This California Pumper’s Career Change Is a Hole-in-One

Experience as a golf pro and country club hospitality manager helped Zack Ray make a smooth transition to a new career as a pumper.

This California Pumper’s Career Change Is a Hole-in-One

Zack Ray services about 150 grease traps a year using a 2008 Ford F-550 with a 600-gallon stainless steel tank and pump package from KeeVac Industries.

While working as a golf course pro in Colorado and Texas, Zack Ray never dreamed he would one day own a septic system pumping business.

Now, after nearly two decades in the golf industry, he’s five years into a new career as owner with wife, Denise Ray, of Tall Boots Pumping Service in Grass Valley, California. He made the switch largely with the aim of becoming his own boss after two golf pro jobs turned sour, once when a course was sold out from under him and once when he and a club’s board of directors became incompatible.

Tall Boots serves a territory in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 40 miles from Sacramento. The Rays run the business by themselves, operating one vacuum truck for septic service and a pickup truck with a slide-in tank for pumping restaurant grease traps. Sharp marketing helped the company take off quickly — the first customer calls came in on a mobile phone even before the Rays arrived in California, relocating from Central Texas.

Tall Boots pumps about 150 grease traps and 500 to 600 septic tanks per year. “We built a business plan and stuck to it,” Ray says. “For more than 25 years, I worked for the man. Now after five years, I look back and say, ‘Why didn’t I do this when I was in my early 30s?’ It’s nice being our own boss. I say if you feel confident enough to do something, go do it. That’s what makes America great.”


Zack Ray, 50, grew up in Grass Valley and graduated from high school there. After four years in the U.S. Air Force, he earned a degree in management from California State University, Chico and went to work for Hyatt, first in Denver and then at Beaver Creek Colorado, a skiing community near Vail.

After three years with Hyatt, he transitioned to the golf world — he had played in college and for a year with the All-Air Force team. He connected through his wife with a golf pro in Vail and landed a job as an assistant pro. “I went from a mid-level management job with Hyatt to the bottom of the golf business,” Ray recalls.

He worked at that club for a couple of years while earning his PGA Pro credentials, then moved to a higher-end private club near Aspen as general manager. The previous club later rehired him as head pro, and the next year, he earned a promotion to director of golf. In early 2013, the owner sold out to a father-son team who planned to operate the club by themselves. That left Ray out of a job. Zack and Denise Ray sold their house and moved to Texas, where he ran a country club and she managed a game ranch.

“I never really connected with that job,” Ray says. After few months, he flew back to California for a golf trip with friends and visited his parents in Grass Valley. While there, he watched a pumper clean two 1,500-gallon septic tanks at an office building his father owned. “At that point, I had never even seen a septic tank up close,” Ray says.


A seed had been planted. Back in Texas, Ray arranged to work for a pumping company for no pay on his days off from the golf club. He did that for eight months, learning how to pump septic tanks and grease traps, perform inspections, and make minor repairs. Along the way, he began planning to open a pumping company back home.

He found a truck in Chicago through classified ads — a 2,250-gallon steel tank on a low-mileage 1995 Mack chassis. He flew to Chicago, drove the truck back to Texas, and outfitted it with toolboxes, a towing hitch and other accessories. He then had hoses and other supplies shipped to Grass Valley.

Meanwhile, there was the matter of naming the company. “In Texas, a lot of owners named their businesses after their last name,” Ray says. “I thought nobody would ever remember Ray’s Septic. I wanted something with a little underlying humor, a name nobody would forget. When Denise and I came to California looking for a rental house, we sat down with my parents, my sisters, and our kids. Everybody had to come up with half a dozen names to throw into a hat.

“My dad was so excited that he came up with about 50 names. We decided the best one was Tall Boots.” Ray came up with the logo after finding an old pair of boots in the garage that he wore while serving as a fireman in the Air Force: “If you lay them side by side, they look like two L’s. So I made the logo T-a-L-L, with two boots.” 

Eventually, Zack and Denise Ray quit their jobs in Texas, towed their Land Rover behind the vacuum truck to Grass Valley, and started in business. “I had already placed advertising in a couple of publications and (phone books),” Zack Ray says. “While we were traveling, the phone started ringing. My wife was excited that we were getting calls for Tall Boots and we hadn’t even arrived yet.”


Marketing has been a key driver for Tall Boots. “I’m a firm believer in advertising,” Ray says. “Running country clubs, if we weren’t looking for members, we were looking for resort guests. Advertising was a great way to do that.”

Tall Boots placed ads in local quarterly and annual magazines, bought business card-sized ads in all relevant phone book directories, and even made an ad that played in movie theaters before the main features. The Rays created a website and took free online listings on Yelp, Google Places, and other sites. They’re phasing out some phone book advertising as the online world supplants it.

“We carefully track every booking,” Ray says. “Denise is really good about asking where people heard about us.” He reports that 30 to 40 percent of new business comes from word-of-mouth, 20 percent from online sources, and most of the rest from magazines and directories.

“Our newest thing is that we adopted a mile of highway,” Ray says. “All the signs say is Tall Boots Pumping Service — there’s no phone number. But I believe in subliminal messaging as part of branding. Thousands of people drive by and see that sign every day on their way to work. If they flip open the (phone book) and see our logo there, it’s going to catch their eye.”

Ray makes sure he can deliver for customers by taking continuing education. During his first year in the business, he took four courses from the National Association of Wastewater Technicians, including the system inspection course — the company performs inspections for real-estate transfers.


As for equipment, Tall Boots still has the original Mack truck, though it mostly sits idle. The septic pumping truck is a 2008 M2 Freightliner carrying a 2,000-gallon steel tank (Progress Tank) and a Jurop/Chandler pump from Transport Truck Sales. The truck carries a Crust Buster tank agitator, a RIDGID locator, and an assortment of Makita U.S.A. power tools. For grease trap service, a 2008 Ford F-550 carries a 600-gallon stainless steel tank with a pump package built by KeeVac Industries.

About 60 percent of Nevada County is on septic systems, and the potential customer base is growing as the area attracts new residents for its relaxed pace of life and its opportunities for skiing, bicycling, fishing, hiking, and other recreation in the foothills region.

The hilly terrain poses some challenges: “I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve pulled into where I look at the driveway and say, ‘I just can’t do the job; I’m sorry.’ I don’t know how they even get cars up and down some of those driveways.

“They’re very steep. You can pull down a driveway and the house is on a slope, the septic tank is below the house, and you’re pumping three or four stories straight uphill. That’s why our customer questionnaire is detailed. If somebody says they have a real steep driveway, we just refer those jobs to a company with a larger pump that might have more sucking power than our little truck.”


Five years in, Ray is planning carefully for the future of Tall Boots. That includes building up the grease trap service side, which for the moment runs almost solely on word-of-mouth.

“I’ve always tried to build the business with reputation,” Ray says. “I’ve been in customer service or member service for my entire career since college. I try to treat customers well, establish a relationship, make some kind of connection. If they like fishing or golf, if they’re an older retired couple and he used to be a welder, I’ll strike up a conversation and listen to them. If you can do that, you’ll have customers forever.

“I can’t believe how loyal our customers can be. I can pump a job today at one location, and the next week I’ll get a call from the neighbor across the street. Maybe a couple of months later the neighbor a couple of doors down will call. Pretty soon we’re serving a whole little area. If you’re not a friendly person, learn how to be one.”


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