This Numbers Guy Jumped in and Fine-Tuned a Minnesota Portable Sanitation Company for Success

An accountant by trade, John McGreavey crunched all the numbers before deciding to buy portable restroom business Mini Biff

This Numbers Guy Jumped in and Fine-Tuned a Minnesota Portable Sanitation Company for Success

The Mini Biff team includes, from left, Jesse Fuentes, Sean Henke, John “Garcia” Lindquist, Mahri Schmit, Dakota Krumrey, John McGreavey, Thomas Palmer, Sandie A. Bruins, Samantha Oberfoell, Chris Rustad, Alec Nowak and Terry Manderscheid. Not pictured are Paul Leblanc and Kris Mead. The fleet of service vehicles is from Satellite Vacuum Trucks and carry Conde pumps from Westmoor.(Photos by Brad Stauffer)

John McGreavey didn’t set out with a business plan to purchase a portable restroom operation. As a corporate accountant, he was searching for a sustainable business opportunity and let the results of a careful analysis do the talking. In 2016, he purchased Mini Biff of Hutchinson, Minnesota, a company he’s transformed and poised for growth in less than three years. His strategy is no secret — he’s just running it by the numbers.

McGreavey was a British citizen employed by global food conglomerate Cargill for more than 30 years, working in the U.S. since 2000. Following a business restructuring, he accepted a compensation package from Cargill in 2015. He became an American citizen the same year and began a search to acquire a business.

“I didn’t want to work until I was 80,” he says. “I wanted to buy a business that met a specific set of criteria so I could build it up and eventually sell it at a profit. It had to demonstrate good cash flow. It needed to be a low-risk business — not so innovative that it would become redundant when the equivalent of the next iPhone launched.”

McGreavey, 59, was also looking for a broad customer base that could mitigate credit risk.

“The basic elements of the portable restroom business haven’t changed in decades, and I didn’t expect them to change dramatically in the near future,” he explains. “From an accountant’s view, with thousands of customers, the loss of any single customer wouldn’t really dent us. The portable restroom business checked all the boxes.


IN TRANSITION

McGreavey and his family live in Maple Grove, just outside of Minneapolis. He was alerted by a business sales agent to the availability of Mini Biff, a portable restroom business, about an hour’s drive west in Hutchinson. Established in 1997, Mini Biff was acquired in 2004 by its most recent owners, a family who operated it out of their home.

“Mini Biff was an established business with a good history and solid brand awareness,” McGreavey says. “They were so well known in the area that people don’t ask for portable restrooms, they ask for Mini Biffs. They’d purchased one smaller competitor but had largely grown organically from about 100 restrooms to 1,400 without any aggressive marketing. I believe they’d reached the point where they had grown beyond their ability to manage effectively — but still had the potential to grow.”

McGreavey bought the assets of the business and its trade name in September 2016, essentially starting a fresh company with no potential legacy liabilities. Under the sales agreement, the family would continue working for a 12-month handover period, as new hires were introduced. The business would also continue to operate from the family’s home during that year. McGreavey leveraged funding from the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s Business Finance Program, an independent community organization, to finance a move to a new location.

“We were outbid on a parcel of land at the last minute, so the transition took closer to 18 months,” McGreavey says. “But soon after, we purchased a 10-acre parcel of land, leveled 6 acres of it and put up a new facility on the property in February 2018.”

GROWING INVENTORY

Today, Mini Biff operates about 1,550 portable restrooms, primarily from Satellite | PolyPortables. Most are Tufway and Maxim 3000 models. Fifty are ADA-compliant Freedom 2 models, and 30 are wheelchair-accessible Liberty models. Two are High Tech II luxury units with flush toilets and sinks.

Mini Biff also offers five trailers. Three luxury restroom trailers — a two-stall unit and two three-stall units — are from Wells Cargo and used for as many as 50 weddings per year. Two units are rebuilt urinal trailers.

The company supplies two sizes of hand-washing stations: 30 Breeze models and 15 WaveWash, both from Satellite | PolyPortables. It also supplies 20 hand sanitizer stations assembled by Mini Biff.

Portable restroom supplies are provided by Hillyard and Satellite | PolyPortables.

The company operates 10 vacuum trucks, all built out by Satellite Vacuum Trucks with 650-gallon waste and 350-gallon freshwater steel tanks and Conde pumps by Westmoor. Four trucks are Ford F-550s — a 2002, 2012 and two 2015s. Three are Ram 5500s — a 2011, 2014 and 2016. A 2004 GMC 4500 and 2005 Chevrolet 5500 round out the fleet.

A stand-alone 2005 Silverado 2500 is used as a hauling vehicle.

The trucks pull six trailers. The largest, from Johnny Mover Trailer Sales, has a capacity of 20 standard restroom units. The rest are custom-built by Mini Biff: a 16-unit trailer, two 12-unit trailers, an eight-unit trailer, six-unit trailer and four-unit trailer.

RUNNING THE NUMBERS

Mini Biff clients fit into roughly three buckets: construction; seasonal, including Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sites and golf courses; and summer events, including weddings, concerts and fairs. The company’s largest event is the Winstock Country Music Festival in nearby Winsted, which attracts about 20,000 visitors and requires between 650 and 700 units.

McGreavey had no aspirations to become an operations manager, instead leveraging his accounting experience to analyze the business and working to make it operate more efficiently.

“I spent a lot of time looking at the trends and the cash flow cycle,” he says. “During the winter, our activity drops to about 20%, primarily construction, but fixed costs remain so it can be challenging.”

Accepting that the cycles are largely beyond his control, McGreavey concentrated on determining how quickly he would need to take action before each cycle kicks in. That includes buying and deploying equipment and ensuring that enough workers are available as each busy season begins.

He’s also taken an accountant’s view of profitability, building models for each aspect of the business. For example, he’s set a strict service area for portable restrooms.

“The economics of profitably limit us to a 60-mile radius,” he says. “Luxury trailers include a mileage fee, so we can profitably deliver and service them up to 200 miles.”

LOGISTICS IS KEY

In the U.K., McGreavey worked with Cargill’s grain trading business. It’s given him a solid appreciation for the importance of logistics. One of his first purchases at Mini Biff was a StreetEagle (Insight Mobile Data) advanced GPS tracking system.

“Logistics alone can mean the difference between a profitable route and one that loses money,” he says. “We focused on optimizing routes and making sure that whenever possible our trucks could handle multiple jobs. We also optimized our schedules by asking our customers to be more flexible on delivery and pickup. Delivering a little earlier and picking up a little later allows us to combine more deliveries and pickups in a single trip.”

McGreavey says he quotes each contract “to the last $20” to ensure it will be profitable.

“I have a very specific profit margin in mind,” he says. “I will never quote a job just to keep busy.”

Mini Biff also quickly dropped its least profitable customers, simply by quoting prices that included an acceptable profit. “We didn’t dismiss them,” McGreavey says. “Presented with a quote that included a reasonable profit for us, they chose to go elsewhere.”

Mini Biff has pivoted away from directory and newspaper advertising to promoting its website and buying paid ads on social media platforms such as Facebook.

“Our website and advertising have also been optimized for smartphone screens, where most of today’s searches are happening,” McGreavey explains. “If it’s not optimized for the phone, people will pass on you and go somewhere else.”

McGreavey has attended the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show to find new ways to improve business efficiency.

“As a new entrant into the business it was an eye-opener for me,” he says. “There were many innovative products I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and it was a great networking event.”

FIRST MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Mini Biff may ultimately expand the scope of its business into other profitable and complementary ventures on the same property, but for now, McGreavey is satisfied with his progress.

“My first focus has been to transform the company from a family-run operation into a disciplined venture poised for growth,” he says. “After a lot of effort, I believe we’re there.”  



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