2003 Spring Volume No. 1
With a Load of Plywood and Some Pizza Sauce Drums, C. W. Harbart Helped Build an Industry
"I was so impressed by
how well the man was doing
with the new business,
that I decided to give
it a try myself"
When the first portable restrooms were introduced – looking like a country outhouse pulled from its hillside — people would stare or laugh. It took some larger-than-life entrepreneurs to get the portable sanitation business going and to make it the ubiquitous enterprise it has become. One of those early pioneers was a man known mostly by his first initials, C. W. Harbart.
We caught up with C. W., who turned 80 in October, and one of his long-term associates, Gene Howse, a former owner of Howse Brothers, to learn the story of how C. W. got started.
In the 50s and 60s, he was a contractor building homes in the Houston area. Then, in the mid-sixties while working on a job, he met a guy from California who was starting up a portable restroom operation in the Houston area. "I was so impressed by how well the man was doing with the new business, that I decided to give it a try myself," said C. W.. He moved to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area to avoid competing directly.
C. W. expected to finance the new business conventionally and went to several different banks to tell them his idea and get start-up capital. However, in those days, no one provided sanitation service for the construction industry. Workers would just relieve themselves behind the trailers or drive to the nearest gas station. Since bankers are rarely eager to lend money to a new kind of business, all of C. W.'s requests for financing fell on deaf ears. "They basically thought he was crazy," said Gene Howse.
C. W. next tried to get credit from the lumberyards where he would be buying his supplies. However, they turned him down, too. One day,
C. W. was talking to a friend back in Houston who owned a lumberyard. He told him about the financing problems he was having. His friend told him to try one more lumberyard. And, without him knowing it, this friend called the owner of the lumberyard and personally guaranteed C. W.'s credit. C. W. walked out with a pickup load of lumber and built his first fleet of toilets. It wasn't until months later that he discovered his credit had been guaranteed by his friend.
With C. W.'s experience as a contractor, he had an advantage in selling to builders. He knew there was one thing every contractor agreed on ... that restroom breaks wasted valuable time. "That's how I sold them ... I said your carpenters could be in and out in a few minutes, or they could leave in their trucks and be gone for half an hour," C. W. remembered. The pitch must have made a lot of sense because, soon his business was going so well that he couldn't build toilets fast enough.
C. W. named his business Chem Can and grew it until he was buying up competitors and opening branch offices in Arlington, Houston, Atlanta and Memphis. He also started Monte Carlo Office Trailers as a way to provide his contractor customers with additional services.
In those days, C. W. always built wooden toilets using 3/8" marine board that he primed and painted with enamel paint. According to Gene Howse, who was Chem Can's operations manager, "Whenever a toilet started to look shabby, C. W. would have us put another coat on it. Two to three years down the road, you would have six coats of paint, and a toilet that weighed 280 would get up to about 400 pounds. It had 120 pounds of paint on it!" The tanks were 55-gallon pizza sauce barrels cut in half.
Many of the innovations that can be found in portable restrooms today were started by pioneers like C. W., who just made it up as they went along.
Once, C. W. landed an account on a high-rise in downtown Dallas because they couldn't get one of his competitor's toilets in the elevator. The superintendent asked the competitor to cut the top off his unit, but he didn't want to ruin a toilet. They called C. W. and asked him if he could supply a toilet that would fit their elevator. C. W. cut the top off and reinforced the corners, and that's how he invented the half-size high-rise unit.
By the time C. W. sold Chem Can in 1986, the Dallas/Ft. Worth operation alone grossed $2,000,000 a year!
Today, the portable sanitation industry has developed into a 1.5 billion dollar a year business worldwide. Thousands of families have made a fine living from the income this industry generates.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to pioneers like C. W.. When asked what the secret to his success was, he said, "I stayed with the basics. I hired good people, built a good restroom, provided good service and I just stayed with it." His secret is still something we can all continue to strive toward.
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