Keep ’em Happy

The right equipment, satisfied employees and quality industry networking set AAA Porta Serve up for kudos from customers

Keep ’em Happy

Technician Michael Jenkins services a Satellite | PolyPortables restroom. The truck is from Engine & Accessory with a Masport pump.


Ross Ambrose stepped into the portable restroom industry in 2014 from a background in film and production. He had occasionally helped his friends Woody and Kathy Jasper, owners of AAA Porta Serve, during weekend festivals, and when they decided to retire, he bought the business.

On the one hand, he knew he’d need help getting up to speed, and for that he relied on employees and the Portable Sanitation Association International. On the other hand, he came to the industry with a fresh outlook and organizational and management skills. He likes to be an early adopter, prefers to grow through diversifying the customer base rather than through adding service lines, and empowers and fully supports his employees.

The company services a 6,000-square-mile section of north-central Florida from a rented 2,400-square-foot industrial building on a 1-acre property in High Springs, with additional equipment yards in Branford and Live Oak. The team includes Terri Nutter, administrative coordinator; Howard Stewart, lead and relief driver; and route drivers Lee Fletcher, Darren Fout, Ryan Fout, Jamie Hinkle, Michael Jenkins, James Jolley Jr., Steven Lopez and Mark Poirier.

Ambrose attended his first PSAI convention before buying the business.

“I had the ability to not only talk directly to manufacturers and operators and get a lot of my questions answered, but also get a feel for the industry and the people,” he says. “I had never seen an industry with so much cooperation. Many people were forthcoming, which really helped me realize I had a great opportunity to buy the business.”

Following the purchase, he continued to tap the organization for help, and after a time, they tapped him. He joined the PSAI training committee, which enabled him to contribute to the organization and gave him skills and best practices he could apply at work. In 2018 he was elected to the Board of Directors. He says he always comes back from the conventions with something that either makes him more profitable or able to provide better service without it costing him money.

FROM AG FARMS TO SOLAR FARMS

Ambrose believes by charging properly and diversifying the customer base, he can have a profitable business with portable restrooms alone. Here’s how the work breaks down:

Events. Music festivals, art fairs and summer camps, particularly along the Suwannee River and at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, are some of the company’s events. The Suwannee Hulaween music festival, hosted by The String Cheese Incident band, is their biggest. For their largest events, they call on a list of reliable extras — “And we always make it fun,” Ambrose says.

Construction. In addition to residential and commercial projects, the company has been supplying units for power grid infrastructure work being done to improve hurricane survivability. And recently they’ve been involved in something new for their area — solar energy projects. “There are these big solar farms being built that are 500-plus acres,” Ambrose says. “Most fields are 59 megawatts. There are weeks where they have 500 to 600 people on site.” Units need to be easily moved as work progresses through a field, so the company had two- and four-unit (plus hand-wash station) trailers built by a local welding shop.

Agriculture. The company also built 30 two-unit/one-hand-wash station trailers for work in fields and packing houses. Farmers move them around as needed. To keep track of them, the company uses the DPL Telematics’ GPS tracking system — a huge improvement from the days when technicians had to hunt them down.

Industrial and military. The company services events at nearby Camp Blanding, a National Guard training center. Special forces come in, even people from the Virgin Islands, Ambrose says. “We’ll assist at the different gun ranges and training villages.”

Mining. The company maintains surface mine certifications for most of their drivers for their work at nearby mines — titanium, rare-earth minerals, phosphate, products used in agriculture. They also service dredge mines and chemical plant operations.

Emergency response. As soon as a storm approaches, the company checks fuel and inventory levels and makes sure employees have everything needed at home to care for their families so they can focus on helping customers when the danger passes. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, they provided portable restrooms at evacuation-route rest stops along two interstates. “Those were the only interstate facilities in Florida that did not close at some point because of sanitation,” Ambrose says. “We’re pretty proud of that. Millions of people went through those rest stops.” The fire department and state government made sure the company had fuel to provide twice-a-day servicing.

TRAIL BLAZER

The company has about 1,300 standard and 50 wheelchair-accessible units from Five Peaks and Satellite | PolyPortables, two Satellite | PolyPortables flushing units, two T.S.F. (Tuff-Jon) kids’ units, and more than 100 PolyJohn Enterprises and Satellite | PolyPortables hand-wash stations. They use Avant Tecno USA 200 and 500 series loaders to move equipment, which Ambrose says makes technicians more productive, reduces risk of injury and keeps the crew happy.

A few years ago, Ambrose invested in four-user urinals (Kros International USA) for music festivals, although the market was hesitant. “Americans seem very uncomfortable with anything that appears to be public urination,” he says. “But the more we deployed them, the more they were accepted. It reduces lines and keeps units cleaner and people happier.”

He is still figuring out where he’ll use his latest purchase — P-POD collapsible units (Advantage Engineering). Good bets include use on fire department situation response vehicles, on prison crew trailers and at mining operations when units can’t be staked. “I don’t know how these things are going to work out, but I’ve got four that I can show and try out,” he says. “We’ll see what happens.”

THE FLEET

Most of the company’s vacuum trucks were built by Best Enterprises, Engine & Accessory, Imperial Industries and Arthur Custom Tank LLC, a division of Mid-State Tank. All are outfitted with Satellite | PolyPortables Pathfinder spray cleaning systems. They use Jurop/Chandler, Conde (Westmoor) and Masport pumps.

• 2008 Ford F‑550 — 700-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater steel tank

• 2015 Chevy 3500 — 400-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank

• 2016 Ram 5500 — 800-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater carbon steel tank

• 2017 Ram 5500 — 900-gallon waste and 350-gallon freshwater aluminum tank

• 2017 Ram 3500 — 400-gallon waste and 175-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank

• 2017 Hino 195 — 900-gallon waste and 350-gallon freshwater aluminum tank

• 2018 Ram 5500 — 600-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank

• 2018 Ram 5500 — 300-gallon waste and 125-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank

• 2019 Hino 268 — 1,600-gallon waste and 400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank

To eliminate confusion, drivers name their trucks — Go Getter, Dixie, The General, Nevermore, LFF, Gasolina, Wooly.

The nearby wastewater treatment plant will only take 600 gallons of septage per week so the company stores it in their yards in two 21,000-gallon frac tanks and then hauls it to a licensed land application facility. 

A SAFE ENVIRONMENT

Ambrose does his part to provide safe working conditions for the staff — keeping up with preventive maintenance on the trucks, making sure air conditioning works so people don’t get hot and tired, and giving everyone the tools they need to work properly and without frustration. He has a strict policy against using hand-held devices while driving. In addition to communicating by cellphone, the team uses two-way radios, including some Kenwood NX-300GK radios, at some festivals or on the road so everyone can hear what’s going on.

Vehicles are outfitted with Lytx drive cams. When a triggering event occurs, such as hard braking, the camera is activated. Lytx evaluates the video, and if it’s a situation warranting attention, they notify Ambrose who then works with the driver. “It’s not a tool to monitor them in a punitive way,” he says. “It’s to make sure they’re staying on top of their game as a professional driver.” It’s had a huge effect on driver performance and, consequently, workers’ compensation insurance rates.

EMPLOYEE WELL-BEING

With experience managing film crews, Ambrose says he’s learned how to make sure people are happy so they can focus on the job.

“If you’re working in the Yucatan jungle for five weeks and don’t do that, filming doesn’t happen,” he says. “It pays to invest in your employees and treat them as a resource. I can replace a truck way easier than a great employee. And a bad employee can do more damage than a truck that breaks down.”

Ambrose gives drivers a lot of autonomy and encourages them to handle route issues with each other and to take care of customer requests without needing direction from him. He seeks their opinions on procedures and equipment. He provides health insurance, an Aflac accident benefit and paid time off. Each employee can designate $400 a year to be donated in their name to a community group of their choice. He also offers a Heffernan Insurance online comprehensive money management coaching system.

Ambrose believes promoting employee physical, mental and financial health results in satisfied customers. “If you keep employees happy, they’ll keep the customers happy,” he says. “And that’s my goal.”

A REWARDING CAREER

Ambrose says future plans include possibly buying property and building a facility and figuring out a way to hold monthly companywide meetings. He is looking forward to putting on a big celebration for customers and employees in March 2020 at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park to mark the 20th year they’ve serviced the venue.

Ambrose is proud of what he’s accomplished since taking over the company.

“I get a lot of satisfaction in taking care of something people don’t want to deal with and doing it well. And I’m not just talking about the waste, but people also don’t think about taking care of people’s restroom needs, whether it’s event organizers or construction sites. When we can educate someone to help them have the kind of services and experiences they’d like with their restroom facilities, I have satisfaction in that. I also find value in being able to employ the people I do and that they can support their families.”


Health insurance is expensive — or is it?

Ross Ambrose pays about 70% of health insurance costs for AAA Porta Serve’s employees — a lot of money, but he believes the benefits outweigh the costs. Having easy access to medical care encourages employees to have annual exams and regular medical care, resulting in better management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or obesity, as well as prevention of everything from the flu to heart disease. Employees with unmanaged health care problems are suffering and not operating at full potential.

When one of his drivers fell asleep at the wheel, narrowly missing a telephone pole and culvert, Ambrose required him to see a doctor because the worker kept saying how tired he was. He was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. He had been trying to manage fatigue by drinking sugary energy drinks, which caused weight gain — and worsened the sleep apnea.

“If he hadn’t had the health insurance, he couldn’t have seen a doctor and gotten into a sleep study,” Ambrose says. “He lost a tremendous amount of weight, has no more wheezing, does a lot more with his kid, sleeps way better and has improved his overall home life.”

Ambrose believes if he helps take care of his employees, they’ll be better able to take care of his business. “All these different things that contribute to wellness outside the office impact the office,” he says.



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