Sodergren Septic Pumps Up Homeowner Interest With a Fresh Approach to Marketing

Michigan’s Ryan Carey brings smart diversification by adding septic service to his busy forest products and excavating company.

Sodergren Septic Pumps Up Homeowner Interest With a Fresh Approach to Marketing

Ryan Carey is shown with his wife, Kylie, and their children, Carver, 8; Finley, 7; Sawyer, 5; Scout, 4; Huck, 2; and Wren, nine months. (Photos by Natalie Larson)

J. Carey Inc. has offered logging, excavating and trucking and hauling services to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and parts of Wisconsin from its offices in Channing, Michigan, since 1980. Septic tank installation and repair has always been a small but important segment of the business. To diversify, owner and President Ryan Carey expanded the company service roster still further in 2018 when he bought out Sodergren Septic Service.

It takes a special kind of management skill to juggle all the services the company offers, but Carey sees pumping as a welcome addition to the business, an oasis of stability and a hedge against the more volatile resource sector.

Carey was born into the business. Now 35, his early memories involve watching excavators in action, sitting in the passenger seat of a snowplow and going on parts runs with his dad.

“I loved the equipment from an early age,” he says. “I started driving a dump truck for my father at age 14. “After a few years in college I realized that I loved working more and went back to work for my dad in 2006.”

Carey’s father, Jim, had always wanted his son to take over the business. The younger Carey officially became owner and president in 2015, in large part to relieve his father who was attending to family duties. Now 65, the older Carey was caring for both his mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2017, and his sister Lindsay, who has Down syndrome. He is semiretired, but still works for the business on a reduced schedule.

Excavating and hauling sand, gravel and equipment are profitable endeavors for the company, as is the thriving septic system installation and repair business. However, the logging business is more cyclical. When local pulp and paper mills began to increase demand for chipped wood products, that activity became the company’s focus around 2007.

“Succeeding in the forestry business requires expensive equipment, and highly skilled workers to run it,” Carey says. “But sometimes it can be a struggle just to break even. About five years ago as the forestry products market was shifting, we began to look for other sources of revenue and I began to consider septic service, an industry that’s always needed, regardless of how the economy is performing.”

The company’s accountant happened to work for Sodergren Septic Service, located in nearby Ishpeming. Carey learned that owner Tom Sodergren was considering retirement.

“Tom was the local septic guy pretty much since 1968 when he launched the business,” says Carey. “When someone said ‘septic’ you thought of Sodergren.”

The two agreed on terms for a sale in 2018, which included: the company name and phone number; a 2007 Peterbilt truck with a 2,500-gallon aluminum tank and MEC Battioni Pagani pump built out by Imperial Industries; various trailers and other equipment; and a local client list.

But Carey saw additional possibilities for the company’s marginal activities, including pumping of food waste, grease traps and lift stations for local wastewater systems. He quickly moved the business to the company’s excavation division office in Negaunee, about 40 miles northeast of Channing.

“In August 2018 I was driving a septic truck,” says Carey.

It’s no surprise for the CEO to take a hands-on role in the business. The company’s divisions operate independently for the most part, so Carey is a working president, operating an excavator or driving a grader on different days. He says he chose to work primarily in the new septic pumping division because it gives him the greatest opportunity to interact with customers.

“I’ve always liked excavating, but I didn’t think I’d like pumping as much as I do,” he says. “I’m a naturally outgoing person and in septic, I enjoy providing a quality service directly to customers on a one-to-one basis. I also enjoy educating them about their septic systems — they’re always a receptive audience.”

J. Carey currently employs 30 people. Carey sees his employees as a big family, some of whom have worked for the company since before he was born. The most senior employee is Joe Dumoulin, a forestry crew leader, who has been with the company since 1982.

Carey transitioned one employee, Dave Farkas, from the excavation business into septic pumping. “Dave also loves it,” he says. “He does an awesome job and happens to be passionate about septic service.”

Two other Carey employees are being trained to work in septic pumping as well.

Carey drives a 2002 International with a 3,400-gallon steel tank and Fruitland pump built out by Imperial. He sold the 2007 Peterbilt and bought another 2002 International with a 3,200-gallon steel tank and National Vacuum Equipment pump, also built out by Imperial. That truck was destroyed in a recent crash and replaced by a 2021 International from Imperial with a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank and NVE 4310 blower.

The construction fleet for septic tank installation includes: a 2004 Kenworth T800 quad dump truck; a 2019 Mack Granite quad dump truck, a 2018 Towmaster T-50 tri-axle tag trailer, a 1993 Ford L8000 Vac-Con Hydro Vac truck, a 1996 Ford L9000 quad dump truck, a 2013 Chevrolet service van and a 2016 Ford F-250 pickup. The excavation team operates a 2018 John Deere 333G compact track loader and a 2016 Hyundai 80 excavator. It also includes: a 2014 PC160 excavator; a 2004 WB140 tractor loader backhoe, a 2006 CK35 compact track loader, a 2014 D39P dozer and a 2005 WA320 wheel loader, all from Komatsu.

The company bought a second septic company, Stiglich Septic Cleaning in L’Anse, Michigan, in early 2019 to expand its septic client list and territory reach.

Sodergren’s service area covers six counties around Negaunee — Marquette, Dickinson, Iron, Baraga, Alger, Houghton, Ontonagon and Keweenaw. That includes the city of Marquette, the largest community in the Upper Peninsula. The service area covers a radius of about 80 miles during the busy season from about May 1 to Dec. 1. However, that radius increases to about 100 miles as winter approaches.

“A lot of our clients in outlying areas say they can’t get their septic tanks pumped because their local provider has shut down for the winter,” Carey says. “We get regular calls for pumping and emergency calls because their systems are freezing up. Our Arctic Blaster steam-defrosting system gets a lot of use during those winter months.”

Sodergren is also a dealer for Matt’s Sewer Blankets, an insulating product staked to the ground to insulate septic systems during a typical Michigan deep freeze.

The company’s excavating division has been installing and repairing septic systems since 1980. In the areas Sodergren serves, county health departments perform perc tests and design each septic system for the property owner. Carey usually recommends that homeowners overbuild the capacity of the system to serve future and unexpected needs.

Almost all of the septic tanks the company installs are precast concrete, provided by two local Michigan suppliers: Rudy Goupille & Sons in Negaunee and Champion in Iron Mountain. Lids and risers are supplied by TUF-TITE.

“A lot of our repair work involves damaged steel tanks that have reached the end of their service life,” says Carey. “In most cases, the drainfield also needs to be replaced. We also install a lot of risers to help homeowners avoid excavation charges. Risers generally pay for themselves over the space of two pumpings.”

The company has just dipped its toe into portable restroom rentals 

under the Sodergren brand. It recently purchased four units from Satellite Industries. The rentals have been used for construction and small events, but this side of the business is already showing signs of expanding.

“We just booked a wedding and I will buy a hand-wash station and as many restroom units as we need to service it that weekend,” says Carey. “Going forward, we will buy restroom units on an as-needed basis to meet client demands.”

The company’s portable restroom operations will be consolidated in Negaunee.

Carey has six children — the oldest is eight. His wife, Kylie Jo Carey, manages the homefront while he keeps the business moving, although the kids often like to get into the truck and join their dad on calls.

“We have to keep track of whose turn it is,” he says. “It’s a good experience for everyone right now, and a good exposure to the industry for my kids. One day, I hope to see them take over for me. We’re here for the long haul and I believe they can take the business up another notch when it’s their turn.”  


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