Starting a Septic Services Company Is Worth the Struggle

Celebrating his 20th year as a small-business owner, Tom Arts' only regret is that he didn't start sooner

Starting a Septic Services Company Is Worth the Struggle

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When Tom Arts and his wife purchased A-1 Septic Service and Installation in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, 20 years ago, he had no experience in the business — no licenses, no plumbing experience, no CDL. In fact, getting the business going took a lot of hard work and sleepless nights as the family carried debt for a while.

“You hit the ground running,” Arts says. “You have to be dedicated to what you’re going to do.”

Unhappy with his previous job in management at a factory, Arts was looking to be self-employed and wanted to work outside. “I went from managing 100 people to managing 13 — one of them my wife,” Arts says.

His wife’s family had experience in well drilling, so he supposed working in the service industry would be a good fit. “My only regret is I wish I would have bought the company when I was younger.”

Today — after 60 years in business (40 with a previous owner) — A-1 Septic does septic design, installation, maintenance and pumping, as well as soil testing and portable restrooms. Currently the company has 70 portable restroom units from both Satellite | PolyPortables and Five Peaks. With 13 employees, the company services four counties in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

As expected, the Northwoods’ winters can be brutal, so most of A-1 Septic’s business takes place during other seasons. “You have to make your money spring, summer and fall,” Arts says. “In winter, your payments don’t stop, so you have to be smart with how you spend money.”

They run two pump trucks (with heated valves) in winter doing mostly holding tanks and septic tanks, with about 20 restrooms out on construction and industrial sites. Arts says the company also donates some units to charity events, such as ice fishing and snowmobiling tournaments.

A-1 Septic has five pump trucks — two Peterbilts, one Kenworth, one Sterling, one International — and use Tec-Trac and Fleetmatics technology for routes. They’re especially proud of one of their Peterbilts, which recently was featured as a Classy Truck in Pumper.

“It’s kind of a more flashy truck; it’s got some chrome on it,” says the truck’s driver, Greg Golden.

The white 2012 Peterbilt 359 has a 4,800-gallon steel tank and Jurop/Chandler pump built out by Pik Rite. It is powered by a PACCAR MX-13 525 hp engine tied to a Fuller 8LL transmission (Eaton Vehicle Group) with Parker PTO.

Features include top and rear manways, aluminum hose trays, diamond plate toolboxes, Garnet SeeLevel digital gauge, aluminum wheels, stainless steel visor, chrome Peterbilt hood ornament, diamond plate tank protectors, running lights, sight glasses, heated mirrors, chrome grille and front bumper. Three Lakes Steel added a 4-inch inlet and extended the 6-inch dump valve. Interior features include air conditioning, CD player, air-ride cab and seats, and full Peterbilt gauge kit.

Valued employees and a respected community

While there is a fair amount of competition in the region, Arts credits his employees with keeping his company strong. “Employees are a lot of it,” he says. “Without them, you’re nothing. You have to treat them right, and you need to have a good image in the community.”

Customer service, obviously, is another huge part of the business strategy for A-1 Septic. “That’s our goal, satisfying the customers.”

Whatever his recipe, it seems Arts made the right decision all those years ago when he changed careers.

“Over the 20 years in business, we’ve seen growth every year,” he says. “You’re not going to make all the right decisions. I like to grow everything.

“I never want to sit still and say, ‘We’re good enough.’”



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