Through Portable Sanitation, a Pennsylvania Family Found a Way to Stick Together

After exiting the family plumbing business and working at a school, Jeff Tillett and his family launched a successful restroom business he could help run in retirement

Through Portable Sanitation, a Pennsylvania Family Found a Way to Stick Together

Jennifer Craig washes down an Armal restroom placed at a commercial construction site. Her truck was built out by FlowMark Vacuum Trucks and runs a Masport pump. (Photos by Kevin Blackburn)

A growing customer base and increased profits are usually reliable indicators of business success. But for some people that’s not enough. They want to be doing something they love with people they enjoy working alongside. That was the case for Betty and Jeff Tillett, founders of Tillett Inc., a plumbing, heating and drain cleaning business in Palmyra, Pennsylvania.

Jeff Tillett had grown up in the plumbing industry working for his parents and was thrilled in 1990 to follow his dream of owning his own business. But the company grew so quickly that after six years, the couple were burned out. When they had the opportunity to sell to a large energy company, they were ready to jump on it. That’s when they learned Jeff Tillett Jr., their high school-aged son, had different plans and wanted to get involved. Jeff Tillett Sr. needed convincing.

“I told him if that’s what you want, you need to prove it to me,” Tillett says. “He got involved in the SkillsUSA program and won fifth place in the nation in the plumbing section. That proved to me it was what he wanted to do.”

So the Tilletts canceled the sale and reconfigured their plans. Betty Tillett stayed on as majority owner. Jeff Tillett Sr. stepped aside to let his son take a shot at the business and went to work for a school. In 2016 when he started preparing for his 2018 retirement at the school, he wanted to find a way to rejoin the company without stepping on toes and maybe even include daughter Jennifer Craig. After doing a little investigating at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show, a plan emerged — adding portable restrooms. When he asked Craig if she’d run it, she enthusiastically said yes, and they were ready to roll.

“At the time, Armal partnered with FlowMark,” Tillett says. “You could buy 100 units and a truck and they gave you a year’s supply of chemicals.” They placed an order and Tillett Toilets was born as a division of Tillett Inc. Tillett’s idea was a success, and by 2018 they were able to bring on their first employee, Kim Nicely.

The company operates out of a 6,000-square-foot facility shared with Tillett Inc., with additional acreage for equipment storage. They work within a 60-mile radius. While Craig manages day-to-day operations, Tillett handles sales including the challenge of breaking into the construction market. His tools include superior service, certified employees, a new streamlined website and his enthusiasm for personally meeting face-to-face with contractors.

Tillett says the best thing about the expanded company is working with his family — and employees are considered family — and being able to include children, grandchildren and even a grandmother in their activities.

BUILDING THE BUSINESS

Craig worked as a massage therapist before joining the company in 2013 but quickly got up to speed in all aspects of the business.

“I went out in the field for about a month with my brother so I could get a grasp of what they do,” she says. “Then I did the office work until we started up the toilets. Then I pretty much did all that on my own. I managed it, took the orders, made the deliveries, did the cleanings.”

Jeff Tillett Sr., Craig and Nicely all run routes. They use iPhones and The Service Program (Westrom Software) for scheduling and routing. Vacuum trucks are gasoline-powered at the recommendation of Mel Paul from FlowMark Vacuum Trucks, which built out their trucks.

“There would have been a significant front-end cost to go to diesel, around $11,000,” Tillett says. “And the gasoline engines have as good, if not better, performance and power. The maintenance costs are also less than the new diesels and I don’t have to take them to a diesel shop. I can take them to any mechanic. The miles per gallon are less than diesel, but the cost of fuel is less. It was definitely the right decision for us.”

The company has three Isuzu vacuum trucks (2016-18) from FlowMark with aluminum tanks and Masport pumps, two with 900-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tanks. The third — with a 500-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tank — has a stake body and can transport eight restrooms. They also use a 12-place trailer from K&K Mfg. A recently purchased 2009 Ford F‑750 from Progress Tank with a 1,600-gallon waste and 600-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and Masport pump is being readied for service. Truck appearance is very important to the Tilletts, and all are red with stainless steel wheel simulators and washed daily.

Their inventory is up to 250 red Armal Wave and Wave HN units, all with hand sanitizers. They also have 50 wheelchair-accessible units, 30 hand-wash stations, and 20 250-gallon and 300-gallon holding tanks, all from PolyJohn. They also have a handful of four-person urinal units from Armal. Construction trailer water tanks are built in-house using Pentair Hypro SHURflo pumps and 125-gallon horizontal tanks from PolyJohn and Norwesco.


BREAKING INTO THE MARKET

Construction accounts for about 40 percent of their work, but Jeff Tillett Sr. hopes to bump that up. Although he’s never been a salesman before, he’s excited about the challenge and not daunted by a large competitor.

“They basically have 90 percent of the construction work,” he says. “My goal is to be an outdoor salesperson knocking on doors and talking to the different contractors. We haven’t yet had that face-to-face that I think is really needed.”

From April through October they’re busy with events, everything from small weddings and birthday parties to soccer tournaments sponsored by the local soccer club, festivals put on by several Lancaster County German clubs and training events at Fort Indiantown Gap Army Post. An event near and dear to their hearts is a concert to benefit wounded warriors.

“That’s our charity of choice,” Tillett says. “There’s a lot of personal reasons for that, but we want to support our military in every way we can.” In August 2018 they landed the contract for the Elizabethtown county fair, their largest event to date, requiring 50 units as well as hand-wash stations, wastewater tanks and daily servicing.

THE EXTRA MILE

All units — including construction — are towel wiped as the final step in the company’s service protocol that starts with pumping the tank and pressure-washing the inside using Cat Pumps equipment.

“We scrub everything, refill everything, squeegee and then hand-towel dry everything,” Craig explains. “In the winter when we can’t use high-pressure hoses, we use Lysol and disinfect everything.” Waste is taken to a local municipal treatment plant.

Tillett adds that their process may take a little longer, but it’s what they want to be known for — having clean restrooms. “Our standards are extremely high,” he says. “That’s a business decision we made. That’s how we’re going to get our name out there.” Customers have noticed, and testimonials are posted on the company’s website.

They use J&J Chemical deodorant products and recently switched to the liquid form and a new scent. “We were getting a little bit stagnant in our scent,” Tillett explains. “We weren’t really smelling it. In talking with J&J, they said that’s typical so we switched to mulberry.”

OUTSIDE HELP

The WWETT Show has been a tremendous support for the Tilletts.

“It has been amazing in helping us grow because you can talk to people in the industry and learn things and it’s not your direct competitors,” Jeff Tillett Sr. says. “You can be very upfront and ask really good questions on what they experience and how they handle things. I’ve made some very good acquaintances who have helped and mentored me instead of us learning the hard way.”

Portable Sanitation Association International has also been beneficial. All employees are certified technicians, a process that requires four hours of classroom training followed by a written exam.

“They teach you all the regulations and proven means and methods of handling, transporting, cleaning and disposal of waste,” Tillett says. “It’s everything from how to check your truck, what you’re supposed to report, how to respond to leaks, how to clean the units in summer and winter, how to transport the units, how to put them on your truck safely and securely, how to take them off where you don’t hurt yourself, how to place them so they’re safe and how to manage waste disposal. It was very good with us never being in the industry.”

SOCIAL MEDIA

In 2017 the company hired Jeff Beck from Invictus, a local graphic and web designer to update their website. First he suggested getting rid of their stand-alone portable restroom site and including the information on the Tillett Inc. site. Then he took a short-and-sweet approach to content, focusing heavily on visual aspects.

“He brought us into the 21st century,” Tillett admits. “It was push-and-shove a little bit because I’m old school. I’m learning you have to cater to the millennials because that’s the new market out there. They have to know who you are and what you’re offering literally in 15 seconds. But he was absolutely right on.”

Tackling Facebook is next on their agenda. “We have a Facebook page but one of our goals is to utilize it better and keep it more current,” Tillett says. “It’s been very good for us, but I don’t like that we don’t have at least weekly updates. I have to learn a little bit more about it. It wasn’t as easy or simple as I thought.”

ALL ABOUT FAMILY

Tillett says business was up about 200 percent in 2018 over 2017 and gives credit to the team. The Tilletts are encouraged by the success and hope to keep growing. But they don’t want to lose the family atmosphere and the joy of working together.

Craig explains: “I get to see my mom every day in the office. And just being out with my dad and the freedom of my sons and my grandmother riding along in the truck is really the highlight of the business.”

Tillett agrees. “We’re 100 percent family here. I’m very proud of that and don’t ever want to lose that. We were big at one time; we were a corporate company. That’s why I got out of it. I didn’t enjoy it. I’ve matured more and I’ve learned how to manage companies and I want to manage this as a family business.”


Gender-specific restrooms

When the Tillett family from Tillett Toilets attended the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show in 2018, they saw something that looked like it had a lot of potential — rose-colored urinal-free units from Armal.

“We got those for special events for women only,” Jeff Tillett Sr. says. “They have rose fragrance impregnated into the plastic, and they’re very clean looking. We thought there could be a market for them.” He says they’re still in the process of figuring out how to best market the units, but feedback so far has been very positive.

For the men, they purchased two four-place Armal urinals, also well-received. The units are placed either inside privacy fencing or in a white 10-by-10-foot canopy tent. The company bought one when they started the business but didn’t rent it out until 2018. Then it was such a hit the customer asked if they’d purchase a second one. They’ve especially been popular at beer-focused events such as Oktoberfest and beer garden parties. It benefits both men and women since long lines are reduced, and the customer is happy because fewer units are needed.



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