Oregon Pumpers Search Out Accessories That Save Time And Prevent Injuries

Jeff and Debbie Coe are always on the lookout to make things easier for their hardworking crew.
Oregon Pumpers Search Out Accessories That Save Time And Prevent Injuries
Jim’s Septic Service Owners Jeff and Debbie Coe, center, are flanked by technicians Doug Modgling, left, and Joshua Fiske.

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Jeff Coe, a successful general contractor for 35 years, recognized opportunity when he saw steady truck traffic in and out of his neighbor’s driveway at Jim’s Septic Service. It was 2007, and Coe was in the midst of a slump in his own business, so he had a few over-the-fence conversations with pumper Murray Coupland.

It turned out that Coupland was ready to hang up the hose and retire after 23 years in business. The neighbors negotiated a deal, and by 2008 Jeff and Debbie Coe owned the septic service business in Grants Pass, Oregon. Just as Coupland kept the business name when he bought it, the Coes took advantage of the same name and the valuable reputation it had built up.

By building and improving on the existing business and adding their own entrepreneurial savvy and skills, the Coes added a truck and doubled the customer list to nearly 20,000 names within seven years. While the business came along near the end of their careers, it has been a good move, they say.

“It seems like you don’t pick the pumping business,” Jeff laughs. “It picks you.”

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

“Murray created an awesome business. Everyone knew Murray, and we had big shoes to fill. And we knew from the beginning we would have employees because we are older,” notes Debbie. The Coes are both 60.

Jeff calls the area where they live “paradise,” just an hour and a half away from the ocean — and fishing. Even as he purchased the business, his thoughts were on retirement. Debbie found herself loving running the business — even if she is tethered to her cellphone wherever she goes and needs to mix business (her laptop) with pleasure when she goes to the beach.

Debbie’s focus has been top-notch customer service and to build on the good reputation Coupland created. Jeff learned about pumping by riding with Coupland for a few months, and Debbie also went on runs so she would better understand the business. She uses that knowledge to ask questions and have conversations with people who call. She’s taken the customer list from index cards to data files in her computer, which includes contact information, call-back prompts and notes that have helped her develop personal relationships with repeat customers.

The key to customer service success, Debbie says, is to be prompt, personal and professional. Sometimes she can help customers troubleshoot problems over the phone so they don’t have to pay for a service call. If a plumber or installer is a better fit for the work, she recommends one.

“We look out for our customers. We go the extra mile and give them the right person for the right job so that we are trustworthy. I take pride in this. I’m taking it to a different level — it’s not just work,” she says. “People get that I care.”

QUALITY EMPLOYEES

Some of Debbie’s favorite calls are those regarding employees. “One of the best comments we’ve had is that our employees are a breath of fresh air,” she says. “Who says that about pumpers?”

Jeff explains that hiring good employees is one of the most important things about running a successful business.

“Good service wins. If you have bad employees representing you, you’re not going to do very well,” he says. “I’m really good at hiring. They have to meet my criteria. I’m easygoing, but I’m demanding.”

Most of the time, the Coes’ two employees work together to service an average of six tanks a day. Debbie gives them the list of customers, and they plan the route with the truck’s Garmin GPS. They follow a specific protocol: clean trucks that don’t leak on driveways, laying tarps down when removing sod to open a tank, polite behavior with customers that includes answering questions and providing education (about not flushing flushable wipes and the best bathroom tissue choices), a mini-inspection and having customers flush toilets to make sure there are no maintenance issues.

“They work very hard for Jim’s Septic Service; they treat it like their own business,” Debbie says.

According to the Coes, employees receive annual raises, two weeks paid vacation, commission on product sales, bonuses and company-provided uniforms. The Coes say they are flexible about work schedules to accommodate family needs and time off for hunting and fishing.

Joshua Fiske has been with them since the beginning, while Doug Modgling has been on the job since 2013. Both are certified technicians who take classes annually to maintain inspection certifications.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Jim’s Septic has two trucks: the 1999 FL70 Freightliner with a 2,300-gallon aluminum tank and Masport pump that came with the business, and a 2006 Freightliner with a 3,600-gallon steel tank and National Vacuum Equipment pump, built by House of Imports.

The business needed the larger tank on the newer truck, Jeff notes, to save time and money. The drivers can pump more tanks before driving to a private treatment plant. With dumping fees ranging from 12 to 15 cents per gallon, Jeff says it’s important to look for ways to keep the business expenses down. Fortunately the plant is 3 miles from the Coes’ business and centrally located to the 50-mile radius they service.

One customized item Jeff insisted on with the newer rig is two full-length toolboxes under the hose trays. They hold all the tools necessary for pumping and simple repair work – a ladder, pry bars, shovels, winch, jackhammer, etc. – and parts to replace baffles, etc. Coupland had the toolboxes in his truck, and the Coes can’t imagine having a truck without them.

EXCAVATING MADE EASY

To keep the truck and tools clean, each truck has a 50-gallon pressurized water tank built by a local welder. Technicians can also use the 200 feet of hose with it, for what Jeff considers one of his most useful pieces of equipment, a Power Booster from Pressure Lift Corporation. When cleaning thick septage or pumping from a slope, technicians can switch from water to air to reduce the hose weight and pump faster.

Jeff emphasizes investing in the right tools that help save backs and money.

“We also use a Kioti 30 hp tractor with a loader bucket and backhoe. A small tractor is almost a must in this business,” he says. He has a double-axle trailer to haul it to sites when a system needs to be opened up for repairs such as installing new baffles or clean-outs. “I paid $25,000 for it (tractor) new in 2009, and it paid for itself the first year.’’

“Doing so many calls a day, we’re always thinking of our guys’ safety — it’s very back-breaking,” Debbie explains. Jeff designed a lift bar and had it welded with a hook for one or two men to pull up lids.

Other standard equipment includes a Cam Spray jetter with adjustable pressure and a 100-foot hose, Prototek locating devices and a MyTana Mfg. Company camera with a 100-foot cable that records video for inspections. Each truck carries an inexpensive digital camera for documenting real estate inspections. The company also uses a RIDGID K-3800 Drum Machine.

SELLING THEMSELVES

Word-of-mouth has been the Coes’ best marketing tool, but investing in advertising (about $2,000/month) has been important in growing their business. They advertise in local phone books and area shoppers and support local teams or businesses, such as paying for their name to be on a bench at the local golf course. In the future, Debbie plans to improve the company’s current one-page website, though it hasn’t been a priority because the phones keep ringing.

“We have two beautiful trucks that are driving billboards,” she says. The trucks’ graphics and cleanliness send a clear message about the business’ focus on detail.

The area’s temperate climate reduces weather challenges pumpers in other areas may face, but there are other challenges connected with aging systems, many dating to the 1950s through the 1970s. With a population of 250,000, about 80 percent of the area’s homes utilize septic systems. A new mandated seven-page inspection report for real estate sales (up from one-page) has soured some pumping companies from offering the service, Jeff notes.

“To us, it’s just another bureaucratic hoop to jump through, so why not? We change accordingly as always, and are happy to supply this service,” he says.

Besides residential customers, Jim’s Septic provides service to jails, schools, banks, RV parks and commercial grease tanks. One unique customer is a secure mental health facility. Jeff notes the layout was well planned, with the septic system located outside the locked walls and adjacent to a parking lot, making it handy to pump.

Comparing that to some nightmare residential setups – where the tanks are accessed under bedroom floors – Jeff says the tighter DEQ regulations are well founded.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Nearing the end of their working careers, the Coes haven’t pursued some natural new service offerings. For example, they currently refer all inside plumbing work to another business. Debbie notes that a Jim’s Septic employee could run a service van to handle the work. That’s a possibility, as the Coes’ son, Aaron, looks forward to taking over the family business one day.

For now, Jeff says Debbie has a good handle on running the business, and he can help when he wants to — and enjoy retirement-like activities at the same time.

“Luckily my wife has taken a shine to this business and she really enjoys what she does. She is the brains behind this. I’ve worked 45 years, and I’m here for advice and financial ideas, and together it’s working out real well for us,’’ he says. “She’s enjoying what she’s doing and I’m enjoying not doing as much as I usually do.”



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