Commercial Septic Pumper Positioned for Further Growth, Branches into Environmental Cleanup

Virginia’s J.L. Bishop Contractor serves both environmental cleanup and commercial septic, grease service customers for a winning revenue-boosting strategy.
Commercial Septic Pumper Positioned for Further Growth, Branches into Environmental Cleanup
J.L Bishop Contractor Inc. owners (left to right) Robbie Leonard, Bill Keller and Dick Nance have grown the company’s profits by offering diversified environmental services.

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By providing services to a broad base of clients in different industries, emphasizing professionalism and reducing operating costs through more efficient operations, J.L. Bishop Contractor Inc. has increased net profits during the last four years and positioned itself for further growth in the environmental-services sector.

Based in Midlothian, Va., the company offers a variety of environmental services, including removal of leaking oil tanks, emergency spill response and remediation, excavation and transportation of contaminated soil. In addition, the company installs and pumps out septic systems and installs and cleans grease traps, mostly for the food-service industry. Environmental work generates about half of the company’s gross revenue, while septic installations and pumping produces the other half.

“Being diversified enabled us to stay in business the last four years,” says Bill Keller, who became a part owner of the company in 2005; his partners are Robbie Leonard and Dick Nance. “Diversification enables us to keep employees busy, pay our bills and stay open.

“If all of your eggs are in one basket, and something bad happens to that basket, you could go out of business,” he continues. “We have a lot of employees … it’s my responsibility to make sure they keep their jobs and can pay their bills. As such, we’re always looking for things we can build onto our basic core services.”


A good example is grease-trap cleaning, which provides the company with an entree to a completely new customer base, which in turn dilutes the risks associated with downturns in other areas. It also improved the company’s cash flow, Keller notes.

“We might pump someone’s septic tank only once every five years,” he explains. “But a good conscientious restaurant pumps out its grease trap once a month, so we can get 60 pumpings within five years.”

The company has not grown much in terms of gross revenue during the last four years, but it has increased its profitability by doing what Keller calls “Basic Business 101.” In other words, develop good relationships with customers, treat them with respect and provide great service.

“People don’t call us because they want to spend money,” he notes. ‘They call because they have a problem. That’s basically what we do—we solve peoples’ problems. If you do that and keep them happy, they’ll keep coming back.”


Providing good service requires reliable, modern equipment. J.L. Bishop’s stable of vehicles and machines includes: three single-axle International dump trucks with 8- to 10-cubic-yard dump bodies; a Mitsubishi Corp. mini-excavator; a Kubota Tractor Corp. excavator; and two backhoes made by Case Construction Equipment (a division of CNH America LLC).

For handling liquid waste, the company relies on a 2001 International with a 2,000-gallon steel tank; a 2005 International with a 2,000-gallon steel tank; a 2006 Peterbilt with a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank, made by Progress Vactruck and installed by Transway Systems Inc.; and a 2005 International with a 2,000-gallon steel tank, built by Keith Huber and used for environmental spills.

When it comes to trucks, Keller believes operating efficiencies come through improved logistics rather than exponential leaps in technology. This is particularly true when, for instance, diesel fuel costs about $4 a gallon, and the trucks idle a lot and, as such, get bad mileage.

“So if you decrease the miles you have to drive, you can increase profitability,” he says. “That’s why we prefer bigger tanks, which translate into fewer disposal runs each day. We also strive for route density … grouping pumping jobs together to achieve better efficiencies.”


The 2006 Peterbilt is used exclusively for handling oil and gasoline spills and other chemicals, not for septic pumping. That’s because wastewater treatment plants can’t handle hydrocarbons mixed with septage. “It throws the chemistry [at the plants] way off and does bad things,” Keller says.

To work with hazardous waste, Bishop employees must obtain a hazardous waste material endorsement, earned by passing a special test and an FBI background check. Anyone with a drunken-driving or felony conviction may not apply. The endorsement allows employees to handle everything from gunpowder to fuel oil to nuclear materials.

“All our drivers either have an endorsement or are in the process of getting one because it allows them to do both ‘hazmat’ and septage work,” Keller says. He points out that employees who can do both give the company more flexibility in more efficiently deploying manpower.

Environmental work is subject to more regulation than septic pumping. For example, contaminated soil samples must be taken to independent companies for testing, and employees must follow certain protocols, such as filling out chain-of-custody forms for certain operations, such as taking soil samples.

“It’s basic, simple stuff, but it’s different than working with septage,” he says. “When you pump a septic tank, the expectation is that it’s going to be full of septage that you’ll haul to a treatment center. With an underground oil tank, it could be full of PCBs and all kinds of other bad chemicals.

“Or with cleaning up oil spills, for example, you have to take soil samples before and after the job,” he continues. “You may have to move tons and tons of soil, then you’re required to test the soil that’s left behind. In Virginia, a couple companies will take care of tainted soil by treating it to decontaminate it, then use it to cap landfills. In other cases, they incinerate it.”


Presenting a professional image is one of the keys to the company’s success. As Keller puts it, if two equally skilled plumbers show up at a job and charge the same prices—one adorned with lots of tattoos, wearing grubby-looking clothes and driving a beat-up truck, the other clean shaven, neatly dressed and driving a clean vehicle—the latter always wins.

As such, the company includes in an employee handbook a policy that requires all drivers to be neat and clean when they show up for work, and wear company-provided items such as pocket T-shirts, jackets and baseball caps. All employees must sign the policy. “We basically want them to look like the kind of person you’d like to take home to meet grandma,” Keller says. “We even pay for their footwear, because it’s dirty work and we consider it part of their uniform.”

When drivers return from their routes, they’re required to hose down their trucks and keep them clean.

Vulgar language and off-color, sexist or racist jokes—basically anything that might offend any employee—are not tolerated, either. “I don’t care if it’s the funniest things you ever heard, everyone has different beliefs and feelings,” Keller says. “I think people respect that. We just don’t have a problem with it. And we never have to worry about what our customers perceive, either.”


Looking ahead, Keller anticipates more revenue growth in the grease-trap pumping sector, for several reasons. For starters, there’s less competition because fats, oils and greases are becoming increasingly difficult to dispose of as more and more treatment centers refuse to accept them. Secondly, fewer companies are properly equipped or qualified to clean grease traps. In addition, increasing numbers of municipalities are requiring regular grease-trap inspections.

“It’s a good niche for us to move into further,” Keller says. “Municipalities are getting very aggressive about regular inspections because they’re a good way to reduce the maintenance and cleaning costs for the pipes that go into treatment centers.”

Keller also sees the potential for banding together with members of a regional business group—called the Central Virginia Septic Association—to develop a private waste-treatment facility.

“As times goes on, it’s getting more and more difficult to get rid of waste, plus prices keep rising at treatment plants,” Keller says, noting that disposal rates have risen to as high as 10 cents per gallon at some plants, up from about 2 1/2 cents just five years ago. “Some localities require regular grease-trap cleanings, but they won’t accept the waste. Land application isn’t an option because it requires too many hoops to jump through—I don’t know anyone who does it.

“So we’ve talked about building our own facility, which we’d operate cooperatively,” he continues. “Even though you’re talking about millions of dollars … we’re looking at it just as hard as we can. But the numbers absolutely have to work.”


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