Whether you expand your services or are forced to lay off drivers, establishing a game plan now is necessary to keep your bills paid when business slows down.
When the winter season is approaching, pumpers should remember the Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.”
That’s what several pumpers in regions with long winters say is the key to surviving the chilly and, in turn, slow season. And it’s never too early to start.
“You’ve got to plan ahead,” says Mike Oberg, owner of Mike’s Septic Service in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
“Realize that what you are charging someone you have to put away to prepare for the wintertime.”
Oberg has worked in the industry for 40 years, so, he says, “I always knew what it was like.” Some newcomers to the industry, he says, might not prepare enough for the slower season in places such as the tourist region in northern Wisconsin, where his business is located.
Oberg’s company is located on a chain of 28 lakes between the towns of Eagle River and Three Lakes. While Eagle River has around 1,500 permanent residents, the city swells to about 20,000 in summer. He estimates that only about 25 percent of his business — septic pumping and inspections — is done in the winter months.
“November is our last big month,” says Oberg. “In January through March, what we do, we would do in one month in summer.”
Mike’s Septic Service has five employees during the summer. The staff is reduced to just Oberg and one other driver in winter, and the work is mainly pumping holding tanks. Even then, Oberg says, “Nobody pumps unless they’re having a problem.”
And while that slowdown does mean Oberg lays off a few drivers, “That layoff only lasts about a month.”
With three Kenworth trucks in his fleet (with carbon steel tanks made by Imperial Industries), and one being built, Oberg says, “For the summertime, we’ve got all the trucks out, so we’re going full bore. We shut down to just one truck in the wintertime.”
For Oberg, however, preparing for winter is everything; he doesn’t take on any extra jobs, such as snowplowing, grease traps or other services. But he does use the winter months to catch up.
“Besides making sure everything is set on the trucks, we do try to get everything prepared, do bookwork and plan ahead for the year,” he says.
And since all of Oberg’s septic waste is spread on fields (some he owns, some he rents), “We work on our fields to make sure we secure more fields and find more land to spread on. In the wintertime, we do have to plow the fields.”
Maintaining revenue in winter isn’t one of Oberg’s primary concerns mainly because of how hard he works in summer, often 15 to 20 hours of overtime each week. Plus, living in a tourist area, winter affords him a bit of time to do, well, touristy things, like snowmobiling.
“In wintertime, it’s nice to have time off,” he says. “If you can make your payments, you’re fortunate. We don’t have to worry.”
Even further north…
Number 2 Septic Pumping in Ashland — a city of 8,000 in far north Wisconsin — is also located in a tourist area.
“A good number of our customers are second-home owners,” says Jenny Dickrell, office assistant dispatcher for Number 2 Septic Pumping.
That means the need for service slows greatly in winter. And while Number 2 has managed to avoid layoffs, Dickrell says in winter the company focuses on catching up with “the little things,” and does a lot of preemptive maintenance on their vehicles.
They have three full-time drivers running two septic trucks and one portable restroom truck. With 250 restrooms in their fleet, they have only about 35 rented out per month in winter, Dickrell says.
Number 2 doesn’t take on any extra services in the slow season, but the company, like Oberg’s, has learned to be prepared.
“A lot of people look at how you make money in the summer,” Dickrell says. “Sometimes when people have that extra flow in the summer, they forget that there are costs in the winter.”
Diversity grows winter business
Chris Tatro, president of Snowbridge in Breckenridge, Colorado, takes a different approach. “I’ve built my business to be weather-resistant,” says Tatro, whose company pumps 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per day in the summer, but only about 5,000 gallons per week in winter.
Unlike the Midwest tourist regions that lose population in winter, however, Breckenridge is a skiing hotbed; Tatro says the county is home to about 10,000 in summer, but swells to about 60,000 in winter.
While he admits they net more revenue in the summer, “We stay just as busy in the winter.” Septic pumping may slow down, but Tatro’s business does it all: pump replacements and repairs, interior and exterior grease traps, excavation repairs, Roto-Rooter services, jetting and more.
“One of the biggest things we’ve done to enhance our winter business is adding (Giant Industries) jetting equipment to our trucks,” he says. “We’re able to do some of that drain service from the pump truck.”
The key to increasing business in winter, Tatro believes, is not advertising as strictly a septic pumping company. “A lot of guys love to do one thing and they do that very well. We brand ourselves as a wastewater company.
“A big part is just marketing yourself as a septic system professional,” he says, including advertising any extra services offered, like camera work, jetting and drain cleaning.
“If you have a camera and a locator, you can diversify and do more work instead of handing off that work to another contractor,” says Tatro, who used to refer camera and excavation work out to subcontractors. Now, Snowbridge does several hundred excavation repairs each season.
The same goes for jetting. “Most pumpers don’t have jetters on their trucks,” he says. That gives Snowbridge an advantage, for example, when working on frozen sewer lines. “We upsell jetting off of our vacuum trucks all the time.”
Snowbridge, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2016, also stays busy with real estate septic inspections. “It’s one of the things that does keep us busy,” says Tatro. “I was very proactive in helping with the regulatory side; we’ve always been close with our environmental health department.”
To that end, Tatro offers input and presentations to real estate agents; that also helps boost their repair business.
For Snowbridge, diversity may have come with significant investments of time and money, but Tatro believes it has paid off.
“If you want winter work, don’t niche yourself into just doing septic work,” he advises.