Dan Smart Takes Over Pete's Toilet Rentals

Moving up from technician and driver to company owner offers many challenges to New Hampshire’s Dan Smart.
Dan Smart Takes Over Pete's Toilet Rentals
The Pete’s Toilets team includes, from left, Dan Smart, Chris Loughin and Bob Zukas. The truck is from Satellite Industries and the restroom is from PolyJohn Enterprises. (Photos by Oliver Parini)

Decades ago, young Dan Smart, fresh out of high school, figured he had a pretty good deal working for a septic service company. It was good solid work and he didn’t really think about owning his own business at that point.

But after about a decade of good-natured ribbing and asking, his previous employer finally convinced him to take over the portable restroom side of his New England septic business.

“I just figured I’d give it a shot and wing it,” says Smart, 43, the new owner of Pete’s Toilet Rentals in Plaistow, New Hampshire, located about 35 minutes north of Boston.

Smart was being somewhat modest about his qualifications to run a restroom business. He had, after all, worked in the industry for many years. But after finalizing the deal early this year, Smart is now fully focused on growing the operation.

IN THE BEGINNING

Smart’s entry into the portable sanitation industry was an interesting one. In summer 1991, Smart had just gotten out of high school and was dating a girl whose uncle, Peter Johnson, owned Pete’s Sewer Service in Plaistow. When an emergency call came in one day while Smart was with the Johnsons, he rode along — and, as the story goes, Smart never left. While the high school romance fizzled, Smart’s career was just starting to take off.

“I never dreamed of making a career out of it, but they are super nice people to work for and they treat employees like family,” says Smart. “You really can’t find that kind of work relationship in this day and age.”

An outdoorsy guy who likes driving a truck, Smart used to do construction with his dad. And while he tried college, he quickly realized it wasn’t for him. Fortunately, Pete’s Sewer Service proved an excellent training ground.

“It taught me some people skills,” admits Smart, the self-described “shy kid at school.” But he admits, now that he deals with customers and services large events on a regular basis, he has learned to refine his social skills and “be able to communicate with people.”

Smart worked alongside Johnson at the company, which pumped and serviced septic tanks, and provided pumpouts of RVs, boats, and commercial and residential tanks. Smart was on the job 26 years ago when the owners bought a single portable restroom just to have one at their home. When someone saw it and asked to rent it, Johnson purchased a few more units and eventually a restroom truck. But Johnson’s heart really wasn’t in that business.

“Pete just had such a good reputation that people wanted him to get into it,” says Smart. “It was kind of more of a nuisance to him at the time.” But Smart began working with the units and, as time went on, Johnson would casually ask, “When are you going to buy the business?”

Smart eventually took the bait, and set the transition in motion.

While Smart took over ownership of the restroom portion early in 2017, he does still tangentially work with Johnson’s company — they help each other out when needed as well as sharing the same yard and garage.

“We share equipment a bit, if we need a truck for something small,” he says. “If either of us is busier or slower, we help each other out. We’ll still work together like we always have.”

EQUIPMENT LIST

Portable restrooms — an afterthought for Johnson — have become a solid business for Smart, 43. He acquired only the restroom portion of the business and Johnson maintains the septic and sewer service business.

Pete’s Toilet Rentals inventory includes 350 blue restrooms, as well as hand-wash stations and handicap units, all from PolyJohn Enterprises. Smart uses deodorizers from J&J Chemical.

The fleet of trucks includes a 2015 Ford F-550 with Satellite Industries 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tank; a 2008 Ford F-550 with a 400-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank fabricated in-house; and a 1999 Isuzu NPR with a 300-gallon waste/110-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank from Best Enterprises. All three trucks run Conde Super 6 pumps (Westmoor). Two restroom transport trailers, 12- and 20-units models, were built by ALCOM LLC.

He acquired his 2015 Ford F-550, with Satellite Industries tank, after viewing it at the WWETT Show.

While Smart says he’s “always been a Chevy guy,” he adds, “my (former) boss is a Ford guy, and I’ve always been happy with their performance. Overall, they’ve been pretty good.”
Right now, he says, “I just want to focus on paying this one off” before considering his next truck — to be a Chevy 1-ton with a small slide-in unit — which would also serve as his personal vehicle.

Smart is ready to add equipment to build the business, but in a prudent manner. He has a comfortable inventory for now, but, Smart adds, “I’d like to max out around 1,000 units. We’d like to keep our mom-and-pop reputation … not become corporate.”

Smart says he has gotten great product ideas from the two WWETT Shows. “That’s where we acquired the latest Ford.

“You get to see the new products that are out and get trade show deals,” he says, noting that he took advantage of one of those deals recently when they bought a full load of PolyJohn units.
He may consider purchasing restroom trailers at some point, to answer an emerging demand. “The past year or two we’ve been getting calls for them,” Smart says, adding that he services some trailers for other out-of-area companies who drop them off, but don’t want to return frequently to pump them.

“I want to grow at a slow, steady rate,” says Smart, who didn’t rely on a bank loan to finance the purchase. Interestingly, when Johnson originally purchased his business, it was as part of a “gentleman’s agreement” of sorts, so Johnson let Smart operate the same way; rather than a structured buy-out, Smart pays Johnson a monthly fee for the business and equipment.

Both parties agreed that was the best way to structure the transition.

“I just figured I’d pay him as much as I could each month,” says Smart. That way, he says, “I’m not going to pay interest to a bank. That’s a big plus right there.”

KEEPING A GOOD NAME

Because Pete’s Sewer Service has name recognition and a good reputation, Smart says he decided to keep the name Pete’s — although he sees a time down the road that he might change the name. He believes he’s got the perfect last name for a business — Smart Toilet Rental might be a choice for him.

Smart continues with the former Pete’s clientele, mostly corporate and residential construction jobs with a few special events (like mud runs, foot races, etc.) thrown in. But he feels the competition is too stiff in that arena, so he sees construction as the niche he’d like to grow.

Several area fairgrounds and the events they schedule provide some steady work. While the grounds have public restrooms, Smart’s company supplies 10 to 15 units on site, but pumps out about 80 campers a day.

The past year has been especially good due to remarkably mild weather on the East Coast. “It was busy all winter. ... It should be a good year,” says Smart, noting that his region only had snow for about two weeks.

In addition to his construction work, Smart services the New Hampshire firearm manufacturer Sig Sauer, which has a local training grounds and rifle range where they train for police academies. The Sig Sauer contract is a year-round project. Pete’s Toilet Rentals supplies 15 restrooms on site, and they pump out eight office trailers and fill them with freshwater.

OFFICE TASKS

Smart says he hasn’t done much marketing to get new business. Word-of-mouth has been strong. But he concentrates on presenting a fresh presence around town. They paint and letter their own trucks and plan on building a webpage, which will link his restroom company to Johnson’s septic company.

And he’s only dabbled in social media — Pete’s Toilet Rentals has a Facebook presence, but Smart says they have kind of taken a break from that. But he’s not worried about taking his time ramping up the marketing efforts because of the solid customer base.

“We had some customers for so long … there is customer loyalty,” he says.

So while getting and servicing new business hasn’t been a learning curve for Smart, the office work has. A single dad to his 15-year-old son, Jackson, Smart doesn’t employ an office person, so he does it all — although his son does help out in the yard and on runs during the summer.

“So far, the biggest challenge is doing all the work in the office. … That’s not something I did much of … it’s not something I shine in,” he says. “I’d rather be out in the truck.” One day he’ll hire an employee to work the office, but he thinks it’s a good thing that he becomes familiar with all the management tasks first.

For now, Smart’s girlfriend, Carly, a local restaurateur, helps out in office when she can. Her background in bookkeeping and business ownership is an ideal fit.

Smart admits the office end of the business is “not my favorite part, but I know I need to do it. The hardest part is getting myself in the office.”

TIME OF CHANGE

Smart knows he’s working through a transitional period, and he’s still figuring it all out. He’s thinking about adding fencing and trash containers to his list of rentals, but those prospects are pretty far off at the moment. “I’ve actually seen in magazines that some companies do all three of those,” he says, but notes he’s only been asked about it by one or two clients.

Smart says he might look at buying Johnson’s septic business down the road when Johnson retires. But for now, Smart is working hard and working, well, smart.

“It’s not the size of my company I worry about,” he says. “Customer satisfaction is more important. I just want to focus on great customer service.”


Pumping boats and RVs

Marine pumpouts look to be an area of growth for Dan Smart of Pete’s Toilet Rentals. “It’s a task not many pumpers do,” says Smart, who finds boaters are pleasantly surprised to hear he offers the service.

“Most of the boats we pump out are done at the end of the season when they are getting winterized, so the boats are already out of the water and in the boatyard,” says Smart. That removes the risk of having a spill on the water.

Smart says maritime law allows boaters to dump when they are out at sea and far away from shore, so most of the boats he pumps are smaller (20 to 30 feet long) and have smaller tanks (15 to 30 gallons). “I do a few larger yachts that can range up to 40 to 80 feet long; they can hold up to 300 gallons.”

RVs at events as well as those owned by snowbirds offer another niche service. For the RV and marine work, Smart uses a special wand with several different attachments to fit different applications.

RV pumping presents challenges. “They are usually parked in highly congested areas, so maneuvering and backing up a pump truck requires your full attention and a lot of caution,” Smart says. “The last thing you want to do is have to call your insurance company to tell them you put a hole in the side of a boat or a motor home.”

Smart’s vacuum wand has a bleeder valve, which allows the operator to draw air to help reduce the vacuum. That’s important, he says, because it is possible to collapse a holding tank if you use too much vacuum pressure. Likewise, he adds, pumping boats requires even more caution than pumping RVs.

In the average RV, graywater and black-water tanks are 30 to 50 gallons, but they can range from as little as 15 gallons to over 100 gallons in the class-A motor homes. Some RVs can have as many as four to five holding tanks.

“So you really have to get on the ground and make sure you find all the dump valves,” Smart cautions. “They are mounted in so many different locations from all the different manufacturers, so it can be easy to miss a tank when you are servicing them.”

In addition to finding all the dump valves, Smart notes that pumping RVs is especially precarious because “If you don’t pay attention, you can spill a little … but it’s easy enough to clean up with the vacuum from the nozzle. We do have spill control kits if it’s a more serious spill.”

As far as costs go, Smart says, if he just does a single RV, he charges the same amount as servicing a portable restroom. “If it’s a large number of RVs, say a racetrack or at the state fairs, we charge less when there are five or more RV pumpouts at the same location.”



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