Career Swap Puts Partners Behind the Wheel of a Pumping Truck

It’s a happy ending for a nurse, a chicken farmer and a dairyman who joined forces to buy and operate a successful Minnesota septic service business.
Career Swap Puts Partners Behind the Wheel of a Pumping Truck
The Fiedler’s Your Pumping Specialists crew includes, from left, Art Betker, Breanna Vaillancourt, Mike Giese, Cindy Tiemann, Dave Witucki, Jeff Tiemann, Kenton Tiemann, Ted Popp and Darrell Dobis. The fleet behind them includes trucks built by Advance Pump & Equipment and Friedrich’s Auto & Truck. (Photos by Brad Stauffer)

Interested in Pumps?

Get Pumps articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Pumps + Get Alerts

When Cindy Tiemann, RN and director of nursing for an assisted living facility, wanted a career change, she never anticipated becoming an owner of a septic pumping business. But her experience dealing with details, paperwork and regulatory licenses were ideal when she and her farming/mechanic husband, Jeff, agreed to a 50/50 partnership with Ted Popp and purchased Fiedler Pumping in central Minnesota, renaming it Fiedler’s Your Pumping Specialists Inc.

Ted, who had worked for the company for 10 years, had knowledge about the pumping industry. The Tiemanns had property, facilities and a strong farm work ethic to support and grow the business, located in Royalton, Minnesota.

Since the partners purchased the business in 2010, they have added trucks, equipment and services.

BLENDING FARM AND PUMPING

The Tiemanns had a busy life between Cindy’s off-the-farm job and their Sandy Hill Farms, where they raised 2,000 acres of crops and chickens for the Gold’n Plump brand. But then Ted talked to them about the septic service business.

It seemed like an opportunity they shouldn’t pass up, Cindy recalls, and it turned into a full-time job for her. It also fit well with her husband’s skills.

The pumping business leases the 70- by 150-foot shop and office building, built in 2012, on the Tiemanns’ farm. It houses all the trucks and equipment and has all the tools and conveniences for Jeff or his brother, Pat, owner of Tiemann Truck and Tractor Repair, to do maintenance and repairs.

Since Jeff isn’t a regular driver, running Fiedler’s and farming is usually compatible, Cindy says. In the winter, Jeff has more time for the pumping business and does most of the jetting work.

In addition to good facilities, the farm also has acreage certified for land application.

“His farming experience is useful, especially from the land application side,” Cindy notes. “The same principles apply — application rates, recordkeeping. And my nursing background with documentation makes it easier too.”
Working from home also allows her to run for parts, transport employees and assist when needed for both the farm and the pumping business.

FAMILY AFFAIR

Fiedler’s also became an opportunity for the Tiemanns’ daughter, Breanna Vaillancourt. A business management graduate living in the Twin Cities, Breanna was looking for a change and wanted to raise her family in a rural community.

She started working as Fiedler’s marketing and quality assurance manager in February 2012. She answers the phone, schedules pumping and other services, and takes care of the marketing. She is also inspired by her parents and Ted, a former dairy farmer.

“Farmers are instilled with an amazing work ethic, so having a boss that shows you how hard you should work is always a great motivator,” she says.

While Breanna has committed to the business and become a licensed Type 4 Wastewater Operator in Minnesota, her younger brother, Kenton, 18, is more interested in the farming side of the operation. However, as part of extra credit for high school classes, he worked with Fiedler’s as an intern and took classes, earning his maintainer certification. He now works part time on the service side of the operation.

MAINTAINERS ALL

In Minnesota, only one person on staff is required to earn maintainer certification to qualify a company for residential pumping.

“We have the philosophy that the more education the better,” Cindy explains. “We decided that we wanted all employees to have the certification to raise the bar.” Ted earned it first, then Cindy, then Jeff, followed by three additional employees. The newer employees are in the process of taking the required two classes (three to four days each), passing exams and keeping up with required CEUs.

That, along with having Fiedler’s previous owners, Darrell and Linda Fiedler, available as mentors for the first year, was extremely helpful in getting the business off to a good start.

Employee turnover has been low. Fiedler’s provides uniforms, company-paid smartphones, contribution-matching IRAs, and paid vacation and training.

“Our employees have a say in what happens,” Cindy explains. “We hold quarterly meetings and have one-on-one contact in the shop. We are hands-on owners. We do the same things they are expected to do.”

The owners listen to employee suggestions. For example, when Breanna saw another business was sending out random mailers, she suggested Fiedler’s start doing it. Now, one of her jobs is to mail notices to remind people not on a regular maintenance schedule how long it has been since they had their tanks pumped. The effort has created a significant increase in business.

Likewise, technicians requested Crust Buster septic tank agitators to reduce wear and tear on equipment and eliminate the need for backflushing tanks. Now, every truck is equipped with a Crust Buster.

EQUIPMENT UPGRADES

“If you are going to have employees work with it, it should be good equipment,” Cindy says. “We’ve tried to make it so that one driver can hop into any truck and be able to run it.”

All but one of the five older trucks purchased with the business have been upgraded. The old 1988 GMC truck with a 2,000-gallon steel tank and Gorman-Rupp pump is only used as a backup. The fleet also includes a 2010 Freightliner M-2106 with a 2,500-gallon steel tank and a Jurop/Chandler pump from Advance Pump & Equipment, and several trucks built out by Friedrich’s Auto & Truck in Rice, Minnesota, using tanks transferred from Fiedler trucks: a 2013 Kenworth T800 with a 3,700-gallon stainless steel tank and a Battioni pump; a 2007 International 7600 with a 4,300-gallon stainless steel tank and a National Vacuum Equipment (NVE) pump; a 2005 International 2,500-gallon steel tank with a Jurop/Chandler pump; a 2004 International Eagle with a 3,700-gallon stainless steel tank with a Battioni pump; and a 2004 Chevy van used as a service vehicle filled with replacement pumps from Liberty Pumps, risers and lids from Brenlin Company, tools and a Landa jetter.

EXPANDING SERVICES

Residential pumping brings in about 60 percent of the revenue at Fiedler’s, with 20 to 40 customers a day between April and October. The smaller trucks work well for lake home customers or residences with narrow driveways. When conditions are suitable, the septage is spread on more than 25 land application sites, including some of the Tiemanns’ property.

They also haul to area treatment facilities. Fiedler’s uses the larger trucks to serve five to 10 commercial customers a day, year-round. With education and response to customers’ needs, the owners have started offering several other services.

Cindy is a licensed service provider and routinely checks and maintains two Nibbler aerobic treatment systems (Aqua Test Inc.) and a community system.

“One of them is a township that hires us for a wetlands area. We go in every couple of weeks to check meter readings, take lab samples and check pumps to see if wastewater is backing up,” she explains.

She is listed as certified on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency website and has obtained new customers through that.

Further, the company has seen an increase in demand to bring openings to ground level following almost all the counties in the area requiring risers to bring tank access to the surface for easier inspection and maintenance.

The newest equipment investment — a Landa hot-water jetter — proved to be a good one for adding income to the business.

“In the past we had a lot of requests for (jetting) and were always referring to other companies. So, we looked into it, and with the minimal cost to purchase and operate one we opted to do so. Why turn away business you can do yourself? We are often slower in the winter months, so this also helped to keep staff busy and customers happy,” Breanna says. “Right after we purchased the jetter, we had a rough winter of little snowfall and freezing temps. Due to the lack of insulation, almost all residential systems froze, which kept us busy from February until almost May.”

FUTURE SERVICES

Fiedler’s owners are pleased with growth in just six years. Cindy notes that they aren’t interested in expanding geographically, but want to get more customers on a regular maintenance schedule and provide more services to existing customers in their five-county area.

Breanna tries to schedule the same maintainer for customers to provide consistency and the best service. She communicates with drivers via two-way radio, and they also have smartphones to use for directions and other questions.

Besides sending out 3,000 cards in the spring and 50 to 200 reminder cards a month, based on QuickBooks files, Breanna promotes the business through social media, phone books and directories, and ads in six local newspapers. But community involvement may be their best advertisement.

“We try to give back,” Cindy explains. Fiedler’s is known in the area for the baskets they donate for cancer benefits, parish bazaars, fire department fundraisers, etc.

The involvement is the “heart” side of the company, which is complemented by the “smart” side.

“It’s important that we promote professionalism in the wastewater industry,” says Cindy, who serves on the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association board. Providing education opportunities for all staff members is key. And so is good customer service.

“We have a live person who answers the phone. We’re there when customers need us,” she concludes.


Transitioning from employee to owner

Ted Popp never intended to get into the pumping business when he left dairy farming. He simply agreed to help Darrell Fiedler, the owner of Fiedler Pumping, one winter. Ted ended up staying on as an employee for 10 years, and when his boss wanted to sell the business, Ted at 55 was too young to retire. He recognized an opportunity, and so did his longtime acquaintance Jeff Tiemann.

While Jeff and Cindy Tiemann take care of the office and maintenance, Ted has the pumping experience and does service calls. But, he admits, being an owner gives him a new perspective about a couple things.

“Before, I never paid attention to the (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) because I didn’t have to. The biggest challenge is to keep everybody on the same page as far as MPCA and do everything the way you are supposed to do it,” he says. “My worst fear is that (drivers) unload in a field they aren’t supposed to be in.”

To prevent problems, new employees go through three months of training with Ted and other drivers, and they learn how septic systems work. That helps them do a better job and be able to educate consumers about how their systems work.

“We emphasize good communication. Do a good job, and you have to be nice to people and communicate,” he explains.

Keeping employees happy is also important, Ted says. The owners replaced the old trucks and purchased Crust Buster tank agitators to make the work easier. The technicians also appreciate using smartphones instead of paper maps to figure out their routes.

As for running a business, Ted says pumping is easier than farming, which is more based on emotions when it comes to selling cows that don’t produce well and deciding what crops will do best in a given year.

“This is black and white, more business oriented,” he says.

Though ownership can be more stressful, Ted is pleased with the transition from being an employee and being in a strong partnership where everyone does their share.



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.