By Rich Phillips
CNN Senior Producer
ORLANDO, Florida (CNN) — Swinging high in the air, a newly cleaned portable toilet is hoisted by crane to the nosebleed section of Orlando’s new Events Center.
A sea of toilets sits unrented on the company’s property, but it’s not a sign or desperation, the younger Sharp says. The Sharps say they live by the motto, “The money that’s made in the company … stays in the company.”
The arena is the future home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. It will seat more than 18,000 fans when it opens next year. The only seats John Sharp Jr. is concerned about, though, are the ones in the 42 portable toilets he placed on this job site.
When you work five stories high, a nearby toilet can be your best friend. But for Sharp’s company, Comfort House, business isn’t exactly, um, flowing like it did before the recession.
“We had 98 percent of our inventory out, with strong healthy prices,” he told CNN. “With the boom in the production homes, that’s what kept us busy.”
The arena is one of the biggest projects in Florida with more than 400 construction workers on site. But the decline in construction, which was 95 percent of Comfort House’s business, hit the company hard. It’s been forced to lay off about a third of its staff, including some long-time employees. Hours have been cut back as well.
Now a sea of toilets sits unrented on the company’s property. But it’s not a sign of desperation, Sharp said.
“We didn’t take on a large amount of debt. We paid cash for our assets,” he said. The company owns its property outright, including all its portable toilets, vehicles and equipment.
That’s part of the business model Sharp said his parents taught him, and it’s helped this family business survive and ward off bottom feeders who see the toilets sitting unused and think he’s desperate to be bought out at a fraction of the cost.
“Had we spent outside our means, had we grown and leveraged everything, financed everything, we’d be in a really tough situation,” he said. “Good business model: Storing money, saving money when you make money … keeping things simple.” Video Watch Sharp discuss the recession’s effect on his business »
Comfort House is a third-generation family business that started in the late 1960s. John Sharp Sr., the family patriarch, said he’s acquired considerable wisdom from the three previous recessions that he and his company have survived.
“My boat is a 12-foot johnboat we use for duck hunting, and that’s my yacht, and that’s pretty much the extent of my extravagance,” he told CNN.
“So we kind of live by that motto that the money that’s made in the company kinda stays in the company,” he said.
But every company has its breaking point, and even with sound business principles and mechanics, the Sharps say, it’s hard to tell how long they can last. This recession is by far the worst that the elder Sharp has seen.
“You don’t know when it’s gonna end,” he explained.
“If you could tell me it’s gonna end in six months, I could say, ‘OK, here’s my business plan,’ but our business plan is that this could go on for another year or two,” he said.
In many ways his son is getting a real-world crash course in “Recession 101.”
“It’s been a great learning lesson for me … I’m very fortunate … because this will carry me, hopefully, for the next 30 years plus,” he said.
And while the Sharps are involved in a business that smells like anything but roses, John Sharp Jr. says as long as his toilets stay rented, they all smell like money.