Mississippi’s David Knight overcomes a severe construction injury and multiple setbacks to build a thriving full-service septic business.
In 2012, David Knight was well on his way toward establishing a successful pumping company despite being only a year into the business venture. Although still largely a one-man operation, Knight had built a solid list of pumping clients and purchased an excavator to begin branching into septic repairs and installs.
Then everything came to an abrupt halt. While finishing up construction on a home he was building for family members, Knight had an accident, falling into the foyer of the home, and broke both of his feet.
“It was pretty devastating since I didn’t have any full-time drivers or anything,” Knight says. “I crushed my heel on my right side, and I already had a plate and several screws in my ankle on the left side, so when I hit the ground it destroyed my ankle joint. I was wheelchair-bound for four months.”
But the accident — only the first of several obstacles that occurred in the subsequent years — didn’t mark the end of Knight Environmental Services, in Caledonia, Mississippi. Today, the diversified company is going strong with five full-time technicians and a varied workload, everything from pumping tanks to installing water mains for area utilities.
“Looking back at it, I don’t know how we made it through that rough period, but we did,” Knight says. “We just tried our best and did what we needed to do to live to fight another day.”
SON OF A PUMPER
Knight grew up around the septic service business. His father started an installing company in 1983 in Caledonia, and not long after added a vacuum truck. Knight helped out as a child, and then joined the company full time after graduating from high school in 1996.
“That was my college education I guess you could say,” says Knight. “We were blessed with a lot of business. Caledonia isn’t a real big town, but it’s in one of the larger counties in Mississippi.”
But by 2007, Knight admits he was burnt out on the septic business. He shifted course and became a homebuilder.
“I left on good terms with my dad,” Knight says. “He had some new guys come on board, and I stayed around a little longer to help train them. But he had been saving the company for me, so when I left, he had to shift his strategy. Eventually the new guys came to him with an offer to buy the company, and they figured out a fair deal.”
Knight’s contracting business wasn’t solely reliant on new-home construction, but in 2011 the recession had enough of an impact on it that he was open to new opportunities. For Knight that actually meant a return to his roots. He approached the new owners of his father’s former company and offered to purchase the pumping side of the business. The company was struggling to keep up with the pumping demand while it mostly focused on repairs and installs, and other dirt work.
“I made an offer and they took half of that, which I thought was a great gesture,” Knight says. “So I bought a truck and in September 2011 was back in business pumping tanks by myself, with a few young guys helping out after school and in the summertime.”
In the first year, Knight says he pumped 250 tanks. “For the size of our area, I thought that was pretty good,” he says.
OBSTACLE AFTER OBSTACLE
All was going smoothly for Knight Environmental, with a gradual but steady growth trajectory, when the accident happened in December 2012. Knight was fully committed to the pumping business, but he still had his general contractor’s license so he had taken a brief foray into his former profession to help relatives build their home.
When the one man of a one-man operation is looking at months of recovery, that doesn’t bode well for the company’s prospects. Knight says he had a lot of help from family, as well as other sources, to get through the time he had to stay out of the pumper truck.
First, Knight’s dad, brother and another friend all pitched in to keep up with the pumping workload.
“After-hours, and outside of other jobs they had, they would go pump tanks for me,” says Knight. “And my dad had actually had an accident just six weeks prior to mine, so he was a little limited in what he could do. We just limped through it, no pun intended, for about eight months until I got back on my feet somewhat.”
That allowed Knight to at least keep up on payments on the debt his young company was carrying. His bank allowed him to make interest-only payments on the vac truck for as long as it took before he could ramp up to full operations again. At the time, Knight also owned an excavator to begin branching into installations and repairs, but his dad’s former company was able to completely remove that burden.
“The guy I had bought the pumping business from, he came to visit me in the hospital, and I kiddingly asked him if he wanted to buy an excavator. But he said he’d love to have it, so I sold it to him for what I owed on it and got rid of that risk,” Knight says.
Nine months after the accident, Knight was still on crutches but back in the truck, with a young helper handling all the physical labor while Knight drove and supervised. Business started picking up. Knight eventually brought on two employees and began again pursuing repair jobs in addition to the pumping.
But in August 2014, Knight had another setback. His left foot had never properly healed following his accident and was still giving him problems. After consulting with doctors he made the decision to have it amputated.
“I had a mid-calf amputation, but I still had the two guys working for me,” Knight says. “They were really green but worked hard, so we stumbled through the early part of 2015. Then, within a week, both of them left. One took another job and the other had a change of venue. I was a fresh amputee and back to square one again.”
From there, however, the company has finally had a period of continual progress. A childhood friend joined Knight part time, and eventually full time, and by the end of 2015 Knight himself was moving beyond the physical struggles he’d had since the accident. In October of that year, he ran a 5K race on his prosthetic leg. A few more employees were hired, more equipment was purchased, and the jobs kept coming.
“We bounced back as solid as ever,” Knight says. “Now we’re just trying to keep up with demand.”
HOW HE DID IT
Ambition combined with an acceptance of circumstances helped Knight ride out each setback, he says. To begin, even though he had his accident at a time when his new company was still trying to get established, he wasn’t deterred from one day building it into an operation with a steady workload.
“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted it to be,” he says. “I just wanted to grow and keep up with demand and find a happy medium. When it’s your baby — your investment — you’re going to get after it, just to protect it.”
But that drive didn’t push Knight into doing something foolish that would ultimately further hinder the company’s growth. You can look at the way Knight has handled his equipment purchases as an example. He didn’t attempt to hang on to too much following his accident, selling his excavator with the knowledge that it would be challenging enough keeping up on the payments for the vacuum truck.
“Everybody has things happen to them that they can’t control,” he says. “But when you’ve incurred debt, you have to make wise decisions and figure out a way to be responsible and get through it. You might have to sell something.”
Despite not being able to work at all for a period of time, and remaining limited physically for even longer, Knight made sure that one piece of equipment he decided to keep — the pumper truck — never stopped working and was out in the field making the company money.
“When you have debt, you have to work, even during times when you may not like it,” Knight says. “If your goal is to get everything paid for and you want to do more than just pay the bills, you have to work. Then you can get to a point where you can be more profitable and not have to work at quite the same level.”
Because of that approach, Knight says he’s scheduled to pay off his septic service truck this year, even though he spent a significant chunk of his six years in business in survival mode. He’s been quickly adding to his equipment fleet in recent years as his health and business have picked up. The fleet includes: the 2005 Peterbilt with a 3,000-gallon tank and NVE pump built by House of Imports, a 2013 Ford F-450 portable restroom truck with a 400-gallon slide-in package from Best Enterprises, a 2016 Kubota SVL95 skid-steer, a 2016 Kubota KX057 mini-excavator, and a 2013 Kubota KX121 mini-excavator. Knight Environmental has also gradually grown a portable restroom inventory as demand has called for it. It now numbers about 70 PolyJohn Enterprises units.
“As far as the fleet goes, we’re still building,” Knight says. “We’re trying to get stuff paid off as quickly as possible because there’s more equipment we want to acquire. We don’t want to put too much debt out there.”
Going forward, Knight says he wants to continue to grow his business, but only in line with customer demand and not to the point where it controls his or his employees’ personal lives.
“My goal is family comes first, and when you’re self-employed, that’s sometimes hard to do,” he says. “It’s never going to be about how many jobs we can get in a week, or how many tanks we can pump in a day. I want to build a successful company that people can be proud to work for that doesn’t put stress on their families. You have to find balance.”
Striking that balance has Knight especially enjoying his second go-around in the septic business, no matter what challenges may arise.
“When I left my dad’s company in 2007, I didn’t care if I pumped a septic tank ever again. I was burnt out,” he says. “But having this opportunity to get back in the business, I’ve discovered I really love it. Yeah, there are challenges, but this whole time since I’ve been back I’ve loved everything that goes into it.”
Enough work for everyone
The former company of David Knight’s father was especially busy with new installations and repairs, so when Knight offered to purchase the pumping side of the business from the new owners, they gladly made the deal. But after getting re-established in the pumping game, Knight decided to add installs and repairs as well. Some might think a competition for marketplace domination would’ve resulted, but the two companies have taken a different approach — they don’t poach one another’s customers.
“They stay busy, we stay busy. We don’t get in each other’s way,” Knight says. “We have an agreement. It’s not written down. It’s not a binding agreement. It’s just a courtesy we offer to each other to not get in the other’s way. There’s no need to. There’s plenty of work out there.”
Early on, Knight simply picked up repair jobs the other company wasn’t able to get to, but as he grew to a point where he wanted to more actively pursue repair jobs, he made sure he wasn’t stepping on feet.
“The Knights had a good name in the area, so I had a lot of contacts and started venturing farther west,” Knight says. “I want to build a thriving, successful company, but I’m not looking to put others out of business. If there’s a job out there and you don’t have access to it, I’m going after it. That’s my approach.”
And it’s been successful, with the workload staying steady for both companies. It’s actually been a bit more than what each company can handle.
“I had to bring my dad out of retirement somewhat to handle the overflow that comes in,” Knight says. “Some of those old contracts he had are still around, so they get excited when they see my dad back out on the job. There’s a sense of security there because he always had a great reputation for being honest and doing good work.”