Interview- The Man Behind The Porta Potti
Vintage Porta Potti Advert
Thursday, 14, Dec 2017 11:52
By William Coleman
Way back when in September of 1967 Peter Simmons placed his first ad in the "Caravan" magazine when he was just 21 years old. He has just acquired the UK distribution rights from Thetford Corp in Ann Arbor Michigan to bring the Porta Potti to ours shores.
Peter and his family have spent almost a lifetime in the leisure industry. His father, Laurie Simmons, was a founding member of the Caravan Club Sussex Centre, Chairman of the Road Rally committee and Later an Honorary life member of the Caravan and Motorhome Club. He was also invited, along with 20 other Club members, to travel from New York to Los Angeles in Airstreams. Which was sponsored by the Wally Byam Airstream club. In return Laurie invited 20 Wally Byam club members to travel with him to the UK, which was sponsored by The Club, Sprite Caravans and Ford.
One of the US group, was a man called Barney Wilkins. He was friend of Frank Sargent the inventor of the Porta Potti and founder of Thetford Corp. He had heard that the toilet facilities in UK caravans were not the best ( Elsan "bucket & chuck it" ) and bought with him a Porta Potti! He then gave the PP to my father when he returned to USA.
Once Peter saw the Porta Potti he realised that this would revolutionise caravan sanitation in the UK. So, with his father help he acquired the rights for the UK. Once that was done he arranged the finance and the selling using his garage as their warehouse and his bedroom as his office. All of this while he was The Commercial Manager for South Eastern Electrical Board.
Frank Sargent made me a generous financial offer in 1970 as Thetford Corp wanted to establish a manufacturing base in the UK and I was hired Peter as their first employee of Thetford Aqua Products Ltd. Frank and Peter, along with their wives, move to Nuneaton Warwickshire where they set up their first manufacturing plant. From 1970-1976 Peter was a salesman, sales manager and General Manager of Thetford Aqua Products and in 1976 was promoted to Managing Director of European Operations, with plants in Holland, Germany, France and Sweden.
In 1980 Peter and his family moved to Toronto Canada to head up Thetford Sanitation Ltd who serviced Canada. He left Thetford in 1990 and moved to the West Coast where he has been involved in many businesses including Motor Home Manufacturing, a large dealership & RV & Auto parts.
Today, as you are aware, the Porta Potti Cassette plus other Thetford products dominates the UK & European industry, and has made caravanning so much nicer for the whole family.( The same in US and Canada )
Now semi retired at age 71 Peter, his wife, family plus kids and grandkids all live on the West Coast in Vancouver British Columbia.
So you have grown up in the caravan world?
As a child my Mum & Dad always had a caravan. The first one I remember was an Eccles which was towed with a Ford Zephyr 6. Must have been around 1954. We travelled all over the UK and the continent with it. If my memory serves me correctly it was about that time that the Sussex centre of the Caravan club was formed by my Dad and a couple of other guys. Most weekends we would go to a rally somewhere in Sussex.
We had many caravans & tow vehicles including Car Cruisers, Cheltenham's, and many Carlights, mostly towed with Land Rovers which was Dad's preferred tow vehicle. He was lucky enough to be able to take a months holiday each year so my sister & I had travelled to most countries in Europe before we had reached 10 yrs old. We had also been over most European mountain passes. Some over 8000ft! ( No tunnels under the mountain in those days)
What made you push for the Porta Potti to go world wide?
Our sales area for Porta Potti and Aqua Kem in the early days was primarily UK and European countries. Most of which had an established caravan dealers with good wholesale accessory distribution. Our biggest problem was trying to keep up with demand from our wholesalers. In the middle 70's with both the Dutch & UK factories producing, we were manufacturing around 8000-10,000 units a month plus many 1000's of bottles of Aqua Kem. If I remember correctly our European sales in 1976 were around US $15 million that year.
We had a revolutionary, sought after, fresh water flushing portable toilet with 100% market share, a very enviable position to be in. Thetford Corp in USA was experiencing the same success in the North American market with all their toilet systems.
At that time the majority of US RV manufacturers were fitting Thetford toilets as standard. Most were the Aqua Magic's. which were installed over a holding tank. By then Porta Potti was sold through the RV aftermarket accessory distributors and some mass merchandisers including Sears & Roebuck. In Europe We were working on a concept for removing the holding tank of the Porta Potti through the sidewall of the caravan and the Porta Potti Cassette was born in the late 70's early 80's.
How was the initial reception when you launched to a wider market?
From our 1st ads in the UK & European caravan magazines, demand for Porta Potti was unbelievable. Because we offered a revolutionary sanitary answer to the only available old fashioned "open bucket". Many families were potential customers for caravans but were put off by the old bucket. Needless to say the initial reception was fantastic.
What is your favorite destination to travel to in a caravan?
There are far too many to mention in Europe, however a couple come to mind. The Swiss/Austrian Alps and the Mediterranean countries. In Canada ..also far too many to mention. However the Canadian & US Rockies, and California are 2 of our favorites.
What is your fondest memory or holidaying as a child or as an adult with a family?
As child our trips in the UK and to European countries, and as an adult with our family the same
Plus we have RV'd in most Provinces in Canada and most US States ( We have been living this side of the pond for 38 yrs!)
What is your leisure vehicle of choice and why?
In England we always had a caravan. We liked the fact that we could park it at a campground and use our tow vehicle for sightseeing. In Canada we prefer a motorhome that tows our sightseeing vehicle behind it. Makes a big difference with a 6 litre engine.
Here we see Pete relaxing in his Porsche