During construction slump, natural disasters help keep portable toilet supplier afloat

Todd Hilde is president of Satellite Industries, which claims to be the largest supplier of portable toilets in the world. The units behind him were to be shipped to Minot, N.D., to aid in flood relief.
Todd Hilde is president of Satellite Industries, which claims to be the largest supplier of portable toilets in the world. The units behind him were to be shipped to Minot, N.D., to aid in flood relief. MCT

MINNEAPOLIS — This year's torrent of natural disasters is providing a mini-windfall for Satellite Industries, a Plymouth, Minn., company that claims to be the world's largest supplier of portable toilets.

Satellite recently sold about 1,000 toilets for use in earthquake-ravaged Japan. Another 1,000 have been sent off this summer to several areas in the United States destroyed by tornadoes, fires and floods, including Missouri, Alabama, Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota.

"We don't wish this on communities, but these disasters have certainly helped us this year. They've given us a sense of purpose," chief executive Todd Hilde said.

The surge in demand from areas in crisis has helped offset a sharp decline in demand because its major source of business, the construction industry, has tanked.

"It's been traumatic," Hilde said of the drop-off in business from construction-related customers, which traditionally have accounted for about three-fourths of Satellite's sales.

A recent trip to Satellite's Plymouth warehouse found little assembly work going, with portable toilets that were ready to go lined up like wallflowers at a school dance. In all, the company has 11 models.

In a different part of the warehouse, a lone mechanic worked on installing a huge tank, pumps and hoses on a truck. Satellite buys Ford chassis and retrofits and sells them for servicing toilets.

Satellite was established in 1958 by Hilde's father, Al, who had found that toilet facilities left something to be desired when he was serving in the U.S. Army. Both Hildes expanded Satellite over the decades, and it now does business in more than 80 countries.

The company used to rent out portable toilets that it manufactured, but in 1988, it sold its rental and servicing operations to focus on designing, making and selling its products to other companies that rent them out. Satellite now has more than 1,000 such customers, about 800 of them in the United States.

That includes A1 Evans Septic Tank Service in Minot, N.D., which in the past few weeks has bought about 150 toilets from Satellite for businesses, hospitals, government buildings and checkpoints for the state's National Guard, which has been called in to help the area recover from severe floods.

"This is by far the busiest I've ever been," said Sandon Varty, who has owned A1 Evans for 12 years. He and his crew of about 10 employees recently have been working 12-hour days, seven days a week, delivering and servicing toilets.

Even though the Souris River has crested, the need for the toilets continues because some water mains were broken by the floods. "The city is asking people to conserve water, and that creates a need for portable sanitation," he said.

Varty said North Dakota's oil industry boom also has kept that state's home and commercial construction businesses humming.

That's not the case for most of the United States, which has seen residential and commercial building plummet over the past four years.

The downturn has been so dramatic, Hilde said, that the recent spate of sales to disaster-struck areas would have been even bigger except that his customers in those areas already had plenty of units that they weren't renting to construction businesses. In contrast, Satellite sold about 10,000 portable restrooms to customers in the Gulf Region after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, before the economic and construction industry meltdown.

Dave Holm, president of St. Paul, Minn.-based OnSite Sanitation, said Satellite has long gotten feedback from customers like him as it has made improvements in units. He said the company pioneered sinks, hand sanitizers, foot-pumps for flushing, and exteriors that can stand up to ultraviolet rays.

Even so, Holm and Hilde said, both businesses continue to battle the general perception that portable toilets are disgusting. In fact, they said, their introduction has helped some countries improve quality of life and prevent sickness caused by a lack of adequate sanitation.

"People really take sanitation sewer systems and water treatment plants for granted. Those really are what divide us from the developing world," Hilde said. "You find out how much when you have a natural disaster, and those key functions go down."