Portable Sanitation Industry Newcomers Learn It Takes Money to Make Money

Alabama’s Chellene and Rick Lane cash CDs and access retirement accounts to go all-in with their startup company, Best Portables. So far, the gamble is paying off with a huge government contract.

Portable Sanitation Industry Newcomers Learn It Takes Money to Make Money

Gerald Trice, left, Jacob Lane and Jacob Miller wash a service truck built by FlowMark Vacuum Trucks and carrying a Masport pump. 

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A shelf in Chellene Lane’s office reveals how far she has come since receiving her business license on April 11, 2013. Eleven stones collected from work sites represent the milestones she has met, including the biggest stone for her largest contract with the Fort Benning military base.

“The stones are my trophies. They represent my climb and accomplishments,” Lane says. 

Though owning a government contract management business, Lane Environmental, with a portable restroom division, Best Portables, wasn’t what she and her husband, Rick Lane, anticipated in their 50s, they’re fully committed. They are succeeding with much faith and prayer, detailed planning, personal investment and a dedicated team. In just over five years, Chellene Lane has been awarded five government contracts including a 5-year contract for 1,500 restrooms at the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning in Georgia, southeast of their home base of Phenix City, Alabama.

FROM EMPLOYEE TO BUSINESS OWNER

Growing up on a Michigan farm, Lane, the oldest of four, never felt limited because of her gender. She dreamed of doing something big like being a New York City book publisher after she earned a marketing degree. That didn’t happen, but jobs took her in many directions — as a nurse, Realtor, customer service and sales manager, technical writer, facility manager and operations manager. She gained valuable knowledge and certifications with each position.

In 1989, she married Rick Lane, who worked in the waste industry and government contract services.

“He is my foundation, my biggest supporter. He keeps me focused, and his knowledge is my greatest asset,” she says.

In 2011 the couple moved from Tennessee to Alabama due to an employment relocation, and Chellene Lane started seriously thinking about owning her own business instead of working for someone else. After doing a market study of the most promising businesses in the area, she met a retired portable restroom business operator who had put his daughters through college with his business in Phenix City and Fort Benning. He offered to sell her equipment he had in storage, and Lane submitted an application to become a portable restroom service provider.

A few months later, Lane was seriously injured in a car accident and was forced to leave her job. While recovering, she finished her education online and made business plans.

A year later when Rick Lane’s job ended unexpectedly, the Lanes found themselves without an income. At 56, Rick, and 50, Chellene, the couple was concerned no one would hire them, and it was too early to tap into retirement. So they decided to use their experience to start a business.

The U.S. Small Business Administration website proved to be helpful, and Chellene Lane followed the checklist provided. She sought out portable restroom industry affiliates and gained valuable knowledge. She set her goals: to saturate the local area and win government contracts. With advice from a marketing firm, she created a memorable brand and logo. Since she planned to be the best, she named the business Best Portables, a division under the registered name of Lane Environmental.

WHERE’S THE MONEY?

Lane quickly ran into her first and biggest challenge — financing. No banker believed she would succeed, and Lane’s credit was affected because the couple wasn’t employed.

Without a loan and equipment companies only offering financing with high interest rates, the Lanes invested in themselves. They sold their Tennessee home and purchased a house listed on Craigslist in a commercial district. They cashed in CDs, individual retirement accounts, investments, savings and an inheritance and took a loan from a friend.

“I was so scared some days for us,” Lane admits. “We were making the decision to put everything into the advancement of the company. We knew if we could just land one good contract, it would be worth it.”

The initial investment was $15,000 including buying 30 fiberglass restrooms, a few holding tanks, and a 1989 GMC truck with a slide-in tank and a two-unit hauler on the back from the retired man Lane had talked to.

As the only female in the training and certification class at that time, she passed the requirements and paid necessary permit fees. Lane made cold calls around Fort Benning, selling herself as a woman-owned business. Soon she had a list of customers and needed more restrooms. She purchased a used Ford F-550 with a flatbed and new Armal restrooms.

“I live on faith — and a plan,” Lane says. “Today, I am still growing.”

Her cold calls and networking with builders and contractors netted good contracts to cover overhead costs and provide revenue. But from the beginning, she set her sights on government contracts, including the biggest one in her area — the Fort Benning military base.  

GROWING MILESTONES

“The Fort Benning contract is for 1,500 toilets and 25 vaults that are serviced on a schedule. It’s an ongoing, sustainable job for five years. This is what it was all about,” Lane says.

She knew it wouldn’t happen overnight — she needed to build a reputation to prove herself.

“I went after little contracts in areas of our expertise for the company to get past performance,” she explains. “I studied the required services for Fort Benning for four years and created a formula to prepare a bid.”

Under her company’s Lane Environmental umbrella, her “little” government contracts include ground maintenance at Savannah Control Tower Federal Aviation Administration, refuse services at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia, and portable restrooms at Joint Base Charleston and Tyndall Air Force Base.

“I’m known in my service area as the white top lady,” Lane laughs, explaining that part of cleaning includes keeping the roofs of the Armal restrooms white by washing them. She instructs all her technicians — women and men — to “clean like a woman,” something her husband says they are inherently better at.

“I’ve learned in a short time that if you don’t take care of the equipment, it will not take care you. I’m constantly pushing my business to be better, to be the best,” she says.

As a hands-on owner who drives, pumps and cleans when needed, her drivers — including two women — understand what she expects of them. Besides a thorough cleaning, every restroom is equipped with hand sanitizer — something some restroom businesses don’t include due to cost, she says.

EQUIPMENT CORNER

After her initial experience with old equipment and heavy fiberglass restrooms, Lane has been particular about equipment and restrooms, in both quality and color.

Best Portables has 2,800 portable restrooms, mostly Armal Wave models in blue, pink and tan.

“I like dark blue with gray doors and trim as my primary unit color. I wanted to be different than anyone else in the area,” Lane says.

Her inventory also includes 18 handicap units, 50 hand-wash sinks and 15 holding tanks from Satellite | PolyPortables.

Best Portables’ fleet of 13 trucks and two trailers includes the 1989 GMC 3500 truck with a slide-in tank Lane purchased with the business. It came with a 300-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater Imperial Industries tank and Masport pump. Newer used trucks that service commercial routes include a 2005 Ford F-650 with a 1,150-gallon waste and 150-gallon freshwater aluminum tank with a Conde pump (Westmoor), and a 2006 International 4300 with a 1,200-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and Masport pump. Three new 2017 service trucks for government contracts include an Isuzu with a 900-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and Masport pump, and two Dodge Ram pump trucks (one with four-wheel drive). Each has a 1,100-gallon waste and 400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank from FlowMark Vacuum Trucks and Masport pumps.

To deploy units to customer sites, Lane uses Ford, Chevy, Volvo and International flatbed trucks and 20-unit and two-unit restroom hauling trailers. Lane intends to expand the fleet this year with a new delivery truck and trailers and one new vacuum service truck.

Drivers use headsets and tablets for communications and to map routes. GPS is installed on all service trucks through Verizon Connect Reveal software, which provides weekly tracking reports for service route efficiency and accountability. Lane utilizes WEX fuel cards across the fleet for fuel purchases and QuickBooks to manage customer accounts and finance.

FINDING THE RIGHT EMPLOYEES

Lane credits her team for helping build the business. Husband, Rick Lane, serves as contract manager for the company. Their son, Jacob Lane, is operations manager and oversees the Fort Benning service contract.

“I try to inspire my employees to do their best,” Chellene Lane says. “I pride myself on being a fair, loving boss but have established procedures that helped mold my company. Training and consistent monitoring of complacency is important.”

Employees are given a review of the company’s expectations and instruction of procedures and safety.

Twenty years of experience as a manager in several fields helps in hiring good people and so does outside help from staffing providers such as Manpower.

“I have found the fee you invest for long-term employees through an agency is worth it. They do background checks and make sure they pass (drug) tests,” Lane says. “I hired our first female technician, Sahricka Dawkins, from Manpower. She is now our lead commercial technician.”

Another female hire, Laura Jenkins is the safety, shop and sales manager.

When interviewing potential employees, it’s emphasized that driving is only about 40% of the job. Cleaning is the main focus. Applicants are offered a ride-along with the lead driver, then if still interested, they take a test drive with the operations manager.

To keep good employees, Lane pays a competitive wage, furnishes uniforms and gives incentive bonuses. Beginning in 2019, she began working with an accounting firm and hopes to offer employees insurance and access to 401(k) savings plans soon.

BRIGHT FUTURE

The added benefits for employees are made possible by what Lane calls a “major deployment of toilets” in 2018. “We assembled 1,200 units on site for Fort Benning. I have an aerial shot of my grandest milestone,” Lane says with pride. Another 300 have been added since then.

Getting the contract was a make-or-break deal, and all her business moves were toward that goal. But it’s hardly her final goal; Lane has no intention of becoming complacent. Over the next five years, she plans to rebuild the couple’s retirement savings and build a company that provides revenue into retirement and beyond.

With HUBZone (SBA’s historically underused business program), woman-owned, SAM (System for Award Management) and a host of other certifications, she intends to keep the government contracts she has and add more stones to her shelf. At the same time, she will continue to network with builders — some renting as many as 60 to 80 units. She will continue to bid on large events such as the Charleston Air and Space Expo and the Spartan Race at Fort Benning, and add more contracts with Auburn University as part of her preferred vendor status.

Though it’s important to make a profit, the relationship between her business and customers is also important to Lane. “My customers learn to depend on me. I am service-satisfaction motivated,” she says.

The expectation is for 2019 to be a good year for the business.

“We plan to add restroom trailers to our mix and have discussed adding roll-off services as well,” Lane says. “I hope to add yet another milestone to my shelf soon.”


Building a solutions team

“I am a leader,” says Chellene Lane, who had several jobs including managerial roles before she started her own business. “I encourage my employees to be the same and provide solutions, rather than excuses. I tell them the readier you are, the easier the solution will come.”

She cross-trains all positions to maintain a better response.

For example, after Hurricane Michael’s destruction near Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, where she has a service contract, Lane responded the following day with portable restrooms, connected several recreational vehicles to holding tanks and maintained services daily for the men and women at the base. Best Portables continues to support the recovery effort.

When a construction contractor asked for restrooms without urinals, she provided customized portable units for them. She worked with a manufacturer to modify doors for another customer.

After coming up with a solution, Lane emphasizes follow-through.

She adds that it is important to educate customers about the portable sanitation industry. “My business logic is simple,” Lane says. “Customize services to meet the needs and requirements so the services provided are above expectations, yet cost-effective and profitable.”

Lane has personally “pounded the pavements hard,” and now has women on her sales team who go to builder/contractor, Chamber of Commerce and other meetings and events to make sure people know who and what Best Portables is about.

“Success is impossible without a great team behind you and a good foundation to stand on,” Lane says. “I’m building a team around me. I couldn’t do it without them.”




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