Russ Gulliford Vowed He Would Never Belittle Anyone in Business — and That Pledge Has Paid Off

Living by the golden rule with employees and customers wins friends and builds profits at Illinois Portable Toilets.

Russ Gulliford Vowed He Would Never Belittle Anyone in Business — and That Pledge Has Paid Off

Russ and David Gulliford pause for a photo in the company yard.

It may sound improbable that a student at a college frat house would steer Russ Gulliford toward establishing what would become a large and profitable portable restroom enterprise. But that’s exactly what happened in August 1987 as Gulliford — who ran a septic tank pumping business at the time — was cleaning out a grease trap at a sorority house at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“This kid at the frat house next door yells down to me from a balcony: ‘Hey, do you rent portable toilets? We’re having a party in three weeks and we need restrooms,’” Gulliford says. “I said, ‘No, why would I rent restrooms?’”

The student explained that where he lived in Chicago, most companies that do pumping also rent restrooms. “It was my aha! moment — the lightbulb went on,” he recalls. “He barked out a request, and I fulfilled the need. It wasn’t innovative or creative — just someone asking for something.”

So Gulliford went out and bought a dozen restrooms and Illinois Portable Toilets, based in Urbana, was born. And fulfilling that simple request turned out to be a game changer for the now 55-year-old entrepreneur. (He also still owns Gulliford Septic & Sewer.)

The anecdote underscores the value of recognizing new business opportunities as they arise and taking calculated risks to capitalize on them. That business blueprint worked pretty well for Gulliford; his company now owns about 2,000 restrooms, mostly from PolyJohn Enterprises and some from Satellite | PolyPortables.

Furthermore, the company also has invested in 400 hand-wash stations, manufactured by T.S.F.; six restroom trailers, built by Advanced Containment Systems, Satellite Suites and A Restroom Trailer Co. (ART Co.); one five-station portable urinal, from PolyJohn Enterprises; and a variety of 225-, 300- and 400-gallon PolyJohn Enterprises holding tanks for job trailers.

In addition, the company runs 12 restroom service trucks, most custom-built by Advance Pump & Equipment and Robinson Vacuum Tanks on Ford F-550 and Peterbilt chassis, and carrying National Vacuum Equipment pumps. The company employs 20 people.

Monthly rentals generate about 65% of the company’s revenue, with special events producing the balance, Gulliford says.

The company operates a second facility in Clinton (about 25 miles south of Urbana), which helps reduce fuel and other costs associated with serving a broader geographic base to the south. The company runs four service trucks and keeps about 600 restrooms in Clinton, he says.

STEADY GROWTH

How did the company achieve such dramatic growth? Primarily by taking it slow and not trying to be the cheapest provider, Gulliford says. “We basically grew as demand grew,” he says. “I’m probably one of the most conservative business people you’ll ever talk to. I’m not a fan of going into debt, so when I need a new truck or equipment, I budget for it, save up for it and buy it with cash when I can.

“It takes longer to grow that way,” he concedes. “I lost three managers because we didn’t share the same vision. They wanted to take over downstate Illinois, but my mentality is that if I can’t mow the grass in my own backyard and keep it looking good, then why do I want to jump into someone else’s backyard? And we’ve never run out of work in our own backyard.

“I also want to spend more time with my family,” he says. “It’s not a business model for everyone. But it’s never been important to me to ‘have it all,’ so to speak.”

Gulliford could’ve bought market share by becoming the area’s low-price provider. But he instead opted to charge sustainable rates that would provide enough profit margin to cover overhead expenses and leave some left over for expansion costs.

“I didn’t want to be the ‘cheap Charlie’ and didn’t want to undercut the competition — that’s not my style,” Gulliford says. “Charging reasonable rates allowed us to grow by continually investing in new equipment and being able to pay employees a little more.”

The company also grew by acquiring three smaller restroom operators; the largest of the three purchases added about 300 restrooms to his inventory. Gulliford says the owners of the three companies approached him about buying them out, which he did because the businesses did quality work and had good reputations.

SEPTIC WAS FIRST

Gulliford started his company in 1985 after graduating from high school. Why septic tank pumping? Three reasons: There was a need for another pumper in an underserved market, there was good money in it, and he wanted to help people out.

“By nature, I’m kind of a servant,” he says. “I like helping people. Plus, there was only one other company in town. When I was 18, I asked my dad what he thought about buying a pumping truck. He said, ‘Sure, give it a try.’ So I bought a used truck … and found there was a financial reward on top of helping out people.”

For the most part, Gulliford admits he didn’t know much about running the business; he says he learned a lot by trial and error. As such, he recommends people getting into the industry find seasoned operators willing to answer questions.

“I lost a lot of money by doing things wrong,” he points out. “And a lot of it was due to just pride — believing I could figure things out by myself. That’s why when I run into young people starting their own businesses, I give them my card and tell them to call me.”

KEYS TO SUCCESS

Over the years, Gulliford learned several important business lessons. First of all, hire managers and executives who can shore up his weaknesses. “I hire people who have skills I don’t,” he says. “I found out early on that I’m a rah-rah, team-builder kind of guy.

“I lead from the why, not the what,” he continues. “So I have an inner circle of five people, and they portray things to the people who get the job done.”

Gulliford also built his business on the premise that customer service trumps everything else. Along with that, he hires only people who truly share his vision of customer service.

“Our No. 1 goal is to serve customers well and do the absolute best job we can,” he explains. “With that comes a reward in the form of payment. In addition, those customers then tell all their friends. It sounds old-school, but word-of-mouth referrals are our best marketing tool.”

Gulliford emphasizes professionalism by thoroughly training employees how to clean restrooms, serve customers and work safely; equipping them with the latest technology; and requiring them to look presentable and be courteous and respectful to customers.

“We talk about two things at every meeting: customer service/integrity and employee safety,” he says. “Their safety is paramount, as is getting work done safely for our customers.

“Furthermore, everyone wears company apparel,” he continues. “And I don’t allow bad language or smoking in our vehicles or around customers — or even in our office.”

RESPECT GOES BOTH WAYS

Employee professionalism yields several benefits. In fact, Gulliford is convinced it motivates customers to treat restrooms better at places where workers are notoriously tough on restrooms, such as construction sites.

To help prevent that, Gulliford insists that route drivers follow a specific routine when they drop off restrooms. First they must stop at the site’s job trailer, introduce themselves to and shake hands with whoever is working in the project trailer and give them a business card. The driver also must work with the site superintendent to situate the restrooms in optimal locations.

“I want our restrooms located where they’re easy to access for service and easy for customers to use,” he explains. “If we can’t access them, we can’t service them. And if we can’t service them, people won’t use them.”

If drivers shake hands and present themselves as professionals, they’ll be treated as professionals, he adds. “When our guy comes in wearing nice, fluorescent-colored shirts, provides a business card, shakes hands and explains what he’s going to do for the customer, it carries some credence. We often get phone calls from the site superintendent or the gal sitting behind the desk at a job trailer, saying they will never use anyone else, just because our guys handle themselves so professionally.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Gulliford continues to be amazed at how much the business has grown since that college frat student asked him for a restroom more than 30 years ago. “It turned into more than I ever could’ve imagined,” he says.

At the same time, Gulliford says he’s also starting to think about a succession plan. There’s a possibility his son, David Gulliford, could take over the business down the road. In lieu of that, he says key employees have expressed interest in buying both the portable restroom and septic businesses.

“If I did this for the next 10 to 15 years, I’d be happy with that,” he continues. “And if someone made a great offer to buy me out in five years, I’d be happy with that, too.

“But until then, I don’t foresee slowing down or backing off,” he concludes. “I love what I do, and I love coming to work every day. And I love the people I get to serve. What more could I ask for?”


Respecting the crew

The golden rule counsels people to treat others as they’d want to be treated. Russ Gulliford — the owner of Illinois Portable Toilets — says that also should apply to how companies treat their employees. That philosophy works well for Gulliford, who says his company minimizes employee turnover by creating a caring culture. “As corny as it sounds, we have created a family atmosphere,” he says.

“When someone has a birthday, we hold a birthday celebration,” he continues. “My wife, Lisa, makes birthday treats 20 times a year. We also acknowledge when our employees do something great with email blasts. It’s all about the culture. And if I treat you well, odds are you’ll treat our customers well — and our equipment well, too.”

A bad work experience when Gulliford was 18 fueled his desire to create a healthy workplace culture if he ever ran his own company. He ran a forklift at a food-distribution warehouse where a manager continually demeaned him.

“He’d tell me I wasn’t that valuable — that he could hire a monkey to do what I do,” he recalls. “I vowed that if I ever was in that position, I would never belittle someone who’s working their butt off. At age 55, I can still remember that like it was yesterday.

“If you don’t breed a positive culture into your workplace, employees will only resent the environment,” he adds. “Who wants to work with that kind of negativity? It all goes back to common courtesy and respect.”

The approach seems to work well. While Gulliford says he loses about four route drivers a year, the rest have been with the company for between four and 10 years. “If they make it past their second year, we usually will retain them long term,” he explains.

Gulliford credits the high retention rate to providing drivers with both good equipment and giving them more responsibility as they prove themselves. “We train them to do more than just drive the routes,” he notes. “We also let them meet with event and wedding coordinators and have a say in setting up events. It’s a feather in their cap — we call it next-level responsibility. They feel more important, but it’s all earned.”



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