No business like your business
Like taxis, portable restrooms come in a multitude of colors and serve a public that relies on them, sometimes desperately, other times begrudgingly. The boxy stalls, standing as still and stout as 7-foot tall sentinels offering sweet relief to festival crowds, agricultural laborers and construction crews.
“A lot of people don’t think about them,” said Nick Nemec of Big Crush Productions and organizer of Punta Gorda’s annual FunkFest in March. “They’re always at every event, but I’ve been to events where there aren’t any and it’s disgusting.”
The stalls are also tied directly to the pillars of the state’s economy.
“It’s basically agriculture, construction and special events — and we also do disaster services,” said Robin Youmans, a former hair stylist who made the improbable leap to a less glamorous but perhaps more profitable industry in April 2009.
She opened Allied Portables in Fort Myers when many analysts were calling the economy the worst since the Great Depression and many people she knew were calling her “nuts.” No matter. She was succeeding, and at the same time had a lot of fun with marketing opportunities unique to her industry.
“When you’ve gotta go … Go with Allied” is the motto. One of her pump trucks is aptly painted with the message: “Stay back 500 feet, carrying political promises.”
Her fortunes and those of her competitors are also in no small way tied to the promise of a battered housing market’s recovery. From her point of view, things look good.
“Housing is definitely, definitely back,” said Ms. Youmans, ticking off a list of homebuilders that are “slamming and jamming again” such as Toll Brothers and Stock Development. “We are absolutely rocking and rolling,” she said. “It will never be like it was. That was insane.”
Claudine Léger-Wetzel, vice president of sales and marketing for Stock Development in Naples, said the homebuilding company has seen a steady increase in business from 2011 to 2012 that has not flagged.
“To the point that construction is picking up, very much so, there’s a lot of new projects by a lot of builders in our market,” she said.
Kathy Curatolo, executive officer with the Collier Building Industry Association, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic, saying she is “cautiously optimistic” about reports of upticks in permitting for new construction. “We are seeing an increase,” she said.
In most of the country, portable restroom operators are getting more business from remodels of foreclosed homes than new ones, said Jeff Wigley, president of the Portable Sanitation Association International and owner of Pit Stop Sanitation Services in Marietta, Ga.
“I would say overall, at least in the U.S., from what I’ve heard from our portable restroom operators we’ve seen a modest increase in business,” he said. “Certainly nothing like the levels we’ve seen back in 2005, 2006.”
As president of the association, Mr. Wigley is also working on an “image campaign” for the portable restroom industry, a $1.5 billion per year business worldwide, a vast army of 1.4 million porta-loos, as they say in the UK. Portable restrooms came about during World War II, Mr. Wigley said, when women, working on ships while men were at war, placed 55-gallon drums in outhouses.
It’s an industry filled with more than its share of sophomoric jokes, he concedes, while cracking a few of his own (“I’ll bet you’re number one in the number two business”). It also has its share of surprises.
“When people meet me and they learn what I do, it shocks them,” said Jennifer Corrigan, a former special events planner who is now vice president of the LaBellebased T & M Portable Restrooms. “You know I’ve been doing this for 10 years and it’s awesome. I absolutely love it. For the first year I struggled with it a little bit — how do I say what I do for a living? The fact is, it’s a business and like any business if you do it the right way it can be very profitable. And if we weren’t around, that would be awful on so many levels.”
Perhaps Mr. Wigley said it best: “It’s crucial when you need one.”
The winter and spring festival circuit has also seen growing numbers at events, organizers say, rounding out business with a seasonal boost from October through April.
“We’ve seen an increase in construction, we’ve seen an increase in special events, and agriculture,” said Ms. Corrigan, of T&M, which provides service from Tampa to Marco Island.
Mr. Nemec of Funk- Fest had almost tripled the outdoor music festival in size from two years ago. Roughly 3,000 people came in March to the Punta Gorda party.
Last year, long lines at bathrooms led to complaints. This year, he overstocked the supply from his subcontractor, T&M, just to be sure.
“When you have an event you don’t want that to be a negative spot,” he said. “You do have to kind of overplan for that so you don’t run into any problems.”
The Florida Department of Health guidelines provide a chart dictating how many portable toilets are needed for an event. For instance, eight portable toilets for every 1,000 people at special events lasting six to 10 hours, pumped once daily; and one for every 10 workers on a construction site during a 40-hour workweek, serviced every week.
Ms. Youmans estimated her own sales were up roughly 37 percent since the same time last year. The company added five new “pump trucks” recently, which carry 500 gallons of freshwater and 1,500 gallons of human waste.
She generally handles the purchasing of the trucks, and just about everything else. Last week, she was interviewing drivers, juggling a series of calls and texts from this reporter, attending a funeral, undergoing a routine yet time-consuming state sales tax audit, and battling a head cold. Wearing all the hats of a fledgling business owner has meant no vacation in four years, she said. “And I’m not complaining. It’s been a blessing, but it’s been tough.”
She began with 100 portable restrooms and now owns more than 2,600, servicing an area that extends from just north of Bradenton to Marco Island, as well as south central Florida. Many of her ubiquitous, multi-colored stalls — “yellow, green, hunter green, teal, gray, blue, red and tan,” Ms. Youmans said, “a rainbow of restrooms” — are those of companies that folded. As her business expanded throughout the region, serving field laborers and riding the slowly rising tide of construction, she bought the stalls up on the cheap like so many foreclosed homes.
“Everybody was getting out of the business and we were getting in,” Ms. Youmans recalls. “People thought we were nuts to go into this business when the market was crashing. We were actually very smart to do so — buying things for a nickel and a dollar instead of full price.”
She plans to continue to expand, and with a brighter economic future secured, think about time off.
“I’ve turned the corner now. I’m starting to see a vacation in my future,” she said. ¦