Mexico Portable Restroom Company Continues on as Kids Take Over

After passing of father, siblings step up to run and grow portable restroom company servicing Mexico and the U.S.
Mexico Portable Restroom Company Continues on as Kids Take Over
From left, Andres Valles, Fernando Galindo, Ruben Valenzuela, Silvia Garcia, Ricardo Valles and Victoria Valles, upper management at Desarrollos y Servicios Viva, stand on an International Navistar 4400 truck with 4,300-gallon tank and Moro vacuum pump. The truck is used for the company’s grease trap service. (Photography by Paola Loera/Mafafa Studio Photography)

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Ricardo, Andres and Victoria Valles became sudden owners of Desarrollos y Servicios Viva in Chihuahua, Mexico, when their father, Ricardo Valles, passed away unexpectedly in August 2015. They immediately stepped up to the plate and, along with invaluable help from their team, picked up where he left off. Less than six months later they proved to customers and vendors — but mostly to themselves — that they were up to the task of running what was by then a fairly large company when they successfully took on no less a challenge than Pope Francis’ visit to Juarez, an event attended by Mexico’s first family, the governor and many other dignitaries.

The senior Valles slowly grew his company over his 27-year ownership and the siblings are determined to continue that trajectory. However, they don’t want to do so at the expense of other PROs, whom they view as friends. They believe there’s room for everyone in the industry, and they look instead to specialized niches and complementary services.

GETTING STARTED

Valles founded the company in 1989 with about 10 units. His background was in accounting and real estate, but the story goes that he saw a portable restroom one day while playing golf and the idea struck him that he should set up a portable sanitation business and call the units Jonny’s — from a line in a movie that he liked, Andres says.

Along with hard work, good employees and a key vendor relationship established early on with PolyJohn Enterprises, the company grew and eventually expanded into industrial services. “He’d start little by little, picking up jobs here and there,” says Ricardo. “He’d go to the Pumper Show (Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show), strike up a relationship and then if he felt he had the capacity to take on an activity he’d build it in.” Today, the company is split into two divisions — industrial services and portable sanitation (still branded Jonny’s).

The company works statewide from its headquarters in Chihuahua and a branch office in Juarez. They also have a satellite office in Aguascalientes in central Mexico and a sister company in El Paso, Texas, which serves as a pass-through facility enabling them to bring American equipment into Mexico, including PolyJohn products, for which they are the national distributor. There are 80 people on staff and inventory stands at 1,700 units and seven restroom trailers — four from Black Tie Products and three from Sanimóvil de México.

The company’s vacuum trucks were manufactured in Mexico by CUSITEC Custom Tanks and Trailers using mostly Ford F-350s, Chevrolets and Internationals — 11 smaller (900 to 1,800 gallons), 18 larger (2,600 to 4,500 gallons), and six 6,000-gallon tanks. One tank is aluminum, the others steel, and pumps are from Jurop/Chandler, Moro USA and National Vacuum Equipment. In addition, they have two Vactor 2100s with 3,400-gallon tanks, 15 delivery vehicles, 12 transport trailers and three 18-wheelers (Freightliner and International). Other equipment includes five 4,000 psi and 10 2,000 psi jetters, mostly from Spartan Tool.

TAKING THE REINS

The siblings recognize that a change in ownership can be unsettling for a business and are trying to manage the transition as responsibly as possible. “That is a crucial time for family-owned companies,” Ricardo says. “It could make them or break them. But we know there are 50 families that rely on our responsible decision-making and we take that to heart.”

They have split up responsibilities according to their strengths. Andres, who had worked alongside his father, handles day-to-day operations. Ricardo, who had been working in the U.S. as a commercial manager for a marketing company, is the numbers guy and brings the benefit of an outside perspective. Victoria is the people person, overseeing customer service and sales.

Despite their grief, the three children had no choice but to jump right in. “It was tough,” Andres says. “It was like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool and somebody telling you to swim. We just got to work. We didn’t have time to not do anything.” The day after the funeral he had to sign a contract for a large project. “It was a daunting experience because it was very big and very important and you’re not really there 100 percent mentally.”

He and Ricardo emphasize they couldn’t have gotten through that period without their team. “They know their jobs left and right, forward and back and they’re committed,” Ricardo says. They credit their father with creating a culture that fostered loyalty and dedication.

Although he had no tolerance for sass or dishonesty, Valles took care of his people, often helping with medical or school expenses. “All the employees know they’re not just a name on the payroll,” Ricardo says. “They feel like they’re part of a family.” The siblings intend to keep that culture alive, he says. “Nobody is indispensable to a company, not even myself — however, nobody is disposable. Everybody brings something to the table.”

TESTING THEIR METTLE

Three months after Valles’ passing, the company had the opportunity to bid on the Feb. 17, 2016, papal visit project requiring 1,500 units for the public Mass in Ciudad Juarez. They knew the eyes of the world would be on this high-profile event, so everything had to be perfect. At stake was not only their reputation but that of the city and the country.

“It was kind of a final exam for us, not having my father to guide us and just having to wing it,” Andres says. “We felt it was something we had to do to prove to ourselves that we could do it.” The company beat out larger national companies as well as American firms. Andres believes it’s because the organizing committee saw they were driven and serious, and had the infrastructure and know-how to do it.

They faced many challenges, starting with the short notice they were given as the selected vendor — only 10 days. Needless to say, they worked around the clock to put everything in place. Another was servicing units. Using eight vacuum trucks and two teams of 16 people, units were serviced the night before Mass from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., a difficult task as people were camping, some even sleeping inside units. Although unplanned, it quickly became apparent a midday servicing was needed, an even more daunting operation as there were now hundreds of thousands of people on site.

But everything went well, Andres says, and they received many compliments for a job well done, including from both the state and federal governments. “It was the best publicity we could have had,” he says, adding they’ve now become the go-to company for massive events in the region. “We jumped a level. It was a very important step for us and just shows if you do things right, good things will happen.”

CONTROLLED GROWTH

Although they want to grow, the siblings learned from watching their father not to take on too much too fast. “We need to understand that as humans we have physical limitations,” Ricardo says. They also want to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt other contractors. “We all help each other out,” Andres says. “If business is booming for everybody, it’s better than if business is booming just for one.”

“It’s a delicate situation,” Ricardo adds. “We’re looking at what other aspects of waste management we can bring into our scope that will allow us to grow, but not at the expense of the relationships we have today.”

In that vein, the company has added mobile offices and 20- and 40-foot shipping containers for use as portable warehouses. They also have their own water treatment plant and grease dewatering facilities. They’re focusing on becoming what they call an all-round solution so no matter what a customer needs, they have it.

Having a full scope of services enabled them to carve out a niche servicing large multinational companies. For Heineken and Ford, for example, they provide portable restrooms, mobile offices and portable storage containers. They also have procedures in place to conform to the very strict safety protocols those companies require for people and vehicles.

REMOTE OPERATIONS

Another niche is working with international oil and gas companies building pipelines. Locations are remote, dangerous and often lacking roads and phone access. To service a continually advancing pipeline, they station a two-man crew and a four-wheel-drive service vehicle doubling as an on-site delivery truck to stay with the pipeline for the duration of the project, which could be as long as two years, although the crew is changed out every month and a half. Units are initially delivered to the general campsite area using an 18-wheeler, which returns every two weeks to pick up collected waste temporarily stored in a 6,000-gallon tank and taken to the nearest treatment plant.

“It’s the best way logistically to do it,” Andres says. “Otherwise we’d be constantly picking up our stuff and moving 100 miles and then setting up camp again. That takes too much time.”

The company is currently working on three pipelines, each requiring as many as 120 units at the height of activity. Employees are given incentives to staff these positions. “It’s a very tough job, mostly because locations are so remote,” Andres says. “But some of them really enjoy it. A lot of times it’s kind of an escape for them.”

Having worked out the kinks for this type of mobile office, when some of their agricultural customers asked if they could do something similar, they were set up to do it.

Again, locations are remote and the work line constantly moving. The main difference is fewer units are needed and hand-wash stations are required, sometimes as many as one per portable restroom.

GROWING FROM THEIR ROOTS

Even as they’re settling into their new positions, the Valles siblings are looking to the future — but approaching it with a grounding in the past. “Obviously things change, but there are certain things that are the core of a company and we will maintain that,” Andres says. That particularly holds true for how they work with customers, employees and vendors. “We’re about building relationships,” Ricardo says. “That’s what we saw in our father and we’re by no means looking to change that.”

But they’re also wanting to bring in their own ideas, he adds. “We’re picking up traction as a special projects company, so that is something we’re focusing on now that my father has passed and we have the opportunity to bring in new ideas and fresh energy.”

The transition hasn’t been easy, but Ricardo, Andres and Victoria are determined to do it right. “We’re going through a very particular phase right now,” Ricardo says. “There are a lot of family-owned companies that will eventually go through this. It really is a spotlight on us and a personal responsibility to make sure we do it right.”


Taking a risk

What do you do if it’s 21 days before a high-profile event requiring 1,500 units and you still don’t know if you’re going to be awarded the contract — and you don’t have 1,500 units?

Andres Valles, owner, along with his brother Ricardo and sister Victoria, of Desarrollos y Servicios Viva in Chihuahua, Mexico, was faced with this dilemma in February 2016 when competing for the contract to provide portable restrooms at the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Juarez. Although they faced some formidable competition, in an abundance of optimism Valles made the bold decision to buy 500 units.

“I figured there’s not enough time for anybody else to do it,” he says. “They’ve taken too long to decide. They’re going to decide at the last minute and we’re going to have to be prepared. So we jumped the gun a little.” Fortunately, they had the support of their vendor partner PolyJohn Enterprises.

The gamble paid off. When they finally received word they were to be the sole provider for the project, they were ready to roll. An added benefit of having a lot of new units at the event is the good impression they made. “It was very important image-wise,” Valles says. “They did not want to see any beat-up restrooms.”

Luck was on their side again after the event when companies started calling, wanting to buy the units, so they did not get stuck with a lot of excess inventory.



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