Industry newcomers educate consumers, focus on quality service and add hazardous materials specialty to build pumping profits.
In nearly seven years as owners, Alan and Pam Astin have roughly tripled the gross revenue of Davis Concrete Products.
They have expanded the company by moving beyond its traditional specialties in concrete precasting and grease trap and septic system pumping to include grease trap installation and hazardous materials (hazmat) transportation and spill cleanup.
“We have taken this company in many different directions,” says Alan Astin, who bought the company, which is based in Phenix City, Alabama, a mile from the Georgia state line. On the way, they’ve built a loyal following with quality customer education and services. Three years ago, the company won a contract for services at the Fort Benning Army post near Columbus across the border in Georgia.
They’ve done all this despite having essentially no previous experience in the wastewater industry. Pam had worked for more than two decades in apartment management; Alan had been self-employed doing home and apartment renovations. Both quickly grasped the essentials of success in the industry: hiring and keeping an excellent team, building a fleet of high-quality and versatile equipment, and delivering exceptional customer care to justify rates that enable a strong profit.
A NEW ERA
The Astins bought Davis Concrete, now 60 years old, from Alton Williams, who specialized in precast concrete septic tanks but also offered pumping. Alan had been buying tanks there for about six months while helping a friend in the onsite installation business. Williams offered to sell the business: “He said, ‘Hey, are you interested in buying this place?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ It snowballed from there. When I told my wife I wanted to buy a million-dollar company, she about hit me in the head.”
Pam immediately went to work running the office. It’s a bit ironic that the couple has gradually phased out the precasting side of the business: Alan found it offered less profit and more headaches than the pumping side. Selling tanks meant having to deliver on schedule to installers, who were unhappy if he arrived even 30 minutes to an hour late.
“I don’t want to work hard for a little money,” he says. “I want to work hard for a lot of money. It seemed like we were stepping over dollars to pick up dimes. We were passing up profitable pumping jobs to deliver less profitable tanks. When working with homeowners, if you show up and solve their problem, they’re happy to pay whatever fair price you charge them.”
Before the change in ownership, Davis Concrete had five employees. Two of them, commercial technician Mike Hill and Fort Benning technician Jamie Williams (son of Alton Williams), now work for the Astins. The other team members are:
- Shameka Walton and Sharon Jack, administrative assistants
- Tristan Griggs, shop technician
- Jason Shedd, field technician
- Danny Key, residential technician
- James Green, project manager and shop foreman
Team members receive paid vacation, uniforms and, most importantly, generous salaries. Compensation also includes year-end contributions of up to 15 percent of salary to a retirement account (simplified employee pension IRA), based on the company’s profitability. That helps foster employee retention and the advantages that go with it.
“It’s a huge relief not having to look for employees and train them,” Pam says. “Dealing with big turnover like a lot of companies do — that’s one worry we don’t have. And if we need to go out of town, we feel comfortable leaving our company in our employees’ hands. We know they’re going to take care of business while we’re gone.”
SERVING THE MILITARY
Winning the Fort Benning business gave Davis Concrete a big boost. There, the company regularly pumps grease traps at the dining halls and does hazmat work. “Columbus Water Works is the primary contract holder, and they bid out the job,” Alan recalls. “We were not the low bidder initially, but it turned out the low bidder couldn’t fulfill their end of the bargain.” As the second lowest bidder, Davis Concrete got the work.
Used to pumping 1,000- and 1,500-gallon grease traps, the company suddenly had to service about two dozen grease traps as large as 12,000 gallons. Prompt and efficient service is critical: “If Fort Benning calls and it’s two o’clock in the morning, I can’t tell them we’re not coming. When they call, we go. We have a response time we have to meet.” The company recently installed a 2,000-gallon grease trap on the base.
Hazmat work has become a big part of the Fort Benning contract. Alan, Green and Hill had to complete a 40-hour training class to acquire Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response certification through OSHA. The hazmat work involves cleaning up spills of oil, hydraulic fluid and diesel fuel, as well as other tasks.
Making that work easier is a Berringer wet-dry vacuum truck (Keith Huber Corporation) with a 3,500-gallon waste tank and a 300-gallon freshwater tank and Robuschi USA blower on a 2016 Western Star chassis.
EXCELLING AT SERVICE
On smaller-scale commercial grease trap and residential septic tank pumping jobs, service quality helps Davis Concrete build business in its territory. Grease goes to the wastewater treatment plant in Columbus where it is fed to an anaerobic digester to produce biogas that’s used to generate electricity for plant processes.
The company’s service attracts a loyal customer base. “When we service a grease trap, we don’t just suck it out and leave,” Alan says. “We pressure wash the tank and pressure wash the area around it if we’ve left anything on the ground.”
On the residential side, Pam and the office team win prospective customers’ confidence during initial phone contacts. “When people call, a lot of them are new to septic tanks,” Pam says. “When you ask the questions you need to know before you give them a price, it opens their eyes. We ask what size tank they have; they have no idea. We ask how many bedrooms they have. If it’s a three-bedroom house, they probably have a 1,000-gallon tank. We ask if they see green lids in the yard. We ask what’s going on, and they may say it’s backing up in the shower or tub. If it’s a newer home, more than likely they have a filter on the tank. If they’ve been flushing baby wipes, cotton swabs, or cotton balls, their filter is probably stopped up.
“It’s about educating them,” Pam continues. “If you don’t know anything about a subject and somebody educates you, that makes you feel more comfortable. We get a lot of jobs just by talking to people and trying to help them. A lot of times, I will try to keep us from going there — to help them figure it out themselves. They’ll say, ‘No, no, just go ahead and send somebody.’”
Alan adds: “I’ve heard her talk to people on the phone after another company has given them that lower price, and they still go with us just because of the way she talks to them. If it weren’t for Pam, this company wouldn’t be half of what it is.”
ANSWER THE CALL
The rapport developed with customers on the phone pays off in the field. With the information the office team gathers, the truck drivers are prepared to solve customers’ problems efficiently. “Our response time is very important to us,” Alan says. “If you call us today, we’re getting to your job today — 90 percent of the time. If you’re OK to wait, we may push you off until tomorrow. But if someone calls us at 11 or 12 o’clock at night, we’ll go out.
“When my guy comes to your house, he doesn’t just throw his tools out in the yard, dig up the tank, pump it and leave. We ask the customer to come out, see what we’re doing, and understand why we’re doing it. We educate them on how to extend the time until the next service is required.”
Pam observes that technicians get frequent praise from customers for their expertise and courtesy: “We constantly get calls to let us know how well our guys have done. They get tips up to $100. They spend that extra time to make friends with the customers.”
The company has scaled up homeowner education. Several years ago, after the closing of several Army posts, Fort Benning was expanding. Subdivisions sprang up with the homes of new service members, many of whom had never lived with an onsite system.
“You had people coming from all over the country who didn’t even know what a septic tank was,” Alan says. “Within months of them living there, the septic tanks weren’t working. With the way these people were treating their septic systems, they had to be completely taught and start over.” The Astins arranged to attend homeowner association meetings and explain the function of septic systems and their care.
BUILDING THE FLEET
Along the way, the company steadily upgraded the truck and equipment fleet. Besides the Berringer unit, the vacuum truck fleet includes:
- 2012 Freightliner with 4,000-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater steel tank and National Vacuum Equipment blower built by Lely Tank & Waste Solutions
- 2007 Freightliner with 2,500-gallon steel tank and Jurop/Chandler pump.
- 2006 International with a 4,000-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater tank (Lely Tank & Waste Solutions) and Wittig (Gardner Denver) 500 cfm vacuum pump
- 2006 International with a 3,000-gallon steel tank and Masport pump
- 2002 Peterbilt with a 4,000-gallon steel tank and Jurop/Chandler pump
- 2001 International Keith Huber Corporation Dominator with 3,500-gallon waste and 300-gallon freshwater steel tank and Wittig pump.
The equipment roster also includes a 2005 John Deere backhoe loader, a Takeuchi Mfg. TB145 mini-excavator, a Takeuchi Mfg. TB130 skid-steer, a North Star hot-water pressure washer, a 2017 Honda utility vehicle, and two GO FOR DIGGER towable backhoes. Shop foreman Green, formerly a service technician for an equipment rental company, takes care of the trucks and machinery. “He is extremely young and extremely smart,” Alan observes.
A couple of the company vacuum trucks are surplus service vehicles to ensure they always have enough roadworthy equipment to fulfill contracts. “I might have a truck sit out there for two weeks and never move,” Alan says. “But if I have a truck go down, I can’t call a customer and say I won’t be there.”
Looking ahead, the Astins plan to build on successes while keeping an eye open for more ways to diversify. “As long as we can afford to pay our guys, if we can do it, we’re going to — it doesn’t matter what it is,” Alan says. “If it’s something we can do and my guys are safe doing it, we’re going to do it and we’re going to make money.”
What’s in a name? Lots of equity
Many industry contacts ask Alan Astin: “Why is your company name Davis Concrete Products?” They ask because the firm has extremely diverse services and is almost out of the precast concrete business.
There’s a simple answer to the question: The name carries a great deal of business equity. “Sixty years ago, Davis Concrete was started,” Astin says. “My wife and I are the fourth owners. If you don’t know who Davis Concrete is, you’re new to town. That’s why we’re Davis Concrete and we always will be Davis Concrete.”
Equity in the business includes a card catalog containing index cards of some 10,000 customers going back many years. The company works to build on its reputation as a go-to contractor. “Once you know who Davis Concrete is, your choice of what we can do is endless,” Astin says. “For anything at all related to what we do, people say, ‘Just send it to Davis Concrete — they’ll handle it.’”