This Young Kansas PRO Learns His Lessons

Cole Leister is quick on the draw when changes are needed to promote and grow his restroom business.

This Young Kansas PRO Learns His Lessons

The Salina Septic Service crew includes, from left, Jackson Leister, Calle Leister, Cole Leister, Sheldon Crook and Scott Donaldson. They are shown with PolyJohn restrooms on a trailer from F.M. Manufacturing.

In 2016, when Cole Leister’s father and grandmother bought a 65-year-old septic/portable restroom company from the retiring owner in Salina, Kansas, something about it just clicked with him and the high school graduate’s college plans went out the window. He learned everything he could as fast as he could about the industry and within four months bought out his grandmother and took over day-to-day operations from his father.

The family renamed the company Salina Septic Service. Long-time employee Sheldon Crook stayed on and was a big help in getting them up to speed. Crook now works on the septic side, while Leister’s younger brother, Jackson, and Scott Donaldson take care of portable restroom work. Leister’s wife Calle handles the office, and his father, Randy, helps when needed.

Leister wasted no time making changes. He jettisoned about three-quarters of the old portable sanitation equipment and bought two truckloads of new. Inventory now stands at about 300 pieces of equipment (PolyJohn and Satellite Industries) including standard, wheelchair-accessible and flushable units, and hand-wash stations. He hauls units with a Laxi-Taxi 16-unit transport trailer from F.M. Manufacturing. He added septic installations, eventually buying a Bobcat E45 mini excavator and a John Deere track loader to round out their septic equipment, which includes a 1990 Chevrolet C‑70 vacuum truck with a 2,000-gallon steel tank and Masport pump. And he replaced the paper-based information system with programs from QuickBooks and CRO Software Solutions.

EXPLORE FIVE ISSUES THAT AFFECT COLE LEISTER AND SALINA SEPTIC:

1. A BIG CUSTOMER WAKE-UP CALL THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

In the beginning, Leister continued to rent out the remaining older units. But in the summer of 2017 he got a call from his largest construction account. “He said, ‘If we don’t get some nicer units we’re going with somebody else,’ ” Leister reports. Leister responded immediately. “We shut everything down that day and started loading up all our nice event units and sending them out to our construction sites and switched out all the older units.” It took a week but when they were done, everything they had out was new and more units were ordered.

2. 3,000 WORDS THAT LANDED HIS FIRST BIG EVENT CONTRACT

In 2017, Leister had the opportunity to bid on the Smoky Hill River Festival, a four-day art and music event requiring 90 pieces of equipment. “That was our first real contractual-based event going through a municipality,” he says. “I really wanted the event and spent an exorbitant amount of time on the bid.” The weighted grading system focused on quality and service, with price accounting for only 25%. Leister says they weren’t given many guidelines for the proposal so it was up to bidders to describe what they had to offer.

“I laid out everything start to finish — time lines, how we would move around the park, pricing, chemicals. Procedures for cleaning and responsiveness were the two main things I outlined. I just basically put everything I could think of on a piece of paper. It ended up being about 3,000 words.”

Leister won the bid. Next step — deliver on the promises. “It wasn’t required but I stayed on site the entire time,” he says. “And Sheldon and Scott came in on Saturday.” Event coordinators were happy, gave them a positive Google review and have used the company every year since.

3. LEARNING THE BENEFITS OF NEW EQUIPMENT THE HARD WAY

The original vacuum trucks — 2005 and 2007 Chevy 3500s built out by Best Enterprises with stainless steel slide-in tanks (400-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater and 350-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater) and Conde (Westmoor) pumps — are now only used for backup. The two trucks Leister bought to replace them — a Ford F-550 built out by Satellite Vacuum Trucks with a 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Conde pump and an International 4200 built out by Amthor International with a 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and Jurop pump — were both 2007s and he’s had second thoughts about the decision.

“Looking back, we should have bought new from the get-go,” he says. “That set us back a little bit. It would have put us in a little bit better position now where we need new trucks.” Mechanical issues are costly, he says.

“If a truck goes down, we’re losing fairly substantial amounts of money each day it’s down. And we have to pay to keep the backup trucks working. There is a point where it’s not worth it. There are times when a payment each month on a new truck would have been cheaper.”

4. MANAGING EMPLOYEES IS A CHALLENGING PART OF THE JOB

Leister faces several employee management challenges. One is lack of formal training, which he feels is a disadvantage. But he has picked up ideas based on his own experiences — good and bad — with employers. “I just try to keep a positive atmosphere and I like team mentality,” he says. He doesn’t hold formal meetings but says the team is in constant communication with each other. On the fun side, he takes everyone to the last Kansas City Chiefs game of the season.

Another challenge is gaining credibility with an employee 10 years older and more experienced. Although he wants to put his own spin on the company and find ways to improve procedures, equipment and materials, Leister is grateful to Crook for helping him and now believes the frustrations they experienced in the beginning are behind them. A third challenge is working with family — a parent, a sibling and a spouse — as family dynamics inevitably carry over into the workplace.

Long term, Leister says he’d like to remove himself from people management and not be as involved in day-to-day operations. “I don’t know where that point is where it’s no longer possible for one person to manage everything,” he says. “But it’s difficult being a manager. I’m learning every day and I’ll probably be learning that for the rest of my life.”

5. BRINGING RESPECT TO THE PORTABLE SANITATION INDUSTRY

Leister is on a mission to change the negative view many people have of the portable sanitation industry. “It’s a profession, we’re professionals,” he says. “It’s a necessary service, it protects the environment. That’s been a big focus of mine and translating that into who you are as a person, your service, your pricing.” To that end, he has the team wear uniforms; he provides customers with educational information and welcomes questions. He’s also working toward standardizing trucks, equipment and marketing materials to present one identifiable and professional image to the public, which he believes affects first impressions and perceptions of what they do.

“We try to set the standard in terms of service and equipment, having checklists and inspecting everything, and having good employees who agree and understand why,” he says. “All the guys here understand it; my wife understands it when she’s talking to somebody on the phone. Everyone here is very knowledgeable.”

Nevertheless, he does face competitors who he believes undervalue and underprice their service. “It’s a constant battle,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to lower my price just to get a job because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really help anyone. My philosophy is that service is going to keep you in business.”   



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