Business Partners Share Their Recipe for Growing Sweet Pea Sewer and Septic

Montana friends buy an established pumping company, then take it to new heights by expanding the service menu and acquiring competing companies.

Business Partners Share Their Recipe for Growing Sweet Pea Sewer and Septic

Owners Adam Bartels, left, and Russ Hood are shown in the Sweet Pea Sewer and Septic yard. Most restrooms came from Satellite Industries. But a variety of other inventory came along with acquisitions of other area service companies. (Photos by Jessica Lowry Vizzutti)

Bolstered by a series of acquisitions and a strong economic tailwind in Missoula, Montana, business partners Adam Bartels and Russ Hood have transformed an already sound company — Sweet Pea Sewer and Septic — into a significantly larger operation.

“We knew Sweet Pea had good potential,” Bartels says of the well-diversified company, which offers drain cleaning, septic service and portable restrooms. “It had a good name in the community and an established customer base. And the staff assembled by the previous owners (Susan and the late Chuck Bashor) was really dialed in.

“But neither of us expected to grow this big, this fast,” he adds. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind, but in a good way.”

Sweet Pea was an 18-year-old company when Bartels and Hood bought it in 2012. At the time, the duo — best friends since high school and weary of the constant travel their construction jobs demanded — were looking to change careers.

So they traded nail guns and circular saws for vacuum trucks and drain machines. And even without experience in any of these fields, the duo has substantially increased revenue and the scope of Sweet Pea’s operations.


Gross revenue in each sector the company serves has roughly doubled; employment jumped to 22 from eight; restroom inventory more than doubled to about 1,600 units; customer accounts rose to about 14,600 from 7,600; and monthly restroom-rental sites ballooned to 827 from 327, Bartels says.

“All of our services kind of grew at the same time,” Bartels explains. “Missoula is a growing community, with a lot of special events and construction activity. And as the community has grown, we’ve grown right alongside it. We just were in the right place at the right time.”

Serendipity also played a role in Hood and Bartels buying Sweet Pea. The Bashors were good friends of the Hood family, so when Chuck Bashor passed away in 2011, the Hoods knew that Susan was interested in selling the company.

“Russ and I have young families at home and we really wanted to be home more often,” Bartels says. “So one thing led to another. We knew we’d have to work hard, but at least we’d be home at night to see our wives and kids.”

Having an efficient and experienced office staff in place played a key role in the company’s growth because it gave Bartels and Hood the freedom to get out in the field and meet customers in person. Bartels believes customers like to see company owners on job sites. 

“And if technicians call with a problem and you’ve already been to their customers’ homes, it’s easier to walk them through things because you’ve actually been there,” he adds.


The company’s first acquisition occurred in 2015. The owners of P-Pods, a portable sanitation outfit in Helena, about 100 miles to the east, approached Bartels and Hood about buying the company, which owned two service trucks and about 200 portable restrooms. As luck would have it, Brian Cordie, a restroom technician, was planning to move to Helena because his wife had just taken a job there. So he became the manager of a new Sweet Pea branch office. “That made it a pretty painless transition,” Bartels says.

About six months later, Sweet Pea acquired the capital assets of nearby All Valley Sanitary Services, another restroom-rental company. That added another 200 restrooms, two restroom service trucks and a septic vacuum truck, he says. Then, a year later, Sweet Pea acquired A & J Porta Pottys in Stevensville, about 30 miles south of Missoula. That acquisition included customer accounts, roughly 250 restrooms and three service trucks, Bartels says.

“There was no grand plan — everything just sort of happened,” he recalls. “People just came to us because they wanted out of the business. That made it much easier for us to expand into other markets compared to moving in and contending with established competitors.”


As the company expanded its business base, its inventory of vehicles and equipment grew correspondingly. On the pumping side of the business, the company now owns seven vacuum trucks, built on Kenworth, International and Western Star chassis with steel and stainless-steel tanks ranging in size from 1,100 to 4,200 gallons. Erickson Tank & Pump built two of the trucks and Imperial Industries and Steelsmith Tank & Equipment built out two more. Builders of remaining trucks acquired with businesses are unknown. Six of the trucks feature Masport pumps and one relies on a Conde pump from Westmoor.

The company also invested in a 10,000-gallon tanker trailer made by Polar Tank Trailer, two Maxi Screen 400 trash-screening machines built by ScreencO Systems and two tank-agitating Crust Busters.

To service restrooms, the company owns 10 trucks built on Dodge 5500 and Ford F-550 chassis and using Masport pumps. All of the tanks are from Erickson and Satellite Vacuum Trucks. The tanks are steel except for one stainless steel and one aluminum; their capacities range from 300-gallons waste/150-gallons freshwater to 600-gallons waste/350-gallons freshwater. 

Satellite Industries manufactured most of the company’s restrooms. Sweet Pea also invested in about 200 hand-wash stations from Satellite and two restroom trailers from JAG Mobile Solutions.

In the drain-cleaning division, the company relies on three Ford E-250 vans and one GMC 3500 cutaway cube van with a 13-foot box body. The trucks carry small, medium and large drain machines made by Gorlitz Sewer & Drain; pipeline-inspection cameras manufactured by Pro-Built Tools and Forbest Products; and pipe locators made by Prototek.

The company also owns a self-fabricated trailer jetter equipped with a Hotsy hot-water unit; the jetter is enclosed in a 16-foot trailer made by Interstate Trailers. For efficient routing of service vehicles, the company uses GPS dispatching software from RouteOptix. 


Another key to growth is the company’s diverse range of services. The ability to offer customers one-stop shopping generates multiple revenue streams as well as cross-marketing opportunities.

“It definitely works that way,” Bartels says. “Our portable restroom customers, for instance, have clogged drainlines, too. And supplying restrooms to construction companies also got us into doing line-locating for those same customers.”

Drain-cleaning services range from unclogging small kitchen sink lines to residential sewer laterals to sewer mainlines. The company also thaws out drainlines in winter, Bartels says.

To boost efficiency, many technicians are cross-trained to pump septic tanks and clean drainlines. “The ability to send guys to all kinds of jobs is really beneficial,” he explains. “Sometimes you send a technician to what you think is a two-hour job and it turns into a six-hour job. And in those cases, if someone finishes early, they can take that technician’s next job, so the customer isn’t waiting around.”

The company also purposely bought two vacuum trucks that are small enough that technicians don’t need a commercial driver’s license to drive them, which also increases flexibility.

To avoid seasonal layoffs, the company strives to perform scheduled drain and grease-trap maintenance as well as septic tank pumping during the winter months, when business generally slows down, he notes.

There’s also another growth factor at work: Never saying “no” to work. And that requires having the right people and equipment in place, Bartels points out.

“I hate saying no to jobs,” he says. “So we need the manpower, the trucks and the technology and equipment to get jobs done. This mentality comes from Russ and I being in the construction field for so long. You realize pretty quick that if you meet customers’ needs that first time, they’re going to become repeat customers.

“So if someone calls at 5 p.m. and needs an emergency septic tank pumping, you’ve got to have a guy and a truck ready to go at all times.”


Looking ahead, Bartels envisions continued growth. “Russ and I will continue to grow with the community,” he says. “If there are more opportunities for growth, we’ll jump at them, including more acquisitions.”

But Bartels doesn’t envision further diversification, noting that he and Hood would rather provide consistently good service in the three fields the company currently serves than breaking into unfamiliar markets.

In retrospect, he says buying Sweet Pea was a great decision. “It has provided a sound living for me and my family and our employees,” he says. “Once you get past the poop part, it’s really a great job. You’re not stuck in an office all day and you get a great sense of accomplishment every day.”  


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