South Carolina Contractor Won't Retire; Starts Pumping Septic Tanks

You might say Ken Howard had ants in his pants after cashing in his longtime trash company. So he bought out South Carolina’s Dr. Flush and was back in business.
South Carolina Contractor Won't Retire; Starts Pumping Septic Tanks
Ken Howard, owner of Dr. Flush, is shown at the company yard with his latest vacuum truck, from Lely Manufacturing.

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Ken Howard always looked forward to retirement. Then in 1997, after 28 years of running a trash-hauling business in South Carolina’s Upcountry, he sold out and it was time to relax and enjoy life.

But retirement wasn’t exactly what Howard expected.

“I got a bit bored after six months and couldn’t goof off or play that much golf,’’ Howard recalls. “I guess my daddy raised me to work. I’m definitely a workaholic.’’

So work he did. After his brief dalliance with a life of leisure, Howard turned from collecting solid waste to liquid waste, buying a small septic service business – Dr. Flush, in Greer, S.C. Opening shop with a single vacuum truck and a plan to capitalize on a growing regional economy, Howard acquired three smaller pumping businesses – now operating out of one location – and involves family members in the management of a burgeoning operation.

“Doing what I did might not be for everybody,’’ Howard says today. But all’s well that … well, doesn’t end. “I’m 67 now and still going strong.’’


Howard was only 46 years old when he sold the trash business to a national company. During that same period, South Carolina was enjoying an economic surge with more people moving into its beautiful northern counties, BMW building a plant to drive growth of the Greenville-Spartanburg area, and Spartanburg developing a $43 million inland port.

All signs pointed to small-business opportunity, and Howard was equipped to take advantage. With success, Howard bought strategically placed Upstate Septic, Pumping Service, and Elite Environmental. The four entities joined to provide a large menu of services, from residential and commercial pumping and grease trap cleaning to onsite system repair and replacement. The company now covers Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, Pickens and Oconee counties.

Septic and grease trap service, as well as drainline repair, are the primary services offered by Dr. Flush. The other companies provide the same services, with Upstate Septic concentrating more on onsite system repairs and installs.

Howard has help managing the workload. His son, Ken Jr., 36, and his nephew Bengy Rhodes, 38, work in the companies today, and the long-range plan is for them to take over.


A busy workload demands efficient and reliable equipment. Howard runs five vacuum trucks, including a 1998 Ford 8000 and four Peterbilts, ranging from 2004 to 2014. Each truck has a 2,500-gallon tank and Masport pump. Four tanks are steel, one is aluminum. All but the 2014 truck were built out by Abernethy Welding. The most recent, a 2014 Pete, was built out by Lely Manufacturing. For earthwork, the company operates a 304C Caterpillar mini-excavator and a 257 Cat skid-steer.

Customer service has always been a key to success in running a small business, Howard asserts. It doesn’t matter if it’s hauling trash or hauling wastewater. He finds constant communication is critical to keeping customers happy during the pumping process.

“We keep in contact with the customer and let them know what time we will be there, and try to do what we say we’re going to do,’’ he says. That means maintaining a promised time frame for reaching the job site and pumping the tank. With emergency calls and unexpected route changes, that can be a challenge, he admits.

“Sometimes it’s impossible, but that’s what we always try to do. We’ve always received good response with that from people who know our business,” he says.

Communication is important, but a clean appearance is just as important to building a reputation. So Howard is committed to having his fleet of trucks washed every day.

“We like the image of cleanliness and like to do the washing right here,” adds Howard. The company has its own wash bay set up for convenience.

“When we were in the trash business we liked to say, ‘Just because we haul trash, doesn’t mean we have to look trashy.’ With what we are into now, just because it is undesirable material doesn’t mean we can’t present ourselves as a clean operation. The best advertising there is consists of word-of-mouth and our trucks present a running billboard across the upstate.”


Howard also considers the telephone an important part of the business and how calls are answered is important. During office hours the phone is answered professionally. After hours, a receptionist forwards the calls directly to Howard and his staff. It’s important to respond to late-night calls, especially from commercial customers, Howard says. “If we have an industrial or commercial customer, we will go. Anything residential can usually wait until the next morning.”

Howard believes in providing a green service and keeping a green attitude for his company. So he’s happy that the 2014 Peterbilt rig carries the latest emissions equipment. “The good thing about it is that it’s not just for us, it’s for everybody. They’ve all got to do the same thing emission-wise on vehicles; you’re not out on a limb by yourself.

“It’s the same way with pumping. There are more requirements coming out every few years, so you have to change and whatever the DHEC [the state Department of Health and Environmental Control] and the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] tells us to do, that’s what we’ve got to do,’’ he says. “It didn’t used to be this way. But now there is a lot of recordkeeping. You’ve got to keep up with what you do and where you dispose of materials, as well as how and when you do. It’s not as easy as it used to be.”


Each county in Howard’s territory has treatment plants that accept septage. Pumpers pay 6 to 10 cents per gallon for disposal and adding a private dewatering plant is not in the plans.

“The big challenge comes with restaurant grease,’’ he explains. “There are just two counties that will accept the grease. It means we have a longer haul to get to those places, so we have to charge more.’’ All restaurants are required to have grease traps, and the counties are careful to require regular maintenance schedules, he says. “That’s a big part of our business, but disposing of that material remains an issue,’’ he says.

When the company pumps grease in counties where there is no treatment option, drivers are forced to drive 60 miles, into Georgia, for disposal. “The ultimate solution to this issue would be for South Carolina to provide a place within its borders to dispose of grease,’’ Howard says.


Howard brought in Ken Jr. as part owner of the business along with Rhodes and has plans to back away from the operations a little bit. “My son and nephew are good guys who are not afraid to work and are smart enough to do the work. They’ve fit right in and are doing well.”

To fill out the crew of nine, Howard uses the same strategy for hiring that works best for finding customers – word of mouth. Employees are usually drawn from friends the family has known for years, and they’ve worked out well.

“I have people all the time who want to work for us,” Howard says. “We don’t have any trouble with that; and we have a good name and good equipment. People who come on with us stay with us. If you pay employees well, they will do good work.’’

It’s all about following the golden rule.

“We want to treat people the way we want to be treated,’’ Howard says. This philosophy extends to working with customers and charging fees that ensure a profit for the companies.

“If we are unable to do a job right, we just don’t do that job,’’ Howard says. “Competition comes in every once in a while that will work for lower prices. We feel the important thing is to do the job right; it’s not always all about price. We’ve never claimed to be the cheapest, but I’ll stand up with anybody.”


Howard truly enjoys what he is doing now. Retirement simply may not be for everyone. He does hint that he’ll be glad to let his son and nephew take on more of the workload.

“I’m gradually turning responsibilities over to my boys. They’re doing great, the company’s doing great,’’ he says. But then his unrelenting work ethic shines through once again, “I’ll be pumping the day I die.’’


Abernethy Welding & Repair, Inc. - 800/545-0324 -

Caterpillar, Inc. - 309/675-1000 -

Lely Manufacturing, Inc. - 800/334-2763 -

Masport, Inc. - 800/228-4510 -


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