The Goal Tender

The owner of Michigan’s C & W Portables & Septic worked out an aggressive business plan, then used hard work and creative marketing to hit all the targets
The Goal Tender
Chris Vandermeulen boards his vacuum truck to make another daily run to maintain septic tanks and pump restrooms.

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When Chris Vandermeulen purchased C & W Portables & Septic Service in 2005, he did something that seems counterproductive to most entrepreneurs. He struck a deal to turn over some of his septic service work to another pumper.

Despite the unorthodox move to give away some of his business, the McBain, Mich., business owner had goals for revenue growth that he reached earlier than he expected. In just six years Vandermeulen was pumping five times as many tanks a year and doubled his portable restroom business.

His cooperation with competing business owners continues as he expands the company.



A welder by trade, Vandermeulen grew tired of traveling to the oilfield where he worked. In 1999, a friend told him about a job opening with a pumping/portable restroom business in Cadillac, Mich. Raised on a farm, and possessing the required CDL license, Vandermeulen decided to try driving a septic truck and servicing restrooms.

“I took a liking to it,” Vandermeulen says. “I enjoyed working with all the people and going to different areas every day. It kind of clicked.”

The job ended after a couple of years, however, when the owner sold the restrooms to another business. Vandermeulen returned to the oilfields and quickly grew tired of the lifestyle.

A friend who worked in excavation suggested a portable sanitation business, and Vandermeulen bought one used unit. He rented it out and when he had enough money, he bought a new one, then four new units and so on as he made money to pay for them. He eventually sold the company to a friend and started a welding business.

But in 2006, a friend who owned C & W wanted to retire. The business had been around for 45 years and was well established and respected. Vandermeulen and his soon-to-be wife, Nicole, became C & W’s fourth owner.



“I had a game plan,” Vandermeulen explains. “The goal was to grow the portable toilets to a sustainable size for the area. In order to do that, I knew I couldn’t hire a lot of help, and I had to get away from the septic work for a while. I made a deal with a local pumper so I could focus on toilets for a couple of years. It’s paid me back tenfold.”

The friendly competitor in nearby Manistee focuses on septic and excavation work, and, because of their cooperative agreement, rents C & W restrooms for jobsites. Vandermeulen has forged a similar agreement with a business in Mason County.

Vandermeulen grew the portable restroom business from 230 units to 420 by 2010. Plus, in 2010, he purchased the fledgling business he’d started years earlier, which had 120 restrooms. As a result, he met a goal of having more than 500 units sooner than he expected.

With that specialty established, he started pushing the septic side of the business. He had kept customers in several counties outside of Manistee, and the business he purchased was pumping 80-100 tanks a year.

“We’re now pumping 500-plus tanks a year – within two years,” he says. “Growing it is the result of a lot of advertising as well as majorly educating people. We try to push maintenance pumping before having to respond to an emergency.”



The regular maintenance message is particularly effective with two groups of customers. The first is rental property owners. Because of Michigan’s tough economy, rental properties have increased due to foreclosures. Avoiding emergency calls from renters appeals to property owners who live in other parts of the state. Vandermeulen seeks them out and offers annual inspection and maintenance service.

The second group that frequently goes with maintenance contracts are new homeowners who move from the city and aren’t familiar with maintaining a septic system.

About 60 percent of C & W’s pumping business is residential. The commercial side includes recreational, charter boats and camping sites. “For some reason, we’ve seen a large growth in canoe liveries and fishing,” Vandermeulen says. “We take care of pit toilets, and we do a lot of RV pumping.”

Vandermeulen attributes the work from recreational customers to the bold C & W name emblazoned on his trucks that move up and down the scenic M-55 highway corridor along Lake Michigan. His restroom units also are well marked and provide mobile billboards for his offerings.

Another large commercial client is a meat processing plant that requires pumping two tanks of grease every week, along with their washdown water. He services restaurants quarterly.

“When we do grease, we strain it,” Vandermeulen says. A biodiesel fuel manufacturer picks it up, and only the leftover material needs to be taken to the treatment plant.



Vandermeulen’s welding skills also save him money.

“We subcontract only about 10 percent of work to outsiders. Everything else is done in-house,” he says. He works out of a well-equipped pole barn. He built his own specialty tools to roll and bend metal and is skilled at welding stainless steel and aluminum. Consequently, he builds out his own vacuum trucks and restroom transport trailers. In fact, Vandermeulen built his own restroom trailer for special events.

“We came up with a machine I fabricated to fill our sanitizers, which is a huge money savings,’’ he says.

In 2005, C & W had several trucks and portable restrooms. The fleet included a 1994 Ford L-9000 with a stainless steel shop-built 1,000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tank and National Vacuum Equipment Inc. pump; a 1999 Ford F-550 with a 600-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater Imperial Industries Inc. tank and National Vacuum Equipment pump and a 1996 Ford F-350 delivery truck. He had a variety of portable restrooms, mostly from PolyPortables Inc. and PolyJohn Enterprises.

He has added a 2001 International 4900 with a 2,500-gallon Wee Engineer Inc. tank with a National Vacuum Equipment Inc. pump; a 1998 International 4900 with a 2,000-gallon tank made in C & W’s shop and a Wallenstein pump; a 1996 Kenworth T300 with a 1,000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater Marsh Industrial tank and National Vacuum Equipment pump; a shop-built trailer unit with a 300-gallon waste/120-gallon freshwater tank and National Vacuum Equipment Inc. pump; and 2002 and 2011 Ford delivery/service trucks.

Most recently, the company added a 1999 Freightliner with a 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater Imperial tank and Masport pump. Each of the trucks is fitted with Burks DC-10 washdown pumps.

Further showing his self-reliance in the shop, Vandermeulen built a waterjetter. And he invested in a GrafTech R-31 vinyl sign plotter machine to make C & W signs that he plasters everywhere – on trucks, portable restrooms and along the highway.



While the signs work well to keep the business name in front of potential customers, Vandermeulen is pleased with new websites he launched last year – one through a phone book company and the other on his own. “The online stuff is doing the most for us,” he says. He estimates about 50 percent of his new customers come from the websites, 30 percent from word-of-mouth and 20 percent from phone book advertising.

The business website features advice on septic maintenance and charts comparing household sizes, tank sizes and standards on how often the tanks should be pumped. It’s part of Vandermeulen’s emphasis on educating customers.

As he gets more customers on a regular maintenance schedule – organized with the help of Peachtree computer software – Vandermeulen has more time to reach out to potential customers.

“I have a list of people I talked to through the summer,” he says. “In the fall, I have appointments to meet with them. If I get 10-15 percent growth, I’ll be extremely pleased.” For property owners who live out of the area, he uses email and teleconferences to tout proper maintenance.



Vandermeulen stresses the importance of keeping machines working. “I don’t keep equipment that doesn’t make a profit. I stay away from something that’s for occasional use,” he explains. “That’s where my relationships with an excavator comes in handy.”

C & W specializes in vacuum services and portable restrooms, but also does line and drainfield installation and line replacement. Because he doesn’t maintain big equipment needed for some of the jobs, he hires an excavation company to do most installations. In return, Vandermeulen gets the associated pumping and portable restroom work.

Though he maintains a strict business focus, Vandermeulen understands the importance of being flexible and diversifying.

“A couple years ago we took a hard hit from the building industry. A large company we serviced went bankrupt, and we lost some winter work. That prompted us to plow snow.” The Snowbelt-based company still offers the service.

Based on the rule that equipment must turn a profit, Vandermeulen plans to add a tractor/tanker trailer to his fleet to haul to a wastewater treatment plant 70 miles away. Though it is twice as far as the plant he now uses, the cost of disposal is less than half. He could also transport trailers of milk or other commodities with the tractor to justify the purchase. The former farmer is already using his Ford F-250 trucks and gooseneck trailers to haul hay and equipment for customers.



Vandermeulen’s wife, initially reluctant about the purchase of C & W, appreciates the benefits of owning a business. Nicole plays an active role in the office, delivering, washing and picking up restrooms and helping clean filters and grease traps, for example. She’s had less time to help since the couple had a baby in 2010. The Vandermeulens enjoy traveling, going to the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International and getting to know their customers.

The company’s success is due, in part, to maintaining C & W’s longstanding good reputation as well as Vandermeulen’s personal expectations.

“When we leave a jobsite, we make sure it’s in the condition it was when we got there,” he says. “We cut the sod nice and set it aside when we dig up a tank and put it on a tarp. I don’t want to see any tracks, any footprints. That’s something we take pride in.”


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