The Double Life of Charley Heltunen

The owner of A-1 Toilets leads a not-so-secret double life. A full-time elementary school teacher, he’s developed a schedule that allows him to succeed at both jobs.

The Double Life of Charley Heltunen

Charley and Kaitlin Heltunen of A-1 Toilets in Calumet, Michigan

Charley Heltunen is a third grade teacher who also happens to be the owner of A-1 Toilets, in Calumet, a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At 31 years old, he and his wife, Kaitlin Heltunen, closed the deal on A-1 Toy-lets on March 1, 2019, and with a slight rebranding, reopened as A-1 Toilets.

How does a teacher become the owner of a portable restroom business? By chance.

“My dad rented a couple of portable restrooms from A-1 in the summer of 2018,” Heltunen says. “He got into a discussion with the owner about how he was looking to sell the business. My dad texted me and asked me if I wanted to buy a couple hundred portable restrooms.”

Heltunen had considered going back to school so he could become an education administrator. But he realized that buying the business could be a better financial prospect than losing income and paying substantial tuition fees while upgrading his credentials. He opted for A-1 instead.

The sale included 263 portable restrooms, three vacuum trucks and the services of Paul Eisenman, a 17-year veteran employee. About 80% of the clients are regular summer residents who renew their contracts year after year. Other clients include construction companies and residents hosting weddings and other events.

Heltunen currently offers 267 portable restrooms. The majority are branded Five Peaks (now from Satellite | PolyPortables) with a few older PolyJohn units. Their 13 hand-wash stations include PolyJohn Bravos and Sierra RideAlongs (now from Satellite | PolyPortables).

A-1 operates two 2002 Ford F-450 diesel 4x4s with 450-gallon aluminum waste tanks and Masport pumps from Imperial Industries. Separate plastic 100-gallon freshwater tanks are supplied by Kentucky Tank. A back-up truck is used during summer — a 1995 Ford Super Duty with a 350-gallon rectangular stainless steel waste tank manufactured by the previous owner and a Masport pump.

Three flatbed snowmobile trailers are used to transport restrooms: a 22-foot FLOE trailer for up to 12 units; a 20-foot Triton trailer for up to 10; and a 10-foot Newman for as many as four.

A-1 serves an area roughly 40 miles northeast to the shores of Lake Superior and 60 miles south.

1. BALANCING THE SCHEDULE

As a devoted schoolteacher, Charley Heltunen puts students first. But the rhythm of the school year balances nicely with the rhythms of the portable restroom business.

Kaitlin provides year-round office support, fielding customer calls and deploys trucks and restrooms.

A-1’s quieter months are October to April. Summer residents fuel the busiest period, with the business ramping up slowly in May when work entails more than employee Eisenman can handle.

“The former owner, Jerry Tabor, fills in for about four weeks, and I start taking part of the route after school,” Heltunen says. “When school ends at the beginning of June, I take over the route full time until the last few days of August when school starts again.”

The most hectic period for the business is July to September when almost 80% of the units are rented on monthly contracts and work can expand to 80 hours per week. Last August, A-1 handled 27 events including weddings and auctions in a single weekend.

In the fall, Heltunen’s brother-in-law, a police officer working on night shift for a local university, drives a route each morning until early November, by which time only a dozen or so units remain rented, primarily for construction clients and ski trails. It works out well for Eisenman, who enjoys winter curling and chooses one day a week to pump.

2. DECIDING WHEN TO GROW

In the past, the business has relied on digital marketing and advertising through companies such as DexYP. However, Heltunen says he’s not ready to expand advertising efforts. 

“Advertising and promotion are expensive and I don’t want to push toward growth we can’t handle over the short run,” he says. “I’ve heard that you need about one person per 100 portable restrooms and that means we should already be hiring two and two-thirds guys — we’re two-thirds of a guy short already. We’re looking to see how the economy recovers, at which point we might hire somebody part time. If the demand comes, my father-in-law is ready and waiting in the wings.”

He says he’d like to redeploy some of his restroom fleet by buying some luxury restroom trailers for weddings, then cycling some of the older units into construction contracts.

3. PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

As a teacher, Heltunen can retire in his mid 50s. What he’ll be doing with A-1 Sanitation at that age depends on the performance of the business.

“We financed the purchase of the business with a loan that comes due in the summer of 2024,” he says. “When that loan is settled, I’ll definitely continue teaching for at least another year. Then we’re going to think seriously about whether I should continue teaching or devote my energies to A-1 full time.”

Heltunen foresees the possibility of expanding the business into other areas that will provide greater opportunities during the colder months. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading in Portable Restroom Operator and Pumper about what portable restroom operators are doing in the off-season,” he says. “We might look at something like snow removal work for example.”.”

4. RECOGNIZING THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION

Heltunen recognized the importance of learning everything he could about the business. He engaged in ride-along training sessions prior to buying the business.

Becoming the licensed owner and “responsible agent” for A-1 also required him to earn 10 continuing septage education (CSE) credits recognized by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Maintaining that license requires him to earn another 30 CSE credits over five years.

“Taking those courses made me realize I still have a lot to learn about the business,” he says. “It underscores the importance of earning those additional CSE credits.”

He also likes to educate his customers with a series of light-hearted blogs. One blog encouraged customers to not treat portable restrooms like trash bins, and recounted all the items he’s pumped out of them, from iPhones and fully wrapped Snickers bars to sandbags and six packs of beer.

He’s also used his portable restroom experience in class, explaining, for example, the effect of wind on structures. “I told them how one of my restrooms was knocked over in a strong windstorm,” he says. “I told them how I had to shovel it out, then stand it back up. They think it’s very funny that I’m so fired up about portable restrooms.”

5. CUSTOMIZING EQUIPMENT FOR EFFICIENCY

The company’s previous owner ordered all of his waste tanks mounted sideways on his service trucks, with hose reel mounted on the driver’s side. It’s a design Heltunen has come to appreciate.

“It provides easier access for the driver,” he says. “When you jump out of the truck, your hose reel is right beside you. Also, if you’re carrying a tank half full of waste, the sloshing of the waste in the tank is lessened when you slow down and speed up.”

Heltunen also likes that the layout frees up just enough of the truck bed to carry an extra pair of portable restrooms, in addition to the two he carries on his hitch gate. He’s planning to order another flatbed rig from Imperial Industries if things get any busier. Would he order his waste tank placed sideways or front to back? “Sideways, definitely,” he says. “I’m sold on that design.”   



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