New Technology and Updated Trucks Will Help Expand a Three-Generation Family Business

The kids are taking over at Wilkinson Portables with plans to modernize and grow a successful, long-standing operation.

New Technology and Updated Trucks Will Help Expand a Three-Generation Family Business

Fred (left) and Chad Wilkinson pause to discuss service routes. The truck is an International MV Series with a Best Enterprises tank and Masport pump.

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For nearly 45 years, Fred Wilkinson toiled hard to grow Wilkinson Portables, a business that his parents started in 1958 with self-built plywood restrooms that weighed hundreds of pounds. Now his son, Chad Wilkinson, owns the company, and he and his wife, Kym Wilkinson, are busy — doing some heavy lifting of their own: modernizing the company and positioning it for further growth.

This process of one generation handing off the baton to another that wants to make big operational changes isn’t always easy, as Fred, 61, Kym and Chad Wilkinson can attest. “We butt heads every so often when they come up with new ideas,” Fred Wilkinson says. “But I also think they’re starting to understand why I did some things the way I did. I’m learning from the kids, and they’re learning from me. We’re learning together.”

This succession dynamic no doubt resonates with many family-owned portable restroom companies. It often requires the children who buy a family business to negotiate a tightrope walk between respecting and listening to the input from a retired parent who still wants to be involved but at the same time deciding to do what they feel is best for the future of the company — even if it runs counter to the parent’s advice.

“I’m lucky because Fred is so easygoing,” says Kym Wilkinson, who handles everything from marketing to finances to office duties while Chad Wilkinson handles in-the-field operations for the company, based in Placerville, California, about 40 miles east of Sacramento. He bought the company in 2015. “We listen to each other, but sometimes we just have to agree to disagree.

“In the end, we feel very fortunate that Fred developed a really solid business with a great foundation upon which we can build,” she adds. “But sometimes when something isn’t broke, you feel it doesn’t need to be improved. On the other hand, I feel like if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”

CHANGES AND CHALLENGES

The biggest changes have centered on three areas: office/administrative operations, equipment and expansion into new markets. Wilkinson describes changes in office operations as “simple and complicated at the same time.” Simple because years ago, the company had invested in Summit Rental System software made by Ritam Technologies. Yet it was difficult, too, because it had never been fully used, so a learning curve ensued.

“New technology is scary to people,” she says. “The changes we made weren’t rocket science, but huge compared to where we were at. The bottom line is that it takes time and energy to learn how to use a new system and get the bugs worked out.”

For example, job orders used to be handwritten on a triplicate form, with one of the three copies placed in a pile until someone could manually hand-key them into the system. This was inefficient and prone to data-entry errors, Wilkinson says.

Learning how to use all of the software’s features is an ongoing process. “I’m learning more with each passing month,” she says. “My goal is to keep learning and expanding my expertise in our software to ensure we’re getting the most bang for our buck from the investment.”

The company also introduced in-the-field credit-card payments and started using email to send invoices to and communicate with customers. As a result, communication now is faster and better tracked, she notes.

“We still have some customers who don’t like these kinds of technology,” Wilkinson explains. “But in a service-based industry, I feel it’s really important to offer customers options, especially if those options save us time and money.”

She also helped develop a new company website and started using social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, to advertise new products and service discounts. For efficiency’s sake, she also hired Diana Estrada, a graphic designer/photographer, to designs ads and handle social media.

Wilkinson says a solid core of quality employees has helped Chad Wilkinson and her navigate all the changes: Bri Croffoot handling office duties and route drivers Ron Shipes, Chris Gray and Kelsey Alao.

FORCED TRUCK REPLACEMENT

The state of California’s increasingly stringent environmental regulations are prompting the company to replace its diesel-engine service trucks with vehicles that meet new emission standards. The company currently owns four diesel-powered restroom service trucks: a 2004 and 2006 International 4300, a 2017 Kenworth T270 and a 2018 International MV. All of them feature Masport pumps and 1,100-gallon waste and 400-gallon freshwater stainless steel tanks made by Best Enterprises.

The company also runs 1999 and 2000 Ford F-350s that each carry a 400-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank from West-Mark. In addition, Wilkinson owns four Isuzu NPR 18-foot flatbed trucks used to deliver restrooms.

The 2004 International service truck must cease operating in California by the end of 2019, and the 2006 International must be phased out by the end of 2023. “We also have to get rid of two of the Isuzu trucks — one this year and one next year,” she says. (The 2017 Kenworth and 2018 International trucks are already emission-compliant.)

To mitigate some of the costs associated with truck phaseouts, the company plans to sell the chassis and transfer the tanks, which are in great shape, to new chassis, she explains.

“Our biggest business challenge is the state of California,” she says. “The laws and requirements are crazy. … It’s hard to keep up with the expenses of running a business in this state, not to mention staying on top of the laws and regulations. It’s really painful and really expensive, but it’s a cost of doing business here.”

The company has about 500 portable restrooms, made by Satellite | PolyPortables, and roughly 150 hand-wash stations from Satellite | PolyPortables. This year the company added a Porta-Lisa Plus restroom trailer from JAG Mobile Solutions. It uses products from J&J Portable Sanitation Products such as Truex for odor control, Graffiti Blaster and UrinX II for cleaning, and J-Spray XT fragrance enhancer.

FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE

The third area of change — expanding into new business markets — is helping to mitigate some of the costs associated with the truck replacements. For example, for the last several years, the firm has obtained more federal government contracts for supplying restrooms to crews fighting forest fires.

“Without work from the government, we probably would still be running those two older trucks and struggling day to day,” Wilkinson says.

In addition, when business is good, the couple is disciplined about putting money away to save for future expenditures. They’ve also been fiscally prudent, not buying big-ticket items like new cars and paying off the mortgage for a building they purchased to house the company. “When we have years with good cash flow, we try to invest in the company — spend money wisely where it needs to be spent,” she says.

Networking with other vendors and suppliers also has helped the company gain new customers. For example, companies that supply staples such as ice and food service to firefighting operations have become good contacts for job leads.

“It’s a good idea to make friends with other vendors and suppliers,” she says. “For instance, we don’t offer fencing, but a guy down the street does. So we might tell a customer who needs fencing about him. Diversifying your business through these informal partnerships is huge. Pass their names around and they pass our names around.”

SERVICE MATTERS

Of course, it’s also essential to provide good customer service and clean units, which are company hallmarks established by Fred Wilkinson decades ago. “I built a reputation by keeping restrooms clean,” he says. “If you keep restrooms clean and provide good service, customers will keep coming back. … You’ve got to be proud of your work.”

While the company doesn’t do it for corporate gain, Kym Wilkinson says that being active in community activities — like donating money to local Little League and soccer teams and supporting groups such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America — sometimes reaps business benefits. Other times, she’ll offer a customer a free month of service, just to get an opportunity to prove the company can provide better service.

Deep community roots and long-standing relationships with families who own local construction companies and other businesses motivate the company to maintain a high level of service.

“I use our restrooms and so do my friends when we’re at soccer games and other events,” Wilkinson explains. “We have a unit on every sports field in our area. I went to high school with people who own businesses here that have been passed down for generations. We all live here, and we love to give back.”

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Operationally, Wilkinson would like to keep investing in new technology, such as barcode-based inventory tracking for restrooms and route-mapping software, as well as equipping route drivers with iPads for more efficient communications and operations.

Beyond that, Kym and Chad Wilkinson have an ambitious goal for future growth: double the company’s sales revenue in five years. That will entail entering new markets with better profit margins, such as special events in the Sacramento area.

“Renting out 40 restrooms at a music festival for a weekend is more profitable than renting out 40 restrooms on construction sites for a year,” she points out. “Making that much money on just one shot makes way more sense.

“But we also have to balance that with continuing to provide great service to our existing and stable customer base, because there’s no guarantee you’re going to keep getting those special event contracts every year,” she says.

In the meantime, Wilkinson is grateful for the groundwork laid by her father-in-law.

“Fred did an amazing job in developing such as solid business base,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons why we have solid profit margins that allow us to take risks, like entering new markets. Or if we bought a restroom trailer, for example, and it didn’t work out, the business can withstand the blow.

“Sometimes when you take over business from a previous generation, it’s gone so far downhill that you’re trying to save it rather than grow it,” she concludes. “So we’re very happy to be planning for more growth.”


Separate work and family time

Mixing business and family can be fraught with pitfalls. So if there’s one thing that Kym Wilkinson and her husband, Chad Wilkinson, have learned since he bought Wilkinson Portables from his father, Fred Wilkinson, it’s this: Keep work and family in opposite corners as much as possible.

“I think it’s so important to try and separate work from family when you all work together,” she says. Chad Wilkinson bought the company, based in Placerville, California, in 2015. “You quickly realize that even if you’re angry at someone from something that went on that day, we’re still all going to be at, say, my daughter’s softball game later on or having a family dinner together.

“So embracing that family time in a positive way, and keeping work out of it, is very important.”

So how does Kym Wilkinson handle disputes when they arise? “I take a deep breath and remind myself that we will always be family and that we all want the best for the business and each other,” she says. “With that being said, though, there still are plenty of times when we’ve yelled, cried and hugged during some tense moments.”

Fred Wilkinson says it helps to not sweat it when disagreements arise over issues such as equipment purchases or changes in operational procedures. “We get over it and move on — it’s not the end of the world,” he says. “We may have hard conversations, but no one holds onto any ugliness the next day.”

While Wilkinson is retired, he still plays an active role in training new employees, helping out on big jobs and filling in when employees take vacations or get sick. “He’s still our go-to guy,” Kym Wilkinson says. “It works out great because he can still be a part of the business without working full time. Plus, he helps me keep our drivers on their toes and he’s always teaching me something about the business.”

To Fred Wilkinson, mutual respect is critical. All families have their problems, so when they arise, it helps immensely to listen to all viewpoints and be respectful. “Everyone needs the freedom to be heard,” he notes. “And you have to respect each other. Because after all is said and done, we’re all still working together as a family.”



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