The Key to Building Revenue: Diversify Your Wastewater Services

For Canada’s Mike Clark, installing and pumping go hand in hand to better serve a rural customer base.
The Key to Building Revenue: Diversify Your Wastewater Services
Standing in front of the company office are, from left, Diane, William, Mike and Elaine Clark.

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Pumping was a sideline project for William Clark, something his Abbey’s Septic Service provided just for the Canadian hamlet of Bethany, Ontario. He focused on raising beef cattle and cash crops on 200 acres instead of promoting the business, founded in 1983.

Son Mike, however, saw a demand for installing and repairing onsite systems. Graduating from high school in 1988, he persuaded his grandfather to co-sign a loan for a backhoe and opened Mike Clark Excavating & Septic Pumping. That year, he replaced 25 stone-and-pipe trench systems, jobs gleaned from pumping the owners’ septic tanks.

Living in a remote area isolated Clark from industry advancements. “Lacking even dial-up Internet service, we were stuck in an age just a little ahead of the Pony Express,” he says. “It retarded business growth because I didn’t realize what we were missing.”

Clark compensated by building the necessary trucks and equipment. He overcame two economic depressions, equipment failures, fire and theft. “I knew I had succeeded when Dad said he was impressed that I was making more money pumping than he had.”

MEETING CHALLENGES

The revenue from those first installs enabled Clark to pay cash for a tandem dump truck. The following spring, he bought a Komatsu D31 trim dozer. By 1992, Clark had four bulldozers, an excavator, a backhoe, two tandem dump trucks and two employees. He still pumped using his dad’s converted single-axle farm truck with a liquid New Idea tank.

A 1994 economic collapse destroyed numerous small companies, including Clark’s. To feed his family, he spent four years working in the Alberta oilfields excavating pipeline trenches. During that time, competitors took over his father’s territory.

“Dad didn’t care, but I did,” says Clark. “After returning home, I immediately bought a new backhoe and excavator. When Dad sold his company and two homemade septic trucks to me in March 1999, I came out of the cannon on fire. Within two years, we were pumping in one month what he did in a year.” (Today, they pump 2.5 million gallons annually, land-applying in summer and off-loading at a treatment plant in winter.)

Clark’s success had bumpy beginnings. During his first week in business, the engine blew in a septic truck. Clark bought a tandem Freightliner. A friendly competitor sold him a 2,200-gallon steel tank. “Dad said the truck would break me because it had a large engine,” says Clark. “All I saw was the ability to go down the road faster and service more people.” He ran it for two years.

Around this time, Clark lost interest in commercial excavation work and streamlined the company for onsite repairs and installations. His motivation was seeing new stone in “failed” beds they were hired to remove. As he pumped tanks the day before the systems were to be replaced, Clark began looking at the grass and walking around drainfields. If he saw nothing wrong, he asked the homeowners if he could investigate further.

Clark believed 90 percent of failures were due to the gravel/sand soil and insufficient hydraulic flow. “It’s common to find 500 feet of PVC pipe in drainfields servicing households with only two people,” he says. “The soil’s high percolation rate enables effluent to soak away 2 feet from the header. It’s a perfect scenario for a septic’s No. 1 enemy – ants.”

The insects colonize the unused laterals, eventually blocking most pipes and causing backups when effluent has no place to go. Many times Clark sees evidence of their activities in the grass. Most of the time, laborer Garry Atherton opens the laterals by jetting them.

EQUIPMENT UPGRADES

Not knowing jetters were commercially available in 2003, Clark simply built one using a 3,000 psi/3 gpm pump. A machine shop fabricated a single jet nozzle to ram a pilot hole through the blockage, and a rotary spray nozzle to shove the mass out the end into a bell hole for vacuuming into the septic truck. Clark used stiff hydraulic hoses to help push the nozzles forward.

Pushing instead of pulling debris backward occasionally created impenetrable blockages. “We’d send the cable machine with a corkscrew auger up from the end of the pipe to create a channel, then tie the auger to the nozzle and pull it out,” says Clark. “Using the jetter took time and caused backaches.”

Relief came in 2004 when Clark hired Bill Wheeler, who had worked for a major septic company. As they calculated the hours required to jet a large government drainfield, Wheeler suggested subcontracting the job to Gary Ramsey. His commercial jetter completed the project in less than 60 minutes.

After learning Ramsey was using equipment from Presvac Systems, Clark bought nozzles and 250 feet of high-pressure hose, then a 4,000 psi/5 gpm Comet pump and 13 hp Honda engine. “I couldn’t believe what we had in our hands,” he says. “It propelled the company out of the Stone Age and into the Space Age.”

Another business boost came when the septic code mandated effluent filters. “Maintaining the screens enabled us to educate people about their systems and to inspect them,” says Clark. Then county health department permits prohibited water softeners from discharging to septic tanks. If Clark’s team found such a scenario while repairing a failed system, they rerouted regeneration water to surface discharge or installed stone receiving pits. Clark also observed systems failing from shock loads.

In 2005, he expanded into portable sanitation, purchasing 30 units from PolyJohn Canada for customers hosting big parties. When construction sites asked for portable restrooms, Clark bought 20 more from PolyJohn. Then he purchased 90 Armal units to rent to provincial parks, and pumped their rest areas. As demand increased, Clark ordered 60 blue and orange units from Satellite Industries, the new colors of the company’s portable sanitation branch.

FACING A CRISIS

By the mid-2000s, Clark believed his company’s future was secure. Then the economy crashed in 2008 and a customer reneged on a $250,000 job. “We went from safe to survival mode in one morning,” he says. Clark let his manager and two of seven employees go, and took on excavation projects and snow removal to fill the service board.

That winter, his customized articulated loader was stolen. The crew scraped through using farm tractors with buckets. The next summer and two hours into a major excavation, the John Deere 750 bulldozer exploded and burned to the ground. Water from extinguishing the blaze and fuel from the ruptured 80-gallon tank ran 400 feet down the road, creating an environmental disaster.

“In trying to tighten the company’s belt, I had failed to properly insure the dozer,” says Clark. “The insurance company refused to cover either claim, but after a lengthy dispute I was paid $20,000 for the machine and they covered cleanup costs.” Meanwhile, Clark completed the excavation, which eased the cash flow situation. Five years later, the customer in default met his financial obligation.

With the crisis behind him, Clark worried his recordkeeping had fallen by the wayside on several pieces of equipment. He was running a 357 Peterbilt with 3,800-gallon Vacutrux tank and Wallenstein pump, 359 Peterbilt with 3,500-gallon Cusco tank, Freightliner with 3,000-gallon Presvac tank, 359 Peterbilt tandem dump truck with Manley box, 359 Peterbilt tri-axle dump truck with Bibeau box, Ford F-350 portable sanitation truck with Vacutrux tank, and various pickup trucks and trailers. He hired Sue Atherton, a retired Ministry of Transportation officer and Class A mechanic, as his full-time fleet maintenance manager. “She documented every truck’s movements right down to washing the windscreens and calculated exactly how much each one cost,” says Clark.

Clark currently runs a variety of excavation equipment. The list includes a Kubota KX121-3 excavator, a Hitachi 160 excavator, a Kobelco 60 excavator, a John Deere 15 excavator, a New Holland 565 skid-steer, a John Deere 570 grader and a John Deere 550 trim dozer.

CHANGING DYNAMICS

During the last five years, pumping and onsite work each contributed 40 percent to the company’s revenue, and portable sanitation the remainder. “Our residential and commercial/industrial work is all septic repair or installations,” says Clark. “We install 10 to 15 systems annually, split 50/50 between stone-and-pipe and sand filters. Years ago, we installed 50 systems a year.”

In 2015, Clark switched to installing Ecoflo peat moss biofilters (Premier Tech Aqua) in response to a growing population of retirees. “Most people relocating to our hamlets come from cities, and they demolish the onsite systems through overuse, lack of maintenance or flushing pharmaceuticals,” he says. The biofilters enable Clark to replace contaminated media and preserve the system.

Clark sees systems installed in the late 1950s to early 1960s failing in record numbers. Many were built with one or two clay tile laterals, which have collapsed.

“We’re headed toward an infrastructure crisis,” says Clark. “Too many installers have retired and were not replaced. Bethany has only two installers besides me. Who will replace these systems in the future?”

Clark, 48, plans to retire in five to seven years, but he is grooming son Billy, 22, to take over the company. “He’s been at my side for most of his life, so the transition should be seamless,” says Clark. “I’m very proud of him.”


Why you should consider sponsoring sports teams

Sponsoring local baseball and soccer teams is one way Mike Clark promotes his business, while helping keep Bethany (Ontario) Community Park open for youngsters. Since 1999, he has given players their own jerseys. “Long after the season is over, the kids still run around town with Mike Clark Excavating on their backs,” he says.

Clark and his wife, Elaine, also host the playoff barbecues, and their 17-year effort is paying dividends. Some original players have hired him for point-of-sale inspections or onsite installations. “By the second installation, I had recovered my total expense for the years of uniform sponsorships,” says Clark. “The true satisfaction, however, comes from their gratitude for giving them somewhere to play sports when they were young.”

The Clarks also support the park’s annual fundraiser, competing with other businesses to bid on baked goods. “It’s a full-blown auction complete with an auctioneer,” he says. “We’re always one of the companies bidding for the last cake, and it’s a real dogfight. People talk about it for weeks, and that we were willing to pay $2,000 or more for a cheesecake.”

Those who stop to thank the Clarks for supporting the park are invited to enjoy a $200 slice of cake, something they won’t find in even the finest Toronto restaurants.



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