El Paso PROs Have a Huge Incentive in the Success of Their Company

From the receptionist to the technicians, everyone is invested in the success of a Texas restroom company utilizing an employee stock ownership plan

El Paso PROs Have a Huge Incentive in the Success of Their Company

In downtown El Paso, Texas, Jaime Zamora cleans several construction site units.


On the surface, it wouldn’t appear the fashion and sanitation industries have much in common. But for two sisters from Mexico City, the transition from one to the other was not daunting and proved to be very profitable for them, as well as their employees.

Sarabia’s Portable Jons & Blue Sanitation in El Paso, Texas, was formed in 1979 by Tim Sarabia. By 2001, he wanted to retire and connected with Lorraine Wardy who was ready to come out of retirement after leaving her El Paso-based clothing manufacturing company. Wardy bought the business, upgraded the inventory, purchased a 4-acre property in 2009 and built three buildings for office and maintenance functions.

Wardy relied heavily on the staff to help her get up to speed and credited them with a lot of her success. By 2010, when retirement once again beckoned, she chose to turn the company over to them in the form of an employee stock ownership plan. That’s also when her sister, Monica Brown, joined the company full time after helping for a number of years after leaving her clothing manufacturing job in Mexico.

After about a year, they realized losing women- and minority-owned certifications as a result of becoming an ESOP was putting them at a disadvantage in bidding on federal projects. So the decision was made for Brown to buy 51% of the company and reestablish those certifications. Brown is now the president, employees own 49% and Wardy is retired.

Having a stake in the profits of the company is good for employee productivity, morale and retention. It also gives staff the right to participate in decision-making discussions.

Employees number 35 — technicians, delivery personnel, yard workers, six office workers, three supervisors and an operations manager. Blue Sanitation refers to their special-events division, which accounts for about 15% of their work.

EQUIPMENT LINEUP

Sarabia’s has 3,000 standard units, most from Satellite | PolyPortables. Construction and event units are kept separate. At first, Brown didn’t like having the variety of colors they had accumulated over the years, but she eventually made it work to their advantage. “We offer a festive scene for parties,” she says. “We have lime green, orange, pink and blue.” And on large construction projects where they provide units for several contractors, they keep them all straight by assigning each its own color.

Inventory also includes 50 wheelchair-accessible and ADA-compliant units and 150 hand-wash stations (Satellite | PolyPortables and PolyJohn Enterprises) and 16 restroom trailers (NUCONCEPTS, Rich Specialty Trailers, Ameri‑Can Engineering). Holding tanks are from TOICO Industries and Satellite | PolyPortables. J&J Portable Sanitation Products provides its deodorant products.

Most of the company’s 14 vacuum trucks were built by Satellite Vacuum Trucks. The smallest two are older Ford F‑550s with 650-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tanks. The company has a few Ford F‑750s and GMCs with medium-capacity tanks, but now they prefer larger tanks. Its latest five purchases are Hino 268As with 1,600-gallon waste and 550-gallon freshwater tanks. Pumps are Masport and Conde (Westmoor). The company manages fleet activities with RouteOptix route planning/billing software and a Teletrac fleet tracking system.

OUTER SPACE

El Paso is surrounded on three sides by Mexico and New Mexico in a vast, sparsely-populated area. As a result, there are few PROs in the area so Sarabia’s is often asked to do long-distance events.

“We go hundreds of miles,” Brown says. “We have gone as far as Albuquerque, which is about four hours away. Sometimes we pair with a smaller company closer that will service the units for us. It has to do more with the cost — if the client is willing to pay the trip charge, we’ll go anywhere.” Many remote sites have no utilities so the company brings everything needed to keep trailers running with electricity, water, climate control and music.

The remoteness of the area lends itself to extraterrestrial activities for which the company provides services — everything from the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas, to the Spaceport America spacecraft launch complex in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to the mysterious Marfa lights in Marfa, Texas, attributed (some say) to UFOs.

Natural disasters are uncommon in the area, but in 2011 when a major freeze hit, causing pipes to burst, the company supplied water and portable restrooms for hospitals and the hardest-hit areas.

LOCAL PROJECTS

Closer to home, events include the Thanksgiving Day parade, the Sun Bowl football game, and many weddings, festivals and concerts. There are also a lot of highway projects, downtown remodeling work and construction on the ever-growing outskirts of town. Sarabia’s is currently providing units for the U.S. Army’s hospital replacement project. They also supply units at no or low cost for many charity events.

And really close to home — within viewing distance of Brown’s office but a world away — is Mexico. Although they’ve been asked to service large events across the border, such as a papal visit, it just isn’t feasible, Brown says. It’s a different country with different rules, processes and pricing; they’d have no access to local disposal sites; and there would be concerns about dealing with customs.

Sarabia’s has been able to dispose of collected waste at their facility since 2009 when Wardy bought the property. “She was very visionary,” Brown says, “and got a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as well as the local water department.” Waste is dumped into an underground system where submersible pumps convey it to the city sewer line after drivers remove things like shoes and beer cans. This setup is especially valuable now as the aging local treatment plant will be closing, leaving PROs scrambling to find alternatives.


A NEW SERVICE

In 2016 the company added roll-off services. Once again, Brown found herself in an industry she knew nothing about, but this time neither did the staff. “It was not easy,” she says. “We had to learn how to drive the truck and how to get the container up and down. But it didn’t take very long before my guys picked up on it.”

Equipment vendor Cusco provided videos and tutorials; and Brown called upon a colleague she found through the Portable Sanitation Association International. The company started with 20 and now have 80 20-, 30- and 40-yard units. They lease two Peterbilt trucks and use Cusco dump bodies with Galbreath hoists.

Marketing is through word-of-mouth, flyers, attendance at contractor meetings, the website and social media. “But we have to work at it all the time,” Brown says, “because even three years later there are a lot of people who don’t know we have roll-offs. It’s a never-ending effort.”


STAFF MATTERS

Brown had previously worked in many areas of the fashion industry including owning her own company, so she had experience hiring and managing people. Other than entry-level positions such as yard workers, she prefers to fill openings from within.

“We have a certain way of doing things,” she says, “So if somebody comes with experience from another industry, it’s sometimes hard for them to understand what we do or why or how. I do my best to promote my employees — to train them and get them up to speed so they’re able to take more responsibility.”

Brown takes a sink-or-swim approach to new hires. “You either like the job or you can’t stand it and leave. So, whoever goes through the first week and hasn’t become completely disgusted, usually they’re the ones we start looking at more seriously for training for other things.”

After two years on the job, an employee begins to accrue ownership in the company under the ESOP and is fully vested by year six. Although Brown may pay out dividends at her discretion, the plan is primarily a retirement vehicle. When someone retires (or even resigns), the company buys back their shares based on fair market value of the company.

As part owners, employees have the right to participate in decision-making discussions. “We sit and discuss as if we were all partners and I hear everybody’s opinion,” Brown says. “Everybody has something very productive to bring to the table, each one in their own specialized area. It’s a very interesting relationship.”

STAYING THE COURSE

Other than possibly adding water truck services, Brown wants to hold the company steady for a while as they catch their breath after recently upgrading trucks and units. As for Brown personally, she’s not thinking of retiring any time soon, but succession planning is always in the back of her mind.

“I don’t have children so I don’t have anybody to inherit the business,” she says. “Every day I think about how to go about it, but I still haven’t come up with the right answer.”

For now, she’s happy where she’s at and enjoys being able to fill a need in the community. She’s also passionate about trying to bring a level of sophistication to the industry.

“We’re very proud of our units and service,” she says. “It’s such a basic necessity for everybody, starting with the construction worker in the field. If we were in the fencing industry, for instance, and I mess up on setting up a fence and it’s a little crooked, it’s just going to be an eyesore for a year. But if I don’t keep a clean bathroom for that year, I can break the morale of that gentleman who’s going to have to use it the whole time he’s there. To me, that’s something very important. We look at it from that perspective — that we need to better our services to the best of our abilities every day.”


Simplifying payroll and human resources

When Monica Brown took over as president of Sarabia’s Portable Jons & Blue Sanitation, one of the first things she did was hire a professional employer organization to handle payroll and human resources functions.

“They are like a middleman in the employment process,” she explains. “They act on behalf of the company but also make sure I respond in the proper way to everything that is required of me toward my employees.”

Job interviewing is done by Brown, but the PEO posts positions and does background or drug checks at Brown’s request. Weekly payroll is greatly simplified for the company. Instead of writing 35 checks, Brown writes only one when the PEO sends her an invoice. The PEO handles everything, including figuring taxes, benefits and deductions. Paychecks are issued under the PEO’s name which, in some sense, makes Sarabia’s and the PEO co-employers (a legally acceptable arrangement for the company’s employee stock ownership plan).

Although using a PEO is more expensive than doing the work in-house, Brown loves it. She can concentrate on her business and let someone else handle things they have expertise in. “It’s just the peace of mind of knowing I don’t have to be the one thinking about these issues,” she says, “and dealing with unemployment claims and child support and all of these things. It’s very worth it to me to pay the extra money.”



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.