California Pumpers Cope With Changing Rates & Standards, Adopt New Technological Approaches

Faced with rising disposal costs, tightening emissions restrictions and an outdated marketing approach, California’s G & C Septic retools for success.
California Pumpers Cope With Changing Rates & Standards, Adopt New Technological Approaches
Technicians Ken Gray and Lance Brown pump a grease trap at a fast food restaurant in Elk Grove, Calif.

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Septic and grease pumper Shon Steele has some advice for old-school liquid waste haulers who want their children to keep the business in the family for another generation: Be open-minded and listen thoughtfully to your son’s or daughter’s strategies for modernizing operations. And remember that in all likelihood, it wasn’t long ago that your father was the one resisting your newfangled ideas.

“I remember my dad and I butted heads when I was younger, so I know what it feels like to be on the other end,” says Shon, who along with his wife, Connie, owns G & C Septic Tank Service Inc. in Galt, Calif., about 25 miles south of Sacramento. Their son, Cory, is the company’s sales and marketing director – and chief change provocateur.

“Sometime I still lock up and say, ‘No, this is how we do it,’” Shon admits. “But having been on the receiving end, I try to back off and really hear what Cory is saying and be a little more open-minded – don’t let my stubbornness get in the way.”

Judging by the company’s website ( and Internet presence on other social media sites, Shon practices what he preaches.

“I’m a bit of a dinosaur as far as technology and social media go,” concedes Shon, whose company primarily pumps septic tanks and grease traps (about an 80 percent/20 percent split in terms of sales volume). “Cory is shoving me into the 21st century.”

“My dad manages operations extremely well,” Cory notes. “Introducing him to the benefits of sales and marketing has been both fun and a challenge at times.”

Cory says that if he thoroughly explains proposed changes, how they’ll work and what benefits will result, his father is more receptive to new ideas. “That works way better than just saying, ‘We should do this,’ ” he says. “If disagreements pop up after that, we can work it out. There’s friction there, for sure, which is probably true for a lot of family businesses. But he’s open minded [to changes]. And if we both get to the same end goal, it’s okay.”


Shon’s father, Rick, founded G & C Septic in 1970 and eventually branched into onsite system installation and tank manufacturing. Shon has been involved in the business since he was in grade school. In 2004, he bought G & C Septic from his father.

The complexities of running a liquid waste operation have increased substantially. Take a 2007 state law, for instance, that bars pumpers from using the same vacuum trucks to haul both grease and septage. The law – aimed at preventing septage from contaminating grease traps – has made pumping grease more complicated and raised expenses, Shon says.

“Before, we would take a single truck to Sacramento, clean three or four grease traps, dump it in Sacramento, then take off and pump out three or four septic tanks up there, too,” he explains. “Now, if we do three or four grease traps in Sacramento, we dump in Sacramento, then have to drive back to Galt, where the driver has to switch trucks to go and do septic runs in Sacramento.

“I haven’t performed a detailed analysis, but it definitely affects our bottom line,” he says. “It adds another 1 1/2 hours of driving time a day, which increases fuel and other expenses while reducing productivity. And we haven’t been able to raise fees or applied a surcharge because we need to remain cost-competitive.”


California’s strict engine-emission standards also increase the costs of running the company’s fleet of equipment, which consists of a 2008 Mack Granite with a 3,350-gallon steel tank built by Troxell Co. Inc.; a 2007 Sterling truck with a 3,150-gallon steel tank, built by Specialty B Sales; a 2004 International 7600 with a 3,150-gallon steel tank, built by J. Eagle Tanks; and a 5,500-gallon steel tanker trailer which Shon plans to use for hauling septage. The three vacuum trucks rely on HXL400 pumps made by Masport Inc.

With three trucks, G & C Septic is classified by the state as a small fleet, which means it must install a particulate filter on each truck by 2015. The cost? About $15,000 per truck (the 2008 Mack is already emissions-compliant). If Shon buys a fourth truck, which he plans to do because he currently doesn’t own a semi-tractor to pull the 5,500-gallon trailer, the business becomes classified as a large fleet, and must be emission compliant immediately. The upshot: Don’t buy older trucks.

“I’ll probably bite the bullet and retrofit both older trucks this year so that I can buy the tractor cab and get the tanker on the road,” he says. “I’ll buy a 2010 model or newer. My hope is that by getting out ahead of the curve and outfitting our truck right away, we can gain market share [compared to companies that don’t comply immediately].”

Grease and septage disposal restrictions also have changed how G & C Septic operates. Local municipalities, like Lodi and Sacramento, for instance, only accept grease and septage collected from within their city/county limits. Along with that, disposal rates have increased exponentially; the Lodi waste treatment center, for example, now charges 62 cents per gallon for septic waste, and 30 cents per gallon for grease, up from 15 cents per gallon eight to 10 years ago, Shon says.


In response, G & C Septic transports septage to a treatment facility in Oakland that accepts waste from outside its boundaries and charges only 7 cents per gallon. It’s a 200-mile round-trip, but the charge is so much lower than the rates in closer municipalities that it’s still cheaper to do so, Shon says.

To increase pumping capacity, boost productivity and minimize transportation-related expenses, Shon owns three 20-foot flatbed, tri-axle trailers that each carry a 1,500-gallon steel tank (Lely Tank & Waste Solutions LLC built one and Shon fabricated the other two). Shon rigged a T-valve in the hose to run vacuum from the truck to the trailer-mounted tanks via a second hose, creating additional transport capacity without buying another truck.


Things continue to change on the marketing side of the business, too, thanks to Cory’s emphasis on modern advertising methods and sales strategies. Cory, 26, who earned a degree in business marketing, says he’s been working for his father on and off for the last 10 years. He currently works as a sales rep for a major paint manufacturer, too, which has increased his knowledge about sales.

“We have a great relationship,” he says. “I feel that my role here is to tweak our marketing and sales a bit … and he’s been quite receptive to that. For me, it’s an adapt-or-die mentality. Shifting our business strategy will increase our effectiveness moving forward.

“The most basic reason to be on the Internet is that so many people have smartphones nowadays,” Cory adds. “It’s all about being able to find and hold onto more customers, rather than waiting for the phone to ring. We want more accounts, and a website opens up your company to a very broad market, not just locally.”

For G & C Septic, modernization meant replacing phone book advertising –­ the company’s primary marketing tool – with a website, then supplementing it with social media. The company had already established a website that came as part of phone book advertising package, but it was fairly primitive and largely ineffective, Cory says.

“We spent about 75 to 80 percent of our marketing budget on seven or eight phone books, but they generated only 15 to 20 percent of our job leads, with the rest coming from our trucks, repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals,” he says. “So we cut off the books that cost too much and didn’t deliver results, and we now run smaller ads in the couple of books we stayed with.”


Cory designed the company’s website using WordPress, a user-friendly digital publishing platform. The trick, he says, is to set up a website that customers find attractive and usable, satisfies G & C Septic’s business goals (explains its services, educates customers, provides maintenance tips and so forth) and Google deems relevant, in terms of searchability.

“It’s a balancing act between all three,” he explains. “You can have the greatest content in the world, but if it’s not set up correctly in Google’s eyes, then people won’t find it.”

Through research, Cory determined the four terms used most by people searching for septic and grease trap services: septic tank pumping, grease trap cleaning, septic system maintenance and septic inspections and evaluations. As such, those terms appear on tabs on the company’s home page.

It’s also important to update content frequently, which helps a website emerge near the top of consumer searches. Cory does this by regularly blogging about industry-relevant topics. In addition, the company also established verified business profiles at customer review websites such as Angie’s List, Google Plus, Manta, Merchant Circle and Yelp, which help increase the company’s Internet visibility.

Other advertising efforts include a van wrap, reminder cards mailed to customers and a billboard.


Shon says things run smoothly thanks to the efforts of technicians Ken Gray and Lance Brown, as well as his daughter, Kelsey, who works in the office, and his brother, Brent, a part-time employee.

With company sales and marketing strategies focused on obtaining new accounts and retaining customers, coupled with competitive pricing and efficient business procedures, G & C Septic is poised to serve its clientele for years to come, Shon says.

“When we were manufacturing and installing septic tanks and systems, we weren’t growing our pumping,” he continues. “Since we phased out those branches and now concentrate on the pumping, we would like to increase our market share.

“We’ve got good opportunities to grow by getting into disposal of wine manufacturing waste and increasing our grease trap customer base … there are lots of restaurants out there,” he points out. “But I realize that to do so, we have to embrace some of these new technologies and ideas.”


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