Buy a New Rolling Chassis; Add a Rebuilt Late-Model Engine

A creative vacuum truck purchase, strategic land application and extensive marketing get new septic service owners off on the right foot.
Buy a New Rolling Chassis; Add a Rebuilt Late-Model Engine
Matt Herink is on the job pumping a residential septic tank. His truck is a 2015 Kenworth T-800 with a 4,500-gallon stainless steel tank built out by Advance Pump & Equipment, with a blower from National Vacuum Equipment and a water jetter powered by a General pump. (Photos by Brad Stauffer)

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As a first-time owner of a small septic service company with just two employees, Matt Herink is all about efficiency, controlling expenses and thinking outside the box. That approach, combined with strong support from his only other “employee” — his wife, Erica — and their three sons, has served the entrepreneur well since he purchased Marko Septic in January 2014.

A prime example reflecting all three of those attributes is the vacuum truck Herink bought in 2015. He wanted a new truck to replace a 2001 Peterbilt 357 that came with the acquisition of Marko Septic, located in Ellsworth and Roberts in western Wisconsin. But he didn’t want to deal with the potential problems experienced by some of the modern-day low-emission engines.

A neighbor who drives a milk truck helped Herink find an unconventional solution known as a “rolling glider.” Here’s how it works: Herink ordered a new truck chassis — in this case, a 2015 Kenworth T-800 from D & B Truck and Equipment in Kentucky — without an engine or a transmission.

Then he ordered a 1999 CAT 3406E diesel engine (550 hp) and an 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmission. After workers at D & B dropped in the engine and transmission, they installed things such as wire harnesses, drive shafts, an alternator, starter and so forth. Workers at Advance Pump & Equipment finished the job by outfitting the rig with a 4,500-gallon stainless steel tank, a 4310 blower (900 cfm) manufactured by National Vacuum Equipment and a water jetter attachment powered by a pump from General Pump (3,000 psi at 10 gpm).

“When I first started looking at new trucks (with low-emission engines), I kept hearing stories about (trouble-alert) lights on the dashboard always coming on and trucks stalling,” says Herink, explaining why the rolling glider concept appealed to him. “I don’t have time for a truck that breaks down a lot, and I sure don’t want to spend more money to make repairs on a new truck that I just bought.

“In addition, the CAT engine and the Eaton tranny both came with a four-year unlimited mileage warranty, which is better than the warranty on a new engine,” he adds. “And overall, it didn’t cost any more than a new truck would’ve cost. So I felt like it was a win-win situation.”


Herink grew up on a farm in small-town Roberts, Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 1998 with a degree in sports management. After graduating, he worked for his father, who owned a construction company.

“But that just wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

So he got a job with a local septic pumping company, where he stayed for eight years. Herink planned to eventually buy the pumping company, but that proposition fell through. It worked out for the best, however, when he and Erica bought Marko Septic in a move that seemed almost preordained.

“John Marko (the former owner) has been trying to sell the business for quite a few years,” Herink explains. “I had an uncle who was thinking about buying it. … He called me on a Saturday morning in 2013 and asked me to come with him to talk to the Markos (John and his wife, Jean). My uncle decided he wasn’t interested after all, but then my potential purchase deal fell through, so I figured I’d buy Marko’s trucks and start my own business. But he said that we needed to talk more and we did — and I ended up buying the whole business.”

The couple had considered starting a company from scratch, but that would’ve been a challenge in midwinter, the slowest time of the year for septic pumping. “That would have made it tough to buy a new truck,” says Erica, who graduated from St. Catherine University with a degree in occupational therapy and previously worked in the special education department at a local school district. “So in the end, we figured it would be better to buy a business with an existing client base.”

It turned out to be a good move. The business was the equivalent of a house in move-in condition, with a decent-sized, established client base, well-maintained equipment and a solid reputation as an honest, stand-up operation.

As part of the purchase agreement, Jean Marko agreed to help with the transition through mid-April 2014. “She really taught me the ropes, especially regarding paperwork for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR),” says Erica. “We still talk — she’s only a phone call away. I think having a good relationship with a company’s previous owners is very important. They were in business for 40 years, so Jean was a great resource. … So far, things have worked out just the way we hoped they would.”


To get the word out about the new business, Erica — who handles the company’s marketing as well as office management responsibilities — used a three-pronged approach that combined telephone book advertising, a company website and social media outlets like Facebook. “We find ourselves stuck between two generations: people that still use phone books and those that just use online resources,” she explains. “And we can’t afford to miss either one of those audiences.”

Erica estimates that Marko Septic buys ads in anywhere from 10 to 15 different area phone books. That includes paying $600 a month for a front cover, business-card-size ad in a nearby community where the couple would like to broaden its clientele. The company employs three phone numbers covering different areas they’ve decided to focus on, so they can track the ads’ effectiveness.

The company also sends out postcards to residents with septic tanks covering several area zip codes. “We worked with the U.S. Postal Service to figure out which addresses were on rural routes,” she explains. The company also plans to start sending out reminder postcards to customers on the current database who last had their tank pumped two years ago, Erica says.

But Erica says her most cost-effective marketing tool is Facebook. “It’s a wonderful and inexpensive way to reach thousands of people,” she says, noting that she’s created two Facebook pages — a personal one and another for Marko Septic. “I also post on Facebook community-based sites, which are free sites that anyone can use to promote their business.

“I try to post something weekly on our Marko Facebook page and maybe every other week on community business sites during our peak summer season,” she continues. “And the neat thing about Facebook business sites is they tell you how many people have visited the site.”


To work as efficiently as possible, Matt still relies on the 2001 Peterbilt, which was built out by Advance Pump with a 4,600-gallon aluminum tank, an NVE 4310 blower and a built-in water jetter powered by a General pump. The truck features a CAT C12 diesel engine and an 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmission. He typically keeps one of the trucks parked at the old Marko facility in Ellsworth to handle customers in the company’s old business base, south of the city. The other truck is based in Roberts and services the rest of the company’s customers.

The company also owns a hot-water, cart-mounted power washer built by Mi-T-M, used for cleaning grease traps and clearing frozen lines; a Spartan 1065 drum cable machine for cleaning drainlines; a Ken-Way drum cable machine; and a Crust Busters tank agitator.

To diversify the business a bit and avoid losing revenue by sending customers away to other businesses, Marko Septic is also trying to establish a stronger foothold in the local portable sanitation market. “We just want to make sure the customers for whom we pump septic tanks can rent restrooms, too,” Erica explains. “We don’t want to get huge (into restrooms), just be sure our septic customers have access to nice restrooms when they need them.”

To serve those customers, Marko Septic owns a slide-in unit built by Satellite Industries with a 300-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater aluminum tank and a Conde pump from Westmoor Ltd. It’s mounted on a 2015 Chevrolet 3500 pickup truck.

The company also owns 75 restrooms, mostly made by Satellite and PolyJohn Enterprises. Roughly 30 of the units are deluxe Fleet models from PolyJohn. Marko Septic also ordered two pink restrooms to appeal to female customers, Erica adds.

“Matt thought I was joking when I suggested it,” she says. “But the ladies seem to like them.”


Matt fulfills his penchant for efficiency and minimizing business costs by land-applying septage. To make land application as cost-effective as possible, he rents about 200 acres of farmland in more than half a dozen communities around Roberts and Ellsworth. The land application sites are strategically located to minimize transport time and boost profitability.

“I land-apply waste so I can be competitive with pricing,” Matt explains. “Everyone else around here land-applies. There are a few municipalities around here that will accept (septage) waste, but they charge about $110 per 1,000 gallons, and we couldn’t compete paying that kind of rate.”

Like many small operators, Matt struggles with the demands of running the service route side of the business. Going it alone in the field forces him to miss many of his three boys’ sporting events, but he isn’t quite ready to deal with the challenges that come with hiring another driver, either. And he doesn’t know when the tipping point will arrive — when he can no longer handle the rigors of the job.

“There’s just not enough daylight, that’s for sure. But it’s what I do — it’s part of the gig. People call for help and if you don’t go, you lose the business,’’ he says.

“I could hire people and take it easier, but I’ve decided to run things as long as possible by myself,” he continues. “I’m 41 and grew up on a farm and worked construction, so I’ve got a good work ethic. But who knows how many more years I’ll be able to go as hard as I do now? All I know is that it’s just part of my nature to help people. … When they call with a problem, I want to go help them solve that problem.’’

Matt relishes helping out customers.

“I find it very gratifying,” he says. And he also observes how much John Marko misses the work. “Every once in a while, John rides along with me and tells me he wishes he was 10 years younger,” Matt says. “He still likes the work. And that gives me a little lift.”

All in the family?

Time will tell.Just like so many other smaller septic pumping businesses, Marko Septic is truly a family affair. Owners Matt and Erica Herink make sure their three young sons — Elliot, 13; Simon, 11; and Owen, 9 — are involved.

“They help out a lot,” Erica says. “Their main job is to clean portable restrooms in the summer. They don’t really think about the septic industry as a weird thing to be in because they grew up with it.

“They also like to ride with Matt, and have attended a WWETT Show,” she adds. “Our business is very much a part of their lives. They’re in the photos used in our phone book ads, on postcards we mail out, on our Facebook page and on the home page of our company website. We always want to emphasize that we’re a family-run company.”

The boys don’t get paid for everything they do, because Matt and Erica want them to understand that some things you just do for family. Sometimes they get ice cream from Dairy Queen for helping out. But they do get paid for cleaning restrooms; Erica says getting paid shows them that their parents value their contributions — and that hard work pays off.

Matt and Erica would like nothing better than to see one, two or all three boys end up taking over the business when they retire. But if they do it, they’ll have to follow at least one firm ground rule first: Earn a degree from a two- or four-year college. And maybe even work somewhere else first, the couple says.

“I don’t want them to start pumping septics right out of high school and wonder what they missed out on,” Matt says. “If they want to pursue something else they’re interested in after getting a secondary education, that’s fine.”

“We talk about them getting into the business,” Erica says. “We tell them it’s theirs if they want it. They all seem very interested in it. But at the same time, we want them to first go to college. As a parent, of course you want them to do it (take over the business), but we don’t want to pressure them, either. … They have to do what makes them happy.”

Then there’s the potentially thorny issue of which boy will handle what responsibilities if all three boys want in. But as Erica notes, that would be a good problem to have. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” she says.


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