For Mike Capra, Job No. 1 Is Satisfying and Educating the Customer

‘Every job we do, even if it doesn’t go as planned, we take it as a great learning opportunity. We always find the silver lining.’

For Mike Capra, Job No. 1 Is Satisfying and Educating the Customer

Mike and Kris Capra

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Name and title or job description: Mike Capra, owner

Business name and location: Capra’s Utilities, White Bear Lake, Minnesota

Age: 43

Years in the industry: 26. We are a second-generation family-owned business celebrating 30 years in business this year.

Association involvement: Member of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association for about five years. I am currently the president and was a board member for two years. 

Benefits of belonging to the association: The opportunity to network with other individuals who work in our industry is a big benefit. We can bounce ideas off each other and gain insight into other ways of performing the same type of work. We also work collaboratively to influence rule changes. And the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association provides great educational opportunities. We do a lot of training, both in the summer and winter. There are several educational tracks with various sessions at our conferences that allow you to pick what you want to learn or what’s most applicable to your work. Most of the sessions allow for audience participation so you can help educate and learn from others.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Membership is our biggest issue — getting people who are not members to see the value. Since joining, I’ve gone to every seminar that the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association puts on and feel it’s a great learning experience. Typically when people join, they’ll go to the education and training forums at least once a year, even though we’re only required to do that every three years. They find value in it. But getting the word out is the challenge.

Our crew includes: We have two site foremen: John Handrahan, my cousin, who has been with us 22 years and Nick Fox who has been with us five years. Several people work in the field with them (one is John’s son, Joe), and two guys work part time in our shop (one is my father-in-law, Dave Closmore). My wife, Kris Capra, and I work in the office.

Services we offer: We do septic installation and repair, as well as sewer and water installation and repair. We don’t typically do designs in-house but John and I are licensed designers, and Nick is in the process of becoming licensed. Being licensed gives us the ability to make adjustments to a design that may better fit the site needs when we are in the bidding process or when we are on site for the installation.

Typical day on the job: I start my day at 5 a.m. I get all our documents prepared to let the crews know where they are going and what they are doing for the day. At 6 a.m. the guys come in and we have a morning meeting. We go over the jobs and talk about safety things to look for: What trench boxes to load, do they need barricades for road closures, are we doing a confined space entry? I also reiterate to the whole crew any specific customer requests. I spend the rest of the day scheduling and bidding jobs and answering field calls.

The job I’ll never forget: We were called to repair a sewer that had been backing up in the basement of a house for several months. It was a rental property, and the owners were trying to get the tenants out before the sewer was repaired. When we arrived, there was about 3 feet of raw sewage in the basement, which was basically acting like one huge holding tank. When I did the estimate, I indicated we would install a “clean-out” when we did the repair. The owner assumed that meant we would be cleaning out his basement for him, which was not the case. However, we did send a pump truck to pump out several thousand gallons of raw sewage. The rest of the “cleaning” was left to the homeowner.

My favorite piece of equipment: Over 30 years, we’ve learned it’s really just having the right equipment for the job. We run all Case equipment and typically upgrade our backhoes every five years and our skid-steers every three years so we don’t have any downtime and very little maintenance. We also upgraded our semitrucks this year. One thing we’ve used this year is swamp pads, which helped us get into a lot of sites we wouldn’t have been able to because we’ve had so much rain.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: A couple years ago, we worked at a turn-of-the-century house on the bluffs of the St. Croix River. It was built like a castle, with a carriage house and stone walls all the way around it. It was a single-family residential septic system replacement that cost around $140,000. We had to crane the excavator over the surrounding stone walls to get it onto the terrace. We directional drilled almost 1,000 feet of solid rock. The system was about 1,000 feet away from the house. We had three lift stations. One was inside the house. We had to core-drill through some stone walls to get the pipes out of the house. We put the lift station at the lowest level and that pumped up to the terrace. From there, another lift station pumped up to the septic system. The carriage house had another lift station that connected to the main supply pipe.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: Last year we put in a gravity system. There was a designer involved and the city had signed off on the permit, but we found out they had not verified soils and we had not double-checked the soils. The area we were working in looked pretty good, but below the drainfield we dug down and the soil was awful. Thank goodness it happened while the house was still being built. We made the decision that we weren’t going to fight it or argue it. We moved it to another location and didn’t charge the owner. The last thing we wanted was a bad name for a job that didn’t go right that we didn’t correct and take care of. So, the one thing I would say is double-check the designer’s work or make sure you’ve verified the soils personally before you put a system in. Every job we do, even if it doesn’t go as planned, we take it as a great learning opportunity. We always find the silver lining.

If I could add any wastewater-related service, it would be: I have a great relationship with designers and pumpers so I really wouldn’t want to expand into those areas, but I would like to add more staff to keep up with the workload.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: I would like to see a statewide exemption on weight restrictions for septic service vehicles. In the spring, we get a lot of failing or freezing systems with no reasonable way to get access to the houses without an exemption to road restrictions. Large fees for a permit for vehicles to perform this work during the time of road restrictions get passed on to the resident who’s already having huge issues. The last several years, we’ve been able to get an exemption from the governor, but it’s always been at the last minute after we go to the Legislature and fight to get it.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: I’ve read in a couple business books that you should hire people based on their attitudes and whose core values align with yours versus hiring just based on experience. You can hire a guy with the most experience in the world, but if he’s got a sour attitude and bringing everybody else down, that doesn’t benefit the team.

Planning for the future: My dad, Ernie, started this business in 1989, and it was a business where, if he wasn’t there, there was no business. And when I took it over, for many years it was the same. So we have created policies and procedures to make it a sustainable business where somebody could take it over in the future. We continue to work toward that every day. The biggest thing is getting things out of my head and onto paper so everybody knows what to do with the information. It has actually been a hard thing for me to learn and adjust to, but I want everybody to be successful even if I’m not here.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I have done this type of work my whole life, so I can’t imagine not doing it. My wife and I also build and operate commercial real estate properties and rent to small businesses.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I see it as becoming much more professional than it has been in years past. I really like the regulations that get everybody on the same page and hold everybody to the same standard. You don’t have as many people installing systems who don’t know what they’re doing. I feel like we’re on a really good track for having people who are truly professionals.


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