Jimmy’s Johnnys— A Minneapolis Institution

Fresh off of his international beach vacation, we catch Rich Anderson, owner of Jimmy’s Johnnys, a small business institution in Minneapolis / St. Paul. We try to keep up with Rich as he’s on the move during this interview, as he is throughout every day, per his preference to manage his business from the field.
Rich explains how Jimmy Johnnys was established. My great uncle, Jim Lillemo actually started the business in 1979. (My grandmother’s sister was his wife.) I was going through college for business management and looking around for a business I could start on the side while I kept my full-time job. I kept seeing portable toilets everywhere. So, I told my mom, “I’m going to go buy ten or twelve toilets and start a business.”
My mom then told me that my great uncle and aunt had that kind of business and that they were selling it. I called my uncle and said I’d like to buy ten or twelve toilets. He said he didn’t want to sell just that small number of units, but that he would sell me the business and work with me to help the financing make sense for me.
I was working as a general manager for Hardees at that time, but I didn’t want to continue that. But, I was making pretty good money there for a young guy. I couldn’t go backward in pay, so I thought I needed to start my own business. Reflecting Rich explains that he was always kind of entrepreneurially lent. I started a limo business in college for my mother. I also did some real estate business. I bought 11 or 12 houses on the VA, through an auction system. But, that’s a pretty capital-intensive business. Then, I bought the business from my uncle in 1999.

Jimmy’s Johnny’s Business Model
What does the business consist of, and how did it develop? Jim, the original owner, had multiple businesses when he was getting ready to sell, including septic, septic installation, toilet rental business. He wasn’t focused on the toilet rental business, and wouldn’t go past Interstate 694. My wife and I discussed whether or not we wanted to remain a smaller regional player or go for the gusto and become a full-complement provider.
I think we have 19 employees right now. It goes up and down a little seasonally. We have probably 2,500 single toilet units and 11 luxury restroom trailers, including a shower trailer. Most of the luxury trailers go to weddings, but the market is increasing for commercial remodeling jobs. We also have storage container rentals and sales.
My first year at the pumper convention, there was a vendor selling a trailer for storage containers. I immediately thought it was a great idea. He had a little bar graph showing strong income in delivery charges for a unit and in picking it back up. While it’s on the customer’s site, it just sits there. There’s no service to do to it, and you get paid about the same as for a toilet unit.
Customers who buy the containers like the fact that there are no added real estate taxes, because they’re not permanent structures. Also, they’re waterproof, so they’re great for storing equipment, etc..
The only place I advertise is on a sticker above the urinal in the toilet units. That works really well. Supervisors from jobs call and say, “I was standing at your toilet and saw the sticker, and I need containers.”

A Scale Maintenance Business Model
We’re not as big as some of our competitors, but we’re just big enough that we can do anything they can do. When the Super Bowl came in, they wanted 350 portable toilets, and we’re big enough that we could provide that.
Other companies in the area have full-time sales staffs. We don’t have any full-time sales people. I do sales, and the staff in our office do some sales calls. We don’t try to grow anymore. I feel like if you get too big you lose the feeling of a small business. We just dedicate everything to service. You’re going to lose some around the edges. But, once we get a client, they usually stay with us.
I remind our staff that we’re not the cheapest, but we have better quality and we strive every day to be the best. Our competitors are also very professional and provide good quality too. But, our customers don’t like the idea that when they call them they get people they don’t know. When they call us, they know they’re going to work with the same person every time.

Daily Operations at Jimmy’s Johnnys
Rich’s approach to client relations brings his clients up close to top management in a way we’ve rarely seen in a company of the size of his. I give my personal cell phone number to larger clients and those with special events. That way, they know that they can reach me directly if there are any issues. We also have a 24-hour phone number. The recording tells people to call the emergency line if they need help, which is my cell phone.
I once heard one of our staff in the office telling a customer who was having an event we were preparing to service, “The owner will be there himself, and here’s his personal cell phone number.” I could tell that that reassurance made an important difference to the customer.
It also helps in retention of employees for me to be on sites working with them. Workers have said to me, “It’s not so bad when I have to work a 14-hour day when I know you’re right there too.” Rich notes that this point goes back to the earlier question about growth. If I get any bigger, I would have to be in the office all the time and wouldn’t be able to stay in the field.
I basically run all of the operations from my truck seat right here. So, I’m on the phone managing everything every day. I don’t do the toilets every day, since I’m so busy with the storage containers now. It’s a full-time job for one person to run the storages now. We have about 180-200 of those. In winter, when we have more time, I work on selling those.
We’ve provided about 300 portable toilets for the Minnesota State Fair. Other than staying onsite along with our team throughout two weeks of that event, I handle the storage containers, and our route drivers do all of the toilet servicing.
My wife, Julie manages everything in the business office. She’s converted all of our office functions to digital to create a mostly paperless system. I was skeptical at first, but she had a vision for a paperless management office, and it has been amazing. It’s a very organized system. It’s made it very convenient to access everything we need.
We note that this extent of paperless operation makes Jimmy’s Johnnys perhaps the eco-friendly portable restroom company that we’ve featured in American Liquid Waste magazine over the past year, and possibly one of the greenest anywhere in the country.

Nationwide Industry Challenges in Minneapolis Market
Does your company have the typical industry problem of finding and keeping good employees? It has been a huge struggle for the last several years and it’s getting worse and worse. We just keep calling our old timers. We have a great team; they’re good guys. The business almost runs itself because they do such a good job. I couldn’t do what I do without such a strong team.
Most of them have been with us 5-10 years. We’ve got a core group every year, and we have to add a couple every year because we lose some. We run an ad. It’s very hard to find good people. It’s our number one concern.
How is it to work in the Minnesota winter weather? Amused, Rich points to the day of this interview as an example. Just this morning, it rained, then it snowed, then it rained again. A brake drum was frozen, so I had to switch trailers.
As far as freezing fluids in the restroom units, we use a brine mix. This year, we completely redesigned that system, so it’s less labor intensive and pretty painless to manage. The bobcat loads the salt, and the process is all really easy to do. We’ve been doing it for so long that we kind of have our tricks of the trade. Even in –20 degrees, they’ve rarely frozen.

Rich Anderson’s Professional Philosophy
I’m a big believer in looking professional. I think you can’t really provide a professional service without having good equipment. Our trucks are usually at around 150,000 miles. Every 2 to 3 years, they’re replaced, even our restroom trailers. We also have a great mechanic who keeps everything in good repair.
Have you looked at adding some finishing touches to the luxury restrooms, as some restroom trailer companies around the country have been doing? I’ve seen companies bring out staging stuff in the restrooms. Our emphasis is on making sure that it’s brought very clean. We hand-wax the exterior, clean and shiny and new, put scent disks in them, and over-stock every one with all the necessary supplies. I’m usually the guy that delivers those, so I can personally communicate with customers regarding necessary placement and ensure they’re satisfied.

Equipment and Technology Utilization at Jimmy’s Johnnys
Do you use any newer technologies to optimize operations or services? GPS is built in the Route Optics system we use. When the drivers open up their route, it gives them turn-by-turn directions. It really has made routes easier. In the old days, there were paper routes. It would take weeks for a new person to learn where everything was. Now, if you go onto 100-acre property, if the person who serviced it last has pushed the button, other people can quickly locate the unit.
We bought our own tire changing machine last years. We were spending about $10,000 per year to change tires. Before we got it, every time tires needed changing, two people would have to drive to drop off a truck and then two would have to go back and pick it up. So, that was a lot of labor just to get tires from another shop.

Advice From Rich Anderson for New Entrepreneurs
Finally, we asked Rich for some wisdom he could offer for new business owners in the industry during the new year. I don’t’ know how people find me but, surprisingly, two or three people per year call me from around the country and say they want to get into the portable restroom business in their area and ask me for advice. I talk to them about two things—service and patience.
So many people want to get into this business and be a big guy instantly. They seem to decide that the only way to grow is to be the cheapest guy out there. Some grow so fast that they go bankrupt. I can suggest to be patient and give good service, and you’ll grow. If you focus on giving good service, when people find you, they don’t leave you.
We found through this interview that the continuously-mobile, deeply-insightful entrepreneurial figure of Rich Anderson personifies that timeless core service business principle that quality service reliably leads to a financially healthy enterprise. This is a consistent theme that runs through all of our meetings with business leaders throughout the United States who sustain their companies’ success over time in our industry.
Rich Anderson’s additional emphasis on patience does rise to the level of a second core principle in an industry where there is such extreme temptation during startups to grab all that can be grabbed of new business by undercutting prices, without foresight into the consequences of such impulsiveness to clients, employees and business owners. Patience is certainly a fundamental requirement for viability.
To go deeper, resolving oneself to be brave in maintaining that kind of difficult and often financially and psychologically painful patience during a startup is a secret understood by those entrepreneurs with the strength of will, and yes, the courage to resist attempts to seize all prospective accounts around them.
We thank Rich Anderson for shining a light on the reality that chasing an immediate sense of security and satisfaction is a futile pursuit in our industry and that staying the course of only promising what can actually be delivered with pride in quality is the singular path to long-term success.

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