Keep 'Em Happy

Whether it’s remediation over replacement, carefree maintenance contracts or one-stop shopping, Charlton Septic Service zeroes in on customer satisfaction solutions
Keep 'Em Happy
The Charlton Septic crew includes (from left) Dave Markowski, Robert Grant, Kevin and Wendy Loukes and Dylan Helo.

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Kevin Loukes, owner of Charlton Septic Service in Charlton, N.Y., is a study in resourcefulness during challenging economic times.

Since Kevin and his wife, Wendy, founded the company in 2004, they’ve increased business volume by capitalizing on larger regulatory and economic forces to generate new income streams. At the same time, they rely on new technology and Kevin’s extensive knowledge of trucks to improve productivity – and profit margins.

A good example is the company’s emphasis on septic-system maintenance, repair and rejuvenation. In New York, regulations require engineers to design all new or replacement systems, which can easily add more than $1,000 to the total cost, Kevin says. In a struggling economy, budget-strapped customers seek a cost-effective alternative. So the Loukes invested in a Terralift soil-restoration machine, made by Terralift International (now AerraTech LLC), to rejuvenate drainfields.

“A new drainfield will last longer than a Terralift rejuvenation,” Kevin says. “From what I’ve seen, you get maybe five to eight more years of life, and a replacement will last 15 to 20 years. But in some applications, it’s a good stop-gap measure … because people can’t afford replacements right now.”

Charlton also relies on chemical rejuvenation. Kevin uses CCLS from Cape Cod Biochemical Co. to boost natural bacteria and enzymes in an effort to biologically break down organic buildup that can clog systems and create odors. “Again, it’s cheaper than replacing a system,” he says. “But all the parameters have to be right: The distribution box must be in good shape, the system needs to be big enough to withstand the amount of water people are putting into the system, and so forth.”

 

VETERAN PUMPER

Kevin is a veteran pumper who started in the business by working for his father, Charles, who established Odorless Sanitary Cleaners in Charlton in 1954. After Kevin graduated from high school, he held several mechanical-related jobs before joining the family business full time in 1971. He left in 1976, then came back to run the business after his father died in 1978.

“I went back to run the business so my mother would have an income and could raise my two younger brothers,” Kevin explains. Wendy also worked in the family business, serving as the company’s office manager.

In 1998, Kevin left the family business. Then re-entered the portable sanitation industry by founding Charlton Septic in 2004, buying a new Peterbilt truck and six portable restrooms from PolyJohn Enterprises. The company now has 26 Fleet model restrooms from PolyJohn. Currently, the company’s business volume breaks down to 50 percent septic pumping, 30 percent septic system installations and 20 percent portable restrooms (mostly seasonal special events).

“I like to think I was doing something smart,” Kevin says of his return to the industry. “I tried to work for someone else and wasn’t happy doing it. So I decided to get back into the septic business.”

The transition back to the field was fairly painless, Wendy notes.

“Kevin has been doing this since the 1970s,” she says. “Our old customers knew him and trusted his judgment. The reception was very gratifying.

“Kevin is a perfectionist,” she adds. “He’ll do less (work) in a day in order to spend more time with a customer until they’re satisfied. He has a lot of knowledge – learned a lot from his father. If a customer has a bad system, we tell them. If we can repair it, we do. We do what’s best for our customers.”

 

IN THE GARAGE

Over the years, Kevin has learned the value of good equipment that minimizes downtime and improves productivity. “In this line of business, if your truck breaks down and a customer calls, you need to be able to provide the service – or you can lose the customer,” he explains.

Well-maintained equipment also helps the company attract and retain customers because it can provide service in emergencies, Wendy notes.

“You don’t want to look like you run a shabby business,” she says. “When people see well-maintained equipment, they know you will do a good job.”

For septic pumping, Charlton Septic runs a 2004 Peterbilt 330 with a 2,800-gallon aluminum tank from Progress LLC. For cleaning restrooms, the company relies on a 1995 F-150 Ford pickup with a custom-made, L-shaped 150-gallon wastewater tank and a removable 65-gallon plastic water tank. The company also owns a portable waterjetter made by O’Brien (a brand owned by Hi-Vac Corporation), which Kevin says adds value to his services.

“Most times, if the line is plugged from toilet paper or a small sag in the line, we can clean it out with a tape snake,” he explains. “But if we have to go in and the line is closing itself up, or has tree roots in it, then we use the jetter. We use it a lot to clean out heavy material in drainfields. We put the jetter in the drainfield lines and pull heavy materials back into the box, where we pump it into the truck.

“We also use the jetter to pressure wash toilets,” he continues. “It provides us with more revenue because it allows us to clean portable toilets quickly and efficiently.”

Charlton Septic also owns a Ford LN 7000 dump truck with a seven-yard dump body and a Kobelco excavator.

 

SPECC’D FOR SUCCESS

Kevin prefers Peterbilt trucks for reliability, cab visibility and driver-friendly features. He specs his trucks with larger, heavy-duty components that can endure a lot of wear and tear.

“On the Peterbilt, for example, I ordered an eight-speed with a double-low hole in the transmission,” he says. “You can hit a switch and it goes into deep (gear) reduction, which is like a super-low gear. It makes it easier to back into a driveway because you don’t have to worry about riding the clutch.

“But by putting in a heavy-duty transmission, I also needed a heavy-duty clutch and a heavy-duty driveshaft. But I didn’t mind because I knew it would make the truck more efficient. If you’re in a tight spot, the truck moves very easy without slipping the clutch.”

The Peterbilt also features a full-locking rear axle, which helps avoid a real productivity killer: getting stuck in winter snow. “If I back into a driveway with snow, the heat from the tires melts the snow, which can lead to getting stuck because one wheel drives and the other one doesn’t,” he says. “With the full-locking rear, I’ve never gotten stuck.”

Kevin also dresses up his truck with aluminum wheels, fuel tanks, battery box and air tanks, plus two chrome stacks.

“It’s a sharp-looking truck,” he says. “I always keep it clean because that reflects on our business. First impressions mean a lot. It’s a very noticeable truck – a rolling billboard. It’s not unusual for me to get a phone call from someone who’s following me while I’m driving – it reminds them they need to get their tank pumped.”

 

ROLL UP THE REVENUE

The couple benefits from ancillary services that provide additional revenue streams. For example, because more and more engineers are designing systems that require outlet filters, Charlton Septic promotes service agreements to periodically clean the filters, which extends drainfield life.

“The filters prevent floating debris in the tank from getting into the distribution box – things like lint, hair or toilet paper that doesn’t break down,” Kevin says. “Sometimes they need cleaning every three months, but some can go as long as a year. We try to set them up for cleaning every six months.

“It’s more of a convenience for the customer, but at $60 for a filter cleaning, it does generate additional revenue – and helps customers keep us in mind when they need a pumping. We don’t have to make a special trip to do it, either. When we’re going to clean a portable restroom in an area, we try to be strategic about routing so we can swing in and clean a filter, too.”

Kevin says older septic systems can be retrofitted with filters by installing a filter housing. He uses filters and housings made by Polylok Inc.

“Some customers do it, and some don’t because they’re reluctant to spend the money,” he notes. “But it’s not expensive. If I need to replace the outlet baffle, I replace it with a filter housing. They don’t cost any more money than making them out of pipe. But when you glue a pipe to a tee, it sometimes falls off, while the filter housing is all one piece, so it can’t fall off.”

Kevin says the company also benefits from a newer regulation that requires system inspections whenever a home is sold. During the last several years, Charlton has been doing more home inspections, which do not require a license and now generate about 10 percent of the company’s septic service gross revenue.

Inspections also help Charlton obtain valuable name exposure that leads to new customers.

“Just the other day, I pumped out a tank that I inspected when the customer bought the home,” he says. “We get a lot of repeat business from inspections. We have established many relationships with local real estate brokers who refer us. Once we complete an inspection, nine out of 10 times the new homeowners will call us back for a maintenance pumping or other repairs.”

 

BRIGHT OUTLOOK

Kevin is upbeat about the future, as evidenced by the company’s new 2,500-square-foot shop. He sees opportunities for expanding the company’s restroom business, which would further diversify his services. But no matter how big the company gets, one thing will remain constant: an overall emphasis on customer service and honesty.

“Word-of-mouth business is very crucial,” Kevin notes. “One customer who’s dissatisfied with you can offset 10 people who like you. So you do your best to make sure the customer is always happy.”



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