Longtime employee Mike Fly moved from the end of the hose to the owner’s desk at California’s Sweet Septic.
When 16-year-old Mike Fly stopped into a septic service supply store in 1983 hoping to sell some batteries to owner Bud Sweet, he came away with more than the gas money he was hoping for. “He asked me if I wanted to come to work. I said yes. He said show up Saturday morning at 8 o’clock. I showed up Saturday morning at 8 o’clock and I haven’t left.”
The Placerville, California, company was undergoing rapid expansion at the time, as the retail and pumping business Sweet had started 11 years earlier expanded into manufacturing precast concrete septic tanks. By the time Pumper ran a feature story on the company in 2004, they had three locations and 20 employees. But things changed a few years later after a rough ride through the 2007-08 recession, and the company came full circle back to its roots, as Sweet gave up on manufacturing and downsized to one location — the original storefront.
By that time, Mike was president of the company and very familiar with all aspects of the business. In 2011, he and his wife, Annette, became the new owners when Sweet retired.
The store continues to be the heart of Sweet Septic’s operation. The Flys feel this unique way to engage with customers gives them a competitive edge. People can wander in, get advice, ask questions and pick up supplies. Or just pet Lexi, the couple’s black Labrador, and visit awhile.
The 2,000-square-foot building sits on 1.5 acres. The company provides pumping, locating and inspection services throughout all of El Dorado County, which runs about 80 miles from the outskirts of Sacramento to the Nevada state line. Technician Dennis Alberty, who’s been with the company 33 years, works with Mike in the field, while Anne Darr spends three days a week helping Annette with bookkeeping, running the store and scheduling. They’re in the process of replacing a driver who recently left for health reasons, but it’s been difficult as there’s currently a shortage of truck drivers in their county.
CLIMBING THE LADDER
Mike’s first job at the company was working in the yard, but by age 19 he’d had enough of that and asked Sweet if he could drive a vacuum truck. After getting approval from the insurance company, he stepped into his next role and over the years progressed into management and then into the office doing scheduling and payroll. By the time he was 25, he was president.
Sweet took Mike under his wing, mentoring him and encouraging him to go to college. “He treated him just like family,” Annette says. “In fact, everyone thought Mike was his son.” And likewise, Sweet knew he could count on Mike for anything. “He just said, ‘Go do this,’ and it got done.”
The recession difficulties in 2007 were compounded by the escalating cost of housing permits, Annette says. “In our county it went from $2,000 to over $10,000. That put a damper on new building.” Sweet tried to keep the manufacturing going, laying people off then starting up again, but eventually had to shut the plant down. By 2009, there were only a handful of employees left. After getting the business stabilized, Sweet was ready to retire.
BUYING A BUSINESS
Prior to buying Sweet Septic, Annette had been a freelance bookkeeper and says the only thing she knew about septic systems was that she had one. Sweet wanted her on board so Mike would have someone to handle the business side of things. Annette admits she and Mike had to really think about what it would mean to spend every waking moment together, but it’s worked out fine as they each have their own areas of expertise.
The first order of business was handling details of the sale. “It was a lot of work,” Mike says, “and Annette came in and did her magic.” It was a lot of grunt work, she says — “and filling out about a thousand pieces of paper.” The local bank, familiar with the company and having a good relationship with Sweet, was instrumental in helping get the deal done. The whole process took four or five months.
The setup at first was that the Flys would buy the business and lease the store/property — “Bud said he could only sell so many things at one time,” Annette says — but a couple years later, Sweet was ready to sell everything. Today, he still enjoys stopping by the store to visit.
The couple chose not to tell their customers. “We just wanted a nice smooth transition,” Annette explains. “Hardly any of our customers knew because Mike was always the face anyway. We just let it happen naturally.”
BUYING A TRUCK
Three vacuum trucks came with the purchase of the business, one of which immediately needed a new motor. A few years later when it blew a third motor, the Flys knew they’d have to replace it. The process turned out to be a little more involved than they imagined. They knew they couldn’t buy a used truck because it wouldn’t conform to strict California air quality regulations. And they were surprised to find it would take three or four months to have one built. “And that wasn’t even with the tank on it yet,” Mike says. They were a little desperate making do with their small truck — a 2001 International 4900 with a 2,500-gallon aluminum Lely Tank & Waste Solutions LLC tank and Masport HXL75 water-cooled pump — which resulted in a lot of extra work.
“Our county’s very big, so it’s hard to do multiple jobs with that truck without going to the dump,” Mike says. “Plus, we have big jobs we do with three trucks and we couldn’t do that, so we had to do something fast. I ended up looking through Pumper and calling up manufacturers to see what they had in stock.” He found a truck from Progress Tank — a 2015 Kenworth 5370 with a 3,600-gallon aluminum tank. Progress obligingly switched out the pump to a Masport HXL400 water-cooled pump — the same one Mike had on his other high-capacity truck, a 2007 International 4400 also with a Progress 3,600-gallon aluminum tank — and he had the vehicle within two weeks.
About one-third of the company’s work is inspections. They also provide locating services using Prototek AR‑1 analog underground locators. On the pumping side, about 20 percent of the work is for commercial accounts. While their residential work tends to be responding to emergencies, commercial customers are put on regular schedules in order to avoid problems that would affect a large number of people.
Customers include the wastewater district, mobile home parks, golf courses, campgrounds, schools, as well as the U.S. Forest Service for its cabins, dorms and vault toilets. On large jobs, Mike prefers to send all the trucks and get the job done in one day or less. Disposal is at the county wastewater facility.
For marketing, the company relies on word-of-mouth and a longstanding reputation in the county, but they also run ads in the local paper and sponsor a lot of kids’ sports and dance programs. Mike says they maintain a good name by giving great service. “We’re on a schedule, but we always try to go the extra mile,” he says.
Annette handles the scheduling and routing. “I literally do it on paper,” she says. “We write it down, which I know sounds antiquated, but we always know where the trucks are and we do a really good job about grouping jobs together.” Every night the team talks about how the day went and what’s coming up for the next day. It’s family oriented, Annette says, adding they try to reward the hardworking employees that keep the business going.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE STORE
While Mike and Dennis are out servicing customers, Annette and Anne are doing the same at the store as they field questions and troubleshoot problems. Customers love that there is always someone there to talk to. The shop is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Customers also stop in to buy septic products and supplies. The company buys risers from TUF-TITE Inc., and sells their own enzyme product Sweet named Bugs to You.
In addition to minding the store, the office team takes care of the books. Thanks to the foresight of Sweet and his wife, Sheila, the company has detailed computer records going back to the late 1980s on every tank pumped. The original digital records are now being transferred to QuickBooks. Daughter Kaitlyn, in between college semesters, is scanning all their older paper files into the computer. “It will take years, but it will be well worth it,” Annette says.
The detailed information is helpful for the drivers, and customers are grateful to be able to get information on their system — where their tank is (the most common question), when it was last serviced, how deep it is and how many risers it has. Even the county calls them to get information on someone’s property when a request comes in to put on an addition.
Buying the business was a natural step for Mike. And, when the time is right, it looks like they have now found the perfect person to succeed them. “Our daughter, Becca (Russell), who has a business degree and is currently a project manager for a solar company, has expressed interest in taking over the business and carrying it on for us,” Annette says. “Not anytime soon, but that’s what we’re going to be grooming her for.”
For Annette, the most rewarding aspect of the business is helping customers — “hearing the relief in people’s voices when we can help them.” Mike agrees. “I’m very glad we bought it,” he says. “There’s times that it’s tough and you’re stressed — but I’m my own boss and I prefer it that way. And I get to work with my wife and my dog.”
Weekend septage storage
Most wastewater treatment plants are only open Monday through Friday. Septic companies, on the other hand, often need to work weekends and holidays responding to emergencies or catching up on backed-up workload. The difficulty then is what to do with the septage until the plant opens on Monday morning. In some cases, a company might have to turn down work.
Mike and Annette Fly, owners of Sweet Septic in Placerville, California, are fortunate to have a solution to the problem — underground storage. Bud Sweet, the previous owner, manufactured concrete septic tanks and had a number of them installed on the company’s storefront property. “We’re the only company in the county who has that, because we’re the only ones with a yard and a storefront as well,” Annette says. The underground tanks have a total capacity of 10,000 gallons, giving the company the ability to handle any emergency.
There is always someone on call at Sweet Septic after-hours. Annette says they try to limit it to one person — “because everyone needs time off” — but it doesn’t always work out that way. “We do our best to help as many people as we can on the weekends,” she says.