Life changed considerably for Tim and Theresa Lawson and their plumbing business when they purchased 75 portable restrooms from a friend going out of business. The additional business quickly led to adding more restrooms and services. Mirroring the population growth around their home base in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, New Life II Septic & Rent-A-Jon has become a diversified operation that handles everything from plumbing to pumping, installing septic systems and inspecting them.
“We went from me being at home with kids and answering one phone to having an office and three phones. From having one truck to many and from no employees to six employees,” says Theresa Lawson. Though it means long days and hard work, the Lawsons are grateful for the business they have, and they don’t forget where they came from.
“We had humble beginnings; nothing was given to us,” Lawson says about the plumbing business she and her husband started in 1999. “We really started this from nothing and did different work to buy equipment. We started out with an old truck with over 100,000 miles on it, a 1983 Bobcat 843 and an old Carlyle tilt-bed trailer.”
The focus of the business was installing water and sewer lines, roto-rootering and fixing old lines. Theresa handled the bookkeeping, scheduling and phone calls while working from home and raising the couple’s five children.
In 2011, when a friend had a heart attack and needed to sell his portable restroom business, the Lawsons decided it would be a good add-on to the business. Those first PolyPortables restrooms were soon joined by added Satellite Industries and Tuff-Jon (T.S.F. Company) units the Lawsons purchased from other companies going out of business.
When calls started coming in with people asking for septic pumping services, it seemed like another compatible service. “We found out we could (pump) but we didn’t have a big enough truck, so we bought one,” Lawson says.
“Then we ended up installing. It was just by chance that we ended up in this field.”
Appropriately, the Lawsons renamed their business New Life II Septic & Rent-A-Jon.
The variety of New Life II’s services makes a difference.
“Our versatility and covering all the bases helps us stand out. I prefer to use companies like that,” Lawson notes.
If they make a pumping call and find a problem in the line, New Life II staff can call for the van with cameras and rooters to investigate a problem or a plumber to put in new lines. The skills work well in their region where new development has sprung up around older homes. People on the same street can be hooked up to city sewer or have their own septic system.
“We can tie them in with city sewer or take care of their septic,” Lawson says. “Sometimes they don’t know. One lady had a home for 15 years and thought she was on city sewer.” Without any records, the worker had to run a camera into the line to find out where the septic tank was located. Installing septic systems can also be challenging on lots too small to accommodate drainfields. In those cases, homeowners need to request easements from the local government.
EQUIPMENT FOR THE JOB
Handling the range of work they do requires dependable equipment. The newest septic truck is a 2006 Freightliner M2 with a Lely Manufacturing 2,000-gallon steel tank and Masport pump. Other trucks include a 1993 Ford carrying a Lely 2,300-gallon steel tank and National Vacuum Equipment 367 Challenger pump and a 1987 International with a 2,000-gallon steel tank and a Masport pump.
A 2007 Chevrolet Express van serves as the rooter and camera truck. It holds three Spartan rooter machines — the 100, 300 and 1065 models. Plus it has a RIDGID K40 sink machine and a RIDGID SeeSnake camera and locater.
For digging jobs, New Life II has a 2008 Kubota KX 91-3 compact track excavator and a 2000 Case 1840 skid-steer loader hauled on a 1971 Birmingham Triaxle tilt-bed trailer. Tim and his son-in-law, Myles Arce, install five to 15 systems a month.
The Lawsons most recent upgrade was for the portable restroom side of the business. They added a 2016 Dodge Ram with a Progress 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank with a Masport pump and Pentair Hypro water pump. Other trucks are a 2006 Ford F-550 with a Progress 500-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tank, Masport pump and LEESON Electric water pump; and a 1995 Isuzu with a Lely 500-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump. Though North Carolina doesn’t have a lot of cold weather, there are times when freezing can be an issue. Drivers place Kat’s Handi-Heat magnetic heaters on the shut-off valve so they can open and close them to pump waste when temperatures drop.
Technicians deliver and service 100-150 portable restrooms weekly in about a 45-mile radius. Rented mostly for construction projects, New Life II has 85 PolyPortables standard units, 30 T.S.F. Tuff-Jons and 30 Satellite High Tech I units that work well during the colder months because they are heavier with double walls. Inventory also includes two pink PortaJane restrooms, six PolyPortables hand-wash stations and five PolyPortables handicap units that are kept inside to stay nice for events.
RESTROOMS AND PROMOTION
Because they purchased from previous owners, the Lawsons’ restroom inventory is quite colorful. They order lime green PolyPortables restrooms when they buy new, because they stand out at events and on construction sites, and they “look clean when you clean them,” Lawson says.
Double-walled grey units work well during the winter and are often requested by customers from higher income neighborhoods who prefer a color that doesn’t stand out.
The Pink PortaJanes are especially popular when paired with a handicap restroom for outdoor wedding setups, Lawson adds.
One of the Lawsons’ best promotional tools is participation in a couple of local parades. The parades, phone book ads and their website provide enough publicity to keep everyone busy, Lawson says. Sending out postcards and reminders every three years also nets more response than other advertising she has tried.
Good service is the best promotion.
“We answer the phone, and we don’t mind hard work, and it doesn’t matter what time of day,” Lawson says. She adds that portable restroom customers also comment that the business actually services the restrooms as they say they will.
“We use a stronger portable toilet chemical (PolyPortables Blue Works), put in fragrant discs (J&J Chemical J Disks) and spray the walls (with Green Way Products from PolyPortables) to make them more fragrant. We give the restrooms a thorough cleaning on the outside three or four times a year with a pressure washer,” she says.
With the growth of their business in the past five years, the Lawsons added employees — two plumbers, three pumpers who take care of pumping and restrooms, and an office staff person to help Lawson. Jessica Arce, her 24-year-old daughter, used to help in the office, but preferred to work outdoors and have fewer hours so she has time with her two young children.
“We looked up the records for septic inspectors in our counties, and there weren’t a lot of them. There were no female inspectors. She (Arce) went to a 21-hour class and took the exam,” Lawson says. Currently, inspections aren’t required with all home sales, but many buyers hire an inspector for peace of mind. It works out well as part-time work for the young mother, and it makes New Life II more versatile.
As a small, but busy, company, employees typically don’t work past 5 p.m., unless they are needed for overtime. The Lawsons provide company shirts and give bonuses at the end of the year or when an employee goes above and beyond the call of duty.
“We try to show them we care and appreciate what they do,” Lawson says. She, Tim and their children cover the after-hours and weekend work. “It’s the price you pay for owning a business,” she says.
HIGHER TECH FUTURE
New Life II is making changes to improve business efficiency.
“We just started accepting credit cards, because we had many people asking,” Lawson says. “It has been a wonderful thing. We get money a lot faster.”
She has used QuickBooks for accounting and upgraded at the end of 2016 with a QuickBooks add-on program to help schedule restroom servicing, keep a log of customers’ septic pumping schedules and create route maps.
Daughter Jessica started a Facebook page that includes videos of inspecting and pumping a tank. “Our daughter, Faye (14), wants us to go more up to date instead of being a mom-and-pop (business),” Lawson says. She is grateful for her children’s input and is open to changes. But it’s important to the Lawsons that good work ethic, courtesy and customer service never change.
“We haven’t forgotten where we came from,” Lawson concludes. “We try to be fair and truly care about our customers.”
Blending work and family
Nurturing family ties while working long hours running a business is challenging. That is, unless everyone is involved and work lessons also teach life lessons, says Theresa Lawson. Though she is technically the majority owner, holding 51 percent of New Life II, it is definitely a team operation with her husband, Tim Lawson, and their children.
The couple started their plumbing business on a shoestring budget in 1999, and their children grew up understanding what the family does to make a living. When they added portable restrooms and septic pumping in 2011, more opportunities emerged for them to participate.
“When our youngest son was 4, we took him with us along with his bag of toys,” Theresa Lawson says. “At 5 they can bring you things from the truck. And the boys (Taylor, Walt and Henry) and the girls (Jessica and Faye) are equally helpful.”
While grandparents pitched in to watch the children when they were young, as Theresa helped her husband work on jobs, these days the kids, 7-24, are part of the business.
“They help clean and drop off restrooms in the summer and after school. Jessica (the oldest) got married and got her inspector’s license to spin off her own business,” Theresa says.
The Lawsons listen to their children’s ideas and encourage them. For example, teenager Faye is always looking for ways to update and promote the business. She experimented with radio advertising and helped set up a QR code for customers using hand-held devices to scan into their web content. The oldest son, Taylor, currently works for another plumber — with his parents’ blessing.
“We suggested that so he could see how it is to work under someone else,” Theresa notes. In time, he wants to come back with the family business, but is proving to be a loyal, hard worker for his current employer.
“We get comments from customers that it’s good to see you’re teaching your kids how to work; that it’s good to see people teaching their children work ethics,” she says.
The enthusiasm for the work likely comes from their father, Tim, who says he loves his vocation and has never considered it work.
“I just feel like a family that works together stays close-knit. We are teaching the children that they have to work for what they want. Any job you do, you give it 100 percent,” Theresa says.