A New Marketing Plan For An Old-School Septic Service Company In Ohio

The next generation owners at Ohio’s Walt Kucharski Septic add technology and new marketing to quality old-school service for a winning growth strategy.
A New Marketing Plan For An Old-School Septic Service Company In Ohio
Walt “Clay” Kucharski, left, and his wife Laurel Kucharski, owners of Walt Kucharski Septic Service Inc., are shown with their 2004 Peterbilt truck with a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank built out by Progress VacTruck and using a Masport pump.

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It’s not unusual for septic service providers to inherit businesses from parents who long resisted attempts to modernize operations, preferring handwritten invoices and financial ledgers to computers and accounting software, phone book ads over websites and sole proprietorship to incorporation.

Walt “Clay” Kucharski can empathize completely. For the last two years, he’s been giving the company his late father, Walt, founded in 1960 at age 19 – Walt Kucharski Septic Service Inc. in Richfield, Ohio – an extreme business makeover. And the resulting increases in efficiency and profitability illustrate the benefits of modernization – and just might inspire other pumpers to take the update plunge.

It’s not that the elder Kucharski ran an unsuccessful business; pumpers don’t stay in business for more than five decades without doing things the right way, with honesty, integrity and a strong work ethic – principles the younger Kucharski learned from his father and continues to adhere to today. But Clay had different ideas about running the company, which he began implementing after his father died two years ago.

CHANGES COMING

“My dad was an old-school-type person who handwrote everything, from invoices to bookkeeping,” says Kucharski, 38, owner of the business with his wife, Laurel, who handles administrative duties and marketing. “He started driving a truck when he was 14 years old or so, after his older sister married a guy who owned a septic business. Back then, driver’s licenses weren’t that big a deal, I guess.

“I’d been helping him out ever since I can remember; I’m told I was 1 year old when I first tried to drag a hose for Dad. He didn’t know too much about child-labor laws,’’ the younger Kucharski jokes.

When they took over, one of the first things the Kucharskis did was incorporate the business. “It was kind of scary when we realized we could lose everything if something bad happened and we weren’t incorporated,” Kucharski explains.

On the marketing side, the company minimized phone book advertising in favor of a dedicated business website that Kucharski says has broadened the company’s geographic customer base. In fact, he periodically receives calls from people outside Ohio that found the company through the website, which Laurel designed and developed.

“We reach customers who otherwise wouldn’t know about us because we’re not known in those areas,” Kucharski says. “I’d say our website definitely has increased our gross sales.”

SOFTWARE SAVVY

The Kucharskis also moved quickly to computerize the business. The company uses Intuit Inc. QuickBooks software to handle things such as accounts receivable and payable, maintain a customer database, generate invoices and the like. One of the biggest benefits is being able to quickly identify overdue accounts.

“One of our biggest challenges is getting customers to pay on time,” Kucharski says. “We require payment within 30 days from the date of service. The QuickBooks software helps greatly in tracking overdue accounts and sending out past-due notices. Our payment rate has improved dramatically.”

The software also makes income tax preparation a snap and sends out biannual cleaning reminders to the company’s 3,000 to 4,000 residential customers, keeping them on a proper pumping schedule.

“My father would page through the ledger book and try to figure out who needs a cleaning reminder,” he says. “With QuickBooks, it generates a report that shows who needs a reminder postcard.”

In another strategic move, the company moved from Bedford to Richfield two years ago. The new location provides easier access to more major highways and allows better service to the Akron market to the south.

“Servicing customers that are farther away does increase our operating expenses, but I don’t like to pass up work,” Kucharski notes. “I’m in the service business, and if someone has work, I’d rather do it than have someone else do it. Plus, having multiple trucks allows us to go farther afield. And as an added benefit, potential customers see the trucks, which serve as rolling billboards.”

EQUIPMENT UP TO THE TASK

The company runs three vacuum trucks: a 2004 Peterbilt 379 with a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank made by Progress Tank and a Masport Inc. 400 cfm pump; a 1995 Ford L8000 with a 2,500-gallon steel tank manufactured by Imperial Industries Inc. with a 500 cfm Fruitland Manufacturing pump; and a 1991 Freightliner that features a 3,400-gallon steel tank made by Lely Manufacturing Inc. and a 400 cfm Masport pump. The company owns two additional service trucks: a 2004 Ford F-350 with a 9-foot box body, used to carry extra pumps, hose and supplies; and a 2004 Dodge pickup.

Kucharski prefers lighter-weight aluminum tanks, which allow him to haul more per load; he says he plans to eventually convert his steel tanks to aluminum. He also says the lighter trucks are less likely to damage residential driveways and reduce wear and tear on the chassis.

“I do a lot of pumping, so I need larger-capacity tanks,” Kucharski says. “Each truck hauls between 10,000 and 12,000 gallons a day. We run pretty hard. We do well because we do a lot of work, but expenses like diesel fuel and dumping fees go through the roof in the process. So we use larger tanks to maximize our volume.”

GREASE IS THE WORD

“I also buy big pumps with big cfms to speed up the pumping process,” he adds. “You pay a little bit more, but it’s well worth it. Some of the residential tanks we service are 500 or 600 feet away, so we tend to specialize in long-distance work. Sometimes we hook up trash pumps in line with the suction hose to boost vacuum power.”

To maximize productivity while pumping, Kucharski says he sometimes breaks up septic tank and grease trap sludge by connecting one end of a discharge hose to the exhaust from the vacuum pump and the other end to a “stinger” – a solid, straight pipe that he inserts into the tank. The resulting force breaks up semisolid waste for easier vacuuming.

On average, Kucharski says his company’s business volume breaks down to about 65 percent residential septic, 25 percent restaurant grease trap pumping and 10 percent commercial work (vacuum work at small processing plants, for instance).

Kucharski is pursuing more grease trap work because they require more routine cleaning – typically monthly or quarterly. While he charges less money for grease trap cleaning, he makes it up on higher volume. “You’re charging up to 12 times a year as opposed to every other year for residential septic work, so it helps us keep the bills paid,” he notes. “It really improves our cash flow and provides more consistent work during winter when there’s less septic pumping to do.”

For grease and septage disposal, Kucharski primarily relies on a Cleveland municipal waste treatment plant, but also takes about a third of his grease trap waste to “green” anaerobic-digestion facilities operated by Ohio-based quasar energy group llc.

ON THE GROW

Looking ahead, Kucharski says he feels comfortable about the current state of the company but still is looking to expand. One area with potential: becoming an authorized service provider for different brands of septic systems. Currently, Ohio law requires a septic system dealer or distributor to officially sponsor septic pumpers before they can service that particular brand.

“But the state is trying to change the rules and regulations to increase competition, so we look forward to getting into that end of the business,” Kucharski says. “Right now, there are times when we can’t truly fix a customer’s problem … all we can do is just pump out some of their tank to give them a little extra volume until an authorized repairer can get there.

“We’re not trying to take work away from anyone,” he adds. “But we want to serve our customers better by becoming more of a one-stop shop that can handle all their needs.”

MORE INFORMATION

Fruitland Manufacturing - 800/663-9003 - www.fruitlandmanufacturing.com

Imperial Industries, Inc. - 800/558-2945 - www.imperialind.com

Intuit, Inc. - 866/379-6635 - www.intuit.com

Lely Manufacturing, Inc. - 800/334-2763 - www.lelyus.com

Masport, Inc. - 800/228-4510 - www.masportpump.com

Progress Tank - 800/558-9750 - www.progresstank.com

Quasar Energy Group - 216/986-9999 - www.quasarenergygroup.com



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