Tips to Prepare Your Portable Sanitation Company for a Future Under New Leadership

An eye on expenses, happy employees and a rock-solid succession plan offer comfort to John Harper as he starts to pass the torch to a new generation at Port-A-Jon

Tips to Prepare Your Portable Sanitation Company for a Future Under New Leadership

Bill Bolick empties a PolyJohn Enterprises restroom on a service route.

John Harper spent many years working in the septic service industry in Jefferson, Texas, but one day in the mid-1990s he noticed a guy hauling portable restrooms and it occurred to him he could do that as well. Someone gave him a copy of Pumper magazine, and he called PolyJohn Enterprises, bought six units and started Port-A-Jon. By 2001 he got out of septic and today has approximately 2,500 units (mostly from PolyJohn Enterprises and Satellite | PolyPortables), 300 hand-wash stations (Satellite | PolyPortables) and six restroom trailers (Alpha Mobile Solutions, Ameri-Can Engineering, Wells Cargo and Rich Specialty Trailers).

Harper added satellite offices over the years, one in each of the four diagonal directions from Jefferson, all about 50 miles away. The largest is in Shreveport, Louisiana, managed by his son David. Three are in Texas — Texarkana (managed by son-in-law Alan Bradley), Longview and Mount Pleasant. Industrial work is about 50% of their business, construction is 25%, and the rest are parks, ballfields and miscellaneous locations (including one at Harper’s home so kids don’t traipse through the house from the swimming pool).

Harper has a staff of 29, including his wife, Gloria Harper, who handles the office. All employees are encouraged to be salespeople because “if the phone doesn’t ring, we don’t eat,” he says. “You’ve got to sell, sell, sell on everything you do.” Harper knows phone book advertising doesn’t work very well anymore but says he was dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. Fortunately he has a computer tech on staff — his daughter Suzanne Bradley who also handles billing and insurance..

1. Satisfying the energy sector

Oil field work is a boom-or-bust industry, so Harper is cautious when taking on that work, not letting it become a majority of Port-A-Jon business. Instead, the company concentrates more on mines, electric power plants, gas plants and refineries. He attributes his growth in that niche to his willingness to offer multiple services a week. “If people want daily service, we’ll give them daily service,” he says. “If they want twice a day, we’ll give them twice a day.” At one time they had 120 units at a utility plant and serviced them three times per day for 60 days. Harper conducts a safety meeting first thing every Monday. In addition, all technicians are certified by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to work in the mines. “And we do the refresher classes every year,” Harper says. “It’s eight or nine hours — then the barbecue place comes out and brings barbecue and beans.”

2. Keeping expenses under control

The cost of buying and maintaining the fleet is an ongoing concern, Harper says, and can get out of hand if you don’t watch it. The company has 24 vacuum trucks. Most are Dodge 4500s and 5500s and Chevy 5500s with 1,100-gallon waste and 400-gallon freshwater tanks and Masport or Conde (Westmoor) pumps. A few were built out by FlowMark Vacuum Trucks, Abernethy Welding & Repair and Best Enterprises, but most are company built. “That way, we can configure them the way we want and customize the tank to the truck,” he says.

Harper is careful to control the debt load on vehicles. “When we finance a truck, it’s for five years, and hopefully we can run it eight to 10 years to make it pay for itself. But the new trucks are getting more expensive. My first truck cost me $17,000 to rig out. Now, 25 years later, the same truck costs me $80,000. Everything is going up and it’s killing us as operators. The cost of equipment is going to be a big thing going forward.”

Harper knows he’ll always lose a few customers when he has to raise prices, but the company works hard at creating customer loyalty by providing good service. Harper still has his first customer from 25 years ago. “I don’t want to be the cheapest, I don’t want to be the highest, I want to be competitive — but I want to be profitable.”

3. Finding disposal sites

Disposing of waste is getting to be a real problem, Harper says, as treatment plant options are dwindling. “Our toilet waste is a high-strength wastewater and most sewer plants don’t like it, and if they can find an opportunity to knock it out, they do.”

As a result, the company has to haul the waste farther and farther. “We have to take it to a bigger town,” he says. “We have one or two that will take it so you haul it around. You have no choice.” Of course, that results in increased expenses on fuel, employee time, and wear and tear on the trucks.

“Looking down the road, what are we going to do in 10 years if the environmental rules get more stringent? That’s going to be an issue everybody’s got to look at. It’s one of the main problems.”

4. Competing against the oil field for labor

Harper can’t match oil and gas companies on salaries but says he gets pretty close and also provides a few things they don’t. Layoffs, for example — a way of life for the oil and gas companies — have never happened at Port-A-Jon. He gives everyone one to three weeks’ vacation, a uniform, 80% of the cost of boots up to $200 a year, a $20 monthly allowance for safety equipment, and various insurances. “And we try to make it a pleasant place to work,” he says. “I’m not chewing on their butts all the time.”

And Harper is generous with his employees. “Every time I go to one of the offices around lunchtime, they all think I’m supposed to buy their lunch — and of course I do.” He encourages employees to be involved in their sports teams, churches and kids’ school programs. And, though they always cover emergencies, he likes to keep the standard workweek to five days. “We don’t want anyone to dread going to work,” he says. “A happy employee is a good employee.” His approach seems to be working — a number of employees have been with him over 20 years.

Harper’s current concern is the possibility of minimum wage going to $15 an hour, which will have a ripple effect on all wages and prices. “If minimum wage goes to $15, that loaf of bread is going to double, milk will double. So, how do I give my guys more than just a common laborer’s wage?”

5. Family succession plans

Harper is 67 years old and has been turning more of the day-to-day responsibilities at Port-A-Jon over to his kids, David and Suzanne, who will eventually take over the business. The family has been discussing the transition for a long time, he says. “We have our plans on how to exit to where the business will still be secure. And I want to make sure all these people have work. We’ve got the lawyer and CPA advising us how to go about it.”

The transition may occur as an inheritance rather than a business sale if it makes more sense from a taxing perspective. As David and Suzanne take on more of the management functions over the next few years, Harper and his wife will start spending more time away from the office.

“We like to take the motor home and go on trips three or four times a year. We’re just going to increase that. We’re not going to quit. We’ll always come back and help as long as we’re capable, but we’re just going to slow down.” 



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