Craig Stewart and Knox VanZandt work together amiably while planning an ownership transition for a pumping business in Idaho’s scenic Teton Valley.
Craig Stewart needed a successor to take over his business as he faced an uncertain future. Knox VanZandt wanted a stable income to enable him to stay in Idaho’s Teton Valley and enjoy its amenities for fishing and skiing.
Today, the two operate as partners in Valley Septic and Drain, a septic system pumping and inspection company based in Driggs, just across the Wyoming border from Grand Teton National Park. Both call it an ideal arrangement: VanZandt is learning the business under the mentorship of Stewart, who has found a partner willing to carry on his tradition of fairness and customer service.
“I wouldn’t have sold the business to just anybody,” says Stewart, 69. “I wanted to know that whoever took this business over would operate it with the same mindset I have. I don’t want Knox’s hat to fall off from his head swelling up, but I’ve had customers call and tell me that I picked a good young man.”
VanZandt observes, “I couldn’t ask for any better than working with Craig. He is an unbelievable teacher and is very patient with me. His name is well-spoken around this community.”
Valley Septic and Drain operates in a rural community of about 10,000 residents. Idaho’s Teton Valley is known as a smaller, quieter place than Jackson Hole, located on the opposite side of the mountains. Nevertheless, it is growing as people build second homes in scenic country known for trout fishing, river rafting, and skiing that ranks with the best in North America.
Distinctly different life journeys brought the Valley Septic and Drain owners together. Stewart grew up in the Teton Valley and ran a plumbing business for 40 years. Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. Believing his days were numbered, he sold the business. “Long story short, thanks to good medicine and new technology, I’m still alive,” he says. “In 2010, the economy went bad, and the young man who was buying my business wasn’t able to keep the payments up. I wasn’t in a financial position to live without some kind of income, and so my wife, Sandy, and I reflected on what our options might be.”
He recalled that as young man starting out, he pumped septic tanks for farms and dairies with a 1949 Ford pickup truck carrying a 500-gallon tank. So, seeing no local pumping company serving the valley and its abundant new homes, he bought a 2000 Freightliner with a 2,200-gallon steel tank and went into the pumping business.
VanZandt moved to the Teton Valley from Tennessee soon after graduating from high school. He worked summers as a trout fishing guide on the rivers, and in winters, he did maintenance for the sanitation systems on ski resorts around Jackson Hole. After some 20 years in the valley, he wanted more financial stability. “I met Craig several years ago when he helped me out with a plumbing project,” VanZandt says. “We ran into each other now and again, and last fall (2016), I called him to pump my septic tank. While doing that, he told me he was thinking about selling his company. It sounded interesting to me.”
Over the winter, they worked out a partnership in which Stewart and VanZandt each own one-fourth of the business, and equal shares are owned by VanZandt’s father, Polk VanZandt, and his brother-in-law, Murray Dunlap. The long-term plan is for Knox VanZandt to buy the partners out and become the sole owner.
THE BUSINESS PROSPERS
Since he started Valley Septic and Drain, Stewart pumped about 200 tanks per year; that now exceeds 250 as VanZandt pitches in, word-of-mouth spreads, and new homes come due for their first maintenance calls. VanZandt runs the truck while Stewart handles scheduling and administration.
They also inspect septic systems, drawing on Stewart’s experience installing systems as part of his plumbing business. They perform inspections for property transactions as well as for routine maintenance. “Our health department requires an inspection, even when you just pump a tank,” Stewart says. “It’s not an official inspection, but we’re expected to look for problems and point them out to the homeowner. If it’s an incorrect installation or something that might cause contamination, we are obligated to report that to the health department.”
In the beginning, Stewart promoted the business with advertising on the radio and in the local paper, the Teton Valley News. He also hired his sons to put flyers under car windshield wipers at the local grocery store. “After the first season, it was word-of-mouth — neighbor telling neighbor.”
VanZandt adds, “In a small community like this, it doesn’t take long for the word to get out. Word-of-mouth is a pretty big billboard.” The company’s white truck with large black, red and silver lettering also serves as a billboard: “I love parking it at the grocery store. It seems like we get a couple of calls every time I do that.”
ROOM FOR GROWTH
For the time being, Stewart and VanZandt have chosen to work close to home, within a 25-mile radius of Driggs. “When I started, I made up my mind I wasn’t going to leave the county,” Stewart says. “As the business has turned out, we haven’t had to. There’s a lot of room for expansion. We get calls from places in Wyoming and the counties surrounding us here in Idaho, but for now, we’re plenty busy right here.”
They chose not to pump grease traps, and they call on a friend of Stewart’s in the drain cleaning business when there’s a need to clear a septic system blockage. VanZandt is learning the fine points of truck operation and maintenance from Stewart. His experience as a fishing guide transfers nicely to customer service in his new profession: He’s used to dealing with different personalities. “Knox has caught on pretty well,” his partner says. “He’s very good with people.”
The area’s geography presents some work challenges, including erratic weather. “In summertime, the sun is out, but in spring and fall, it can be sunny one minute, snow the next minute, hail the next minute,” VanZandt says. “It can change fast. It can be tough working in those conditions and worrying about the truck getting stuck.”
Another challenge is topography. “We have some real steep country,” Stewart says. “Sometimes we’re hanging on pretty tight climbing into driveways in the hillside subdivisions. Another issue is vacuum. You lose suction fast when you’re working above the septic tank. On some of the hillside lots, the only place the truck can be is on the parking pad, and the septic tank is 30 feet back and 25 feet down the hill.”
To help deal with that, two years ago Stewart replaced the truck’s original pump with a Masport model HXL75. The pump works well in providing vertical lift for tanks on the downhill side of homes in mountain subdivisions. They can handle most pumping jobs with 100 feet of hose, but they keep additional hose on hand for special situations.
Valley Septic and Drain hauls its loads to a small lagoon wastewater treatment plant that serves Tetonia, a community of about 250 homes. The partners aim to keep good relations with the community’s leaders, and to that end, they’re exploring a screening system to clean debris from the septage.
They’ve looked at a simple device that allows the liquid to flow through into a discharge tube while the truck operator rakes the trash on the screen into a wheelbarrow. Stewart believes that with help from local welders and fabricators, he and VanZandt can build a similar screening system, to be installed at the lagoon drop-off point.
They also have a backup plan in case they should ever lose their privileges at the treatment site. A friend of Stewart owns farmland that is irrigated with a center-pivot system. “He’s got a 17-acre corner that is pretty much wasteland for his farming operation,” Stewart says. “We made a deal to do land application on that property.”
That meant working with the local health department and the state Department of Environmental Quality. “We dug a test hole and did a percolation test for the government agencies,” Stewart says. “We passed the test, and they issued some requirements. We would have to build a road and erect a fence to keep domestic animals out.
“We don’t have an official permit yet, but it is an option that we could exercise if we were ever asked to leave the facility we now use. At present, I think the Tetonia council, the mayor, and all those who make the decisions like getting our check every month. As long as we show that we’re trying to improve and not degrade the situation, I don’t foresee them asking us to leave.”
Looking ahead, Stewart — his health status still in question — feels comfortable leaving the business and his customers in VanZandt’s hands. “One thing Sandy and I wanted most of all was, when we leave the company, to have our customers feel like we’re still here. That is what’s happening.
“My dad was a building contractor. He taught me years ago that it doesn’t matter whether you’re pumping somebody’s septic tank or painting their house — if you do the best job you can for them, you’ll do well. I try to emulate that, and I know Knox feels the same way.”
VanZandt and Stewart agree that if the time came to trade in their truck, they would opt for a larger tank. Apart from that, VanZandt is content for the time being to keep learning about the business and leave growth and expansion plans for later.
“Pumping isn’t something I ever thought of getting into, but it’s a job that keeps me here in the valley community and that’s very important,” he says. “I’m not out to make $10 million. I just want to make sure we do a good job and be a good business in the Teton Valley. That’s our main focus now. If we grow, we grow. We’re going to make sure whatever we do, we do it right.
“One thing we get to do that most pumpers don’t is to see the Grand Teton. I would say this is the prettiest place to pump in the country. Everywhere I drive, I’m looking at these unbelievable mountains. That’s what brought me here. It’s pretty special to do business in this area.”
When we’re not pumping
The septic service business in the Teton Valley is highly seasonal. The busy season runs from April through November; in winter, work mostly shuts down except for emergency calls.
Owners Craig Stewart and Knox VanZandt enjoy the respite. Stewart spends time ice fishing for lake trout on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. He has caught trout as large as 35 pounds. “I find in winter it’s a good way to relax,” he says. “You don’t have to feel like you’re jeopardizing your work to go fishing.”
VanZandt looks to winter as a time to indulge his passion for skiing while also mulling ideas for growing the business and doing property management for a few vacation rentals. The heavy workload from spring through fall cuts into his fishing time, although he manages to fit that in during long summer evenings when it stays light until 10 p.m. “Literally two minutes from my house is a good little fishing spot,” he says.
The pumping business forced him to give up guiding river fishing trips, but he doesn’t mind at all. “I’d been guiding for 20 years,” he says. “You just get tired, and it wears you down. A friend asked me, ‘How is your first summer not guiding?’ I said I actually enjoy pumping more. Maybe that’s just because it’s a new challenge, or maybe it’s because I’m part owner, but lately I enjoy it more than guiding.”