How a Texas Restroom Operator Turned Tragedy Into Triumph

After losing her husband to cancer in 2004, Nancy Widner has made some savvy moves to grow the family business she never intended to run

How a Texas Restroom Operator Turned Tragedy Into Triumph

A-1 Smith’s Septic Service's 2019 Freightliner M2 106 earned a Classy Truck shoutout in the October issue of Pumper.

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Nancy Widner is a prime example of someone who has achieved great success in the face of adversity. She inherited A-1 Smith’s Septic Service in Huntsville, Texas, when her husband and company founder, Doug Smith, died of cancer in 2004.

Since then, she’s done a tremendous job managing the family business, growing the portable restroom side of the company from 350 units to 1,500 units.

“When he died [in 2004], the goal was to grow the business,” says Widner, 53, who now runs the company with her second husband, and former A-1 driver, Milton Widner. The company — located 60 miles from Houston — does septic and grease trap pumping and has 1,500 portable restrooms. It has 20 employees and serves a 26-county region in East Texas.

Stumbling into success

While A-1 has quite a bit of competition now, there wasn’t much when Doug started the business. That itself happened in a bit of an offbeat way.

“He backed up his dump truck on someone’s yard and broke the lid on the septic tank,” she says. “Because the dirt had caved in, no one wanted to pump it.”

He finally got someone to pump the tank so he could fix it. “He bought that guy’s tank and went into business. Within a year, he became the largest pumper in the area,” Widner says. 

When Smith started the company 30 years ago, it focused solely on septic and grease work. Meanwhile, Nancy had worked at Walmart for 15 years and had two small children when her husband decided, in 1996, to add portable restrooms to the mix.

“He was sitting on the side of the bed reading a Pumper magazine and thought we should get into it,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘I think you’re crazy.’”

As it turns out, he wasn’t. A-1 purchased 10 units and never even took them off the truck — they simply delivered them to construction sites.

When Widner inherited the business, it had 350 units. Today, A-1 has 1,500 units, mostly Satellite | PolyPortables. Other various units were acquired through the purchase of other small companies. 

“I’ve grown it to the size it is today,” she says, proud to have kept the family business going. Her daughter, Robbie Smith, works in human resources for A-1.

While Widner had hoped her son would take the company reins, sadly, he died in 2013 in an accident. She then considered selling the company but has continued with the help of Milton.

While they still actively pump septic tanks, about 90% of their business is in renting portable restrooms, for both construction sites and special events.

“We work year-round,” Widner says. And when the hot weather abates in fall and spring, the company does a lot of special events. “Bike rides, county fairs — it cools down enough so we can get outside.”

A-1’s fleet includes 10 vacuum trucks, mostly Dodge, but they also have a Hino and Peterbilt. Trucks are serviced by Milton.

The company’s newest addition is a white 2019 Freightliner M2 106 with a 4,000-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater 5/16-inch aircraft aluminum tank and Fruitland pump from Amthor International. The truck is powered by a Cummins L9 350 hp engine tied to an automatic transmission (Allison Transmission). Features include 20-inch top and rear manways, sight glasses and aluminum toolbox. The interior features a stereo radio and air conditioning. Water-themed graphics are from Extreme Graphics in Texas.


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