Georgia’s Outback Portable Restroom Services Has a Promising Future

Despite having no background in the portable sanitation industry, David and Nicole Spencer recognized potential in a flagging restroom company and pounced on it.

Georgia’s Outback Portable Restroom Services Has a Promising Future

The Outback Portable Restroom Services team includes, from left, Roy Davis, David Spencer, Nicole Spencer, Hailey Arnold, Jason Wainwright and Dylan James. They are shown with a service truck from Garsite/Progress carrying a Conde pump (Westmoor).

David Spencer had been a homebuilder in the St. Marys, Georgia, area for more than 15 years; and his wife, Nicole, was finding her job as a special education teacher a rewarding fit. They weren’t looking for a new opportunity. And they had never considered going into the portable restroom business.

But one day in 2016, David received a letter from a vendor that piqued his interest. The owners of Outback Portable Restroom Services, the local company that handled portable sanitation at Spencer Development Co. building sites, announced plans to close the business and retire.

“They were going to shut the whole thing down,” David says. “The letter was very odd to me. I would have expected them to sell the business if they were retiring.”

Intrigued, David talked to Nicole about the letter, and they decided to contact the owners to see if they were interested in selling the operation rather than shutting it down. The owners said yes, they had been interested in selling Outback but had not received much interest. That’s when the Spencers decided to make an offer.

When they took over on Jan. 1, 2017, with Nicole as the legal owner, Outback was a faltering operation along the Georgia/Florida state line that the former owners had already been scaling back. “When we bought the business, they had 66 units out, but they owned 300,” David says. “The units were in generally good shape. That was one of the attractions … if we grew the business, we wouldn’t have to make any new investments for a while.”

Nicole says close attention to capital needs and capital costs has helped revive the business. Both Spencers remain committed to their primary careers, but they see their roles with Outback as more than just moonlighting and are determined to make it succeed. They say that with careful hiring and attention to management, they should be able to develop a workforce that can make the arrangement work for them.

The Outback office was moved to the same building that houses David’s Spencer Development Co., giving the Outback staff easy access to him and allowing him to keep tabs on the restroom business. The Outback staff includes a full-time office manager, two full-time route drivers and a part-time yard man/route driver.

When the Spencers bought Outback, it had two route trucks, including one that had outlived its chassis. At first, the workload could be handled with the newer truck, a 2014 Dodge Ram 550 with an 850-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and Masport pump from Garsite/Progress. But as the Spencers rebuilt the client list, they needed another route truck and bought a new 2017 Ford F-550, equipping it with the gear from the retired vehicle, an 850-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and Conde pump (Westmoor) from Garsite/Progress. The company also owns a custom-built vacuum trailer with a Conde pump, as well as a 10-unit custom-built restroom transport trailer.

Although the company had more than enough restrooms in 2016, they have added since then to reach 319 PolyJohn standard units, 10 PolyJohn handicap units, 20 PolyJohn hand-wash stations, six T.S.F. hand-wash stations, four PolyJohn units with sinks and two PolyJohn flushable units. Outback also has 10 PolyJohn high-rise units, used primarily for highway and bridge projects. Deodorizers are from J&J Portable Sanitation Products.

1. Taking advantage of a woman-owned business designation

When the Spencers bought Outback, it was structured with Nicole as the owner. As a woman-owned business, Outback can sometimes realize an advantage when competing for government contracts. The Spencers were reminded of that when they read a column in Portable Restroom Operator about opportunities for woman-owned businesses, and the topic caught their attention at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show in 2017. That reminder paid off in August 2019 when the company won a contract to provide portable sanitation services for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. The contract calls for servicing 27 restrooms and two existing holding tanks twice a week at the Department of Homeland Security facility.

2. Quickly building a network

Weeks after they assumed ownership of Outback, the Spencers decided to leave the comfort of the winter climate on the Georgia coast and headed north to Indianapolis where they attended the WWETT Show in February. David says although they had plenty of business experience, they knew there was much to learn as they set out to rebuild Outback. He says a key attraction was the wide selection of classes offered to the operators attending the show. “The best thing was just to learn about the business, especially in the marketing classes,” he says. With their company renting just 20% of its portable restroom units, the Spencers say they wanted to get a jump-start on marketing techniques that would help them breathe life back into Outback.

David also says they hit the show floor with the goal of learning about products and meeting exhibitors. “Getting to know some of the vendors face-to-face helped,” he says. David adds that as the company grows or it equipment ages, it will be helpful to be able to work with vendors he has already met.

3. Building the right team to succeed in a new industry

With no background in portable sanitation, taking over the business could have been overwhelming, but the former owners agreed to stay on for several months to help ease the transition. Several key employees also stayed on, retaining a good foundation for the company. But soon the former owners moved on to their retirement plans and the experienced employees departed, including a valued route driver who died unexpectedly just as business was picking up. Because the Spencers have full-time jobs outside of Outback, they need self-motivated, trustworthy employees. David says one of the key attributes he seeks is applicants who will sincerely enjoy the work. Nicole, who also has experience as an office manager, says she has learned how to build a team and delegate responsibility “so they can take on the challenge.”

Nicole points out that not everybody is attracted to a job dealing with sanitation and wastewater, so during interviews, they ask applicants to talk about their comfort level with the work. After all, that was a question the Spencers had to ask themselves as they discussed buying the business. And Nicole says they had the right answer: “As soon as we bought it, we just embraced it.” They want a team of employees who will feel the same way about the portable restroom business.

4. Working with customers to prevent hurricane losses

In September 2019, David learned satisfied customers are not only loyal, but they can also be helpful. That was when Hurricane Dorian threatened to sideswipe the Atlantic Coast along northern Florida and Georgia. There was no way David could move several hundred units into the yard or a more protected area, but he wanted to be sure he did all he could to avoid heavy losses. So he got on the phone and found out his construction and industrial clients were happy to take steps to protect the portable restrooms on site.

While some could move the units to protected areas, others parked their own heavy equipment or storage units around the Outback restrooms, anchoring them to the ground to protect them from winds or flooding. As he made his calls, David found the most common request from clients was for early service to make sure units were emptied before the storm in case Outback was prevented from working its regular schedule after it passed. Fortunately for the people along the Florida/Georgia state line, Dorian’s track was far enough out to sea that it created few problems in the St. Marys area, but the Spencers were relieved to discover their equipment would be in good hands in the event of a future storm.

5. Immersing the company in community events for exposure

Although Nicole did not have any experience in the portable restroom business, she did have a background in advertising and marketing. She decided one way to build her company’s special event business was by increasing its visibility in the community. And those efforts went beyond the basics of sponsoring local events or organizations. She points to an early decision to take part in the annual Halloween Scarecrow Stroll in St. Marys. For the event, members of the Downtown Merchants Association set up holiday displays featuring their own take on scarecrows. Families are invited to view the displays and allow their children to go trick-or-treating. Outback staffers have been decorating a portable restroom each year with a popular display that features a skeleton seated inside the unit. Families are encouraged to pose with the skeleton restroom and post photos on social media. Nicole strategically positions a sign for the company so it shows up in all the photos.  



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