Above All Sanitation Is a Multigenerational Family Affair

After years working in and out of the pumping industry, an Oregon family has settled into a full-service wastewater business for good.

Above All Sanitation Is a Multigenerational Family Affair

From left, Travis, Cindy and Mike Gates of Above All Sanitation. (Photo by Ethan Rocke)

When Mike Gates sees something going on in a market that could signal problematic changes for his industry, he doesn’t just wait around for the fallout to occur. At least twice in his life, he ended up making major life changes. 

In the mid-1980s when he was in his 20s, he and his father James were involved in companies that made high-temperature heat shields for the aerospace industry in San Diego. “Then we noticed some changes being made to aerospace,” Gates says. “People making important parts for aircraft had to have a clean room. And they wanted me to pick up a liability policy.” 

In response, he and his father started looking for a business to buy. “We looked at everything from gas stations to picture framing,” he says. “We saw maybe 50 or 60 businesses during a five-month period.”

They finally found what looked like a good fit in a septic service and portable sanitation company, near San Diego. They met the owners, a young couple wanting to get out. Their accountant looked over the numbers and advised them to buy it. James continued in aerospace and let Mike run the new company. 

“The first couple years were really tough,” Gates says. “But my dad put all the faith and trust in me. He pretty much cut me loose and told me, ‘Here it is, go do it. Put your blinders on and move forward.’ That’s the only way I succeeded — is because of him and the trust he put in me.”


Over the next 15 years, Gates grew the company from 329 restrooms to 2,500. Then, once again, he saw changes taking place that would affect their business. “The building industry was just booming but I noticed they were putting a moratorium on water meters,” he says. “They were building homes so quick and they undersized the waterlines, so they had to take a step back. I knew that was going to hurt us.” 

Gates decided it was a good time to get out. He was also ready to step away from the hectic life the business had demanded. They sold the company, and he moved his family to Eugene, Oregon. 

After a brief stint selling heavy equipment, Gates decided to get back into portable sanitation, this time from scratch. He had dreams of his own son joining him and eventually taking over, but those dreams were dashed in 2007 when Travis Gates announced he was going into the seminary. “It hit me hard,” Gates admits.

But three years later, Travis called saying he was ready to come home. Gates flew to Minnesota to bring Travis home, and they brainstormed about the business all the way back to Oregon — and they haven’t stopped since. 

The family operates the company, Above All Sanitation, out of their 106-acre property. A barn with eight bays and rollup doors houses the trucks, equipment is kept in the yard and a trailer serves as the office. 

Now, as Gates nears retirement, Travis says he pretty much runs the whole thing. The staff of 15 includes his sister Jessica Gates, secretary; aunt Kari Reynolds, office manager; cousin Justin Sims, route driver; and brother-in-law Tyler Gordon, sales and marketing. They cover a 60-mile radius from the Pacific Coast to the Cascade Mountains. 


Mike Gates received help from former industry contacts when he started his business in Eugene. “From there it just started mushrooming,” Gates says. “I got involved with the home builders association. I met a lot of park and rec people.”

Today’s inventory stands at 1,500 standard portable restrooms, 40 wheelchair-accessible units, 20 ADA-compliant units, 200 hand-wash stations, and 60 250- and 300-gallon holding tanks (all from Satellite and PolyJohn). The company now stocks all units with hand sanitizers. 

“We used to just offer it but people didn’t want to pay for it,” Travis Gates says. “But about five years ago we just decided across the board it’s better to have it. And now with the virus, people are insistent on it.” The company also has about 60 company-designed metal double-sided hand sanitizer stands built by Eugene Ornamental Iron. They look sharp, Travis says, and the large heavy metal base provides stability and a deterrent to theft.

The bulk of their work is for construction. Most special events were canceled in 2020, but the company typically provides units for the Light of Liberty Fourth of July celebration, the Oregon Country Fair, sand dune tours at the coast, homeless facilities, gospel camps, parks, sawmills, regional vineyards and wedding venues. They are also listed with several Oregon Department of Forestry districts to provide units for fire camps. 

Hauling equipment is done with a 16-foot flatbed Isuzu truck from FMI Truck Sales & Service and two 20-unit Explorer trailers from McKee Technologies. The service fleet includes six 2016-2019 Isuzu WorkMate vacuum trucks from FMI, one with an aluminum tank and National Vacuum Equipment Challenger pump, the others with steel tanks and Masport pumps. Each can handle 500-750 gallons of waste/300 gallons of freshwater and carry four units. The newest addition is a 2019 Dodge 5500 built out by PortaLogix with an 800-gallon aluminum waste tank and Masport pump. The 350-gallon water tank is built into the bed of the truck and the vehicle can carry six units. The company uses deodorizer supplies from Safe-T-Fresh (Satellite). Waste goes to the municipal treatment plant or a lagoon treatment facility.


Septic service accounts for about 20% of the company’s revenue. Pumping is done with a 2017 Freightliner M2 built out by Interstate Truck Bodies, with a 2,200-gallon waste steel tank and NVE Challenger pump. The truck also carries 300 gallons of freshwater for recharging vault toilets pumped out for the federal Bureau of Land Management and Army Corps of Engineers. Plans are to purchase a 5,000-gallon tank truck to go after larger commercial accounts.

Their real estate inspection work has been increasing, and they’ve also had a lot of repair work in recent months.

“I don’t know if it’s a generation thing of when certain systems were installed, but we have a lot of repairs going on right now for tanks that have outlet or inlet issues due to tanks that had the cast iron baffles,” Travis says. “They’re restricting down and causing issues because of the types of pipes they had 20 years ago.” He says their Spartan locator has been especially helpful. They also have a Honda 4,000 psi handheld jetter and a RIDGID 200-foot camera.

 The company installs a variety of septic systems. “We can do just about any of them,” Travis says. “Oregon has gone away from sand filters. We can install any of the advanced systems and the conventional, and the different drainfields, including the EZflow byInfiltrator or just standard gravel and pipe.” Equipment includes a Bobcat T630 skid-steer, a Chevy 2000 5-yard dump truck and three excavators (Takeuchi TB260, Kubota KX121, and for smaller repairs and tight spots a Kobelco SK17). 


 The company has never done much advertising, Travis Gates says, but in early 2020 he hired Tyler Gordon to do sales and marketing, update the website and bring them onto social media platforms. Gordon also used his film background to film and post customer testimonial videos.

 When it comes to hiring, Travis knows not everyone is cut out for this work. He’s brutally honest with prospective employees and wants the same from them. “I just tell them, ‘I want you to be straightforward with me. Let’s do a ride-along and at the end think about it and just tell me straight. And even after a week, if you’re like, no, I don’t think I can do it, just tell me. I don’t want you to be unhappy or me to be unhappy.’ Honesty is one of my main things.”

 The family recently conducted an anonymous employee survey to see if there are any issues not being addressed and to promote good employee relations. Creating a good work environment is very important to Travis. “Everybody’s different but it’s balancing work where you’re not overworking somebody and giving them what they need so they enjoy coming to work,” he says. 

With few exceptions — and, of course, fire emergencies — the company is closed Sundays. They do publish an emergency number, but only Travis takes the calls. “I won’t call someone in for a Sunday,” he says. “It’s just our company policy.” 

The company holds monthly breakfast or dinner meetings to go over issues, plans, concerns, new protocols and reminders of seasonal challenges to watch out for (summer bees, winter mold). Bonuses are given in the summer and at the end of the year. The Christmas party, held at a hotel, includes a nice dinner, white elephant games, gift card packages and an overnight stay with breakfast the next morning.


The Gates family also holds their own monthly meetings to discuss staffing and big-picture matters. One such issue is Mike Gates’s impending retirement. “We have a two-year plan where Travis will take it over — maybe sooner,” Gates says. Travis is ready for the challenge and looks forward to continuing on the growth path started by his father and doing it in a thoughtful, controlled manner. 

Travis has no regrets about the career change he made 10 years ago and is grateful for the opportunity he’s had. “I and all the employees are appreciative of what my parents and my aunt Kari have done to bring the company to where it is,” he says. “I like helping people out and providing a service they need and seeing people be appreciative.”

Travis still runs issues past his dad but appreciates that his father extended to him the same free rein he was given by his father. “I feel confident we’re going in a good direction,” he says. “I think we have a really bright future.”  


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