The Sweet’s Spot

A third-generation Idaho pumping outfit adds plumbing and other services, uses TV advertising campaigns to build profits and serve a far-flung region.
The Sweet’s Spot
David Patterson Jr. (left) inspects a cleaning job with technician Jeremy Stueve on the hose.

Interested in Industrial?

Get Industrial articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Industrial + Get Alerts

In sparsely populated Idaho, many small companies find it difficult to generate sufficient sales volume by providing just one service. In a nutshell, that explains why Sweet's Services makes like a business octopus, offering customers multiple complementary services as it reaches out to geographically widespread niche markets.

Founded by Russ Sweet in the small town of Shoshone in 1942, the company initially provided septic pumping and installation/repair services. Seventy years later, the company – now split into three divisions – employs 55 people and provides septic pumping and drain cleaning, plumbing, excavation, municipal hydrojetting, waste collection and pressure washing.

"Idaho is spread out and there's not a lot of population, so you have to have your hands in a lot of things to make a go of it," says David Patterson Jr., general manager and the grandson of the company's founder. "We started out with septic services and excavation, then got into portable restrooms, which kind of fit in with the pumping business.

"Then we basically started doing hydrojetting with jetters," continues Patterson, who worked as a youngster for his father, Dave Patterson Sr., who now owns the company. "Then we started to do plumbing, then added pressure washing, which fit in with the hydrojetting. Then we added the garbage-collection services because it went with the restrooms."

The diversification strategy has paid dividends. The company now is one of the state's largest environmental-services providers. The company's business volume breaks down as follows: 32 percent residential and commercial drain cleaning and septic pumping; 24 percent plumbing; 22 percent excavation (mostly residential water and sewer work); 11 percent municipal hydrojetting and pipeline inspections; 6 percent portable sanitation and trash collection; and 5 percent pressure washing (mostly dairy barns and other commercial buildings).

In 2007, the company reorganized into three entities to streamline operations and improve management efficiency: Sweet's Septic Tank & Backhoe Service Inc.; Sweet's Excavation LLC and Sweet's Portable Waste Services LLC.

GEOGRAPHY LESSON

Idaho's dispersed population forces Sweet's to operate in several different areas. The company's offices are based in Shoshone, in the central part of southern Idaho. The major cities it serves are 20 to 110 miles away. As such, the company buys or rents property for equipment storage in those service areas, and hires local employees to provide customers with faster service, reduce fuel costs and minimize vehicle wear and tear.

"One of the biggest challenges we're facing now is strategically placing equipment in the right areas so we're not tripping over our own feet," Patterson says. For example, instead of bringing a pump truck from Shoshone to do a job 30 miles away, Sweet's might locate a truck and a van closer to the customer. The company plans to continue to buy or rent land so employees don't have to travel as far to jobs.

In other instances, Sweet's expanded in response to competitive forces. For example, after a competitor from Boise moved into the company's service area to provide plumbing, drain cleaning, septic and excavation services, Sweet's responded by moving into the Boise market. The company now rents a storage facility there and employs three local workers, shifting more employees there as needed, Patterson says.

"It actually was pretty simple to break into a new market," he says. "The key is advertising – that's what pays the bills. Idaho is behind the rest of the country in that phone books are still viable. I'd say that 70 percent of our new customer calls come from people who found out about us in a phone book, and the rest comes from television advertising or word-of-mouth referrals."

The company minimizes the financial risks associated with geographic expansion by doing so without incurring debt – a philosophy that helped the business survive the economic downturn. The company avoids taking out loans and pays for most of its equipment with cash.

"My dad is really smart about how and when he buys things," Patterson says. "Our philosophy is that if we don't have the funds to pay for something, then we don't need it."

LOTS OF EQUIPMENT

To cover so much ground and provide so many services, Sweet's owns a large inventory of equipment. That provides a competitive edge, Patterson says, because a customer can make one call and obtain numerous services, from directional boring to pipeline cleaning to pumping and excavation.

For septic services, the company relies on a 1993 International N-14 with a 3,000-gallon steel tank, built out by Vacutrux Ltd.; a 1995 Ford B-Series with a 2,500-gallon steel vibrating tank built by Presvac Systems; a 2000 Freightliner C-12 with a 3,600-gallon Eagle steel tanker trailer, built by V.E. Enterprises; a 1995 GMC Topkick 3116 with a 1,500-gallon steel tank fabricated by Sweet's; a 1999 Peterbilt 60 Series with a 3,500-gallon steel tank from Vacutrux; a 1997 Kenworth N-14 with a 4,000-gallon steel tank made by Vacutrux; a 1995 Volvo transport truck; a 2004 International 444 with a 2,800-gallon TankTec aluminum tank built by Tank Technologies and Supply Co.; two 10,000-gallon aluminum tanker trailers, one made by Beall Trailers; a 6,500-gallon steel tanker trailer made by Polar Tank Trailer; and a 5,400-gallon steel tanker trailer.

On the restroom side of the business, the company owns about 350 units, mostly from Satellite Industries; and nine handicapped-accessible units and 28 portable restroom transport trailers from McKee Technologies-Explorer Trailers. Service vehicles include a 1999 Ford F-550 with a 350-gallon wastewater/150-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank made by TankTec; a 1994 International with a 500-gallon wastewater/250-gallon freshwater steel tank outfitted by Best Enterprises; a 2001 Chevrolet 3500 flatbed with a 350-gallon wastewater/150-gallon freshwater steel tank made by TankTec and a 2012 F-350 with a 450-gallon wastewater/150-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank built by TankTec.

The company prefers smaller slide-in tanks that allow flatbed room to hold up to six restrooms or carry a holding tank to add capacity during longer service routes, Patterson says.

For municipal work, the company owns a Camel 200 Jet-Vac combination vacuum truck, built on a 1997 GMC chassis by Super Products; a 1991 International truck with a Camel waterjetter; a 1990 Vac-Con combination vacuum truck built on a Ford chassis; a Vactor 2100 combination vacuum truck built on a 2000 Sterling chassis; and three skid-mounted pressure washers made by Hydro Tek.

The company also owns two trailer waterjetters made by Water Cannon; a 2004 Ford F-250 outfitted with a Hotsy waterjetter; almost a dozen pipeline inspection cameras made by CUES, RIDGID, MyTana Mfg. Company and Scooter Video inspection systems; an array of excavation equipment made by Caterpillar, Hitachi, John Deere, Kubota and Ditch Witch; three Kenworth and International dump trucks; and numerous Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet and GMC pickups.

DO-EVERYTHING IDEA

"For most of our equipment, we try to have one of everything, from small machines to as big as they get," he continues. "It's all 'spendy'; I'm not going to lie. But as long as there's work for it, we're good. We only buy when we need something for a job or it's a good deal and we could use it.

Patterson explains that the company often starts small when buying equipment for a new service. It might purchase a small excavator for modest excavation projects, then work into something bigger as the client base expands. He says that sometimes a job pays for a piece of equipment and follow-up work is more profitable. In some cases, the company prefers to rent equipment for special jobs rather than buying.

"I wouldn't recommend buying so much equipment without having good mechanics on hand," he adds. "We have three full-time mechanics. There's always something wrong, and if we had to pay (repair) shop prices, we'd be out of business."

When it buys equipment, Sweet's strives to minimize capital expenditures and boost flexibility. For example, the company's garbage roll-off trucks also can serve as dump trucks or pump trucks by removing a 30-yard roll-off container and replacing it with either a 12-yard dump body or a slide-on vacuum tank.

"That not only makes us more efficient, but we only pay insurance for one truck," Patterson notes.

ROLLING ALONG

Patterson says diversification should continue to benefit the company. "There never was a grand design," he notes. "One thing just kind of led to another.

"Diversification helps us weather ups and down more effectively," he continues. "We might have one division with nothing going on because of the weather or what not, but we always have income coming in from somewhere. When construction went down, excavation slowed, but then the pump trucks and drain cleaning helped businesses supplement things. It has worked out well."



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.