The Secret to Maintaining a Growth Trajectory: Offer More to Your Customers

Pennsylvania’s Koberlein Environmental Services adds services, acquires other companies to accelerate growth through its expanding territory.

The Secret to Maintaining a Growth Trajectory: Offer More to Your Customers

Barbara Lukens and Gene Mohrmann use the fleet tracking software from Geotab to route the fleet on the fly to match the daily workload.

When Chris Ravenscroft bought Koberlein Septic in 2001, he was intrigued by its growth potential. His reasoning was simple: If customers already liked the septic pumping service that the company provides, why not offer them even more related services?

The strategy proved to be sound. Today, the company — now known as Koberlein Environmental Services — is exponentially larger by many measures. Gross revenue at the Honesdale, Pennsylvania-based firm jumped nearly 800% from 2001 to 2018; employment more than tripled to 53 people; equipment expanded to include 25 vacuum trucks and tanker trailers; and services expanded to include septic system installations and repairs, drainline inspections and jetting, grease trap pumping, hydroexcavation, industrial vacuuming and bulk-sludge hauling. The company even sells and services wastewater pumps.

“I was interested in buying Koberlein because it was a well-established and profitable business,” says Ravenscroft, who’s also an attorney. “I thought opportunities existed for growth in underserved marketplaces on the municipal, residential and industrial sides. Through diversification and acquisitions, I felt like we could grow.”

The chance to market more services to an existing customer base was particularly appealing. For example, residential and commercial septic customers often encounter clogged drainlines, which creates demand for jetting service and pipeline inspections. And one thing inevitably leads to another; cleaning those lines might reveal broken pipes to replace. In worst-case scenarios, a new system might be required, which begets system installations, Ravenscroft explains.

The company also shifted gears to capitalize on emerging markets. In 2008, for example, when development of natural gas and oil fields began in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region, Koberlein invested in trailers to supply water for fracking operations.

“When it quickly became apparent there’d be more emphasis on reusing water than freshwater hauling, we sold off the water trailers and invested in vac trucks to provide rig-cleaning services,” Ravenscroft says. “And when rig counts dropped and pricing concessions set in, we moved (the vac trucks) into the industrial- and commercial-cleaning sectors.”


As the company grew, its services expanded incrementally. In fact, it took 15 to 20 years to develop them. That slow, purposeful growth was intentional, says Ravenscroft, a real estate lawyer who made an abrupt career U-turn in 1992, when he accepted a marketing and business-development position at a Rhode Island-based waste-hauling company.

“I realized I didn’t want to sit at a desk and look at the same filing cabinets every day, plus I really like business,” he explains.

Historically, a surplus of work was available in the markets the company entered. But Koberlein approached new opportunities carefully and deliberately, first ensuring it could find and develop the right people, invest in the right equipment and nurture those customers — and do it all at about the same speed.

“It wasn’t always easy to get the people, equipment and business opportunities to line up at the same pace,” he notes. “But we didn’t want to grow too fast and run the risk of losing control over the quality of our work.”

Aside from creating new revenue streams, diversification also helps the company weather business cycles. When a faltering economy softens demand for septic tank pumping, for instance, emergency drain-cleaning services for commercial and municipal customers can help pick up the slack, Ravenscroft says.

And customers like the one-stop-shop convenience, where Koberlein can handle their septic system needs. That, in turn, engenders repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals, he says.


Providing other services also helps drive the company’s commitment to safety. How? Many of the company’s field employees are cross-trained; as such, it’s not unusual for septic tank pumpers to also work on, say, utility projects and other jobs with extremely strict and rigorous safety rules and regulations.

“As a result, from a safety standpoint, our drivers actually are overtrained to service residential septic customers,” he says. “It makes them approach safety from an entirely different perspective.”

Cross-training also allows the company to more effectively leverage manpower. Take hauling sludge, for example. The loss of a hauling contract could mean layoffs. “But if those same employees can haul sludge as well as operate an excavator, hopefully we can pick up some extra installation work,” he says. “Then those route drivers can work on system installations.”

Great employees also have been critical to success. “It all starts with the people who work here,” Ravenscroft says. “Sure, we have great equipment and customers, but that’s because we have really smart, hardworking and capable people.”

Avoiding substantial debt also helped. While expanding services requires a continual commitment to reinvesting in new technology, Ravenscroft says assuming too much debt can force companies to accept lower-margin work to make bank payments.

“Growing slowly allowed us to price work where it needs to be priced,” he says. “If you’re overleveraged and you have to pay the bank, you may end up bidding work just to maintain cash flow. We don’t want to work for everyone who calls us. Instead, we try to sell a value-added service. I firmly believe you get what you pay for.”

Another factor contributed to the growth: the acquisition of three septic service companies from 2001 to 2014. The moves added more than 1,300 accounts to the company’s septic customer base and increased the company’s geographic footprint.


Serving so many markets requires a large inventory of machines, vehicles and equipment. On the septic side, the company owns 16 vacuum trucks built out by Pik Rite, primarily on Kenworth and Peterbilt chassis, plus a few on Western Stars and Internationals.

The trucks feature 2,500-, 4,000-, 4,500- and 5,000-gallon steel and aluminum tanks and Masport pumps. Two of the trucks carry built-in 250-gallon freshwater tanks and onboard jetters from Spartan Tool (2,000 psi at 12 gpm); they’re used to clear septic system and grease trap pipelines.

For industrial- and municipal-sewer cleaning, the company also relies on a Vactor 2100 Plus combination truck with a hydroexcavating package built on an International chassis. It also features a 12-cubic-yard debris tank and a Roots blower manufactured by Howden (4,200 cfm). Two specialty rigs, custom-built on Kenworth chassis by Pik Rite and featuring Robuschi USA rotary-lobe blowers (912 cfm) and 4,500-gallon steel debris tanks, round out the truck fleet. They are used primarily to clean grit chambers at local municipal wastewater treatment plants and pump stations.

To land-apply waste, the company invested in a Case 7220 tractor and a 5,000-gallon Nuhn Industries liquid-manure spreader. A ScreencO Systems Maxi Screen 400 receiving station is also used. The company owns five vacuum tanker trailers, featuring 6,500- to 7,000-gallon-capacity aluminum tanks manufactured by Pik Rite, Acro Trailer, Trailmaster and Polar Tank Trailer, and six semitractors from Peterbilt, Kenworth and Western Star carrying Masport H400W pumps.

The company also relies on three Proteus crawler pipeline-inspection camera systems from Mini-Cam; five RIDGID SeeSnake push cameras; an excavator and a mini-excavator from Kubota; a Bobcat skid-steer; six flatbed trailers from Eager Beavers Trailers and Load Trail; and two enclosed trailers from Haulmark and Integrity Trailers.

For cleaning drainlines, the company invested in three water-jetter trucks, a Ford and two Chevys, one with a utility body and two with box bodies. Two carry skid-mounted Spartan Tool jetters (2,000 psi at 12 gpm), and the other carries a Jetters Northwest Brute Series jetter with a COXREELS hose reel. The two trucks also carry drum cable drain machines from Duracable, RIDGID and Gorlitz Sewer & Drain, plus sectional cable drum machines from Electric Eel. Koberlein also owns five trailer jetters: three from Spartan Tool (2,000 psi at 12 gpm) and two from O’Brien, a Hi-Vac company (2,000 psi at 40 gpm and 3,500 psi at 5 gpm). And for thawing frozen lines, the company owns five Arctic Blasters steam machines.

The company utilizes the fleet tracking software from Geotab to route the large inventory of trucks.


Continual reinvestment in newer equipment pays dividends in numerous ways, from increasing productivity and efficiency to even attracting and retaining quality employees. “We’ve actually hired people who were sick of working with lousy equipment that always broke down and made customers upset,” Ravenscroft says. “We believe that if you’re driving a truck for 10 hours a day, you should have sufficient horsepower and have air conditioning that works on a hot August day. Good pay is only part of the equation for creating satisfied employees.”

To ensure the company’s large fleet of trucks is in good working order, Koberlein employs a fleet-maintenance manager, Scott Riggs, and five other managers: Gene Mohrmann, Gary Sprague, Bruce Thompson, Dolores Leopardi and Mike Sprague. Collectively, they have more than 100 years’ experience, Ravenscroft says, and are integral to the company’s operations.

“They treat the company as if it were their own,” Ravenscroft says. “They’re largely responsible for making sure we have safe and reliable equipment and for successfully managing the challenges posed by growth and diversification.”


To reduce disposal costs, Koberlein land-applies waste at several local farms. The company spreads roughly 3.4 million gallons of residential septage per year and has the capacity to drop 11 million gallons overall. When land application isn’t feasible or allowed, the company takes waste to local wastewater treatment plants.

In 2018, Koberlein handled 19 million gallons of wastewater; residential septage accounted for almost half of that, while process water, treatment-plant sludge and other materials accounted for the remainder, Ravenscroft says.

“We started land-applying waste six or seven years ago,” he explains. “One reason we did it was to internalize disposal costs, instead of paying someone else. The other motivation was saving time and fuel. … The closest treatment plant that can handle the kind of volume we generate is about 60 miles away.

“If you look at our profit-and-loss statement, our three largest costs are labor, waste disposal and fuel. So by land-applying waste, we minimize the other two. Land application was a big step forward in terms of controlling our costs and improving our efficiencies.”


Looking ahead, it’s easy to envision how Ravenscroft might be content to hit the pause button on growth, especially considering all the incumbent headaches that can accompany it. But that’s not how he rolls.

“I think that being comfortable where you are is dangerous,” he says. “I believe you constantly need to figure out how to improve. I’m definitely not interested in staying where we are.

“To do that effectively, we have to try to find new opportunities that make sense for the business we already have,” he continues. “Philosophically, we remain very interested in continuing to grow and diversify.”

Promote vendor relationships

Chris Ravenscroft points to an often-overlooked business booster that pays dividends for pumpers: Strong working relationships with outside vendors, ranging from disposal-site operators to banks and insurance companies. “These relationships are the underpinning of all our growth,” he says. “It’s almost like having an informal board of directors at our disposal.”

Take operators of waste-disposal sites, for example. Koberlein Environmental Services communicates with them about scheduling — gives them advance warning of an influx of trucks coming in at one time, for example. “We try to stay in tune with their treatment and processing capabilities,” Ravenscroft says. “We’re also honest about what we bring them. … We don’t co-mingle loads (to avoid the higher fees for dumping grease trap waste).”

Aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, honesty yields business benefits. For starters, relationships work much easier when both parties trust each other. “Neither party fears that the other is just trying to pull a fast one on them,” he says.  

Second, having multiple reliable disposal sites enables Koberlein to provide uninterrupted service for customers. “Site redundancy is important,” Ravenscroft explains. “If your primary disposal site is down and you have a good relationship with another backup site, they’re more likely to accept your waste on short notice.”

Finally, disposal-site operators are good sources for business referrals. If operators think a pumper is trustworthy and competent, they’re more likely to include that company on a list of qualified service providers made available to their customers, he says.

A great working relationship with The Dime Bank also plays a significant role. “We’ve had a great relationship with our bank for 25 years,” he says. “They’ve seen us grow and understand our philosophy.”

Koberlein’s insurance agent, Knowles Associates, also has been a great business partner. Agent Todd Zimmerman attends almost all of the company’s monthly safety meetings, and Jerry Kozich, a representative from Penn National Insurance, attends four or five safety meetings a year and also audits several jobs annually.

Those audits sometimes reveal operating practices or equipment that could pose a liability. In one instance, Kozich noticed a crack in a jackhammer electric cord while auditing a residential job site. “So at the next safety meeting, we discussed looking at all of our power cords,” Ravenscroft says. “Now we examine power cords on a regular basis. Insurance agents look at the world from a different perspective, and they bring value when they do that.”

The insurance company also reviews the company’s new service offerings before they go live to advise Koberlein about potential risks.

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