Big Players in the Restroom Industry Have the Same Priorities as Small Family-Operations

By continually adopting new technologies and emphasizing strategic acquisitions and employee safety, Mr. John just keeps on growing.

Big Players in the Restroom Industry Have the Same Priorities as Small Family-Operations

Kenny Robinson, operations manager, moves a truck at the Mr. John headquarters. The Hino truck was built out by LMT with a Roots blower from Howden.

As a large player in the portable restroom industry, Mr. John operates on a scale that many smaller, family-owned operators might not relate to.

Through both organic growth and six acquisitions, the 53-year-old business — based in Keasbey, New Jersey — now employs about 160 people, owns roughly 13,000 restrooms, runs more than 100 restroom and related service trucks, and posts annual sales revenue of more than $25 million. It serves more than 4,300 active customers throughout New Jersey, the five boroughs of New York City, Long Island, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware, says Gary Weiner, company president.

At any given time, the company is servicing restrooms at more than 7,600 job sites, where thousands of construction workers account for an estimated 6 million uses per month. About 85 percent of the company’s revenue comes from monthly rentals, primarily construction sites, plus some seasonal and long-term rentals, Weiner says, co-owner along with his brother, Mitchell Weiner, chief executive officer, and longtime colleague David Dam, executive vice president.

The company also serves a dizzying array of customers and events, from private weddings to festivals to high-profile disasters such as the World Trade Center terrorist attacks and Hurricane Sandy.

But the owners of smaller portable sanitation companies have more in common with goliaths like Mr. John than they might think. “The bottom line is no matter how big you are, you’re only as good as your last service,” says Weiner, noting that customer service is critical to success regardless of company size. “Where the rubber meets the road, it’s all hard work, too.

“Like smaller businesses, we develop good relationships with end users,” he continues. “Despite our size and scale, there’s a human element. … It’s all about people dealing with people. Another thing we have in common is concerns about workplace safety. It’s a minefield out there in terms of potential for property damage, motor vehicle accidents and the like. Smaller operators deal with the same risks and hazards on the road, and we all share an equal responsibility to mitigate those hazards.”

SAFETY MATTERS

Mr. John embarked on a comprehensive makeover of its safety-training program about five years ago. Why? Mushrooming workers’ compensation costs. “Our (workers’ compensation) modification factor was at a premium,” Weiner says, noting that at one point in time it stood at 1.28. (The “mod factor” is a value that indicates how safely companies operate compared to their peers and affects workers’ compensation insurance rates. A value of one is neutral; a mod factor greater than one means the employer experienced worse-than-expected losses.)

“We had too many people hurting themselves on the job, and our workers’ compensation expenses were out of control,” he adds. “That forced us to ask ourselves questions about our safety culture.” To get to the root of the problem, an outside consultant analyzed the company’s safety and training programs.

“It was very thorough, top-down and bottom-up,” Weiner says. “They came in and looked at various elements in our safety program, safety culture, and employee perceptions — things like what did our workforce think about how safety was carried out inside the organization? Were they receiving training? Were they learning about hazards? And the report wasn’t good. … Our efforts were misdirected and disjointed. So we made a commitment to create a strong safety culture here.”

A key element to fostering change was making employees feel management was willing to listen to their concerns. That meant convincing rank-and-file employees that managers were engaged on this issue, Weiner says.

“I personally hit the road,” he notes. “I go out to our branches and stand in front of our employees once a year. That’s part of our efforts to change the culture and make them understand that we all have a stake in safety and the culture.”

In addition, the company now requires all drivers to attend monthly STOP meetings: Safety Training Operations and Professionalism. The sessions include interactive presentations about various safety issues and expectations. The company also created a safety committee that reviews all injuries, property damage, and motor vehicle accidents to determine root cause, trends, and policy implications, he says.

The company has built what Weiner calls a “reporting culture,” in which employees understand the importance of reporting things such as physical injuries, motor vehicle accidents, and property damage. “We didn’t have a good reporting culture,” Weiner says. “But now employees know they must report such incidents or it can lead to termination. Learning about incidents also gives us opportunities to coach employees on how to prevent them from happening again.”

Has the revamped safety program been successful? Yes, Weiner says, noting that the company’s modification factor at one point dropped to .78. That, in turn, led to the company saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers’ compensation insurance premiums.

“There’s a cost every time we sit every driver down for an hour (for STOP meetings),” Weiner notes. “But it’s well worth it. We integrate all recommendations and developments (from the meetings) into on-the-job training, as well as into our regular communications and onboarding protocols for new employees.”

ACQUISITION STRATEGY

Weiner is aware that many smaller, family-owned operators in the portable sanitation industry view the larger companies with a certain amount of suspicion — see them as revenue-hungry sharks that prey on the smaller fish. He says that characterization is untrue in Mr. John’s case.

“We’ve never been in the business of gobbling up smaller companies,” he says. “The perception is not the reality. In the majority of the acquisitions we’ve made, the sellers came to us. In fact, in the largest acquisition we ever made, the seller contacted us.”

The company’s most recent acquisition occurred in late 2017 when Mr. John bought Aparos Little John, a 34-year-old portable sanitation company based in Bay Shore, New York. “This was a natural synergy for Mr. John and Aparos Little John, uniting two similarly run, family-owned businesses with a strong and loyal customer base,” Weiner said at the time in a press release.

Aparos Little John served Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as the five boroughs of New York City. So it worked with an acquisition strategy: Buy companies that already operate within or contiguous to existing service territory to build route density.

Do acquisitions cause some trepidation for the acquired-company’s customers? Absolutely, Weiner says. “But the best way to allay their concerns is by delivering the goods — make our best efforts to do whatever we can to maintain the relationship,” he notes. “Do the service. Be responsive. Be accurate. Be considerate. And make good on your commitments.”

In order to keep building the Mr. John brand, acquired companies never operate under their old names; instead, they get folded under the Mr. John name, Weiner says.

DEEP INDUSTRY ROOTS

Mr. John was founded in 1964 by the late Morton Weiner, Gary Weiner’s father. He was selling equipment to construction companies when he saw a need for portable restrooms. So he made one out of plywood and a 55-gallon drum and hired a septic tank pumping company with a vacuum truck to service it.

In 1981, Morton Weiner bought Russell Reid Co., a septic pumping business in East Millstone, New Jersey. Today, Russell Reid is a major player in everything from industrial and sewer line cleaning to hydroexcavating and pumping septic tanks to collecting and transporting trash, nonhazardous waste, sewage, and sludge. Mr. John and Russell Reid do business as separate entities under an umbrella company called Russell Reid Waste Hauling and Disposal Service Co.

To service customers, the company relies on a large fleet of restrooms, restroom trailers and service vehicles. Satellite Industries made most of the company’s restrooms, and JAG Mobile Solutions built most of its 60 restroom trailers. The company also owns around 500 hand-wash stations from Satellite Industries.

The company’s service vehicles include eight water/wastewater trucks, used primarily to deliver water to flush systems inside office trailers and pump out the waste tanks. They’re built out by Amthor International on Peterbilt 348 chassis with 3,500-gallon waste and 1,000-gallon freshwater aluminum tanks and utilize Wittig (a brand owned by Gardner Denver) pumps. The company also relies on roughly 65 restroom service trucks built out by LMT using Hino 338 chassis with three-compartment steel tanks (1,000 gallons waste and 300 gallons freshwater and 300 gallons waste/water/deodorant). The trucks use blowers from Roots blower from Howden.

In addition, the company owns several service/delivery vehicles that feature Hino 258LP truck chassis built out by Workmate/FMI Truck Sales & Service with 700-gallon waste and 350-gallon freshwater steel tanks and Masport pumps.

SUSTAINABLE GROWTH

Looking ahead, Weiner says the company is not overly concerned about its heavy dependence on the construction industry. “There’s no doubt that having a higher concentration of our business dependent on construction represents some market risk,” he concedes. “The construction industry has seen its share of up and down over the years.

“But by the same token, when the construction industry is doing well — like it is now and has been for the last several years — it helps our business perform very well,” he continues. “Plus, we’re a little more diversified because Russell Reid is related to the wastewater industry. So all our eggs really aren’t in just one basket.”

The company’s goal is steady and sustained growth that doesn’t jeopardize customer service and strain company resources.

“We try to grow through profit, not profit from growth,” he continues. “In other words, we want to be profitable first. Companies that grow too quickly can sometimes grow out of business.

“We worry about everything: the economy, regulations, the workforce, the risk and the continuation of healthy markets,” he concludes. “But we’re committed to keeping our eye on the ball and managing the risk and the growth.”


Online ordering takes off

Odds are anyone who visits a portable restroom company website to obtain information about rental rates is destined for disappointment. They’re much more likely to see a phone number they can call or an email link they can use to ask for more detailed information.

But Mr. John is an exception. In late 2017, the company introduced a new feature on its website: the ability to place online orders for restroom rentals. The result? A 33 percent increase in online buying, says Gary Weiner, president and co-owner of the company.

Call it the first step toward the “Amazonization” of restroom rentals, Weiner says, noting the e-tailing giant’s vast impact on consumer-shopping preferences.

“Rates can vary widely according to region and other dynamics, so we understand that — it’s been that way forever,” he says. “But with the new online dynamic and people’s desire for an immediate response when they purchase something — like on Amazon — we thought to ourselves, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ So we spent a number of months with our digital design team developing a platform that enables customers to execute basic restroom rentals online.”

Weiner expects the growth trend to continue. “We live in an age where people don’t want to speak to anyone anymore,” he says. “They just want something when they want it. So we’re making that available.”

When a customer pays for an online restroom rental, it automatically generates an internal work order. “That’s better for us, too, because it’s more streamlined,” he points out. “The customer basically is supplying us with the order, payment, and delivery instructions, so essentially it’s one less phone call coming in that staff has to handle.”

The move may also provide an intangible but important side effect: burnish the company’s image as a modern outfit that’s up to speed on the latest technology. “It makes us look progressive,” Weiner says. “And so far, it’s looking good.”



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