Green and Growing

Pat Murray knew that if he ever started a business, he would include "shamrock'' in the name. He jokes that everyone wants to be Irish, while his wife, Charlotte, theorizes that shamrock conjures up positive feelings and good luck.
Green and Growing

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Pat Murray knew that if he ever started a business, he would include "shamrock'' in the name. He jokes that everyone wants to be Irish, while his wife, Charlotte, theorizes that shamrock conjures up positive feelings and
good luck.

But it's taken much more than just the "luck of the Irish" to make Shamrock Septic Service successful. There were some lean years, Pat admits, after he started his business in Wasilla, Alaska, in 1989. But commitment and persistence built the business, along with a healthy dose of Irish humor, hospitality and compassion.


Pat started with a career working on the Alaskan oil rigs, and he didn't mind the uncertain lifestyle inherent to that line of work. But when he turned 30, got married and had a child, his attitude changed. Later, finding a job at home in Wasilla became an absolute necessity when he became a single father.

"I had a daughter to raise, so I wanted to be with her in my own business," he recalls.

Then, when Pat had his septic tank cleaned, the pumper told him there was a big need for portable restrooms in the area. The pumper taught him about the business and sold him a truck. With the help of his three brothers, Pat converted the truck to service and haul portable restrooms – as well as pump septic tanks. Often with his daughter tagging along, he built the business to 650 restrooms, additional trucks and a crew of 13.

But Pat preferred pumping tanks, and in 2004, he and his second wife, Charlotte, sold the restrooms and grew the septic service business. Though he threatened to leave Wasilla if the town installed more than one stoplight, he stayed as the bedroom community for Anchorage grew. Today's customers have typical gravity flow systems, and the septic business is much the same as it is in the Lower 48, Pat says.

"When I went to the (Pumper & Cleaner Expo) in 1989, I was a novelty," Pat recalls, explaining how other pumpers were curious about Alaska. His new friends from the south were surprised to learn he pumped year-round, as Wasilla is located in the state's more temperate southern "banana belt."


While Shamrock's work is typical in many ways, Alaska does present challenges. The year after he started, Wasilla closed its dumping site, so Pat had to make a 90-mile roundtrip to Anchorage after every job with his 1984, single-axle International truck and 1,600-gallon tank. He later remedied that by installing holding tanks and purchasing a larger-capacity truck. Anchorage's reasonable dumping rate of about a penny a gallon takes the sting out of the
long rides.

Alaska's landscape and diverse seasons present challenges, too.

"We deal with glacier-ridden hardpans especially on view lots on ridges. They can't get a good septic system," he says. "In spring, if you have snow and a hard pack of frozen ground that breaks all at once it saturates the leach field. We just keep pumping the tank or from the leach field monitor tubes. Sometimes they call back before we unload."

The spring saturations are impossible to predict, but some years Shamrock workers are kept busy from mid-March to mid-May. Pumping stays hectic and peaks in September and October, before quieting down at the end of December through mid-March.

Over the winter of 2010-2011, Shamrock workers were kept extra busy when cold weather hit before adequate snow cover could protect drainfields from freezing. It took awhile for many customers – who had moved from Anchorage to the valley and were accustomed to city sewers – to adopt meaningful water conservation practices. Though Pat and workers leave information sheets about how fast a 1,000-gallon tank fills up, the best lesson comes when homeowners need to have the tank pumped within days, he notes.

Pat keeps his workers on during the winter to fix equipment and trucks, and for scheduled pumping runs. In summer, the pace can be hectic, but Pat schedules normal hours for his workers and handles after-hours commercial jobs and emergencies himself. Since it's light out well into the night in Alaska during the summer, there are plenty of after hours.

"Being light at night can work you to death," Pat explains. "You don't realize it's late."


It's not uncommon for Shamrock Septic to get cellphone calls from customers at the grocery store, says Charlotte, who works in the office and handles scheduling and bookwork for the business. "They call from the toilet paper aisle and ask, 'What kind of toilet paper am I supposed to buy?' " Avoiding high cotton-content tissue is just one of the tips on the Q & A page of Shamrock's website. The Septic Systems 101 page includes a detailed explanation of how a septic system works. Pat worked with a professional to create the helpful website and plans to expand it.

"Customers appreciate information," he says. "Education is always in my vocabulary. I'd rather see people on a maintenance call than a trouble call."

Unfortunately, many first calls from customers aren't easy jobs.

"We're there until the job is done," he says. "We don't make money on the first job when the system is abused. But after that, it's about education and maintenance."

That commitment has built the business by word-of-mouth referrals. About 25 percent of Shamrock's business is commercial and the rest is residential, with customers up to 100 miles north and 50 miles south of Wasilla.


The small truck Pat started with has been replaced with new Kenworths outfitted with the right accessories for Alaska, including
heated valves.

"We have jetters (10 gpm, 2,500 psi, PTO-driven Cat models) on all of our trucks," Pat says, explaining that septic tank lids are 4- to 15-feet underground so jetters are used to eliminate blockages from grease – and the wrong kind of toilet paper. There also is a growing demand for them in subdivisions where private cluster onsite systems are being installed.

The fleet includes three Kenworth T800s with C15 475 hp Cat engines and 4,000-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater aluminum tanks – 2002 and 2005 models with Beall tanks and a 2007 rig from Advance Pump & Equipment. A new 2012 Kenworth T800 with a 555 hp Cummings engine has a 7,000-gallon aluminum Advance Pump & Equipment tank to make the trip to Anchorage three times a day, seven days a week. All have Masport 400 vacuum pumps.

Pat works with a local Kenworth dealer, Kenworth Northwest in Anchorage. But since there are no local tank companies, he travels to Iowa to pick up a new truck after it's been outfitted with vacuum equipment and drives it to Seattle to load on a barge to ship to Alaska. It doesn't add any transportation cost to the vehicle, as Kenworth has a standard shipping fee. But Pat has to take time – and fuel – to get the truck to
the barge.

Once at the shop, the tanks are lettered with reflective vinyl and shamrock graphics. The lucky green symbols seem to attract customers. "My customer list has every Mc, Mac and O' in the phone book," Pat laughs. And Shamrock Septic attracts other minority ethnic groups too, including many Russians and Asians who have settled in the area.

Part of customer retention might be the free coffee and candy always available at the Shamrock office, staffed by Charlotte, receptionist Lacey Gordon and Tex, a 26-pound cat who likes to flop down next to visitors.


"This is not a job; it's a lifestyle," Pat admits. "It's typical to work 18 hours a day. If Charlotte and I get in only 10 hours, we figure we should be doing something."

They worked hard to pay cash for everything and not go in debt, and are finding a few more hours of free time to work on the "park" they have created around their home/business.

When Wasilla widened a highway in 2001, Shamrock Septic had to move from its acre-lot with highway frontage in town. Pat found an 18-acre used-up gravel pit a mile out of town. The extra room was great – especially when he had the portable restrooms. But the dust and glacial silt killed computers and drove Charlotte crazy. Pat brought in dirt to make a small yard around the house, then serendipitously hit pay dirt.

While doing business for a new hospital being built nearby, he asked what they planned to do with the huge piles of peat. The site had been used for peat disposal from Anchorage and the hospital had to move it again and was looking for a new disposal site.

"I said I had one, and the next thing I know, 30 side-dump trucks are hauling for days," Pat says. The hospital paid the cost to have it hauled, trenched and graded, and the Murrays now have five acres of grass and a wonderful area to grow shrubs, trees, bushes and flowers.

"The hospital and contractor were ecstatic. I was ecstatic. And my wife was super ecstatic,"
Pat says.

Like its yard, Shamrock Septic is enjoying green times with a good customer base.

"When I started, we were coming out of a recession. Two out of five houses were empty. It was a bad time to start, but I had to. There were a lot of lean years and perseverance, but it has paid off," Pat says. "People (new business owners) get disheartened with long hours and little pay. But it will eventually pay off. You build customers with quality service."


Sometimes that takes them beyond reasonable expectations. A couple of years ago, Pat learned that a disc jockey had accidentally flushed a ring with sentimental value down a toilet. The next time Pat pumped that commercial/office building, he let the load drain more slowly than usual into his holding tank to let the solids settle. Then when it was time to clean the sediment out of the truck, he screened it. Six months after it was lost, Pat delivered the ring to a happy disc jockey.

"The payback is that if I call in a song request, it gets played," Pat says with a laugh. "We take pride in getting the job done right, no matter what it takes."


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