Plugged in for Profits

Illinois hauler Chris Wenger works with a network of fellow pumping professionals to set up his family business, C.W. Septic Services Inc., for a bright future.
Plugged in for Profits

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Chris Wenger knows he doesn't have to go it alone, even though he's the lone pilot charting his small family septic service business through choppy economic waters.

That's because the owner of C.W. Septic Services Inc. in London Mills, Ill., has harnessed the business-building benefits of professional networking. During 11 years in the industry, the small-market pumper has achieved big-time results, due largely to a subtle yet significant skill: Listening and learning from others.

Wenger has slowly built profits using an array of tried-and-true strategies, including running larger vacuum trucks, investing in productivity-enhancing equipment, emphasizing customer service, paying cash whenever possible, and creating a professional image with uniforms and sparkling-clean trucks.

The bottom line results? A three-fold increase in revenue last year, compared to his first year in the business in 2001. And in the end, his tightly run operation benefits most from picking up the phone and calling other pumpers he reads about in Pumper or picking colleagues' brains at the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International.

Help is a phone call away

"Virtually everything I do, I picked up from Pumper magazine," says Wenger. "I'm almost em-barrassed to say that I've cold-called people profiled in Pumper and talked to the nicest people who have given me tips over the years — told me what they've done to build their businesses. Many times, I hear the same things over and over again, so I figure why should I try to reinvent the wheel?"

Wenger says the neutral ground of the Expo's exhibit floor encourages contractors from across the country to share their success stories. There are no feelings of competitiveness and most folks help each other out.

"And when I cold-call people, I tell them right away where I'm from so they don't get defensive, and they really open up," he adds. "I learned about a lot of little things, like handing out refrigerator magnets with my company name on them, and writing the next pumping date on them so customers don't forget. Or how to collect money from slow-paying customers. This is such a great industry because the people in it are wonderful people."

Wenger bought C.W. Septic from his father, Larry, who founded the company in the late 1970s and retired in 2001. (His dad's nickname is Chubb, hence the "C" in the company's name instead of an "L".) Larry Wenger ran the company part time to supplement his income from a full-time job, so Chris — who worked for his dad on and off for years — felt growth potential existed.

Route to success

Wenger worked his way through college by loading trucks part time at global package-delivery giant UPS. After obtaining a two-year associate degree, Wenger spent about eight years working as a ski instructor during winters in Utah and Illinois, and helping his dad the rest of the year.

Working for UPS greatly informed his decision to go into business for himself and how he operates.

"It was a real tough job, and I decided that if I was going to work this hard for a company, I'd rather work that hard for myself," he says. "But it was invaluable seeing the way they run an operation. They're very efficient. They leave no stone left unturned in scrutinizing ways to make drivers more efficient and profitable. For example, I count stop signs on my routes to find routes with less stop and starts. If you're not always slowin' and goin', it's easier on the trucks."

Wenger grew the company slowly, marketing his services by handing out business cards and running ads in phone books and weekly shopper newspapers. And early on, he charted a course for slow growth and minimal debt.

"Growing slowly enabled me to stay on top of it," he points out. "It's not like I tripled gross sales in two years and had to take out loans to finance the growth. It's always been slow and steady.

"I never wanted to have a huge operation and all the resulting headaches and overhead," he continues. "I never wanted to lose sleep at night, wondering if I'm going to make it that month because I'm too leveraged with debt. A lot of times businesses blow up because they grow fast and are highly leveraged."

As an example of his frugality, Wenger explains that it took him more than 10 years to finally own a building for storing his trucks. He rented a shop until he found a good deal on a pole barn. And whenever possible, he paid cash for expenditures.

Big rigs

From the start, Wenger bought larger-capacity trucks. Especially with fuel so expensive, larger trucks increase profitability and productivity by reducing trips to waste-treatment facilities and allowing more service calls per day.

Wenger owns a 2006 Sterling Acterra vacuum truck with a 3,600-gallon steel tank and National Vacuum Equipment, Inc. pump built by Imperial Industries, Inc., and a 2007 Peterbilt 335 with a 4,000-gallon steel tank and Masport pump built by Transway Systems Inc.

"Moving to tandems with bigger tanks was one of the best things I ever did," Wenger says, estimating he paid a $40,000 to $50,000 premium for the larger trucks. "It makes your days so much more efficient by not backtracking to dump waste. It doesn't take long to make up for the added expense of a larger truck. I've also picked up bigger commercial-type jobs — sludge hauling, for instance — that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise, so they've added value I never foresaw.

"When you start breaking (the cost savings) down and if you keep a truck in service for so many years, it's definitely worth paying more," he adds. "But more than anything, it's time savings. Time is one thing you never get back in life."

Wenger urges pumpers to never underestimate the value of clean, well-signed trucks and uniformed employees to create a sense of professionalism. He says he tries to wash his trucks two to three times a week because they provide the best advertising possible, and invests in no-polish, easy-to-clean Dura-Bright rims from Alcoa Wheels (Pioneer Rim & Wheel) to spiff up his trucks.

"I've had customers say they hired me because our trucks look so good," he says.

A Crust Buster tank agitator, made by Schmitz Bros. LLC, is another piece of productivity-enhancing equipment, Wenger says. He estimates the tool saves anywhere from five to 40 minutes per job, depending on how well maintained the tank is. If a tank has been neglected and there's a heavy scum layer, the machine makes the load more manageable.

"Doing it with the hose is physically tough and it takes a long time," he notes. "I used to use a steel paddle and (break up the scum) by hand, which is incredibly difficult."

Lessons learned

Wenger says running across a copy of Pumper in the waiting room of a truck-repair shop forever altered the way he did business. Reading about contractors who, for example, did eight service calls a day while he was doing three to five per week "changed the course of my life." Today, Wenger's business reflects many of the things he's learned from other pumpers. They include:

• Hire an accountant. "It's definitely money well spent. I don't know how you could ever do your own taxes if you're self-employed; it wouldn't be worth the time it takes. Just chalk it up to a business expense, like insurance."

• Send out reminder postcards to customers. An inexpensive way to ensure repeat business.

• Keep a file on every customer account. That way, there's never any doubt about where a customer's tank is located, how big it is, where the lid is, how many hoses are needed to reach from a driveway or road, and other critical information that makes scheduling more efficient and productive.

• Charge extra for jobs that top 1,000 gallons. "If I have to dump earlier than expected, I need to offset that extra transportation expense, so I add an extra charge of .12 cents per gallon after the first 1,000 gallons pumped," he says. "I base my rates on getting three jobs finished before dumping. So if I pump out a system where the drainfield is failing, and I pump an extra 400 gallons, I need to cover that extra expense."

• Buy a digital read-out tank gauge. "My digital gauge (made by Garnet Instruments Ltd.) allows me to show my customers how much my tank is holding when I start a job," Wenger explains (see point above). "I can't charge extra without that gauge, because I'd be guessing at how much I pumped."

Relationship building

In the long run, Wenger plans to continue the networking strategy that has served him so well.

"I haven't got it all figured out ... and I never want to think that I do," he says. "Besides, people usually are willing to talk. And if you don't like what you hear, you don't have to do it. But if something already is working for someone else, why can't it work for you?"

Best of all, the only tool required doesn't cost a thing: a good set of ears.


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