dramatically, from 175 restrooms to roughly 540, not to mention four service trucks. About 95 percent of the company’s business volume is generated by monthly rentals, with special events contributing the balance.

But perhaps just as importantly, the Drowns are now passionate about their business — both the work and the customers they serve. “We have ridiculously loyal customers,” Drown says. “We’ve gotten very attached to providing service for them.”

LOVES TO LABOR

What transpired between that first year and now offers a cautionary tale about the risks of jumping into the unknown head-first. But it also underscores the value of traits commonly found among portable restroom operators nationwide: hard work, determination and family teamwork, to name a few.

Drown grew up on a farm, so he is no stranger to hard work. “I was working as soon as my hands could fit around a shovel,” he says. “Work is what you do when you live on a farm.

And I like to work. In fact, I quit sports in high school to work. I’ve always enjoyed working. Work has never seemed like work to me.”

That strong work ethic served Drown well during the couple’s learning curve in a new industry. They bought the company a month or so before one of its busiest periods: harvest time for local sugar beet growers, who need restrooms for employees working at piling grounds (places where harvested beets are collected). One of the biggest customers annually needs about 75 or 80 restrooms cleaned three times a week from early September to early November. “I thought I could do it all by myself, but it was nearly impossible,” he recalls.

The situation became even worse when a potential temporary employee backed out at the last minute. Furthermore, the couple found out that all 175 of the company’s restrooms were already rented, leaving them about 75 short, Drown says.

The solution: Drown quickly found some private investors that lent him enough money to buy 100 used restrooms from a restroom company that was going out of business in Ogden, Utah. He drove there at night and the restrooms looked fine. But when he got home, he realized most of them were in pretty bad shape, which required hours and hours of repair work, changing out toilet-paper dispensers, hand sanitizers and the like.

MORE PROBLEMS

Then there was the matter of service routes. The previous owner had customer locations memorized, but more often than not, they were in such remote locations that even GPS was no help. Moreover, customer records were incomplete at best.

“Customers were asking us when we were going to come and clean their restrooms and we didn’t even know they had any,” Drown says. “So I’d stay up all night, using the GPS on our computer to plot the locations of all our restrooms and set up the most efficient routes.

“It was eight weeks or so of pure chaos,” he continues. “After I made it through basic training for the National Guard at Fort Sill, I thought I could handle anything, but this made me feel like that was merely summer camp. If I’d been working for someone else, I would’ve quit — and I’m not a quitter. We were literally working 18 to 20 hours a day, sleeping in the truck, cleaning restrooms around the clock. I’ve never come so close to being totally undone.”

The family teamwork aspect then came into play when Lauraine chipped in to help. She asked her employer for some temporary personal leave to help out Andy, but the company denied the request. “So she walked out and I put her in a truck — and she’s hated me ever since,” he quips.

To top it all off, the couple was also driving 60 miles from Burley just to reach the company’s primary service area. Drown estimates he drove an average of 300 to 350 miles a day. What kept him going? “The thought of losing everything if I didn’t do it,” he says. “Just pure grit, I guess.”

BETTER SERVICE, MORE BUSINESS

It took more than a year for the Drowns to get a firm handle on things. To grow the company, they relied heavily on three fundamental principles: Show up when you tell customers you’re going to show up; clean restrooms as if their daughters were going to use them; make things right when mistakes occur.

The formula worked. In fact, the company grew without virtually any advertising or marketing aside from word-of-mouth referrals, Drown says.

Along the way, Drown says he also became more business-savvy. “At the start, we weren’t good business people, just hard workers,” Drown concedes. For example, he slowly raised the company’s rates to cover the additional expenses and vehicular wear and tear incurred by serving customers in remote locations. The Snake River Canyon cuts a wide swath through the company’s service territory and bridges to cross it aren’t always conveniently located. As such, serving a customer that’s just 2 or 3 miles away might actually require driving much farther than that to reach a bridge that crosses the canyon, he says.

“Once we got a bit more established, I finally got the guts to start charging rates that covered our costs,” he explains. “We slowly raised prices and charged more for out-of-the-way places where our competitors wouldn’t go. Some rock quarries we service, for example, are about an hour’s drive away.”

ROUTE DENSITY INCREASES

Providing great service helped boost the company’s customer base. That not only increased revenue, it also made it easier to establish routes with enough customers to make service runs more efficient and profitable.

“We’ve now established fairly dense routes that justify continuing service to more remote customers,” Drown notes. “When there were just a handful of customers along some routes, it was a lot harder. We encouraged those customers to refer us to people they knew who needed restrooms, which they were willing to do because we provided them with good service.”

To amp up efficiency, the company recently invested in a routing and business management program called The Service Program, developed by Westrom Software. The software will streamline operations such as invoicing, scheduling, restroom tracking and service routing. It also offers features such as quick-response (QR) bar codes, which can be scanned with cellphones by customers and Bear Necessities employees to more accurately track restrooms, Drown says.

“After downloading a Bear Necessities app the company (Westrom) will build for us, customers can scan the QR code and tell us if a restroom needs cleaning,” he explains. “Or our drivers can scan them when they finish servicing restrooms, which records the exact time and date they were there. Customers can also tell us about problems or order more restrooms or cancel restrooms.

“The software will also make billing more efficient,” he adds. “Right now, it takes us about a full day to bill customers and we often find ourselves behind in billing. But after we get this software up and running, it should take only about 20 minutes.”

MORE CUSTOMERS, MORE EQUIPMENT

Now that the company is more firmly established, the rigors and struggles of those early days seem a world away to Drown. The firm’s growth is reflected in the equipment it owns, which includes roughly 540 single restrooms and about 25 hand-wash stations, mostly all made by Satellite Industries. About 30 of those restrooms are mounted on small, two-wheeled trailers that Drown bought and customized for use in agricultural fields.

“They get used mostly during harvest time and get moved from field to field,” says Lauraine. “It’s easier for our customer to hook the small trailers to the backs of pickup trucks and move the restrooms where they need them each day,” she explains. “Then they let us know where they’ve moved to, so we know where to go to service them.”

To service restrooms, the company relies on a 2005 Peterbilt 330 with a 750-gallon waste/350-gallon freshwater steel tank made by Crescent Tank Manufacturing with a Masport vacuum pump; a 2000 Ford F-550 with a self-fabricated 475-gallon steel waste tank with two 100-gallon, self-fabricated saddle water tanks (self-fabricated) with a Conde vacuum pump (a brand built by Westmoor); a 1996 Chevrolet 1-ton pickup with a 300-gallon waste steel tank and two 100-gallon water tanks with a vacuum pump made by Conde; and a 2014 Dodge Ram 5500 outfitted with a 450-gallon self-fabricated slide-in steel waste tank, two 165-gallon saddle water tanks and a Conde vacuum pump.

The company also owns a backhoe made by J.C. Bamford Excavators used to unload restrooms and supplies, as well as three 250-gallon holding tanks made by TOICO Industries and six 100-gallon freshwater holding tanks, both used to supply water for and hold waste from office trailers. To carry restrooms, Bear Necessities owns two flatbed trailers that carry 10 restrooms each, Drown says.

To clean restrooms and keep them smelling nice, the company uses cleaning products made by J & J Chemical Co. and Satellite Industries, as well as non-formaldehyde EverPro deodorizing tablets, also made by J & J Chemical.

MORE GROWTH EXPECTED

Looking back, what advice would Drown give to a novice restroom operator who’s preparing to enter the industry? For starters, invest in routing and business management software from the get-go, just to save time and increase efficiency. “You’re going to work hard anyway, but I could’ve saved hours and hours and avoided working in the middle of the night doing routing on my own,” he says. “We were scared away by the high cost.”

Drown also suggests that newbies make use of resources such as the Facebook-based portable restroom network, an industry-specific forum where operators can communicate, share problems and get solutions. The forums are helpful because the participants typically aren’t competitors, so they freely share information. “I wish I would’ve sought out those people earlier on, rather than reinventing the wheel and coming up with my own ways of doing things,” he says.

When asked about the future, Drown says he and Lauraine aren’t intentionally trying to grow bigger, but it’s happening nonetheless. He points out that the company bought 112 new restrooms from Satellite last year and figured that would keep them well stocked for a while. “But all of those restrooms are out now,” he says. “We’re not trying to grow — we just have a hard time saying no to people. And I don’t see us slowing down.” The company might also invest in a luxury restroom trailer to meet increasing requests from customers who are planning special events, he adds.

Looking back, Drown says he’s amazed by the company’s growth, which seemed impossible during that first chaotic year in business. He also finds it remarkable how he and his wife have become so emotionally invested in the industry.

“At the time we bought the business, we figured it would be an investment — a company we could build up, then sell and do something else,” he says. “We didn’t realize we would learn to love it much, as we do now. We had no idea how much people would appreciate things like a clean restroom.

“We’ve had people at weddings come out and give us a big hug and tell us how many people commented about the clean restrooms,” he adds. “After seeing so many people appreciate what we do, we’ve grown to love our customers — and keep providing better service.”


Resources available for newbie business owners

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, about half of new business owners fail within the first five years of operation. Andy and Lauraine Drown bucked those odds when they bought Bear Necessities Portable Restrooms in Burley, Idaho, in 2009, but Andy is the first to admit that at the time, his work ethic was much stronger than his business knowledge.

But the resourceful couple eventually discovered resources like the business networking platform offered by Facebook. This forum allows groups of entrepreneurs in specific business sectors to share ideas, problems and solutions — and it’s all free. (For an example, go to Facebook and search for “portable restroom professionals” or “portable toilet network.”)

There are many other resources available to business newcomers. Here’s a brief list of some recommended groups:

SCORE (www.score.org): A nonprofit network of more than 11,000 volunteers that provides free and confidential mentoring services to business operators in dozens of industries. The group is endorsed by the U.S. Small Business Administration and also offers free or inexpensive workshops and webinars.

U.S. Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov): This federal government organization offers all manner of assistance for small-business owners, including loans and contracts.
National Federation of Independent Business (www.nfib.com): This group, which has more than 325,000 members, advocates for small businesses by promoting and protecting their rights. In addition, the association also provides networking opportunities with other business owners, free human resources support and discounts on personal and corporate insurance, payrolls services and more.

Accounting Terminology Guide (www.nysscpa.org/professional-resources/accounting-terminology-guide): Compiled by the New York State Society of CPAs and maintained by the same group, this website helps financial rookies understand basic accounting terms, arranged alphabetically for convenience.

Small Business Trends (www.smallbiztrends.com): Established in 2003, this website provides business owners with a host of news, advice and resources, backed by hundreds of expert contributors.

Bplans (www.bplans.com): It’s hard to reach a destination without a sense of direction, which is why business plans are valuable tools (not to mention that most banks require them in order to obtain funding). Sponsored by Palo Alto Software, this website provides free sample plans along with advice about how to pitch a business idea to investors, management tips and business tools.



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