Don’s Johns Draws the Limelight to Portable Restrooms

When a temporary restroom makes it to the finals in a competition for the country’s best restroom award, you know it has to be a very fine portable restroom. Don’s Johns Presidential Luxury Restroom Trailer—yes, a portable toilet trailer—is among the top 10 restrooms in the running for America’s Best Restroom. Theirs is the only temporary bathroom in the whole lot. All the others in the contest are permanent restrooms housed in luxury hotels, 5-star restaurants and city museums.

If you’re in the portable restroom business, this is exciting industry news. It lies somewhere between “How sweet it is!” and “You’ve come a long way, baby!” And if you’re a customer or occasional user of portable bathroom facilities, you’re probably hoping to get one of those for the next big-time event you plan or attend.

“It’s an honor just to be the only temporary restroom entry,” says Conrad Harrell, President of Don’s Johns Inc., which has locations in Chantilly, Virginia, Washington, DC and Beltsville, Maryland. In fact, he believes a customer nominated the company’s luxury unit and may have orchestrated a campaign to get people to vote for the entry at Unfortunately, ALW cannot announce the winner because the contest runs to September 19. The annual competition is sponsored by Cintas, a provider of full-service restroom programs for businesses.

You Have Come a Long Way!
Don’s Johns Inc., established in the Washington Metropolitan area in 1964 by Thelma and Don Rainwater, was one of the first portable toilet companies in the nation. Don, an entrepreneur who dabbled in a wide variety of small businesses that he’d get interested in and then sell, bought a small septic company in the early 1960s.

“Then he thought he’d start a little business building wooden outhouses,” explains Harrell. “When an order came in, Thelma would call downstairs to tell Don to build another one.” And when the couple divorced, Thelma held onto Don’s Johns and ran it successfully—an unusual step for a woman in those times.

Today, the company is run by CEO Kristie Harrell, Thelma’s granddaughter, and Conrad, Kristie’s high school sweetheart and now husband. Both of them had worked for Don’s Johns when they were younger, Kristie from the time she was 10, and both had high-powered careers in other fields before returning to the family business on a temporary basis—and staying on.

Harrell describes the transition, which was a little quirky: Thelma, who was running the show, asked Kristie, a Washington lobbyist at the time, to help her out for awhile during a break when Congress was out of session in 1992. Kristie helped out and never went back. Shortly after that, Harrell agreed to take a six-month leave from his consulting job to give a hand at Don’s Johns, and he never returned. After that, the transition was gradual.

Thelma Rainwater stayed on as long as she could, until she wasn’t able to make decisions anymore. That was in the late ’90s. Now, the company currently employs 75 full-time people with the addition of 10 to 15 invaluable people who work on a seasonal basis. As CEO, Kristie focuses on the “big-picture” and specific responsibilities in human resources and accounting, while Harrell, as president, handles the day-to-day aspects.

Service + Rental
Don’s Johns provides portable restroom services to a range of regular customers in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, as well as event rentals and services nationwide with a concentration on the Eastern seaboard.

“We’re doing about 6,000 services a week, with every service or product type a portable restroom company can provide,” says Harrell, which includes restroom maintenance or set-up. “It’s easier to explain what we do if we say we’re at the highest end of the food chain with the high-end portable restroom trailers, and then we provide the basic porta-potty for a construction site—and everything in between.”

Harrell goes on to say, “If any of our customers have any kind of restroom need, we have a solution for that.” For example, should a customer wish to have more modern amenities at a rustic cabin, Don’s Johns will install a small pumping system into a closet. “We can move things around so anyone can have a bathroom wherever it’s needed,” he says, “We’ve put toilets in a shack on the sidelines at FedEx Field when a Redskins player got a stomach flu.”

In Harrell’s view, Don’s Johns’ willingness to find a solution and to stay on top of the services it delivers makes the company stand out. “We would love to say that we have better products—and we do—but it’s the customer service that makes the difference. We just look at it differently than our competitors.”

Making History
The 2008 Presidential Inauguration, the largest temporary restroom event in United States history and the second largest in the world, gave Don’s Johns a huge opportunity to make its mark and accomplish an amazing feat. But to get the job, the company had to get past two major hurdles.

“First was to reach a body of influencers who believed they knew how many restrooms needed to be on the mall for the inauguration,” Harrell explains, “Second was proving to them that we were the best for the job—the strongest regional player, since the products were going to come from local resources in any case.” Those organizing the event believed they needed a large national chain and Don’s Johns worked hard to prove them otherwise.

“The folks handling the operational piece were easy to convince,” he says, “but once they slid the decision across the table, the decision makers thought we were too small a company, that they’d need something much larger.” From there, Don’s Johns strategy was to ask their most loyal and influential past and current regional customers to speak up on their behalf, which they did. “We got the event at the last minute, on Christmas Eve, because so many took the time to call and endorse us.”

A Close-Knit Industry
“Prior to this job, I worked in management consulting and was exposed to a number of different industries,” Harrell says. “I’m constantly impressed by how collaborative and fairly close-knit this industry is. I’ve enjoyed that.” He’s also brought it to bear on how Don’s Johns does business. “We’re constantly looking at best practices. I think that creates a ‘younger’ company where we are always growing and learning and that attracts a dynamic work force.”

Harrell also sees himself as a “fix-it guy” who finds a solution using a contact or spin when the odd problem comes up. “I’m a huge technology guy, and I’ve brought every piece of technology into this company that I could. But it’s shocking to me that it’s harder to hire a Class A mechanic or skilled CDL driver than a senior CFO,” he says. “In 2001, techies who needed work would come out, but they couldn’t hack it. Our drivers need to drive safely, work hard and connect well to our customers. It’s a difficult trio of skills to find in a person regardless of the pay. It takes a special person, and there aren’t that many out there.”

Harrell knows that valuing his employees is important and says, “Even though this industry offers good benefits and pay, the jobs are not prestigious. It’s hard work and it’s hard to attract good people,” Harrell says. “Hopefully, I’m not doing a lot of that because we’ve put together a skilled management team and hire people who really know their jobs.”

To learn more about Don’s Johns, Inc. visit or call 703.273.7100.

Story by Anne Biggs

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