Young Guns Bring Mad Business Skills to This Michigan Pumping Company

A new generation of leaders at Plummer’s Waste Group oversee expanding services, boost technology and implement successful employee training programs.
Young Guns Bring Mad Business Skills to This Michigan Pumping Company
Technician Scott DeCheney uses a tablet computer to update his daily route to the office staff.

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In 1957, Warren Plummer opened up Plummer’s Septic Tank in Wyoming, Michigan, following in his father’s footsteps. Over the years, as the business grew, so did his family. By 2007, three of his sons had taken over different aspects of the company, all operating as separate businesses — Richard in septic, Todd in environmental, and Nick in portable restrooms and roll-off containers.

Today, a similar scenario is playing out at the septic service company. Richard, 54, and his wife, Karen, spend much of their time grooming the group he calls “the next generation” — sons Jon, Rick and Dan; Jon’s wife, Ally; and longtime team member Sam Biggio. Their youngest son, Brian, is a chiropractor. The younger group has already had a tremendous impact on the business, Richard says, especially in the area of technology.

Revenue is five times bigger and the employee count has gone from 20 to 48 since Plummer’s Septic Tank was featured in Pumper in 2007. “It has really helped having the next generation grow into the people they are,” he says, “which has helped catapult the company ahead.”

Other changes in the last 10 years include expansion into a new building, adding a new service line, re-entering an old service line, switching from pumps to blowers, hiring a human resources manager, and integrating and simplifying many aspects of the business with custom-built software.


The expanding business necessitated a name change to Plummer’s Waste Group to reflect all their services lines — septic pumping, grease trap service, excavation, sewer and drain work, and waste recovery. “We looked at it as we’re in the waste business, not necessarily just septic,” Richard says.

Their service territory is mostly western Michigan, although they do go into parts of Indiana for grease trap work.

The service lines now break down this way:

Septic, Grease and Excavation

Jon oversees dispatching for the company’s 12 vacuum trucks (six for septic and six for grease), which are 2003-2016 T800 Kenworths with 4,000- to 6,500-gallon aluminum tanks, most built out by Advance Pump & Equipment and Progress Tank and all with National Vacuum Equipment blowers. “Blowers have more airflow, and they don’t drip oil in the driveway,” Richard explains. Other equipment includes eight cameras and eight locators from RIDGID and four US Jetting trailer jetters. Septage is taken to their 10,000-square-foot pretreatment facility and grease to biodigesting plants.

At one point, the company got out of excavation work, but in 2013, they saw a need for a small crew to do septic tank replacements as well as water and sewer repairs. Equipment there includes three Kubota excavators (models KX018‑4, 121‑3, U45), one ASV skid-steer, one 2004 Freightliner M2 dump truck with a Henderson Products dump body, and a couple of Ford F‑550 utility trucks.

Sewer and Drain

Four service technicians provide sewer and drain work for residential, restaurant, retail, and light commercial customers using RIDGID cameras, locators, and drain cleaning machines. They also use US Jetting trailer jetters but came up with an innovative way of transporting them.

“They’re mounted inside Ford F‑550 four-wheel-drive box vans along with all the sewer and drain equipment,” Richard says. “It’s insulated and protected from winter weather. We don’t have to back a trailer up a narrow driveway, and we don’t have to fix taillights on a trailer.”

Waste Recovery Systems

Rick and Sam work with about 20 employees in this venture — started in 2007 — to provide services for industrial customers. The majority of accounts are food manufacturers, but other work involves pipe lining and bulk tanker work.

Numerous pieces of equipment are used in this work such as RIDGID push cameras; a Mini-Cam PROTEUS crawler camera; reinstatement equipment from Schwalm Robotic USA and Dancutter; a MaxLiner USA inverter gun; a Picote Solutions Maxi Miller drain cleaning machine; and Perma-Liner Industries micro-, mini- and full-size inverter drums, continuous inverters, a quick shot inverter gun, and Viper and Maverick steamers.

Vehicles include six eight-axle Fruehauf tankers with 12,000-gallon tanks, one Guzzler dry vac truck, two Cusco Turbovacs, three Brenner Tank 6,500-gallon vacuum tankers with National Vacuum Equipment blowers, and a number of Kenworth T800 day cab semitractors.

A recent 30-day project involved pipe lining 11 100-year-old, 110-foot, roof-to-basement drainlines at the Michigan state capitol building in Lansing. The project required security clearance for the crew and needed to work around the legislature’s schedule; it included installing a temporary outdoor elevator and a good job costing by in-house accounting manager Malcolm Cole.

For industrial food accounts, they take food byproducts and off-spec food to biodigester facilities for conversion to energy. They also clean up spills inside factories, which requires them to meet Good Manufacturing Practice requirements and U.S. Food and Drug Administration food safety requirements. They have to build a temporary clean room with filtered air and negative air pressure, and all equipment must be sanitized with a quaternary sanitizer spray before entering the building. Before demobilizing, the client’s in-house lab will conduct a swab test on the equipment to test for germs.

Internal responsibilities have also evolved with the expanded crew:

In the shop

Dan trained as a diesel mechanic and now manages three other full-time mechanics. In 2010, the company bought a 5-acre property with an 18,000-square-foot, 12-bay garage (a former truck dealership), which enabled them to expand office space and the maintenance, repair, and cleaning facilities.

They’ve recently implemented a new method of initiating a repair request. A technician walks up to a kiosk and clicks a few buttons on a computer screen. When he hits send, Dan receives an email and the job goes into the repair schedule. “That’s been so much more efficient than the driver just walking in and telling a busy mechanic what he needs and relying on him to go by memory,” Richard says. The system maintains a repair history for each vehicle.

In the office

The automated repair request system was the brainchild of Ally, who now oversees the office staff of five. She picked up a degree in graphic design with a minor in web design before joining the company in 2013, where she spent time in marketing, accounting and dispatch. One of her first projects was creating a website that combined three sites into one clean, mobile-friendly and easy-to-navigate site. She also started marketing through Google AdWords, which she says is paying for itself three times over. Then, she tackled a much bigger project that would impact the whole company.


For a year, starting in July 2016, Ally worked with a software developer to design a custom program encompassing not only the repair request system, but also dispatching, routing, and scheduling. “Basically from the very beginning when the phone rings, this program kicks in,” she says.

Technicians carry a Samsung tablet that shows them their schedule, gives them a map, provides a digital receipt, and enables them to hand the customer a record of service or process a credit card payment. The system stores site maps for every property they visit, so tanks are easier to locate. It automatically emails customers the day before a service call, and it calls or texts them when a technician is on the way.

“I took everything I learned by doing the billing and doing the dispatching,” she says. “I told the developers exactly what I wanted, right down to every screen. They built it just exactly custom to what we needed.” It’s an expandable program and will eventually integrate with their QuickBooks accounting program and their NexTraq GPS system.

The program has been well received by the staff, Ally reports. “The guys have adapted because it made their lives easier. They don’t have to rewrite paperwork, and it takes a lot of human error out of it. It actually went a lot smoother than I had expected, from having been a very paper-based company.”

She tested the program for several months and then had a selling job on her hands to convince Richard to spend the $100,000 it would take to roll it out. Richard says she sold it by comparing it to the cost of a new truck — a cheaper upfront investment and one that, instead of depreciating, would more than pay for itself by saving time and increasing efficiency.


Richard says over the last few years, his job has evolved to being more of a coach than a player as he prepares the next generation. They’ve all been in many positions, starting at the bottom and working their way up; and by the end of 2017, they will have an ownership stake in the company.

In addition to consulting with lawyers and accountants to work out the details, Richard and Karen are talking to other business owners who have gone through the same process to find out what worked for them and what did not. The advice has been invaluable, Richard says. “It’s a little of everything, from ‘it doesn’t happen overnight’ to ‘you have to let them make their mistakes.’” But they are discovering it’s not cookie cutter, and what worked for one company didn’t work for another.           

One piece of advice was quickly implemented: a weekly Thursday morning meeting involving Richard, Karen and the next generation. “That has been really good. Each person reports on what they did in the last week and what they’re doing in the week coming up. We hash things out. It can be quite lively,” Richard says.

Meetings are common at Plummer’s Waste Group anyway, as communication is a high priority. Ally’s team meets daily (10 minutes), each division meets weekly (15-20 minutes), and the whole company meets monthly (30-40 minutes). Issues get discussed, equipment needs are coordinated, and cross-division information is shared.


Looking back over the company’s 60-year history, in some ways things are the same, Richard says. “It still comes down to you go to the home and find the tank, get it open, and get it cleaned.”

But in other ways, the company might be unrecognizable to his father: The tools are more sophisticated, the paperwork is gone, and technology — nonexistent in 1957 — now controls everything. He says it’s the technology that’s really helping them grow, and it was the next generation that brought it in.

Richard admits he wasn’t always the first to see the need for change, but he did have the wisdom to go along with it and let the next generation do their thing. He couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

He says he enjoys being in the business and gives credit to Karen, who has worked beside him for 35 years. “It’s a great industry,” he says, “It’s challenging, and it’s a privilege being in it.”

Hiring a human resources person

In 2012, when Plummer’s Waste Group had 40 employees on board, it was time to hire an HR manager. Actually, in hindsight, it should have happened sooner, says owner Richard Plummer. “If I had to do it again, I would have had at least a part-time manager once we reached 15 team members. I didn’t realize how much of my time was consumed with HR issues until it was taken off my plate.”

Jim Cox was hired to handle issues such as compensation, insurance and other benefits. Another role is seeking qualified talent. “There’s some serious competition for good people,” Richard says. “I don’t exactly know how he does it, but he’s found us some really good people.” Richard still does hiring interviews, but now, he’s number three on a three-interview process. Cox does the first interview, and the relevant member of the next-generation management team does the second.

A critical role for the manager is to be the go-to person for a team member who has a concern or problem, whether it’s personal, family or work-related. The employee can sit down with Cox and have his undivided attention rather than, in the past, trying to flag down Richard who’s probably busy doing 12 other things. It’s not as if the management team wasn’t focused on these issues, but the new system works better.

“We’re able to be so much more efficient at giving attention to an issue and then putting it to rest in a timely manner,” Richard says.


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