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This throne's fit for a queen   (June 12, 2005)
A local business specializes in portable toilets with comfort and a woman's touch

By MASON LERNER
For The Chronicle

Frank Ballback, owner and operator of First Class Rentals, is doing everything he can to avoid flushing his small-business investment capital down the tubes.

Last January his company began renting out luxury portable toilets for outdoor events.

So far, it has been slow going for the company as Ballback struggles to get the word out that there is now an alternative to the typical portable toilets.

Ballback first became intrigued by portable toilets when he attended an outdoor festival for the Super Bowl in 2003.

He was standing in line with his wife as she waited with the dread shared by all women who are forced to use portable toilets. His wife lucked out when somebody guided her to one that had just been cleaned.

As Ballback stood outside waiting for his wife, feeling as tough as any man can feel while he's holding a purse, he saw something that would drastically change the course of his life.

Since 1998, he had been searching for a way out of the tool-dealing business. At that point he had owned a Snap-on power tool franchise for nine years, but he was constantly on the lookout for a source of income that would free him from answering to anyone besides himself.

His answer came in the form of a little girl rapidly exiting a portable toilet in tears.

"I saw a father come out with his daughter. She was probably six or seven years old. The little girl was crying, and I knew exactly why," Ballback said.


Toilet entrepreneur

Ballback helpfully guided them to the just-cleaned toilet that his wife was using. Little did he know that this was just the beginning of a career dedicated to guiding men and women alike to the cleanest possible portable toilet.

"If you had told me that day that I was going to go into the restroom business, I would have laughed at you," Ballback said.

The next day he read an article about a woman up north who rented out luxury toilets, and he knew what he had to do.

"My wife didn't think that I was serious at first," Ballback said.

But he was. He immediately began researching the idea. He began to source products, look into legalities and figure out what he thought it would take to make it as a toilet entrepreneur.

He unveiled his product last January at the Houston Bridal Extravaganza, and he has been at it ever since.


'With ladies in mind'

Ballback has tried to transform a horrifying experience into a pleasant one. His port-o-potties are about the same size as the industry standard, but there is more room to maneuver because there is no urinal. There is a floor pedal to flush the toilet, and a 20-gallon reservoir of fresh water in each unit ensures that every flush uses clean water.

Ballback also had a flap installed into each bowl to cover any waste.

Ballback furnishes every one of First Class Rentals' portable toilets with amenities such as a shoeshine kit, sewing kit, makeup remover, purse hooks, deodorant packs, hand lotion and wet naps. The toilet paper is plush instead of the sandpaper offered in most portable toilets, and there are two sizable mirrors, a female hygiene box and plastic flowers in every unit.

"All of the stuff in here is designed with ladies in mind," Ballback said.

Despite all of his efforts to market the perfect portable toilet, First Class Rentals has only serviced a smattering of venues to date.

"I'm not going for the big outdoor festivals," Ballback said. "I am going for big, private outdoor parties and events."

Of the $100,000 that Ballback has sunk into building his business, the nearly $5,000 that he has put into advertising seems to be going to waste, he said.

Judy Whitehurst, the director of the San Jacinto College Small Business Development Center, thinks that there could definitely be a niche market for First Class Rentals to fill, but she is not surprised to hear that not much has come out of the company's advertising.

"He can't waste running general ads, hoping that his target market sees them and responds to them," she said.

She recommended that Ballback make a personal effort to ingratiate himself to the people in town who earn their livelihood from outdoor event planning.

"He needs to call wedding consultants and event planners directly," she said. "He needs to prove to them that he is somebody they can trust."

Whitehurst feels that if Ballback rubs elbows with the right people and offers a competitively priced service, he should be able to carve out a competitive edge in his chosen market.

She noted that tenacity in making connections within the event-planning industry is the key.

"Event planners are very careful about who they work with," she said, "He should connect with the different trade organizations and see about putting on demonstrations."

While a full demonstration of one of his units could be an unseemly affair, Ballback already realizes the importance of getting in good with the right people.

"There are a couple of event-planner groups in Houston, and I am involved in them. There are also some catering groups that I am looking into," he said.

Still, he realizes that he faces an uphill battle.

"We didn't just open the doors and have booming business. It's been a slow process," he said.


Bride endorses

Julia Stroup gives First Class Rentals perhaps the best endorsement that a woman can give the company.

Not only did she retain their services for her outdoor wedding, she actually used the portable toilets while decked out in her wedding dress.

"I was wearing a long satin skirt, and I didn't have to worry about dragging into one of them and messing up my dress," she said.

In fact, she said there were times when First Class Rentals stole the show.

"All the ladies just went on and on about it," she said. "One of the band members that played at the party jumped on stage and yelled, 'How about those port-o-cans!' "

Ballback is confident, despite the initial slow progress of First Class Rentals, that he has a future in the restroom industry.

He hopes that his product will appeal enough to women to make it a necessity when it comes time to plan an outdoor party.

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