Recognizing the value of learning from others fuels success in this collaborative industry.

“Few things are more powerful as a teaching tool than the example of success.”

That’s what Tom McLaughlin, longtime owner of Metro-Rooter in Jacksonville, Florida, has learned in his almost 40 years in business. His company is now one of the largest waste disposal and portable sanitation companies in the region, and he is so pleased that he found someone to learn from when he was just starting out.

For McLaughlin, that mentor was Larry Garner, 76, now retired from A. Carver Septic in Jacksonville.

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Garner had been running his company for several decades, but he wasn’t too busy or competitive to help McLaughlin when he came asking about setting up a similar business.

During the process of launching his own septic company in the late 1970s, McLaughlin contacted Garner. “This fella, he really reached out; we didn’t know anything about the septic tank business,” McLaughlin says.

“This guy opened up and helped me get a place to dump, taught me about the relevant pricing, etc. He didn’t have to do that.”

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Yet Garner, a successful businessman in his own right, did just that. Why help the competition?

Garner remembered that he, too, was once new in the industry — and he didn’t have the benefit of having a mentor.

“I jumped in ankle deep; it was a learning process,” he recalls.

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Young operators learning the ropes
Brad Piesch of Brad’s Septic Service in Battle Ground, Washington, worked in construction prior to starting his own septic company just two years ago; he added portable restrooms about a year ago and now has about 100 units (mostly PolyPortables and Satellite Industries). At just 28, Piesch has grown his business quickly, spawning other specialties from the carpet cleaning business he started with.

Piesch has had his CDL for about 10 years and would often go on the road with a construction or utility company. One day, the light bulb went on.

“Every job I was doing, they had their (septic trucks) out there,” he says, thinking that he might be interested in entering the fray. “I just kind of got into it. Then last summer, people were asking me about restrooms.”

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Piesch did a lot of research and took classes online prior to starting his business, but he also made cold calls to two competitors in his area, including Ted Gibson, owner of TED-DEE Bear Septic in Vancouver, Washington. “I’ve always seen his truck around. He does really good work, so I wanted to learn from him.

“I decided to call him. It was kind of scary, but he was fine about it. I told him I would never step on his toes.”

With Gibson’s assistance, Piesch learned the “nuts and bolts” of the business, from working in the field to inspections and paperwork.

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Their companies have even helped each other out when needed. “We all work with each other. We’ve got a good group of people.”

Having a mentor has meant everything to this relative newcomer to the industry. “It’s been amazing,” Piesch says. “I’m super thankful. This industry is different from most. I like it so much because everyone is such a hard worker. I like to work hard.”

Like Garner, Piesch agreed that the septic industry is a pretty collaborative endeavor. “There’s enough work for everyone,” he says.  

Ruben “Sonny” de la Rosa III of Valley Plumbing and Septic in Rio Rico, Arizona, also acknowledges the importance of being mentored. He learned from his now-retired father. And he even surprised himself by actually asking for help.

“I was the guy who said I didn’t need my Dad’s help at one point,” recalls de la Rosa, who worked in several different careers before turning to the septic industry.

De la Rosa now admits his father is “still a big part of my success.

“I would not be able to do what I do without someone to talk to, like my father. … I don’t believe anybody has all the answers. To have somebody to talk to who might lend some extra advice or a second point of view, it always helps.

“Whenever I’m stuck, there are some people in the industry I call,” he says. “It’s not something you can find in every competitor, but I’ve had a couple that have been pretty pleasant.”

Part 2: Why you should be a mentor

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