Small-Business Ownership is Better the Second Time Around

Pennsylvania’s Scott Hess found success and satisfaction in his second venture by involving extended family and focusing on core septic and portable sanitation services.
Small-Business Ownership is Better the Second Time Around
The Pottie Time crew includes, from left, Jeff Gearhart, Ken Sarvis, Tyler Lidgett, Sandy and Dave Hess, Scott and Sherry Hess, Zak Kopchik and Chuck Taylor. They are shown in the company yard with service trucks that carry tanks from Lely Tank & Waste Solutions and Robinson Vacuum Tanks, as well as Jurop/Chandler pumps.

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In 2006, Scott Hess faced a moment of truth when he realized his life just wasn’t going the way he wanted. He ended a personal relationship and sold his interest in the septic company he had started in 1998. It’s not that he was dissatisfied with septic work; he just didn’t like the partnership arrangement he had gotten into. He figured he’d just start over and do it on his own. Unfortunately, he first had to wait out a five-year noncompete agreement. When he got back in the game – this time with his father – he was wiser, more mature and had a clearer vision for what he wanted.

Today the company, Pottie Time, working in a 60-mile radius of Grampian, Pennsylvania, offers portable restrooms, plumbing services and septic pumping, repairs and inspections, and is an authorized dealer for Pro Pump septic maintenance products from Ecological Laboratories. They operate mostly out of the family homestead next to Hess’ parents’ house. Office work is currently done at Hess’ home in Philipsburg 30 miles away, but will soon be moved to the homestead once the shop they’re constructing is finished.

STARTING OVER

Fresh out of college, plumbing degree in hand, Hess worked a couple years as a plumber. But in 1998, when he heard the local septic company was selling out, he got a different idea. “I thought, wow, all he did was pump septics. I’m a plumber, I’ve got a drain cleaner, there’s got to be a lot of clogged lines. So I went and bought it.”

It turned out to be a good investment and Hess soon brought on a friend to help. He also added portable restrooms when he realized no one else was doing it. First he found a customer – the local racetrack – then bought 20 units. A month later he ordered 20 more and doubled that again the following year.

In 2001, he heard about another company wanting to sell, but this time the financial commitment was over his head so he brought on a partner. He stuck with it for five years, but it ended up being a difficult relationship and frustration finally took its toll, compounded by problems in his marriage.

“I had so much stuff going on I just said ‘that’s it.’” He got out of both relationships with the idea of just starting over. However, he soon learned that wouldn’t be possible for a while because of the noncompete clause.

So he bided his time, bought a van and went back to plumbing. A few months before the noncompete expired, he set up a booth at the Clearfield County Fair and gave out free advice while notifying people he was getting back into the business. He attended the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo (now the WWETT Show) and bought portable restrooms. Then he picked up a 2003 International DT466 with a 2,500-gallon Lely Manufacturing steel tank and a Jurop/Chandler pump and outfitted it with a hose adaptor, a 150-gallon plastic water container and a pressure washer so he could pump both septic tanks and portable restrooms. As soon as it was legal he was ready to go.

A SUPPORT SYSTEM

The forced hiatus did have some advantages. It gave Hess time to develop a loyal customer base and build up his finances. His personal life also took a turn for the better when he married again. In addition, during that time his father, Dave Hess, was approaching retirement from his maintenance job, opening the door for Hess to work with a more familiar partner.

In fact, the second time around Hess relied heavily on family to help him. His father is the main septic driver for the company. His mother Sandy often goes with him, delivering septic chemicals to customers. His wife Sherry does office work along with stepdaughter Justine Yearick. Brother-in-law Chuck Taylor does maintenance and electrical work and helps on the portable restroom side of the business. The team also includes technician Ken Sarvis and septic plumber Zak Kopchik. Hess, of course, does everything, but concentrates on estimating, backhoe work and inspections.

He also gets a lot of help from industry resources. He calls Pumper magazine “the septic guy’s bible.” “My dad and I have to get two subscriptions because we’d fight over it,” he says. “It’s like having 12 Christmases a year for me. You just learn out of it and I’ve bought and sold a lot of stuff.” He also says he wouldn’t miss the WWETT Show. And he attends a lot of classes sponsored by the Pennsylvania Septage Management Association (PSMA). “They have a lot of great classes,” he says. “I’d recommend anyone not to miss them.” He’s listed on the PSMA website as a certified septic system inspector, which has led to a lot of work.

FINDING HIS NICHE

When it comes to portable restrooms, Hess tends to stay away from what many companies consider bread-and-butter work. “I don’t do construction,” he says. “I specialize in special events, parties and weddings. It keeps your toilets in better shape and I don’t have to pump in the winter.” He refers construction work to competitors.

The company has about 90 standard and two handicap-accessible Five Peaks units, and four PolyPortables ADA-compliant units, all with hand sanitizers. The large units have baby changers. Hess likes to have different colors so he can match the color to the event – white for weddings, red, white and blue for holidays and gray for everything else (because it goes with everything, he says).

The company continues to use its septic truck to pump restrooms, but also recently added a 2015 3/4-ton Dodge pickup outfitted with a slide-in 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater aluminum tank from Robinson Vacuum Tank and a Jurop/Chandler pump. “It’s got four-wheel drive and we can get into the rough roads,” Hess says. The company also has two Mustang transport trailers (eight-unit and 12-unit).

Hess typically provides customers on-site service during multi-day events. He’ll have someone periodically check on units, restock paper and wipe down seats using Spray Works from PolyPortables. “That’s how I get a lot of my bids,” he says. “I might be the highest bidder but I show them the service we do.”

SEPTIC INSPECTOR

On the septic side, Hess prefers to concentrate on repairs and inspections more than pumping alone. “We’re more known that if you have a problem we can handle it,” he says. “You net a lot more and it’s less wear and tear on your pumps and trucks.”

Hess went through the PSMA certification program to become a septic system inspector. He says the value he brings to Realtors and banks is his quick service and one-stop-shop convenience. “When they’re selling foreclosures they want the houses done quick,” he says. “I can go in, pump it, inspect it and have a backhoe there the next day to repair it and the sale goes on.”

He does so much backhoe work that besides using his own Mahindra 3016 he contracts most days with backhoe operator Jeff Gearhart, who has a smaller Mahindra Max 25. “Usually on septic repairs you need two pieces of equipment,” Hess explains. “And I thought instead of investing in more equipment it was cheaper just subbing with him.”

Hess is slowly building up his inventory of tools, which currently includes a RIDGID K-1500 drain cleaning machine and a company-built jetter system on wheels with a Honda engine. Company vehicles include two pickups – a 2014 1/2-ton Ford and a 2015 Dodge.

Hess encourages customers to have tanks pumped every three years and to maintain them with Pro Pump chemicals every six months. He keeps detailed notes on each tank. “I like to know the size of the tank, the make and if we did a repair on it so if you get a callback on it you know what to take for your repair.”

On the technology front, the company uses QuickBooks and all trucks are outfitted with Garmin GPS systems.

PACKAGE DEALS

Hess offers some of his services in kits. When he saw that brides had no idea what they needed, he came up with a wedding kit. It accommodates up to 200 guests and includes an ADA-compliant unit for the bride and her party (and, of course, handicapped guests), two standard white units (one for men, one for women) and a hand-wash station. Units are carpeted and have mirrors, hooks and shelves. The company puts stickers on the exteriors – wedding bells and congratulations.

The company’s septic face-lift kit is for customers whose older systems are not in compliance with new regulations in Pennsylvania regarding bringing access closer to the ground surface.

“Anything deeper than a foot to get to your septic tank, you’ve got to have a riser on it and bring it up,” Hess says. The kit includes inspection, pumping and installation of Tuf-Tite lids and risers.

A CALLING

Even with minimal marketing – website, T‑shirts, business cards and word-of-mouth – Hess’ business has been busy from day one and he’s happy running the operation with family. “I learned a lot from the first company,” he says. “I was young, only 23. The second time I was 35. I think that’s about the perfect age to get into a business.”

He continues to work on the business mix. While plumbing has its advantages (“We’ve still got ladies that make us apple pies”), Hess says he would prefer to get out of it altogether. “The only reason I did it was to generate money to put down on a septic truck and buy toilets. The plan worked – I used one trade to start another trade – but what you don’t realize is now you’ve got two businesses going on.”

Although he had to get out of it for a while, Hess never wavered from his desire to be in the liquid waste industry. “I love it,” he says. “God put me on this earth to be a septic hauler, a porta-potty guy.”


Manage the inventory

To maximize profit, Scott Hess pays close attention to how, when and where he rents his portable restrooms.

“There’s gross and there’s net,” says the owner of Pottie Time LLC in Grampian, Pennsylvania, along with his father Dave Hess.  “What I’m saying is you’ve got to watch what you do. I can probably make more money in a year with 70 units than some can with 200 and it’s because I’m taking volume toilets one place and my routing is tighter. I’m not spending the gas. With the price of gas you can be out of business before you even start if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

To keep his units in good condition, Hess doesn’t put them out at construction sites. But if he did serve construction customers, he’d only drop at sites needing at least two units. “It has to be worth your while to go there to clean,” he says.

To maximize usage of units, he sometimes brings fewer to an event than requested and then cleans them more often. “Instead of putting two toilets, I’ll only put one and clean it twice a week,” he says. As a result, he’s paid for two services per month for the same unit and spreads his small inventory further.

On the other hand, if he has spare units on hand, he’ll occasionally throw in an extra one or two on a contract. “It sweetens the pot,” he explains. “I figure, what’s one or two more to clean while you’re there. That beats taking money off or wheeling and dealing your prices.”



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