Iowa pumper and installer Rick Miene has fun collecting a wide variety of earth-moving machines and finding new ways to make money with them.
Growing up, Rick Miene always had a passion and a skill for operating equipment while working for Miene Septic Service, the company his father started in 1973 in Robins, Iowa. But in 1986, about the time he graduated from high school, Miene got to put that interest in high gear when the company expanded into septic system installations.
The first installs were done using a skid loader with a backhoe attachment, but the equipment inventory quickly grew as the young Miene saw more and more opportunities to meet customer needs.
“They’d need more skid loader work or grading work while we were there doing a septic install, so we just started diversifying and buying more,” he recalls. He’s collected quite an arsenal of vehicles and attachments over the years, and each one helped him solve problems, suggest designs, or take on work outside the scope of septic systems.
Rick Miene, 48, took over the business in 2008 when his father, Richard, retired. On his team are two office workers, including his mother, Faith, three technicians handling septic maintenance and inspections, four installers, a dump truck driver and a grader operator. Camron Miene, Rick and Faith’s 17-year-old son, is also starting to work in the business. Rick Miene also does a lot of grading, but fills in anywhere needed.
“It’s funny how many hats an individual has to wear,” he says.
The company works in a 50- to 75-mile radius of the Cedar Rapids area. Septic pumping, repairs, time-of-transfer inspections and installations account for 90 percent of their work. The balance is anything they can do with the equipment they’ve got — land clearing, grading, basement excavations, driveway installations and snow plowing.
The two technicians on the maintenance side handle pumping and time-of-transfer inspections. They are also certified service providers for annual maintenance contracts the Iowa Department of Natural Resources requires on certain septic systems.
Pumping is done with two Peterbilt 367s (2011 and 2015) built out by Advance Pump & Equipment with 4,200-gallon aluminum tanks and National Vacuum Equipment blowers, each equipped with a RIDGID SeeSnake camera, a Crust Buster tank agitator and a Nasco Whirl-Pak Sludge Judge for measuring solids. The company is starting to put safety features on their vehicles — reflective detailing and strobe lights — to make sure the guys can be seen at all times. One truck has a back-up camera — not foolproof, but a nice tool to have, Miene says.
The office staff makes reminder calls to customers for maintenance. Miene likes to have homeowners present during septic service, not only to help flush toilets, but so technicians have an opportunity to educate users about how their system works. He’s concerned about clean water and believes putting water back into the ground is the right thing to do to replenish the aquifers. And homeowners play an important role by properly caring for their systems, he says.
Each year the company installs 40 to 50 systems during an eight-month weather window. Most are replacements of failing systems discovered through real estate inspections. Although they install conventional systems, most are more advanced, primarily sand filter systems, AdvanTex units from Orenco, and Coco Filter systems from Premier Tech Aqua.
The majority of work is residential, but they also get involved in commercial systems. On bigger projects, Miene learned the hard way that his ability to do a job right is often dependent on others doing their jobs right. In one situation, they placed four 5,000-gallon concrete tanks weighing 38,000 pounds each at a site. As they started to backfill, it began to rain and the tanks floated out of the ground because another contractor had not properly filled them with water. “It reminds me to go the extra step and make sure everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do,” he says.
The company has three excavators, all zero-tail-swing models — a 12,000-pound Bobcat E50, a 20,000-pound Bobcat E85 used for most of their septic installs, and a 56,000-pound John Deere 245. For skid-steers they have a wheeled Bobcat S300 used to move attachments around and for snow removal, and three tracked Bobcat T770s, one for grading and timber clearing, one for installs and a third for miscellaneous applications.
Other equipment includes two triple-axle dump trucks — a 2000 Sterling with a Beau-Roc dump body and a 2016 Mack with a Henderson Products dump body, a John Deere 650 crawler dozer used for site development, and a John Deere tractor with an attached Bush Hog flex-wing rotary cutter. A Kubota BX25 backhoe is used for inspections. Over-the-deck 25-foot trailers from B & B Trailers are used to haul equipment.
CARE OF THE FLEET
The company has always kept its vehicles and equipment indoors.
“We’re pretty proud about the equipment, so we want to keep everything nice. And we have a lot less issues in the winter with startups.” By 2010, they purchased more land and built a 17,000-square-foot structure — but they’re outgrowing that, too, he says, and looking to add on.
Miene says their trucks are a major source of advertising. “It’s the first impression,” he says. “Every unit is a billboard that’s going down the road.” They work hard to keep the trucks shiny and spotless, and Miene credits his kids, Adriana, 20; Camron; and Marissa, 12; (and soon 6-year-old Raegan) with being big contributors to that effort.
The company performs routine equipment maintenance when they have time, otherwise they outsource it. They try to avoid major problems by keeping the fleet relatively new, but these days Miene’s enthusiasm for buying new equipment has been tempered a bit as he faces increased costs and maintenance requirements resulting from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 emissions rules that apply to more and more of his machines.
“There’s been some real trying times to figure out financially is it time to buy the new machinery or do you wait? You’re scared about what the maintenances are going to be and the quirks to all of that,” he says.
Like everyone, Miene has no choice but to deal with keeping trucks topped off with diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) and vehicles going into regeneration mode. “The frustrations are there and I think will continue,” he says, “but you live and learn, and you learn to adapt.”
When the company started installing septic systems, Miene quickly saw other site work opportunities. Using the skid-steer, he started doing his own grading and then offered that as an added service.
“Then we just started buying more attachments and doing more for people, and really trying to accommodate them while they were already under construction. We could get their properties into better shape for their needs.” By the late 1990s they’d accumulated several pieces of equipment and grew the staff to handle the workload. “It was starting to become a real, ‘Wow, what did we get into?’” Miene says, “But things were just working.”
Once they bought the big excavator, they began digging basements and putting in small ponds, or occasionally installing water and sewer lines. Working for developers, they saw the need for land-clearing equipment, so they picked up a number of forestry attachments for their skid-steers and doing everything from building driveways to clearing fully timbered areas.
When work slows down in the winter, they put plow blades on the trucks and wheeled skid-steer and offer snow removal services. Employees typically take vacations or work on an on-call basis during the off-season.
Miene says the crew thrives on unusual challenges. For example, in 2016 they had a contract to install a commercial septic system at a new facility for the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They were eventually asked to also build an amphitheater at the facility using natural stone from the adjacent hillside. “That’s the neat thing,” he says. “One day it might be one thing, the next something totally different and once in a while something totally off the wall.”
In another interesting twist, a residential customer had them install his septic system, which led to grading work, then building a pond — and then to his eventual employment with the company. Miene now calls Kyle Mekvinda the rock of the company. “He’s the go-to guy; positive about everything and great with customers.”
KEEP CUSTOMERS HAPPY
Miene says one of his favorite things about the business is meeting people, getting a vision of what they want to do and figuring out how to make it happen.
“Maybe they want a new septic system, but they also want a (home) addition. We try to problem-solve and maybe even look a little further and say, ‘What if we move it over here so you hide your tank and at the same time give it a little better location for servicing?’ There’s a lot of things people don’t think about and we might be able to come up with something that may actually work out better for them.
“A happy customer makes it all worthwhile,” he says. “We have a real dedication to the customer being satisfied. I like it when you see them light up and they’re happy about what they get in the end.”
Rick Miene, owner of Miene Septic Service in Robins, Iowa, is not a horse person, but in rural Iowa a lot of people are, including his 12-year-old daughter Marissa. So naturally he’s been drawn into that world.
Of course, a lot of horse ranches have septic systems, so he’s developed a good clientele through networking, maintaining and installing systems. But as he’s picked up more equipment, he’s been able to branch out and do other things for the equestrian crowd.
“One of the big things we’ve been doing is building horse arenas, whether it be a residential or a commercial site,” he says. For these projects, whether fenced-in outdoor arenas or wood-construction indoor facilities, the company constructs the riding pad, which involves site clearing, excavation of topsoil, compacting and grading the soil base, and laying down a sand footing.
Miene has also gotten involved in supporting the National Barrel Horse Association, the organization his daughter belongs to. He sponsors some of their activities and donates grading and leveling services during events. In return he puts up a company banner at the arena.
“Septic work can open a lot of doors,” he says. “It all works hand in hand.”