Switch Hitting: Business Owner Fuses Plumbing & Pumping Operations, Focuses on Good Service

Tennessee’s Shane Buck grows revenues and recaptures his family’s heritage by adding septic work to his plumbing business.
Switch Hitting: Business Owner Fuses Plumbing & Pumping Operations, Focuses on Good Service
Shane Buck heads for the cab of his Kenworth truck, built out by House of Imports, to head to a septic service appointment.

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Shane Buck took over his family’s longtime plumbing company a few years back and quickly doubled its size by adding septic pumping to his menu of services. Finding people who can switch-hit between the two specialties has been a challenge; one that left Buck a busy man as he tried to keep pace with customer demands.

Buck, 37, is the owner of Buck’s Plumbing and Sewer in Cookeville, Tenn., a city of 24,000 about 80 miles east of Nashville. His grandfather, Lester, started the company in 1960, offering both plumbing and septic pumping. Jerry, Shane’s father, later combined Buck’s with his own plumbing business in 1994 and stuck strictly to plumbing. “We’re the oldest family-operated company in Cookeville and the county,” Shane Buck says.

When he bought out his retiring father three years ago, Buck expanded the business back into pumping by also buying two other companies at the same time. “One company, Buckeye Septic Tank, was started by my great-grandfather in 1948,” he says. “It had been shut down for almost a year so I bought it.” The other company was a backhoe service.

On the move

“We do all kinds of plumbing repairs. We started the pumping side and that’s led to more work and more money,” he says. The quick expansion immediately doubled his income and prompted a move into a larger facility a few miles from his original building. They also do about three dozen septic installations a year using conventional and gravelless systems.

The first thing Buck did after taking over the septic service company was get a better truck, a 2000 Kenworth T-800 built out by House of Imports with a 4,000-gallon steel tank and Challenger vacuum system from National Vacuum Equipment.

His 1999 International has a 1,500 gallon steel tank and vacuum from Transway Systems Inc. but it’s a bit “under the weather” right now. With the spring hiring of two more people, he was able to get another truck back on the road, a 1997 Freightliner FL70 with an 1,800-gallon tank and Moro pump. The company also has a small Bobcat backhoe and a John Deere 310E backhoe.

The company has three drain cleaning machines from MyTana Mfg. Company Inc. along with an Electric Eel Mfg. hand-operated cleaner for sinks. A Pipehorn pipe locator from Utility Tool Company was purchased this summer. The next planned purchase is a jetting system mainly to serve Tennessee Tech University. Buck thinks he could also use another service truck to go along with his 2008 Dodge Sprinter.

No low-balling here

Amid all the changes, the one thing Buck hasn’t done is alter his philosophy on charging enough money to turn a profit. He doesn’t believe in low-balling to compete with other pumpers. That’s just the way he’s handled the plumbing business over the years. “If you do things right to begin with, word gets out. We don’t just pump out the tank and run, we make sure the tank is clean.”

And the customers understand that you get what you pay for, he says. “Most of the people I work for know me, know how I work, and they’re not price shopping,” says Buck. “Our trucks stay on the road all day every day, so I’m not too concerned about being $10 or $20 over my competition.

“If you want it done right, my prices are my prices, and that’s it,” he says. But there are exceptions to his hard line on pricing. “If I go to an elderly person’s house and can see they live on a fixed income and don’t have much money, I’ll give them a break. That is the way I was brought up. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Word gets around when you do that.”

Getting the job done

Buck enjoys getting out in the field, especially solving plumbing problems. He is licensed by the state, county and city for doing plumbing repairs and septic pumping and installation, but spends a lot of his time providing estimates and dealing with customers.

Angel Delmoral runs the vacuum truck and does some plumbing work. Buck’s sister, Jamie Fox, handles the phones and his wife, Kim, does the accounting and bookwork. Jerry Buck comes out of retirement now and then to take care of any backhoe work that comes up.

Despite the extra work, Buck considers buying the septic business to be one of his best decisions in a long time. “We do $450,000 to $500,000 a year,” he says. About $325,000 of that now comes from plumbing. The rest is from 60 or 70 septic service jobs per month.

His marketing includes a website he developed himself that features water facts, a blog, coupons and a list of services. “I work on it when I can,” he says. He also has a Facebook page and tries to post something every day or two, though he often doesn’t have the time. “We do telephone books and our trucks are rolling billboards.”

The diversification came quickly, which presents an important issue anytime you expand. “Getting it all done,” is the main challenge, according to Buck. “It’s hard to find people.”

Buck says he looks for the plumbing skills first, but the main barrier is the CDL license; many people don’t want the hassle and restrictions that come along with it, such as medical certificates, extra testing, the lower blood alcohol limit and possibility of losing a job for a DUI in a personal vehicle, and the requirement to report all traffic tickets to their employer.

Human resources challenge

Like all small-business owners, Buck finds himself putting in long hours to meet his customers’ needs. “I fit it in somehow or another, but it may not be the same day they call. Pumping and sewer calls get the highest priority. I probably put in 60 or 70 hours a week.” Pump truck driver Angel Delmoral normally clocks 55 hours or more.

Things were going well earlier this year, until he lost two of his staff members. “One left for the military, I knew he was leaving. The other one didn’t work out. Between the four of us, we kept everything under control. We all made good money, and got everything done in a timely manner.”

He gets plenty of people stopping by looking for work. “Finding someone who knows what they’re doing, is presentable, has a CDL and who you can just turn loose is like finding a needle in a haystack. I don’t mind training someone, but I just don’t have the time.”

Finally, a new and unexpected opportunity presented itself this year in the form of Donny Blaylock and Billy Sims. They both started working with Buck in May in a merger of sorts. Blaylock has his own plumbing company, where Sims worked, but had scaled back due to health problems. Blaylock is better now, so he and Sims went to work at Buck’s Plumbing and Sewer, and are serving their old customers on the side.

Oddly enough, Blaylock has ties to Buck’s family. “He worked for our family about 25 years ago,” says Buck. “My dad was the one who taught him how to pump. And now he’s back as a plumber. He’s experienced and knows what he’s doing so I can just put him in a truck and let him go.”

Two more people on the road makes life easier for Buck, and he plans to use the time to hit the bricks and recruit more business.


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