The Partners at This Canadian Portable Sanitation Company Have Found Sweet Success

The owners of Honey Huts Portables found a winning combination with measured expansion, exemplary service — and a bright yellow brand

The Partners at This Canadian Portable Sanitation Company Have Found Sweet Success

Technician Doug Todd prepares to service restrooms from Satellite Industries and PolyJohn, while John Caines, senior service technician, looks on.

It’s been 10 years since Shawn Hiscott and two business partners took ownership of Honey Huts Portables, a restroom company in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. By his own reckoning, they started off doing more things wrong than right. But after a rocky start, a focus on better hiring decisions, quality service and measured growth has helped the company to prosper.

The original plan to enter the portable sanitation industry was made — like many of the company’s subsequent business decisions — during a friendly discussion following a game of gentleman’s ice hockey.

“A portable restroom business in the area came up for sale in 2010,” says Hiscott. “We liked the potential margins and thought we could build it up quickly.”

They offered a bid, but the business was ultimately sold to a larger company. However, the friends saw another opportunity when Honey Huts came up for sale four months later.

“It was part of a construction equipment rental company,” says Hiscott. “It was located a half hour outside of Halifax and servicing a rather rural area, but had no business in greater Halifax where we saw significant potential for growth.”

The business assets included 67 restrooms, and a single vacuum truck. Honey Huts’ existing client list included home and road builders with a few customers in the agriculture sector. Hiscott had cut his teeth in the construction industry and leveraged his construction connections to quickly build up the business.

MAKING GOOD CONNECTIONS

“A lot of PROs are owner-operators,” he says. “They make connections on job sites. In the construction business, that means marketing themselves to site superintendents. In addition to supers, we also went straight to the presidents and regional vice presidents of contracting companies. Many of those people had never been called by a PRO and they were quick to put us on their lists of preferred vendors.”

Within a short time, Honey Huts was generating significant business in greater Halifax. The company began buying new restroom units with bright yellow branding, but Hiscott admits the growth occurred faster than the company’s capability to deliver the service it hoped to provide.

“We made a lot of hiring mistakes in the early years,” he says. “You need great drivers and equipment operators, and people who have an ability to deliver quality service, and you need to pay enough to hire that talent.”

Early on, drivers often failed to arrive on time or do the scheduled work. They also damaged equipment with regularity. “By the end of 2011 we went through more transmissions and pumps than you could imagine,” Hiscott says. “We set a record I’m sure.”

With vacuum trucks offline, Honey Huts was often forced to rent trucks and strapped tanks and pumps to trailers, eating into profit margins. The company also pursued some nonconstruction contracts too aggressively, including events, resulting in further reductions in profitability.

RIGHTING THE SHIP

By 2014 one of the original partners sold his interests to Hiscott and Glen MacDonald, the remaining partner. The consolidation underscored the fact that their other business interests were straining the ability of either partner to devote enough time to Honey Huts to provide consistent oversight. That resulted in a search for a full-time general manager — who just happened to be the manager of the minor league hockey team Hiscott was coaching.

“Paul MacMillan was in industrial sales and had the personality and drive we were looking for,” says Hiscott. “He learned quickly and stepped up to his new position so well that within six months we offered him a partnership.”

Hiscott notes that the company had previously hired quickly and fired slowly. That HR policy was flipped on its head after MacMillan took charge, with the general manager filling in as a route driver between hires when necessary.

“We also became more rigorous about vehicle maintenance,” says Hiscott. “We created schedules, checklists, standard operating procedures and training protocols, and followed them rigorously.”

Honey Huts currently employs five people, including MacMillan, office manager Sue Porter and three drivers, with plans in place to hire a fourth.

AMASSING EQUIPMENT

The company offers 310 standard portable restroom units from Satellite Industries and PolyJohn Canada, 25 Poly-Lift units from PolyJohn, six elevator units from Satellite, and three transport trailers and three restroom trailers from McKee Technologies.

“We’re switching the portable restroom inventory to products from PolyJohn Canada, in part inspired by the declining value of the Canadian dollar,” says Hiscott. “They’re a good product, and they have a ready supply of the bright yellow units we’re using as part of Honey Huts branding.”

Honey Huts also provides 37 hand-wash stations from PolyJohn.

The vacuum truck fleet consists of four vehicles, all with Wallenstein pumps and steel tanks. Two Ram 5500s, a 2018 and a 2020, each provide 780 gallons waste/300 gallons freshwater and were built out by Vacutrux. A 2012 Ford F-550, also providing 780 gallons waste/300 gallons freshwater, was built by Satellite Industries. A 2014 Fuso with 360 gallons waste/180 gallons freshwater was assembled by Honey Huts.

Honey Huts uses The Service Program, a QuickBooks add-on for dispatch, routing and work order tracking.

Over the years, the company has doubled down on serving construction clients, which now comprise 95% of revenue.

“It’s often harder to regain the trust from clients you’ve lost than to win new ones,” says Hiscott. “But we’ve regained many of the construction clients we’d lost — in some cases they came back after six or seven years.”

Honey Huts occasionally bids on small one-off events, such as weddings, using its restroom trailers, but only when the event doesn’t conflict with serving core construction clients.

SELLING CLEANLINESS

“Initially, when we were pursuing more events, we were finding that we had to borrow units from construction sites that weren’t using them on the weekend and then rush them back on Sunday night or Monday morning, just before they were needed,” he says. “You can imagine the pressure on that schedule.”

Nova Scotia construction businesses have remained open as essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Service and cleanliness remain clients’ top concerns.

“We’re seeing more units ordered per site — both restrooms and hand-wash stations — and requests for increased levels of service,” says Hiscott. “They’re focused on assuring their employees that they stand for their health and safety. Price has also become less of an issue. They’re not worried about the cost of an extra rental or an extra service charge on a $20 million project if it helps ensure that the Department of Health is happy and that they remain open.”

The future of Honey Huts will rely on a continued focus on expanding its construction clientele. The company’s new venture, Privy Ad, aims to sell advertising placed inside restroom unites targeting construction workers. “We’ve trialed it in our own restrooms and we’re now expanding the offering to PROs across Canada on a revenue-sharing basis,” Hiscott says.

KEEP IT GOING

The company is planning to move from a rented office and a leased yard to a fully owned yard and office in the same business park in 2021. The new garage will feature wash bays, allowing drivers to wash their trucks.

The partners are also on the lookout for a strategic acquisition somewhere in Atlantic Canada, provided the right opportunity presents itself.

For now, Honey Huts continues to work to achieve its unofficial motto: “We never want to hear from the customer.”

“When we started out we heard from them a lot,” says Hiscott. “Now we rarely hear from them at all. It’s a sign that we’re doing our jobs well.”  



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