We're All In

Strong family involvement and personal attention to customer service drives Alberta Septic Systems to success in Washington State.
We're All In
The Alberta Septic Systems team includes (left to right) Cory Couty, Shane Couty, Taylor Couty, Laura Couty and Pete Couty with granddaughter Sawyer Couty. (Photos by Mike Penney)

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Careful personal attention to customer issues has driven the service Pete Couty provides from his pumping company in Newcastle, Wash. He will proudly tell you some loyal customers would rather stay in a motel than call anyone but him to fix an emergency backup.

That kind of customer loyalty has spurred growth for the small family business, Alberta Septic Systems, and forced Couty to consider how much he can grow the business – involving the younger generation of his family – and still ensure top customer care and preserve the good reputation he’s built over the years.

Like many small-scale pumping companies, referrals and repeat business drive the company, which specializes in residential pumping, onsite repairs and point-of-sale inspections. Residential pumping increased from 300,000 gallons in 1990 to 700,000 gallons in 2011, and repairs generate 25 percent of annual revenue.

For more than 20 years, Couty pumped alone while his wife, Laura Couty, handled office duties, held a full-time job and raised their children. As sons Shane and Cory and daughter Taylor begin entering the business part time, Couty faces decisions on how much to expand without sacrificing his hallmark service.


Couty, 59, spent 16 years working 60-hour weeks managing an electronics company. Born with an independent nature, he bristled at being told what to do. When an acquaintance with a pumping background suggested a partner-ship, Couty accepted. Alberta Septic Systems opened in November 1988.

“It was scary,” he recalls. “I was 35, Laura was pregnant with Cory, and I was quitting a full-time job paying decent money to start a business from scratch.” Work came quickly after the company’s ad appeared in phone books covering a 25-mile radius. The partners also left flyers in mailboxes and advertised in newspapers.

Couty was amazed at how much he enjoyed running a pumping business and the flexibility it offered. “It was a breath of fresh air,” he says. “The power to do what I wanted was huge for me. I could manipulate my schedule to watch my kids’ baseball games and do things with my family that I couldn’t in my managerial position.”

A good rapport with customers over the phone came naturally to Couty, and an emphasis on fair pricing, integrity and a do-unto-others philosophy helped build the business. And within a year, Couty earned his installer and pumper licenses through the King County Health Department.

“People want to be treated with civility and feel that their call is important,” he says. “Without the customer, you’re nothing.” Within two years, Couty bought out his business partner.

In 1999, with an aging truck that was causing concern, Couty found a 1992 over-the-road Kenworth semi with a sleeper and took it to Erickson Tank & Pump. The sleeper was removed and a 3,200-gallon steel tank and Masport pump were added. Couty still runs the single truck with original equipment, although he had to weld some holes in the tank.

His other equipment includes a Toyota Tundra service pickup and Prototek flushable transmitters to locate tanks, distribution boxes, and drainlines. Most septic tanks are buried shallow enough to hand-dig. Couty rents or borrows a backhoe for deeper excavations or subcontracts the work.


Many King County residents live in massive communities with home-owner associations looking for septic companies running four or five trucks. Couty was too small to compete on that scale, yet he wanted some of that steady work. Leaving company flyers in smaller communities attracted attention.

“The word got out that I did a good job and work took off,” says Couty. “Then the president of the Hollywood Hills homeowners’ association asked if I wanted the account.” They came to an agreement.

Residents in the 250-home community in Woodinville didn’t want sewers coming in and responded when the association sent reminders to call Alberta Septic for pump-outs. Communities in Laurelhurst and Bear Creek also hired the company. The state code recommends pumping septic tanks every three to five years.

Couty spent time educating homeowners about their systems. Typical homes, built in the 1970s, have dual-compartment 1,000-gallon septic tanks without risers. Couty pumps both chambers and check the drainfields. He excavates the 2- to 3-foot deep tanks by hand just once, then suggests customers dig it up themselves or allow him to install Orenco Systems, Inc. risers. Most agree to the risers once they understand a single excavation costs as much as the risers.

“I always approach buyers and suggest installing risers at the time of inspection,” he says, “but it’s hard to convince them when they haven’t closed on the house. If they call me later for a pump-out, I insist on risers if they want to remain my customers.”


As the digital age replaced phone books, Couty hired WSI Web Profit Solutions in Issaquah, Wash., to create and manage the company website. “I sought a professional because I am one and I wanted my website to reflect it,” says Couty. “I’m interested in generating more work because my sons are with me part time now.” The website pulls in five jobs a month.

While referrals and repeat business are the company’s mainstay, Angie’s List brings in one to two customers per week. The online service compiles consumer ratings of service companies and contractors. “I’m not positive which job got me on the list, but 20 different reviews are there now,” says Couty. “If I didn’t have a website, Angie’s List could serve as one.” He also rotates the reports on his Web pages.


Pumping tanks naturally led to repairing onsite systems, although Couty picks jobs where he can install gravity drainfields using PVC pipe and chambers from Infiltrator Systems or Advanced Drainage Systems. “Simple components mean fewer complications down the road,” he says. “And chambers are easy to move in tight places.”

Point-of-sale inspections became law in 2009, the same year Shane Couty graduated with a criminal justice degree and police departments began laying off officers. Derailment of one career set another in motion for him when he earned his inspector/OSM (onsite system maintainer) license in 2010. The younger Couty, 26, averages 10 to 12 inspections per month with peaks of 15 to 20. The work is part time.

Shane Couty says real estate agents appreciate his approach to educating customers. “We treat them with respect. I explain everything I do, why something isn’t working, and reassure them that it’s an easy fix if it isn’t something major.” He concentrates on projecting a professional image that encourages customers and agents to view him as a friend.

The police academy enhanced Shane Couty’s communication skills. One session, “Verbal Judo,” taught him how to use words to defuse confrontational situations. “I’ve had only one inspection where the buyer became irate and combative,” he says. “In that case, as in any emotional conversation, the guideline is: Talk slow but think fast.”

On rare occasions when he has a bad feeling about a job, Shane Couty photographs it. His first clue is hearing the customer and real estate agent squabbling because they’re uneasy about the system. Then he takes lots of pictures; otherwise, the state’s comprehensive inspection form protects him from legal prosecution. “Being an inspector is a great career, the money is good, and I meet interesting people,” he says.


Although not ready to retire, Pete Couty is preparing his children for the day. Shane Couty has expressed interest in buying Alberta Septic. He would manage and market it, and hire a friend to run the truck. Brother Cory Couty, 22, works part time for the company while earning an accounting degree. He wants an OSM license to continue working with his father in case he can’t find employment after graduation. Sister Taylor Couty, 18, a college freshman majoring in special education, works part time running errands, processing invoices, and inputting the company’s customer database from 2007 onward using management software from Sage.

The elder Couty’s goal is to increase business while keeping it in the family. “I don’t want to hire outside help or grow to where my service performance suffers or I don’t treat people correctly,” he says. “My biggest challenge will always be taking care of customers.”


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