Restrooms in River City: Family Business Partners, Provides Quality Service

Following Chattanooga’s growing fortunes, Tennessee’s Charlie Hatler builds his family business on strategic moves and savvy service.
Restrooms in River City: Family Business Partners, Provides Quality Service
Charlie Hatler, owner of Pit Stop Portables in Chattanooga, Tenn., unloads a unit beside the Tennessee River for the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Festival. (Photos by David Steinkraus)

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Like other once heavily industrial cities, Chattanooga, Tenn., has reinvented itself with tempting tourism attractions, cleaner air and water, and an optimism for the future. The beautiful riverfront town is situated within an easy driving distance of millions upon millions of potential visitors and sees more of them every year.

And the renewal effort has resulted in many growth and efficiency opportunities for long-time restroom provider Pit Stop Portables. The second-generation family company started out small, but now serves an abundance of commercial customers and a burgeoning special-event scene.

SHIFT TO PORTABLES

Septic pumper H.K. Hatler added portable sanitation to his service menu in the early 1970s, hauling around heavy wooden restrooms for a franchise outfit. When the company withdrew from the market, H.K. purchased the inventory and redoubled his efforts. His son and the current company president, Charlie Hatler, started riding along on routes in high school. Then in 1983 the family business became a 50/50 partnership, and eventually Charlie took over when his father retired.

Today Pit Stop works only portable sanitation, with construction accounting for 85 percent of revenue and special events providing 15 percent. The company’s largest customer is the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal government corporation that is the nation’s largest public power provider, supplying electricity for 9 million people in parts of seven states. It does this with a combination of hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants.

Pit Stop has had restrooms at TVA’s Sequoyah nuclear plant practically from the beginning. There’s always some sort of activity at the plant, such as scheduled downtime for maintenance. While the plants have enough permanent bathrooms for the regular staff, an expanded maintenance crew requires extra capacity. Also, some areas of the Sequoyah grounds aren’t served by permanent bathrooms and must have portable restrooms, such as the building for groundskeepers. Between 10 and 15 portable restrooms are at Sequoyah all the time.

HELP FROM PARTNERS

Pit Stop does not do all of this by itself. Hatler partnered with three other companies to bid on the contract for all TVA facilities. Then the companies coordinate service for the greatest efficiency.

“Sometimes we have to sub out to another company because it’s just not practical for me to service these small dams that need only one or two restrooms for two or three months and the site is 80 or 90 miles away,” he says.

That does not mean his delivery drivers haul trailers full of units all the time. Construction jobs, and some of the TVA sites, also order in trickles – one unit today and maybe another one or two a couple of weeks later.

Sometimes an 80-mile drive is necessary. Pit Stop supplies toilets for TVA’s Watts Bar nuclear plant where a second generating station is under construction. The site has 80 units and 29 hand-wash stations. Two trucks go there five times a week. “We service every day, except weekends, and the units still get hammered,” Hatler says.

Residential construction also plays an important role in the business. An increasing number of homes are built on mountaintops because of the spectacular views, and Pit Stop supplies restrooms for the builders. At the same time, the mountains naturally keep customers from spreading out too much. Hatler places most units 40 to 60 miles around Chattanooga, which also includes a bit of north Georgia.

IN THE YARD

Pit Stop maintains an inventory of about 1,000 portable restrooms for construction sites and 160 units for special events. Construction units are a mix, generally Tufway and Taurus models from Satellite Industries. For special events, Hatler relies on units from Five Peaks. All of these have mirrors, a three-roll tissue holder and a dispenser for hand sanitizer.

He does have a couple of Satellite Maxim 3000 flush units that are used infrequently. He has experimented with providing office trailers but found it an unsustainable sideline. The units took such a beating that after three years, just as the purchase cost was paid off, their condition was too poor for continued leasing.

Hatler also rents out 15-yard trash containers made by Wastequip. He has 16 containers, which are out most of the time for home remodeling or small construction projects, he says. They are often a convenient add-on for portable restroom orders.

Pit Stop Portables runs on five vacuum trucks. The smallest is a cab-over Isuzu that came with another company Hatler bought. It has a 600-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank and a Masport pump. It stays in the yard and handles special events and is also the backup in case one of the larger trucks breaks down.

Also in the fleet are three rigs from Abernethy Welding, all with Masport pumps: a 2011 UD with 1,500-gallon waste/250-gallon freshwater steel tank; a 2012 UD with 1,500-gallon waste/250-gallon freshwater steel tank; and a 2008 UD with an 800-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater steel tank. He also runs a 2013 Hino with an 800-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump from Lane’s Vacuum Tank.

For delivering units, Pit Stop uses a 20-foot UD flatbed, a Ford F-550 flatbed, and a Chevrolet pickup that carries three units with the tailgate down. The trucks can also pull the 10- or 12-unit Explorer Trailers from McKee Technologies, or a trailer from Lane’s that will carry either eight standard portables or four standard units plus four handicapped-accessible units.

SERVICE QUALITY COUNTS

Hatler is successful because of very simple steps. He tries to keep his restrooms new and looking nice, and doesn’t harass people by asking for business. “They can count on us. We do what we’re supposed to do.” And the word spreads. He believes quality service is a key to portable sanitation business success.

He encourages an attitude of quality in his staff. That is sometimes difficult with new employees who may see a portable restroom as nothing more than an outhouse. Attention to detail is hard to teach, but Hatler stresses it. “Close enough is not good enough. I have to get them to understand it leaves here only one way: It’s perfect.”

Part of his success is also tied to the fortunes of Chattanooga itself. The city was once an industrial center, and although it still has some chemical plants, much of the heavy industry has closed. Of course a benefit of that is people can now breathe easily because no cloud of pollution floats in the Tennessee River valley, Hatler says.

The loss of industry turned the downtown into a decrepit place for a time, Hatler explains. Then leading citizens banded together to begin a revitalization program. Now in Downtown Chattanooga on any given night visitors find concerts, activities, good restaurants and lots of other people. The city is conveniently located about two hours from Atlanta, and most of the people in the eastern half of the country are within a day’s drive.

BUSINESS ON THE MOVE

Hatler’s business had been located about 10 miles from the city center on land once the site of an Army munitions plant. The city and county got the land from the federal government and decided Pit Stop didn’t fit their ideas for a business park. What looked like a problem turned into a bonus when a real estate agent told him about a new listing.

Pit Stop now occupies several interconnected former industrial buildings with a large lot to store portable restrooms, and the site is about 10 blocks from the city’s rejuvenated riverfront. The new location made it easy for Pit Stop to supply and service restrooms for events such as RiverRocks, a nine-day festival of adventure sports games such as boulder climbing, a 100-mile bike race, and a race for canoes and kayaks.

It’s still warm in Chattanooga in mid-October, so the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Festival that kicks off RiverRocks draws a big evening crowd. People swarm the public space and stroll back and forth across a pedestrian bridge that connects downtown Chattanooga to small shops and restaurants that have sprouted on the opposite bank of the river.

There’s the Nightfall series of free concerts every Friday, May through August. For that Hatler dispatches 13 restrooms, a handicap unit and a hand-wash station. Head of the Hooch, a collegiate rowing regatta, takes about 150 units, and the Riverbend nine-day music festival requires about 130 restrooms plus holding tanks for vendors.

ON THE GROW

In 1983 Pit Stop Portables had 100 construction restrooms and another 10 for special events. “And if we had all 10 of them out on a weekend we thought we were rolling in hog heaven. Now if only 10 are out we think something’s wrong,” Hatler says.

More than 30 years later, Pit Stop is bigger, busier and thriving, Hatler says. If it is true that a rising tide lifts all boats, then the rising fortunes of Chattanooga will also raise those of Pit Stop Portables, which found success by following new opportunities ballasted with careful attention to quality of service.



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