Whatever It Takes

Family-run Dusty’s Pumping Service sticks to traditional marketing and tried-and-true customer service to bring home the bacon.
Whatever It Takes
Dusty Miller (right) and his son, T.J., pump a tank at a gun club in Kingsburg, Calif.

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Dusty Miller knows that if you take care of the customers, the customers will take care of you. That has been his philosophy for the last 25 years as owner of Dusty's Pumping Service in Dinuba, Calif. Focusing on keeping customers happy at any cost has reaped big rewards for the family-run business.

In the 1980s, Miller was a road construction worker who wanted to start his own business. Several in-laws owned septic service companies, so Miller became interested in the industry. Along with his wife, Toby, Miller spent three years squeezing in pumping projects before and after his daytime construction job. Eventually the couple was doing three early-morning and late-night projects daily, several days a week, but the schedule became too hectic, so he started pumping full time.

Over time, Dusty's Pumping Service expanded by purchasing several companies, including a 50-year-old pumping business.

Sticking with septage

Originally the com-pany pumped septic systems, portable rest-rooms and grease traps. Today, Miller focuses solely on septic pumping for residential and com-mercial customers, as well as inspections for real estate transfers.

In 2008, the company stopped providing grease trap service because of disposal challenges in nearby dumping facilities. The communities in the area would no longer allow grease disposal, making it too challenging for Miller to be profitable. Plus, using the same pumping truck for grease and septic waste proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

In 2009, Miller sold the portable sanitation portion of the business as demand significantly dwindled. In the farming community he serves, contractors were buying their own vacuum trucks and restrooms to save costs, so it was no longer a viable business.

Ten years ago, the Millers' son, T.J., joined the team. With business booming, Toby moved to an administrative role, handling billing and answering phone calls. Despite a high demand for pumping services, Miller has kept staffing lean and costs low to maximize profit.

"Years ago, bigger was better. Now it's about doing as much as possible with the fewest people," Miller says. "We can have two more people and make another $50,000 per year, but it will cost me $40,000 to keep them. I'm just not going to trade dollars. It's a family company and that's how I like to keep it."

As a child, T.J. Miller would ride in the pumping truck with his father.

"I got teased as a kid for what my dad did. It's not the most glamorous job," he recalls. "But as I grew up, I understood how much my dad worked for the business. It has paid the bills and paid them well. It has taken care of our family. It's a good business to go into."

Commercial service demands

Dusty's Pumping Service covers a 50-mile radius through three California counties: Fresno, Kings and Tulare. Father and son work a combined average of five to six jobs daily, six days a week. Half of the work involves pumping and routine maintenance, while the remaining jobs are emergency calls to address blockages. Most maintenance involves installing Tuf-Tite lids and risers on the tanks, replacing incoming and outgoing baffles, and using a Takeuchi mini excavator to repair sewer lines.

Most of the company's commercial customers are casinos and produce-packing sheds processing apricots, nectarines and peaches. The agricultural clients pump their own portable restrooms, but transfer the waste to holding tanks. During the peak packing season, Dusty's may pump out the 1,500- to 3,000-gallon holding tanks as often as once a week.

As 24-hour operations, casinos and packing sheds pose challenges. An emergency call may occur during late evening hours or on weekends and holidays. Those are the opportunities for Miller to demonstrate his dedication to customer service.

"We do whatever we have to do to take care of it," he says. "We try to do maintenance beforehand, talk with them and let them know how things should work to operate smoothly. If they run smoothly, we run smoothly and everyone is happy."

Word of mouth

Local counties have stringent regulations and fees for sewage disposal. Each of the three counties where Dusty's operates require separate permits and fees. "California is getting harder and harder with regulations from the highway patrol, more agency permits, and higher permit costs," Miller says. "It's getting tougher for anyone trying to make a living at sewage pumping."

Sewage loads must be dumped in the county where it was collected. Therefore, Miller sometimes makes several stops to different wastewater treatment sites each day as he crosses county lines. Plus, each site will charge the same fee whether dumping a full or partial load, motivating the Millers to map routes carefully and use a backup storage tank whenever possible to ensure dumping the biggest loads.

"Some people have a hard time understanding the charges because we have to pay such a high dump bill at their county's facilities," Miller says.

While many companies are turning to online marketing, Miller strictly relies on repeat business rather than a big advertising budget. The company has no website and does no marketing. Instead, Dusty's Pumping Service has grown the business through phone book listings and word-of-mouth endorsements. About 85 percent of the calls come from repeat customers.

Customer education plays an important role in providing customer satisfaction.

"It comes down to honest and quality service," Miller says. "We educate customers about saving water, fixing water leaks, and when they should pump their septic tanks. I make sure they understand the situation from the start. We do the right thing and people know it."

Miller is confident about maintaining his customer base. "I don't worry about competitors," he says. "I worry about myself and my family. I wish my competitors all the best and want them to do well, but I have no time to worry about what they are doing."

Building customer loyalty

Since Dusty's Pumping Service gets paid by the job, it's most profitable to finish quickly and move on to the next tank, but spending a little extra time with a customer goes a long way toward building a lifetime loyal customer, Dusty says.

The company is careful about returning landscaping to its original condition, working around plants, and washing concrete. Dusty and T.J. know the value of providing personal service. In the past, they have carried firewood, planted rose bushes, picked up dog droppings in the yard, and helped move furniture for customers.

"It may take five minutes of my time to do something extra, but I will have a customer for life," T.J. says.

Taking care of the fleet

The company maintains its vacuum trucks with longevity in mind. For years, the company used two trucks: a 1991 Peterbilt and a 1992 Kenworth T800. The Peterbilt has a 3,200-gallon steel tank and Fruitland 500 pump. The Kenworth was a former oilfield truck with a 2,600-gallon steel tank and Fruitland 500 pump. The Peterbilt was recently pulled off the road and now serves as a backup storage tank.

The trucks receive oil changes every 3,500 miles.

"We have people wanting our old oil because it is so clean," T.J. says. "We want our trucks to stay a long time because they are our money makers. If they don't run, we don't pay the bills. Our 1992 Kenworth truck is in better shape than most 2007 trucks out there."

The Millers ordered a 2012 Kenworth from Southwest Products, built out with a 3,500-gallon steel tank and a water-cooled Masport pump. The truck's 20,000-pound GVW front axles allow weight to be pushed forward for more efficient hauling.

Every evening, the team prepares the trucks for the next day by washing the windshield and rims, checking fluid levels and tire pressure, and replenishing the supply of Pro-Pump bacteria (Ecological Laboratories) they use for tank maintenance. To keep a professional image, the trucks are washed every Saturday by a cleaning service.

Enjoying the ride

For now, Miller has no plans to retire, but the reins will eventually be handed over to T.J.

"It is something I know and enjoy, and my son enjoys it," Miller says. "We're building something for him once I retire. I'm not interested in leaving it right now. We are enjoying the ride. We're far from rich, but we can afford a nice dinner once in a while."


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