It’s a Boom Time for a Busy Colorado Restroom Provider

From the plains to the mountains and throughout a growing Denver metro area, Columbia Sanitary and Columbia Potties for the Rockies concentrates on presenting a winning user experience.

It’s a Boom Time for a Busy Colorado Restroom Provider

Technician Derald Jones prepares to service a Satellite Industries restroom in a public park using a Ford F‑550 from Imperial Industries carrying a 650-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tank and Masport pump.

Columbia Sanitary, located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just outside Denver, has been providing septic services to neighboring communities since 1959. But new ownership and a new line of work in the early 2000s put the company in perfect position to benefit from tremendous growth the city has experienced in the last 10 years.

Sheila and Denny Nessler bought the company in the late 1990s and a few years later added portable restrooms. As majority owner, Sheila Nessler was able to obtain Minority/Woman-Owned, Disadvantaged and Small Business Enterprise certifications, which opened the doors to a number of large public works projects. The city implemented the certification program a number of years ago when studies indicated certain groups were historically not given equal opportunities and were underutilized in some industries.

But those certifications are also what’s making it a challenge for the Nesslers, at 67 and 73, to transition out of the business as they think about retirement and the future of the company. A logical replacement would be their great-nephew, 30-year-old Kent Simmons, who grew up in the business and is now the operations manager, but certifications would be lost.

The family operates the company out of a half-acre property in Golden with a staff of 15 — four portable sanitation drivers, three septic drivers, two advanced septic system maintenance technicians and three office personnel. Their 75-mile-radius territory includes communities in the mountains and the plains, as well as the metropolitan area.

STARTED WITH SEPTIC

The septic company was founded in 1959 by Harvey Seipp. His son Jeff took it over in 1985, but by 1998, he was ready to get out. “My (great) uncle rode with him one day and said that’s what he wanted to do,” Simmons says. “My (great) aunt had the money, so she bought it.” Simmons, then 11, also came on board around that time when he moved in with them and started riding around with Denny Nessler.

The business came with one truck and 3,000 customers, but with Denny Nessler’s experience as a diesel mechanic and Sheila Nessler’s entrepreneurial and accounting education picked up between layoffs as an airline mechanic, they quickly grew the business.

Today the company has five vacuum trucks. The 2001 Sterling 9500 and 2006 Peterbilt 385 with 3,200-gallon Imperial Industries tanks (pumps from National Vacuum Equipment and Masport) are used as backups these days. The active fleet is 2013-17 Kenworths (T800 and T880) with 3,400-gallon tanks from Vacutrux and pumps from Elmira Machine Industries / Wallenstein Vacuum. All tanks are steel. Other equipment includes a Prototek locator.

The company uses software from Westrom Software for work order tracking. It integrates with QuickBooks and is used with mobile devices so technicians can finish work orders in the field, enabling the company to quickly send invoices. It generally works well, Simmons says, but notes cell service in the mountains is still sketchy in places.

PORTABLES FLOURISH

When customers complained it was difficult getting portable restroom companies to deliver units to their remote locations, the Nesslers decided to add a new line of business in 2003, calling it Columbia Potties for the Rockies. They bought 15 Satellite Industries units and used their septic truck to service them until buying a 1995 pickup with a 300-gallon waste and 100-gallon freshwater slide-in unit from Specialty B Sales.

Today they have five service trucks — a 2008 Sterling Bullet from Satellite Industries with a 650-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tank and a Conde (Westmoor) pump, a 2013 Ford F‑550 from Imperial Industries with a 650-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tank and Masport pump, a 2015 Ford F-550 from Imperial Industries with a 700-gallon waste and 400-gallon freshwater tank and Masport pump, a 2015 Kenworth T300 from TankTec with a 300-gallon waste and 100-gallon freshwater tank and Masport pump, and a 2017 Ford F‑550 from Satellite Industries with a 650-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tank and Conde pump. The company’s seven hauling trailers are from McKee Technologies - Explorer Trailers.

Inventory includes 550 Satellite Industries Tufways, 50 pink urinal-free Integras from PolyPortables, a division of Satellite, four blue and four pink flushable Satellite Industries Maxim 3000s, 20 ADA and wheelchair-accessible units (Satellite Industries and PolyPortables, a division of Satellite), 30 45-gallon T.S.F. hand-wash stations and a few TagAlongs from PolyPortables, a division of Satellite. Service products are from Surco Portable Sanitation Products, J&J Chemical and Walex Products.

“Our motto is we have the best-smelling toilets,” Simmons says. “We power-wash them all, keep them clean, keep the urinals fresh. If they get gummed up, we’ll put brand-new urinals in them.”

In 2006 the company added a third business line, a land application operation, under the name Gator Gro. Although it was mostly a break-even enterprise, it did save them an enormous amount of money in disposal fees, so it had quite an effect when land application was outlawed in 2015. They continue to use their 1995 and 1997 Kenworth W900 tractor-trailers with 8,000-gallon steel tanks to haul waste for a couple of small portable restroom/septic companies. All septage is now taken to the metropolitan treatment plant.

In 2006, Simmons graduated from high school and had a decision to make. “My aunt said, ‘Do you want to go to college, or do you want to work for us?’ I said, ‘I guess I’ll just work for you,’ and I jumped into it.” By 2014 he was overseeing day-to-day operations.

MANY EVENTS

Although the septic side has always been a solid staple for the company, portable restroom work has benefitted significantly from the growing economy and now accounts for about 50 percent of the company’s business. Half of that work is for events including many county fairs and town festivals, as well as metro-area events such as the Colorado Irish Festival and Red White & You.

In 2014 the company added restroom trailers and now has three Satellite Industries units (10-, eight- and four-station). The trailers were something of novelty in the state at the time, Simmons says, and people went crazy for them. They’ve been popular for parties and weddings and have gotten considerable use at the Bandimere Speedway drag strip VIP area and a lake marina in Frisco.

When attendants are requested, Sheila and Denny Nessler like to go because they get to see the event and talk to the people. Simmons regretted not going himself to a Vail wedding in July 2017 when he found out it was for the former Colorado Avalanche ice hockey center Matt Duchene. “They had to keep it super hush-hush, so I didn’t hear about who was getting married until the day we delivered the trailer,” he says. “Sheila and Denny were up there doing the wedding, and they had no idea who any of the people were. I was super jealous.”

On the construction side, the company has worked on some of Denver’s largest infrastructure projects, starting in 2006 with the Denver Justice Center, which took three years. Certifications do not guarantee participation in projects, but after proving themselves on this job, they went on to do the Union Station train terminal redevelopment project, converting the historic station into a transportation hub incorporating the city’s light-rail and bus systems, a six-year project.

And they’ve been involved since 2011 on the construction of Denver’s expanding light-rail system to several suburbs. They also worked on the long-anticipated airport light-rail line where they still have 60 units out at grade-level crossings with twice-a-week servicing.

The down side to the growing economy has been a tight labor market. With low unemployment and lots of competition, Simmons says it’s been a struggle to attract and keep good workers. But the company has several things in its favor. They offer a good benefits package with health, dental, and vision insurance, and Sheila Nessler is looking into a retirement program.

They also do some fun things with the staff. The Christmas party is held at the Nesslers’ home where they serve turkey and ham and pass out bonuses and presents. There’s also a spring party and a party if the team reaches 250 days in a year without a safety incident. But Simmons says their biggest selling point is their family-friendly, family-first philosophy where people feel like they matter.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The next big project the company hopes to bid on is the upcoming reconstruction of a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 70 through central Denver, expected to take five years.

Simmons says he’d like to take over the business some day and see his great aunt and great uncle take time off and enjoy themselves. But losing Sheila Nessler’s business enterprise certifications would be a significant change for the company. Succession planning has been discussed, and it’s in the back of everyone’s mind but no formal plans are in place. “We’re trying to figure it out,” he says. “We’re going to re-evaluate in three years.”

That will also give Simmons time to really assess his interest in taking it over. But right now, he says he loves it. “I’m outside every day, not stuck in the office. And I love seeing the joy on the customer’s face. Even on the restroom side of it, people enjoy having a clean toilet. That’s what I enjoy the most — just seeing how excited people can get.”


Felon-friendly

Many companies are hesitant to hire former prison inmates, but Columbia Sanitary and Columbia Potties for the Rockies has done it since 1998 when Sheila and Denny Nessler took over the business. “It’s Sheila’s equal-opportunity employment view,” says Kent Simmons, operations manager. “She just wanted to give the opportunity to them.”

The company is registered with the Jefferson County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Office where they’re on a list of employers willing to hire ex-convicts or probationers. The person is given the list, and it’s up to them to contact the companies. The main requirement Columbia Sanitary and Columbia Potties For the Rockies has is the applicant needs to have a basic driver’s license. Crimes could be felonies or misdemeanors.

The company has also worked with the juvenile offender system. For a while, Jefferson County would even pay the salaries of juveniles hired as summer help. Although that program no longer exists, the company is still willing to hire these kids for the summer.

Simmons says the company has not experienced any problems with the program. “These people are on parole or probation, so they have that parole officer pushing them,” he says. The company does not have to report to the court officer. “The only thing we do is if they need time stubs or pay stabs or anything for their parole officer, we give it to them.” A few parolees over the years have stayed on with the company. They have one excellent employee right now, Simmons says, who’s been with them two years.

The success of the program in helping these people get back into the workforce is mixed. “It really depends on the person,” Simmons says. “If they’re drug addicts or alcoholics, they tend to eventually go back to it. Or if they’re so used to being in jail, they just go back to jail.” But the company doesn’t give up. One juvenile worked for them for two summers then ended up getting in trouble again. When he got out, he called Sheila Nessler and she readily took him back. “We do everything we can to train them and get them back out into the real world,” Simmons says.




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