The Real Deal

The owner of Texas pumping outfit Universal Vacuum Services focuses on the basics of good service and sharp-looking trucks to build a business for the long haul
The Real Deal
Jimmie Deal has been pumping septic tanks in the Lone Star State for almost 20 years. (Photos by Hunter Artz)

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Jimmie Deal, owner of Universal Vacuum Services, is used to doing things that seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example:

• He’s doggedly loyal to Yellow Pages directory advertising at a time when the Internet is seen as the hottest marketing tool.

• He’s a firm believer in keeping a two-person team on every truck.

• He chooses to specialize in septic and grease trap pumping instead of diversifying into other services.

• In a market crowded with competitors, he prefers cooperation over conflict.

Deal, 41, has gotten along just fine doing things his way. He’s built Universal into a successful operation serving a 100-mile radius of Hearne, Texas, which comes close to the outskirts of major metro areas of Dallas, Houston and Austin.



In 1992, Deal was ready for a new opportunity after several years in a dead-end job in the maintenance department at Texas A & M University in nearby College Station. A friend whose family members worked in a septic service business offered to sell him a 350-gallon square steel tank.

“It just looked like the thing for me,” Deal says. But his father, Jimmie Sr., was skeptical.

“My Dad absolutely thought I’d lost my mind,” he says. “He was one of those people who thought septic tanks never had to be pumped. “

Deal mounted the tank on a 1-ton Chevy pickup and went to work pumping septic tanks. The makeshift rig used the truck’s engine to pull vacuum. He made up for the truck’s performance shortcomings with hard work and nearly nonstop promotion.

“It would take me about two hours to pump a tank. Back then, just three other companies in the area were pumping tanks. I was pumping more with that little old truck than the guys with the big trucks,” he says.

In the early days of the company, Deal tried every form of advertising he could think of. “I’d drop off fliers door-to-door; I’d buy ads on benches, maps, magnets. What’s funny is, the guy who sold me the (first) tank laughed at every promotional idea and then adopted them within a year,” he says.

Four years later, Deal graduated to a 1,000-gallon steel tank on a rig that he and his father scratch-built. By then, the elder Deal, who had run a machine shop, recognized that his son’s rapidly growing business venture wasn’t so crazy after all.



Today, Universal runs three service trucks. Deal and his crews are kept busy with industrial customers and residential service. One truck serves about 100 grease trap customers, 20 percent with multiple locations.

Deal’s six employees include his wife, Connie, and his 73-year-old father. Connie Deal runs the office. She also handles customer paperwork while in the truck with her husband. Jimmie Deal Sr. is based at a car lot his son also operates and delivers equipment to jobsites as needed.

A long-time employee, Jordan Bucknum, has branched out into an onsite system installation business while maintaining ties to Universal. Deal couldn’t be prouder.

“Jordan went to work for me at the car lot part time while he was in high school and stayed on while he went to Texas A & M. He also helped out on the truck,” Deal says. “After college, he said he wanted to do this full time.”

Bucknum, who holds a business degree, installs new aerobic systems (required in Brazos County) and has maintenance contracts with the owners for annual service. He pumps those tanks for Universal and gets referrals from Deal for new installation projects.

“It’s just worked out absolutely wonderful,” Deal says. “It really works a lot better than when we were trying to do it all ourselves.”



Instead of diversifying into other aspects of the waste industry like some operators, Deal sticks to septic and grease trap pumping. That decision was made after installing septic systems and operating portable restrooms during the company’s early years.

“I got myself licensed as an installer but I found that for the time it takes to do an installation, I could make a lot more money pumping tanks,” he says. “I want to do the least amount of work for the most amount of profit.”

After trying a variety of advertising and promotional tactics, Deal settled on Yellow Pages directory advertising – and he’s sticking with it. “In the end, the phone books have worked the best for us,” he says of the approximately $70,000 a year spent on ads in 30 directories.

Deal is adamant that having two people per truck is more efficient and provides a higher level of customer service than a solo driver. “I really believe that two guys in a truck can do more than one person,” he says. “When you have one to do the paperwork and one to do the actual work, they’ll get it done in half the time.”

Deal believes in competing on service rather than price. In fact, he says, Universal Vacuum is typically among the highest-priced providers. “If I’m not making what I need to make, then it’s time to let somebody else do it,” he says.



Deal started using aluminum tanks on his rigs in 1999. He explains why: “It comes down to lighter weight. You have less fuel use and less tire wear,’’ he says. In addition, lighter trucks don’t require a driver to hold a commercial drivers license (CDL) and cost less to insure than heavier rigs, he says.

Universal’s three vacuum trucks are equipped with aluminum tanks ranging from 2,500 to 2,900 gallons and 500-cfm Jurop pumps. All were built out by Troy Penny, who now operates No Sense Welding in Abilene, Texas. The rigs are a 2006 Chevrolet 7500 with a Cummins diesel engine and an Allison automatic transmission, a 2006 Sterling Acterra with a Mercedes diesel and an Allison automatic transmission, and a 2007 Ford F-750 with a Cummins diesel and a Spicer 7-speed manual transmission.

Deal also owns a wrecked 2007 Ford F-750 that he acquired from an insurance company. He is looking for a new cab and chassis for the vacuum system, which also was built by Penny with an aluminum tank and a Jurop pump.

Aluminum side skirts on all of the rigs, which neatly cover hoses and pumps, serve as shiny rolling billboards. Decal wraps, purchased from the FASTSIGNS outlet in College Station, give two of the rigs a particularly striking look. The Sterling rig, for example, has the U.S. flag on the driver’s side and the Texas state flag on the passenger’s side. Deal says the importance of a service truck’s appearance hit home after a conversation with a commercial customer a few years back.

“We were servicing a grease trap for a restaurant owner. We got to talking about his (home) septic service and he mentioned that he didn’t want a dirty looking truck in his neighborhood,” Deal says. “I think the look of my trucks gets me as much work as anything I do.”

In addition to the vacuum trucks, Universal runs a 1991 Dodge 1-ton truck equipped with a small crane to replace septic lids and a 2010 John Deere 6030 tractor for heavy lifting. Other equipment includes a RIDGID SeeSnake camera for occasional system inspection work. Deal borrows or rents equipment, like a rooter or tank agitator, as needed.

“I have a lot of good friends. It’s more feasible for me to work with them than to buy and carry around a lot of stuff I hardly ever use,” he says.



After more than 15 years, Deal has built a solid network of referrals. “I have a great, great group of people I network with,” he says. “There are plumbers, real estate agents, installers, you name it.”

That business network has been important as the Bryan-College Station metropolitan area (population 203,000) now has about two dozen companies offering septic service. “I didn’t believe it until I counted them all up. That’s pretty doggone competitive,” he says.

But, Deal is unruffled by the competitive environment. Instead, he believes there is enough business in the area to go around for everyone who is willing to provide superior service. He borrows tools from competitors as needed and will loan equipment when someone is in need. He says he’s helped eight to 10 septic operators in the state get started by selling them used vacuum trucks.

“It doesn’t have to be cutthroat or dog-eat-dog,” Deal says. “I really believe people would rather get along.”

Meanwhile, waste disposal is a costly, ongoing challenge for Deal and other Texas service providers. That’s because state environmental regulations require operators to dispose of grease and grit only at Type 4 treatment facilities. For Deal, the rules mean that just one municipal plant in the area is available to accept grease and grit. The prices (18 cents per gallon for grease and 22 cents per gallon for grit) are steep.

“It’s like Jesse James without the gun. We’re at their mercy,” he says.

By marching to his own drummer, Deal has built a business that works. Perhaps, most importantly, he’s comfortable in his own skin.

“I’m pretty much the opposite of everybody,” he says.


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