The Leader of American Rooter and Portables Is a One-Woman Promotional Powerhouse

Nothing replaces nonstop networking when you want to see your restrooms popping up all over town, says Tennessee’s Peaches Searles.

The Leader of American Rooter and Portables Is a One-Woman Promotional Powerhouse

Peaches Searles is shown in the cab of a Ram built out by Satellite Vacuum Trucks with a 700-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump. (Photos by Martin Cherry) 

Peaches Searles loves life, always has a ready laugh and has a passion for Tennessee walking horses. About 20 years ago, she started a portable restroom business as an adjunct to her husband Ken Searles’ septic business in Cleveland, Tennessee. In the beginning, she did everything from deliveries and pumping to marketing and invoicing — and that was on top of running her other successful business, Miss Peaches’ Sunny Daycare, taking care of 80 children.

“I had a director at the day care, but I’d go there in the morning,” she says. “Then I’d throw a 5-gallon bucket of water and a unit in the back of our red Dodge pickup and I’d hit the job sites. Before I knew it, I had 25 of them out.” When the business took off, something had to go. She sold the day care and used the proceeds to buy more units.

Other than her initial stint as a one-woman show, Searles is all about working with others, whether it’s promoting company teamwork, forging alliances with competitors and other vendors, or networking with construction organizations.

The couple’s combined company is called American Rooter and Portables. Peaches oversees the portable restroom side, and Ken handles septic pumping and line cleaning. Including daughter Ashley and son Brandon, they have three office workers, seven technicians and one mechanic. They operate out of three buildings on an old warehouse lot.

Septic equipment includes 2001 Sterling and 2005 International vacuum trucks built out by Imperial Industries with 2,500-gallon steel tanks and Jurop/Chandler pumps, a New Holland midsized backhoe and VARCo line cleaning equipment. The company stays in its county for septic work; but for portable restroom projects it covers a 60-mile radius that includes north Georgia - a state with a whole different set of legal requirements, including having to take an eight-hour pumping certification exam.

EASIER THE SECOND TIME

Searles actually sold the portable restroom business in 2006 so she could take care of her ailing mother and help her daughter get through high school. Her mother made a full recovery, but Searles waited out the noncompete and then picked up right where she left off.

The company now has 1,300 standard units, 12 ADA-compliant and wheelchair-accessible units, five flushable units outfitted with hand-washing equipment and lights, two family units with changing tables, 30 double-sided hand-wash stations, and twenty 250- and 400-gallon holding tanks. Most are from Satellite | PolyPortables. Graffiti remover, deodorant tabs and air fresheners are from Walex Products. Waste is taken to the local treatment plant.

About 125 units are red, white and blue, and two flushable units that are used exclusively for weddings are white. Otherwise Searles likes red for her units. “It’s a marketing thing,” she says. “If you drive through Cleveland or Chattanooga or north Georgia, you will see it because it just pops out at you. You can spot it a mile off.” People recognize the units as hers just by the color.

The service fleet includes a 2011 Ram 3500 with an Imperial Industries 300-gallon waste and 150-gallon freshwater slide-in aluminum tank, a 2014 Ram 5500 with a 600-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank from TankTec, two 2015 Ram 4500s with 520-gallon waste and 260-gallon freshwater aluminum tanks from Imperial Industries, and two Ram 5500s (2016 and 2018) built out by Satellite Vacuum Trucks with 700-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater steel tanks, all with Masport pumps. The company has two Lane’s Vacuum Tank hauling trailers (a 10 and 12-unit) and a three-unit trailer (nicknamed “Little Red”). Single deliveries are done with the Ram 2500.

About 90% of the company’s work is for construction, both residential and commercial. It also services the occasional emergency. “The biggest was when Chattanooga had its main break,” Searles says. “It was crazy. I ran out of toilets. I got them down there quick and gave them phone numbers for other vendors.”

Searles says the special event business grows every year. They service one of the county’s largest events, the MainStreet Cleveland Halloween Block Party, which attracts about 20,000 people and provides funds for downtown improvements.

Other colorful events include the Sweet Tea & Sunshine Family Festival, Prater’s Mill Country Fair, Apple Festival and one of Searles’ personal favorites: a local bacon festival called BaCON. They also provide units for musical events at Chattanooga’s outdoor Miller Park and art events at Sculpture Park, and they do a number of American Cancer Society walks for cancer and Habitat for Humanity fundraisers at a deep discount.

SUPPORT MATTERS

The company has a full-time mechanic who stays busy with oil changes, brakes and tires, Searles says. “And there’s always a light going out in a truck or trailer. Nowadays it’s not just pop it out and pop one in: You’ve got to go inside them.” The company bought tire-changing equipment and keeps tires in stock, which Searles says saves them money in the long run. And, most important, they don’t have to wait for service.

The company uses Verizon Connect Reveal (formerly called Fleetmatics) fleet management software.

“It lets me know where my trucks are at all times,” Searles says. “If someone goes over the speed limit, I get an email. Or if a truck is sitting for more than an hour, it sends me an email. Then I can call the driver and say, ‘Please tell me you’re not stuck.’” When technicians can’t get access to a unit for some reason, they take a photo and send it to her. She then calls the customer and forwards the photo to show the problem. “I’m a firm believer in being proactive and not reactive; it just makes for better customer service,” she says.

Flypaper, a digital marketing company in Chattanooga, handles the company’s marketing and web presence.

“I don’t have time for any of that,” Searles says. “But in today’s society, you need to have those things. You can’t go old school any longer. They’re a little expensive, but they’re worth it.”

BONDING OVER MARGARITAS

Searles is attached to her staff. Several are related to each other in one way or another, but to her, they’re all family. Hiring can be difficult, she says. One problem is the opioid epidemic. Another is new hires may suddenly realize they don’t really want to do this kind of work. “But it does get into your blood,” Searles says. “And once it does, you’re there to stay.”

Searles feels it’s important for employees to spend some downtime together.

“I make them socialize with each other,” she laughs. “Usually once a month, I’ll take them all out to dinner along with their wives. We’ll sit there with our margaritas or whatever and chitchat. They’ll go on about their week or some crazy customer they’re dealing with. It lets them know they’re not sitting in that boat alone. It gets their frustration out just knowing they’re not the only one dealing with something.”

The end-of-year office party is held at Thanksgiving time. Everyone brings their family and a dish to share. Searles passes out Christmas bonuses at that time so employees have extra money for Black Friday sales.

STAYING CONNECTED

Searles sees her main job as networking. She goes to many events and spends a lot of time talking, meeting and socializing. She has developed great relationships with other PROs in the area, doesn’t worry about the occasional company who comes in with cutthroat pricing and says there’s plenty of work for everyone. She also knows a lot of people in related industries; so when they’re asked to provide a service they don’t offer, she knows who to call — roll-offs, office trailers, restroom trailers.

“And we’ve got friends who are plumbers who have cameras, people who put in field lines and people who install septic tanks. We recommend a lot of people. It’s kind of like being the concierge of the construction industry.”

Searles also spends a lot of time meeting with customers — “And I don’t mean just Facebook. I actually go out face-to-face. Anytime I get a new contractor, I try to go out and meet them myself to let them know that, yes, I am a human being.” The labels on all their units say, “Call Peaches.”

Searles is involved in supporting the whole building industry. She sits on the board of the Ocoee Region Builders Association. She is also on the board and the executive committee and is currently president of the associates committee of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga. And she is a state director for the Home Builders Association of Tennessee, where twice she has been voted Associate of the Year.

“I do a lot of fighting for the building industry to make sure we can continue to progress,” she says. “I spend a lot of time with my state representatives about laws that could hinder or be expensive to the industry. If my builders aren’t working, I’m not working.”

Searles says networking is the thing she enjoys most about her business. She loves meeting the people who she says are just everyday folks. She has no plans to retire but is trying to back off a bit and let others run the show. “It’s been a long, bumpy, joyous ride,” she says. “And I’m sure there’s still more to come.”  



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