Streamlining equipment specs, regular truck upgrades and a focus on consistent employee training help Northeast Sanitation continue on soaring growth path.
Aseries of acquisitions, coupled with an emphasis on customer service, professionalism and equipment standardization, has helped growth-minded Northeast Sanitation emerge over the past decade as a player in the portable restroom industry in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
And with the recent purchase of a larger vacuum truck — built by Advance Pump & Equipment Inc. on a 2014 Volvo VHD truck with a 4,200-gallon aluminum tank and a vacuum pump made by National Vacuum Equipment — the company also diversified into the septic service market.
“It’s another add-on business that fits our focus on waste,” says Brian McNamara, owner and president of the company, based in Northborough, Massachusetts. “We feel it’s a direct complement to our existing business. It’s still a work in progress … but we’d like it to grow and eventually we’ll build a larger fleet of septic trucks.”
From its founding in 2006, Northeast Sanitation has grown into a multimillion-dollar-a-year company in terms of gross sales. It runs 24 Hino 268 restroom service trucks, owns about 5,500 restrooms (most from PolyPortables and the rest from Satellite Industries) and 19 restroom trailers, employs 49 people, and has acquired four companies since 2010 (three in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island).
“We bought them because we were competing directly against them in our market and they were looking to get out of the business,” says McNamara. “They offered a good opportunity for us to expand our footprint.”
The acquisitions occurred in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Spacing them out allowed the company to grow without losing quality control, notes McNamara, who’s a proponent of slow, controlled growth. “When you grow too fast, you’re setting people up to fail,” he says. “It’s a recipe for disaster when you ask guys to clean 100 restrooms a day. … It (losing quality control) gives the industry a bad name and leaves employees with less incentive to do their jobs.”
When eyeing an acquisition today, McNamara generally looks for companies that operate outside Northeast’s existing geographic market. He also focuses on the quality of the existing customers, equipment and employees. If the company already has good employees, he strives to keep them on board. If equipment is bad, it gets replaced. “That instantly makes route drivers very happy,” he says.
Northeast doesn’t come in with a let’s-clean-house attitude toward existing employees. “All we want to do is enhance their product,” he explains. “If you provide the best possible product, your business will grow.
“A lot of acquisitions are funded by hedge fund companies that are looking for a quick return on their investment,” he adds. “But we’re in it for the long term. We don’t come in with an exit strategy — we just want to keep doing the right thing.”
McNamara worked for 24 years in the heavy civil construction industry before setting his sights on portable sanitation. And the reason he decided to do so makes it easy to understand why he’s all about providing great service for customers.
“I knew there was an opportunity to enter the market when I had a bad experience with a provider on a house project I was working on,” he recalls. “I felt it was a very good opportunity — people definitely deserved better.” So he went all in, buying 128 restrooms and a vacuum truck.
The company’s motto — “the difference is in the details” — reflects McNamara’s emphasis on service and professionalism. Sometimes it’s a challenge for a company that makes 5,000 service calls a week. But overall, solid training and a focus on the TEST operating principle — Try Every Single Time — carries the day, he says.
“There aren’t any secrets in this business,” he says. “It’s just all about being diligent and caring enough to make sure every customer gets serviced. It’s really that simple. … We pride ourselves on showing up at the same time every week and doing a great job cleaning restrooms. When our guys leave, anyone would feel comfortable using the restrooms. We teach our guys to clean them like their son or daughter will be using them. Again, the difference is in the details.”
Great service is a product of thorough training. To “set them up for success,” as McNamara puts it, new employees ride with veteran drivers for a month before they’re allowed to go solo on routes. And when they head out on their own, they’re given a manageable amount of service stops that gradually expands as their comfort levels and experience increase.
To create a sense of pride and professionalism, Northeast drivers wear uniforms and are required to keep their trucks clean. In addition, restrooms are thoroughly washed and sanitized before delivery to job sites. “We try to do the same thing with our trucks that FedEx does — they’re immaculate all the time. And we treat restrooms the same way. … They must be pristine, inside and out.” The high benchmark for cleanliness and driver appearance also enhances branding and differentiation efforts.
Furthermore, McNamara takes customer service personally, in that he gets out of the office and jumps in his pickup truck to make calls on customers, just to be sure they’re happy with the service.
In addition, all drivers use tablet computers that minimize paperwork and time spent on phone calls or radio dispatches. “It’s very good for customer service because dispatch can tell customers where our guys are. … They can see the guys live, in real time,” McNamara explains. “When you’re a small company, it’s easy to keep track of how many stops your drivers have done and how many are left. But when you’re doing 5,000 services a week, we need to know in a more timely manner how guys are completing their routes.”
To operate efficiently, the company uses Total Activity Control software from Clear Computing. Developed specifically for portable restroom companies, the software does everything from invoicing to routing, he notes.
One negative effect from numerous acquisitions is the resulting mish-mash of trucks and other equipment, which leads to operating inefficiencies. To eliminate that concern, Northeast now runs only one kind of restroom service truck — the 24 Hino 268s — and equips almost all of them the same way. Of the 24 trucks in the fleet, 22 were built out by Best Enterprises and feature Masport HXL75 pumps and 1,350-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater stainless steel tanks. The other two trucks also rely on Masport pumps, but they were outfitted by Progress Tank (owned by Wabash National Corp.) with 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater stainless steel tanks.
Construction rentals generate about 75 percent of the company’s restroom revenue, while special events contribute the rest. To handle the latter, the company relies on 19 restroom trailers built by JAG Mobile Solutions, Ameri-Can and Wells Cargo.
To ensure vehicle reliability, which also enhances customer satisfaction and minimizes the chances of costly major repairs, Northeast replaces every truck chassis after five years. “Truck breakdowns result in missed service for customers, and we want to eliminate as much as possible any unexpected problems for customers,” he says. The company also replaces tanks after 10 years, but that may change now that the company has switched to stainless steel tanks. “We don’t really know how long a stainless steel tank will last,” McNamara says.
Standardization of trucks makes maintenance easier and also allows for more accurate budget forecasting. Why? Because the company can establish a timeline database that indicates when certain repairs are likely to occur — the mileage points where, for instance, radiators typically fail or brakes and tires need replacing. Standardized trucks also make life easier for the company’s mechanics and for ordering parts, McNamara says.
KEEP EMPLOYEES HAPPY
Newer and well-maintained trucks also provide another benefit: They help to keep drivers happy, which in turn reduces employee turnover. To attract and retain quality workers, Northeast also pays competitive wages and a “good portion” of employees’ health insurance premiums and offers a 401(k) program with matching contributions along with other benefits employees would expect to receive from “a progressive, well-run business,” McNamara says.
“This business isn’t for everybody — we have our share of turnover,” he says. “But if our employees stay for 90 days, they’re usually here a long time.” To make that happen, Northeast performs job reviews twice a year, which makes workers eligible for merit raises twice a year. Also, drivers find the work schedule attractive: four 10-hour days. (Though during summers, drivers usually work five days a week to earn overtime pay.) In addition, they never drive more than 150 miles in a day.
It’s easy to get the impression that Northeast is a data-driven company that relies on analytics to maximize productivity and profitability. McNamara notes that management is always analyzing things, such as how to optimize route density and determine the optimal amount of restrooms a driver can clean in a day. “We spend a lot of time looking at how the business should be run,” he says. “Again, the difference is in the details, and that extends to customer service, our products, budgeting, and how we treat and rate our employees — pretty much every aspect of our business.”
As for the future, McNamara envisions more growth, fueled by a forward-looking mindset that continues to set the bar high for customer service. “You’re only as good as you are today,” he says. “Nobody cares about what you did yesterday.
“We want to continue to expand our market territory and our customer base,” he adds. “We’d like to double the size of the company by 2020. It’s definitely doable.”
Clean and move 850 units in a day
The Boston Marathon rewards runners who pace themselves slowly and steadily during the 26.2-mile event. But it’s more like a sprint for employees at Northeast Sanitation, who service and remove about 850 restrooms on race day.
“The Boston Marathon is pretty much our Super Bowl,” says Dennis Lavoie, vice president of operations. “It’s the biggest special event we handle every year. This past one (April 2016) was the fifth one we’ve done, so we’ve got it down pretty close to a science.”
The 850 restrooms are spread around the town of Hopkinton, where the marathon begins. About 525 of the restrooms are located at three sites in the Athletes’ Village, the staging area where the event’s 30,000 or so runners prepare for the race. The remainder are strategically located, primarily in parking lots and other public areas in town, Lavoie says.
The event demands a fair amount of the company’s resources, including 30 of its nearly 50 employees, and 11 flatbed trailers and service and pickup trucks. During the event, crews collect between 15,000 and 16,000 gallons of waste that’s disposed of at a waste treatment center over the state line in Rhode Island, he says. By 7 p.m., the units are serviced, loaded and gone.
“Race and town officials love the fact that we’re an ‘invisible vendor,’” Lavoie notes. “A lot of residents go away for the day, and when they come back home, it looks like the event never took place.”
The key to a successful marathon weekend? Thorough preplanning with race officials and teamwork among employees at Northeast. “We’re pretty proud of how much we get done in a short period of time,” Lavoie says.