Pumper’s Mechanical Training Helps Build Thriving Business

Pennsylvania’s Regan Wilson uses his training as a mechanic and some industry networking at the WWETT Show to build a new pumping business.
Pumper’s Mechanical Training Helps Build Thriving Business
Five years into his business, River Valley Septic Inc. marketing-minded owner Regan Wilson has built a large clientele. Part of the reason for his success is the many lessons learned at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show. Wilson is shown with his workhorse vacuum truck, a 2002 Mack with a Jurop/Chandler pump built out by National Truck Center.

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When Regan Wilson decided to start his own septic service business in 2010 in east-central Pennsylvania, he began with nothing more than a used vacuum truck, some sound financial advice from his father and loads of ambition.

Five years later, the 35-year-old owner of River Valley Septic in Riegelsville, about 45 miles north of Philadelphia, still runs the 2002 Mack truck he started out with and continues to rely on advice from his father, A. Rhodes Wilson, a financial adviser. But everything else is dramatically different.

Instead of wondering when the phone will ring, he barely has enough time to serve the customers he has – between 2,500 and 3,000 accounts, mostly acquired by purchasing two local companies from retiring pumpers. Wilson also made strategic purchases of productivity-enhancing equipment that saves time and labor and increases customer satisfaction – and produces new revenue streams to boot.

As a result of these moves, his revenue has increased about 500 percent since his first year in business. And Wilson, a former auto mechanic and water jet operator/pumper for a large East Coast waste management firm, has his sights firmly set on further growth.

“All it takes is doing quality work at a reasonable price and providing good customer care,” Wilson says, explaining how he achieved such dramatic growth. “I take time to educate my customers – talk to them and help them understand what they have … most people don’t even understand how a septic system works.

“I also hired a secretary to answer the phone for me from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” he adds. “Every phone call gets answered, which is a big thing if you’re a small business … if you don’t answer the phone, customers will call someone else. Sure, it’s an expense, but it’s well worth it. Deb (Nogradi) really keeps me on top of things.”

Wilson also relies heavily on support from his wife, Ani, who handles the company’s books while also holding down a full-time job as a registered dietician. “She’s been phenomenal,” Wilson says. “To have someone I can trust handle all the paperwork and accounting is invaluable, not to mention the emotional support. She’s super organized, which is so good for me.”


Initially, Wilson planned on a career as an auto mechanic. He took a part-time job as a mechanic when he was 15 years old. After he graduated from high school, he attended a tech school, where he studied automotive mechanics. In all, he spent about 12 years as a mechanic, then two more years selling automotive supplies.

Then he worked for three years at a large residential and commercial waste management company, where he operated a water jetter, cleaning clogged septic system lines. Later, he graduated to running a vacuum truck and cleaning septic tanks. The experience he gained there gave him the confidence to strike out on his own.

“Everything I did was on the ground and in the field,” he notes. “I learned a lot about septic systems and good day-to-day truck operation – how to winterize it, how to figure out proper vacuum and pressure under different situations and so on. I could’ve learned all that on my own, but it was better to have someone teach me versus going in blind.

“I also learned how to use a jetter … what to do when a jetter gets stuck and the kinds of jobs you can do with a jetter,” he adds.

Like so many entrepreneurs, Wilson was eager to make more money, set his own hours and take advantage of the flexibility afforded by running his own show. But as many entrepreneurs discover, nothing happens quickly. Money? Not so much in the early going. Set your own hours? Sure – on call, 24/7. Flexibility? To a point, but less and less as business picked up.

To gain market share, Wilson paid for local phone book and online advertising. He also had a website developed for about $800, which he says was a great investment. “It’s not much money for the value it provides,” he notes. “I paid for it in four (tank) pumpings. But my most valuable marketing tool was word-of-mouth referrals.”


But acquiring two local pumping companies played a much larger role in increasing River Valley’s business profile. In 2012, he bought Pursell Septic from Butch Pursell, who was retiring after running the business for 20 years. It was a fortuitous purchase; Wilson’s father had been Pursell’s accountant for years. So when Pursell started to think about retiring, Wilson was the first person he asked to buy the company, located about 5 miles south of Riegelsville.

“Butch had about 1,300 accounts, and most of them were within the territory I already covered,” Wilson says. “So it was a good fit for my business. Plus it included some long-term commercial contracts to clean holding tanks, which offered steady work and improved my cash flow.”

In 2013, Chris Winton – a pumper whom Wilson bumped into occasionally at a local waste disposal facility – asked if Wilson would be interested in acquiring his business because he, too, was retiring. The business, Roberson Septic, was located about 10 miles from Riegelsville and serviced less than 500 customers. Again, it was a good fit geographically.

“Roberson’s business volume wasn’t as big,” Wilson says, explaining that he financed the two purchases through private loans held by the two sellers. “But part of my reasoning for buying it was to keep my competition from buying it. I’m not making a lot of money yet from the second acquisition, but it’s helping to pay off the loan for the first acquisition, and I’ll start making money on the second purchase after the loan is paid off in 2016.”


As River Valley grew and revenue increased, Wilson invested in equipment that could save time and labor and generate new revenue through up-charges. The company’s workhorse is the pre-owned Mack truck, outfitted by National Truck Center with a 4,000-gallon steel tank and a 420 cfm Jurop/Chandler pump.

Most septic tanks Wilson pumps hold 1,000 gallons, so it made sense to buy a truck with a tank large enough to maximize dump trips and subsequently minimize fuel costs and vehicle wear and tear. The truck, which Wilson bought at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show, features an Eaton-Fuller 10-speed manual transmission and a 330 hp Mack diesel engine.

“I wish the truck had more features, such as better sight glasses (the truck has two, indicating half-full and full), an automatic transmission and a sample access valve,” Wilson says. “But all in all, it’s been a good truck. It was the right price at the right time – about $65,000, which was my life savings.”

To expand his capabilities, Wilson also bought a toolbox jetter (3,000 psi at 5 gpm) made by Advance Pump & Equipment; a pipeline inspection camera and locator manufactured by Spartan Tool LLC; a 10,000-pound flatbed trailer made by Ringo Hill Farms Equipment Co.; a 2000 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 pickup truck; and a small Kubota backhoe loader.

“If a tank is deeper than 2 feet, I won’t dig it manually,” Wilson says. “Instead, I’ll use the backhoe to excavate, then install a riser and bring it up to grade. I use the backhoe, which also enables me to do small repairs, such as replacing a line from the house to the tank or from the tank to the D-box.”


Wilson’s long-term goals include hiring more employees, running four or five trucks and eventually diversifying the company by getting into onsite installations and expanding a small specialty in grease trap pumping. He also doesn’t rule out more acquisitions. “But it’s got to be just the right deal at this point,” he says.

But like many small-scale outfits looking to grow bigger, he struggles with the idea of hiring that first full-time driver – and then being responsible for providing that employee, and perhaps others, with a livelihood. On the other hand, he also realizes that the physical labor required by septic pumping gets harder as you get older. As such, he’s leaning toward hiring a high school age worker or someone who’s just out of high school and wants a blue-collar career, just like he wanted at that age.

“I’d love to spend less time in the truck and do more repair work,” he says. “I’m very comfortable with what I do, but it’s more physical labor than I’ll want to do in the future. But it’s difficult to get past that first step – hiring someone, then providing them with an income.”

In the end, however, he expects that the traits that helped him build a thriving business will continue to serve him well: The ability to make people feel comfortable, honed by several years of sales experience and working with customers; taking calculated risks by investing in revenue- and productivity-enhancing equipment (he’s already eyeing a Crust Buster tank agitator, made by Schmitz Brothers LLC); and aggressively pursuing new clients.

“I’m a bit of a risk-taker, which I think you have to be to step out on your own,” he says. “I was very aggressive in finding new customers when I first started out – I really worked hard to promote myself. I’m a go-getter. And I don’t see that changing.”


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