Pumpers Bob and Michelle Kuhn Say Focused Marketing and a Better Disposal Solution Will Fuel Further Growth

Upstart mom and pop operator Northern Rock Septic plans for a bright future in Wisconsin’s northwoods cottage country

Pumpers Bob and Michelle Kuhn Say Focused Marketing and a Better Disposal Solution Will Fuel Further Growth

The Northern Rock Septic crew includes, from left, Jeff Duncan, Bob and Michelle Kuhn, Carlee Kadubek and Brady Schreiber. Jeff Darrin is not pictured. (Photos by Cory Dellenbach)

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It took only 48 days for Bob and Michelle Kuhn to get their new septic pumping company up and running after officially leaving their previous employer in March 2022.

They got their finances in order, filed the proper paperwork with the DNR, found a used vacuum truck in a less-than-ideal equipment-buying environment, and had a successful first year in business as Northern Rock Septic, based in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Now into Year 2, they’re looking to continue the upward trajectory.

“It’s a good industry to be in. It will provide for a family year in and year out,” Bob Kuhn says. “But you have to be willing to put in the hours. It takes a lot of work. It’s not just getting in a septic truck and going out to pump a tank. There’s so much involved in regards to your responsibilities as a business owner — paperwork, DNR certifications, keeping up on credentials, truck maintenance, the logistics of the work. There are so many facets you have to have knowledge in and be willing to work at and figure out in order to have a successful, smooth-running septic company.”


Kuhn owned a construction company in the Chicago area, largely doing work for apartment complexes, before he and his wife decided they needed a change of pace and moved with their three children to northern Wisconsin a decade ago.

Kuhn eventually found his way into the septic business, initially as an installer for a company in the region. By fall 2018, he was heading up the daily operations of the company, and later Michelle ended up working for the business as well running the office. The couple was on track to purchase the company, but it ultimately didn’t pan out. So they decided to start their own venture.

“It was easier for us to start our own business rather than go out and find another company to purchase,” Kuhn says. “We decided to just go ahead and find our own truck, and I would drive until we got enough work to hire another driver.”

But finding the right service truck wasn’t the easiest task in spring 2022.

“Used trucks at that time had gone up in value about 30%. They were just skyrocketing,” Kuhn says. “We looked hard for three weeks every day. We were calling dealerships all over the U.S. We had a couple trucks we had our eyes on that we went to pursue, and suddenly they were already sold.”

They eventually found a good truck, at a reasonable price. As a bonus, it was at Mid-State Truck Service in Wausau, Wisconsin, just an hour south of their home base. The 2011 Mack Granite Series truck features a 4,650-gallon steel tank and a National Vacuum Equipment Challenger pump. It had been custom-built for oil field work originally, but Green Valley Septic out of Wausau retrofitted it into a septic truck and ran it for five years until trading it into Mid-State to upgrade to a new truck.

“The owner had just traded it in, and my salesman down there gave me the heads up on it,” Kuhn says. “I had a mechanic give it the once over and he gave it the thumbs up so we made the deal. We were fortunate to find it.”

Another fortunate turn of events was that minimal work was needed to get it ready for Northern Rock. The overall color scheme was white and green, which happened to be the colors of Rhinelander and its school sports teams.

“We did a partial paint job on it because there was some rust,” Kuhn says. “We ended up painting the back of the truck and the bed rails, changing the color scheme a little bit. Then we re-lettered it, added our graphics, gave it a good washing and waxing, and put it on the road.”


Kuhn says he and Michelle kept their expectations in check for their first year of business.

“We had hoped to just cover our overhead for the first summer seeing as we had to move so quickly,” Kuhn says. “A lot of companies flood the market with advertising a year or so before they actually open. We didn’t have any time. Our advertising went out as we were opening so we were at a definite disadvantage. But as things went along, we started picking up steam.”

They did some radio and TV spots and sent out direct mailers. A key source for customers has been vacation homes. Northern Rock Septic’s service area extends from Rhinelander north to Wisconsin’s border with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region filled with second homes on lakes. That paired with the state requirement for a septic tank pumpout every three years has helped business.

“A lot of local people may stick with the same septic company they’ve always gone with, but people from out of town may not have that sort of loyalty,” says Michelle, who handles the office duties. “They get our direct mailer and then they get their septic service notice, so they say, ‘Let’s try this company.’”

Wisconsin’s three-year septic pumpout rule in general has been good for all septic companies. Oneida County, where Rhinelander is located, sends out a list every year of addresses that are due for a pumpout. Companies can then target those addresses with direct mailers. Kuhn says the Oneida County list has roughly 7,000 to 9,000 addresses every year. About 50% of Northern Rock Septic’s revenue comes from residential pumping, and about 80% of those service calls are prompted by three-year notices, Kuhn says.

“It is quite a few considering how many septic companies there are in the area,” Kuhn says. “It seems like there are a lot of septic companies, but there really aren’t for how many pumpouts need to be done. Every year is different. Some years you get a lot, others not as many. That’s just the way it is.”

Being a new, smaller company can be beneficial in certain ways. Kuhn says because Northern Rock Septic has less overhead than bigger companies at the moment, it can offer a lower service price to customers. Even a slight discount can mean a lot to some customers, Kuhn says.

“A $5 or $10 difference can make a huge difference for some people, like certain elderly people that may be on a fixed income,” Kuhn says. “They’re more willing to schedule with us if we’re $10 cheaper than the next guy. And $10 isn’t going to break us.”

Northern Rock Septic also is willing to give customers a payment plan option where they can pay for their service in three installments. Or discounts if a cluster of neighbors can coordinate their pumpouts concurrently.

“We try to accommodate people and help them out if we can,” Kuhn says. “That helps bring in some of the work because people talk. When you help one person out, they are more willing to spread the word.”


Even with the pumping notices producing a decent amount of work, residential service work can still be sporadic. That’s why Northern Rock Septic has also focused heavily on acquiring contract work. Much of that current work is for private youth camps and state campgrounds and public vault toilets in the region maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“We will do as much residential pumping as we get, but there’s no guarantee how much it’s going to be each year,” Kuhn says. “If you can fill your schedule with a certain amount of contract work, then you know every year you’ll be doing a set amount of work. Focus on the contracts and then fill in with the residential pumping.”

The privately owned camps sometimes have decades-old septic tanks and the current owners don’t always know exactly what’s going on with their system underground. Prior to starting Northern Rock Septic, Kuhn says he had put in a lot of time with some of these campgrounds, locating tanks and helping customers figure out a schedule for system maintenance.

For the region’s campgrounds and other public vault toilets maintained by the DNR, Northern Rock Septic has to bid for the contract every year. But it’s the type of work that often doesn’t attract much competition.

“It’s typically the dirtiest of the dirty work in the septic business,” Kuhn says. “You deal with a lot of trash.” For its first year of operation, Northern Rock Septic was awarded the state contract.

“There’s a certain amount of pride that comes with serving the community and providing a service to people who enjoy the outdoors, but it also gives you a perspective on humanity,” Kuhn says. “Some people don’t have any consideration for the guy who has to clean these toilets out and if they just once had to clean it themselves they might really think twice about throwing their garbage in the hole. It’s not a job you’re eager to do, but it pays well and someone has to do it.”


The first year of business went well enough that Northern Rock Septic was able to hire an employee, Jeff Darrin, this year to drive the vacuum truck. That has allowed Kuhn to spend more time looking for new clients. The Kuhns have a few more part-time helpers borrowed from a related landscaping operation.

“We need to expand, and I found that going out there and meeting customers is very key,” he says. “I was able to pick up a lot of work by just going out and meeting with customers, talking with them. It takes the initial call, but I’ve found that the service you provide after that initial call really greatly increases your chances of gaining that person as a permanent customer.”

Kuhn’s goal is to gain enough work to warrant the purchase of a second service truck.

“At that point we’ll have a decision to make whether I drive that truck part time or we hire another employee,” he says. “We’ll just take it as it comes. The goal is to expand the business as much as we possibly can.”

Another long-term goal is to help establish an industrial waste treatment center in northern Wisconsin.

“The septic business, within reason, is recession proof,” Kuhn says. “With other service businesses, people can say maybe we don’t want that service this year because we can’t quite afford it. But when a tank is full, it has to get pumped.

“It’s a business where you’re always going to have work,” he continues. “People are very thankful for what you do. That’s the most rewarding part of the job.”


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