Finding the Keys to Small-Business Success

California’s FarWest Sanitation learned that long-term business growth is achieved when old-fashioned customer care intersects with smart use of new technologies.
Finding the Keys to Small-Business Success
Part of the FarWest Sanitation crew gathers for a group shot in the company yard in Concord, California.

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When Alex Rodriguez started California-based FarWest Sanitation & Storage in 1994, it was a one-truck operation. The company has enjoyed long periods of tremendous growth in workforce, equipment and service territory, with Rodriguez chalking it up to a blending of old-school service practices with new-school technologies.

Technology has been a game changer. Drivers now use tablets and smartphones to coordinate routes and communicate with the home office. Through the advances, though, good customer service and retaining a quality crew remain cornerstones for any new initiative.

“You have to show respect for the customer and have an excellent team. That’s the base of the growth of the company,” Rodriguez says.


After coming to the United States from Bolivia as a young man, Rodriguez got his first taste of the sanitation industry. Following a series of jobs working for other companies, he set up his own shop in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994, in Concord, California.

“In the beginning, the growing pains were killing us,” he says. “But you learn, and in the last 10 years we’ve been a lot smarter in how we’ve grown. You just have to be consistent and do what’s best for the client and yourself.”

The company has 43 employees, and the restroom inventory has grown from approximately 3,000 units 10 years ago to about 12,000 today. Five Peaks and PolyJohn account for most of the restrooms, with some from Satellite Industries. FarWest also uses hand-wash units from PolyPortables and deodorants from J & J Chemical. FarWest has about 20 luxury restroom trailers — a fast-growing part of the business — from a variety of manufacturers, including JAG Mobile Solutions, Black Tie Products and NuConcepts.

Supporting those operations is a fleet of 32 trucks from Hino, International, GMC and Volvo, ranging in tank sizes of 1,000 gallons to 6,000 gallons and all using Masport pumps. Imperial Industries is their go-to truck builder. In addition to those restroom offerings and the other side of the business — storage containers — FarWest has expanded into other site services such as generators (primarily Multiquip), fencing (Fences 4 Less) and barricades (Tamis). The last 10 years has also seen FarWest expand its service area beyond the San Francisco area into the Los Angeles market.

“We had clients moving out there and they wanted to continue service with us and were able to give us good contracts,” Rodriguez says. “We tried it out to see if we could make it and business has kept growing.”

The Los Angeles market now makes up about 30 percent of the entire business and continues to grow alongside FarWest’s newer site service offerings.

“For the fencing and the generators, the growth has been tremendous,” Rodriguez says. “Everything I have for reinvesting I’m putting into that right now.”


FarWest’s day-to-day operations experienced some changes five years ago when Rodriguez’s son-in-law, Aaron Lantrip, came on board. Tech-savvy Lantrip, the company’s general manager, saw an opportunity to improve workflow by going electronic with dispatch and communications.

FarWest uses a system developed with Summit software (Ritam Technologies) and some in-house modifications. Drivers are equipped with smartphones and tablets to communicate with the system, giving Rodriguez instant tracking for inventory and workers.

“You have to do business as efficiently as possible so you can make money and actually generate growth,” Rodriguez says. “If all you’re doing is looking to survive, then after awhile the trucks need service and the restrooms need to be replaced, and you don’t have any money to do anything.”

Incorporating technology into a sanitation business shouldn’t be viewed as a guaranteed improvement, Rodriguez asserts.

“Every individual has to use technology the way they see fit,” he says. “You have to study it to see if it’s something that is going to work for you, because what has worked for me might not work for someone else. Sometimes you grow through simple things and actually grow better than someone who has all the technology in the world but doesn’t know how to use it.”

It’s critical to get the most out of technology products to justify up-front costs, Rodriguez says.

“You have to make sure every change is going to give you rewards,” he says. “You can have the best computer in the world, but if you’re only going to use it for email and searching the Internet, it doesn’t make sense. You can’t tell somebody who has been in business for years to change just because of what others are doing. You have to have a process and think about what is actually going to work for you.”

Rodriguez’s advice: Identify your need, identify what type of technology applies to it and make sure it’s something that will be easy to use.

“Everything has to do with how easy it’s going to be for your employees, because they’re the ones who will have to use it daily,” Rodriguez says. “And sometimes it’s teamwork, phasing something in a little bit at a time. It’s not like you walk into the conference room one day and go, ‘OK, now everybody is going to use this.’”

In fact, FarWest isn’t 100 percent paperless. While many of the company’s drivers have embraced the electronic approach, there are a few who still prefer the old methods.

“I need someone who is excellent in service, not just at using technology,” Rodriguez says. “So if I have somebody who is still using paper, I’m OK with it.

“It’s all about service,” he adds. “It’s very simple — you deliver the restroom and you service it. We just happen to do a lot of things electronically, and I think that’s the best way, but every company is different. Everybody has to find their own way.”


While technology has improved FarWest’s operations, Rodriguez says the company’s success has always been founded on a professional appearance, from the equipment to the employees. “Image is everything. How the customers see you is how they’re going to treat you,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from customers.”

Employees wear uniforms and are required to clean their trucks every day. “I stop by the yard in the morning and the afternoon, and they don’t know if I’m going to stop and open one of the trucks because I don’t do it all the time,” Rodriguez says.

Projecting a good appearance carries over to consistently executing good customer service.

“It’s not about just giving customers excellent service in the beginning and then forgetting about it,” Rodriguez says. “The level of service we give in the beginning is what we need customers to grow accustomed to. We aim to be different and capitalize on service mistakes that other companies may make.”

Something else that has remained consistent over 20-plus years is how FarWest treats employees.

“That’s your business, the employees,” Rodriguez says. “It’s hard to pinpoint what it means to be a good boss. Everybody has to do their own thing. There’s not a recipe. It’s a personality – how sincere and truthful you are.”

By treating employees well over the years, Rodriguez says FarWest has experienced good retention. That goes back to his emphasis on efficiency, as low turnover has assured the company of having an experienced, properly trained crew. “If you train people the right way, they’ll be safe. If not, then people are hurt and out of work and you’re training people all the time,” Rodriguez says.


Rodriguez, 66, has started to relinquish duties and focuses mostly on the administrative side while his daughter, Carmen, and son-in-law oversee more of the day-to-day operations.

Rodriguez says he likes that FarWest is a family endeavor, and if it works out, he wouldn’t mind seeing his 5-year-old grandson, Ethan, one day get involved in the company.

With a new generation leading technological changes, Rodriguez acknowledges that the company looks far different than the one he started in 1994.

“Everything has to do with what is going on around you in the world right now,” he says. “If something is going to save you time and money, you have to be ready to do it.”

Moving forward, the company will stay grounded in simple business practices like good customer service and employee relations that have been in place since the start. One nod to the past is an old Toyota pickup truck that sits in FarWest’s yard. It needs some work and a fresh coat of paint. Rodriguez wants to give it to his grandson someday. But the truck represents more than just a fix-up project. It’s the first vehicle Rodriguez used to deliver restrooms when he started, and that’s why it gets a prominent location right in front of the dispatch office.

“That’s a reminder that that little truck created all we have,” Rodriguez says. “I’m going to get it in good condition so that I can give it to my grandson when he grows up and be able to tell him, ‘This is what Papa made.’”

A ready workforce fuels growth

FarWest Sanitation followed two key rules to weathering tough economic times and bouncing back stronger than ever: diversify services and avoid employee layoffs.

“We were coming up short about $3,000 to $4,000 a month on where we should have been,” Alex Rodriguez, FarWest’s owner, says of the last recession. “In order to survive, you had to make sacrifices, and as the owner I was in a position to do that. I could have laid off a few people and actually turned a profit, but you always hope the business comes back and it did.”

Instead of layoffs, Rodriguez reduced his own salary and temporarily froze wages. And with the construction business lagging, FarWest focused on special events and new service offerings including generators, fencing and barricades. That compensated for lost construction business and kept Rodriguez’s crew working. It also continued to grow to become a significant part of FarWest’s operations.

A growing company needs a lot of quality employees, so Rodriguez says he’s glad he maintained his full staff during lean times.

“When we started doing more special events than we ever had before, we needed people. And who better than the people I’ve already trained? They already know the work, so why would you lay them off?” he says.


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