Leister took over an older septic service company and is modernizing it with high technology, Google marketing and youthful energy.
When Cole Leister went to college to study business, he knew his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, his heart, mind and interest were in the septic service industry. Turns out, he and his family could do something about that. Today, at only 19 years old, Leister along with his father, Randy, are owners of Salina Septic Service in Salina, Kansas.
When Cole’s father and grandmother purchased Fuller’s Septic Service (as it was previously called), 82-year-old Wayne Fuller had run the business since 1951. Cole and his father took over in 2016 when Cole’s grandmother gifted him her shares.
“I was actually scheduled to go to college, but I found myself spending more time here working than in college,” says Leister, whose business serves a 50-mile radius around the rural Salina, pumping septic tanks and renting portable restrooms.
“I spend almost all my waking hours … just obsessing over business and business practices. I’ve always been self-confident in my abilities; this job kind of shows that,” says Leister. “I got the motivation from (the Discovery Channel show) Dirty Jobs, and I read Pumper magazine to learn more about the industry.”
In addition to Leister and his father, Salina Septic has four employees, including Cole’s brother, Jackson, who is 17 and works part-time. The equipment is older: familiar brands Leister has in the inventory include trucks outfitted by Satellite Industries and Best Enterprises as well as restrooms from PolyJohn Enterprises and Satellite Industries.
Now, Leister is building his own company, but he’s starting with a solid reputation and established customer base. “Wayne built a very, very good business,” he says of the family friend. “He kept a lot of his customers, and the local contractors and construction workers had done stuff with him,” says Leister, who renamed the business but kept the familiar phone number.
Pumper: Do you feel being so young in this industry is an advantage or a disadvantage?
Leister: In this situation, in an established business with a fairly large client base, being young allowed me to come in and take a little risk, upgrading stuff as well as bringing up the energy level.
Pumper: What’s your role in the business?
Leister: Our business is set up as an S corporation with a partnership; my dad and I are owners. For the most part, my dad is fully hands off; he comes in occasionally. I’ll go out to the field if needed; otherwise, I am mostly working in the office. I take care of the books, payroll and dispatching. I like my alone time in the office where I can sit down and think, but at the same time, I understand that my responsibility is to make sure the work gets done.
Pumper: What have you learned so far?
Leister: Sept. 1, 2016 was my first day, and I’ve learned a lot of things — too many to count. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with running a business. It matters to me what my employees think and how they feel. My priority is to make sure they enjoy what they do and they have what they need to eliminate stress on the job. At the end of the day, I want people to feel good about what they’re doing.
I rely on my employee Sheldon Crook. He grew up around this and took care of things. He has been my guiding light. He learned a lot about septic systems: how to run the trucks, maintenance, how to fix things and how to deal with customers on a job site. Watching him interact with customers motivated me to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could.
I also learned a lot on my own. I tend to get a bit obsessed, reading well into the night to learn more. I went to the WWETT Show this year, primarily for the equipment because we needed to see what was out there and what we had the option to buy. Next year, it will probably be for networking or education.
Pumper: How have you improved Salina Septic Service since you took over?
Leister: All the records were kept on paper. I’ve added routing and billing software — that was a big thing.
For routing, they had a sheet of paper they filled out for everyone on the list. I spent a weekend pulling out binders of work orders and plugging them into a basic software where I can keep track of the people and where the toilets are. I like being able to see them all on a map. A lot of the equipment and machinery is seriously outdated and needs renovation, so I’m trying to upgrade. I would rather not incur debt, however.
Pumper: How have you updated technology?
Leister: One of the first things I did was establish a Google business page. Everything is tied into digital for me. The reason I chose the name “Salina” is because of the organic search reach in our area: we’re going to come up first. I have a plan that will probably begin taking place this fall. I want to hold events to increase brand awareness, like a 5K run this fall to benefit breast cancer awareness. I would use social media to publicize that.
For what we do, social media is not the best form of advertising, however. The best form, in my opinion, is being there when someone needs you — being accessible. I would like to share photos, videos, events, etc. on social media rather than advertising.
Pumper: What are your long-term goals for the company?
Leister: I’m focused on homeowner education. Not enough people know proper maintenance and care. People don’t always realize that their septic tank was backing up because they didn’t have it pumped out. I would like to have problem/solution pages on our website. I also want to have a page dedicated to how we clean our units and what customers can expect. Customers need to know the financial reasons for regular maintenance. I don’t want it to appear that I’m just trying to get their money. It’s important that customers know what to expect from our company.
I would really like, and this is very subjective, to build a brand or a business that I don’t have to be at every day. My ultimate goal is to build something so that it lasts after I’m gone or so that it can run itself.
Pumper: You’re a young face in the industry; what do you feel veteran owners need to know?
Leister: The world is digital now, whether they like it or not. One of the first things I did was cancel my Yellow Pages ads. The next thing I did was get listed on Google to make sure people could find us.
I don’t plan on ever retiring, but I’m young enough that I can think 30, 40, 50 years into the future. I don’t have to make a quick dollar today; I’m interested in what’s going to happen down the road. That same mentality is not common in older people and that was kind of my sales pitch to let them give me more responsibility. Let me do what I do, and see how it plays out in the long term.
One thing I definitely do not have is the years of experience. I don’t know how to do everything, but I’ve got the time to learn. A different experience comes up every day, so I learn something every day.
Pumper: What have you noticed about the industry — good and bad?
Leister: There is a stigma to the industry. I’d like other people to see what we do as a valuable service, even when they don’t need it. I want to build a positive local reputation — looking professional, having clean trucks and educating customers — that’s one of my biggest pushes.