Cleaning and pumping provide a solid foundation for family business’ growth and diversification
When Mandie Hagan and her husband, Ian, took the reins at Rowell’s Sewer & Drain some 15 years ago, they encountered a challenge faced by many children who take over a family business: how to grow a well-established company — in this case, one founded by Mandie’s late father, Dickie Rowell Jr. — without losing touch with the family-oriented values that made it so successful in the first place.
But so far it’s “mission accomplished” for the Hagans, who moved in 2001 from Colorado to Northfield, New Hampshire, to help Mandie’s mother and business co-owner, Debbie Rowell, run the business. The recipe for success: a broader range of services, a strong dose of marketing savvy and an emphasis on employee development, not to mention a passion to uphold the elder Rowell’s legacy.
Since 2001, the company — which initially focused on cleaning sewer lines and pumping septic tanks — has diversified into other services, including septic system design and installations, larger sewer line repair work, and commercial lift station installations. “We added these services in order to provide full service for our customers,” Mandie Hagan explains, noting the company’s “One call does it all” motto. “We now can keep all the service work in-house, starting from design services to complete system installs.”
The company now employs 15 people, compared to three in 2001, and runs four pumper vac trucks, three self-fabricated waterjetting trucks and one jetter mounted inside an enclosed trailer. Moreover, the company opened a new shop and office that includes a retail store that sells septic system parts and components to homeowners.
“I can honestly say that I don’t feel pressure to live up to my father’s business legacy,” says Hagan of the company, which serves customers throughout New Hampshire. “But I do feel a strong desire to keep it alive.
“I really never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing,” she continues. “But I absolutely love it — not so much the pumping septic tanks and drain cleaning, but providing customers with a full package of services. … That’s probably the most important thing we’ve done in the last 10 years. Customers don’t always know where to go (to find contractors), so offering one-stop shopping takes the pressure off them. And if we can’t do something, we’ll find someone who can do it for them.”
In college, Hagan majored in business and minored in marketing, so she also enjoys promoting the company and developing new business. “I love making things better — not getting stuck in a rut,” she notes. “I also love to manage people and bring out the best
Learning the ropes
Mandie and Ian, a plumber, were living in Colorado when Dickie Rowell Jr. died of a heart attack in 2001. An electrician by trade, Dickie started out in 1983 pumping out septic tanks on weekends. Several years after that, he decided to expand and fabricated his own jetting truck to get into drain cleaning. The move burnished his reputation as an innovative, common-sense contractor with a flair for customer service, compliments of his jovial personality, Hagan says.
“Dad was very innovative — always thinking about what’s ahead,” she says. “He was also known as the happy pumper, and we use a caricature of him as a logo on our pump trucks.”
As an example of her father’s innovative streak, Hagan cites a customized waterjetting rig he built to thaw frozen waterlines that supply snowmaking machines at a nearby ski area. The waterlines sit atop a mountain, and deep snow makes them inaccessible to conventional jetting trucks. The solution? Rowell welded a ski to each of the four wheel rims. When the ski resort needs its lines thawed, technicians remove the tires and rims from the company’s jetting trailer and attach the “ski rims” in their place; from there, a grooming machine tows the unit to the frozen lines, she explains.
Ian’s experience as a plumber helped smooth the ownership transition. Things went well from the start, Hagan says, noting that even during the deep recession that hit around 2007, the company continued to post steady increases in revenue while adding new employees and services.
“We didn’t want to grow too big too fast and jeopardize the quality of our service,” she explains. “So we’ve grown steadily. … We don’t move onto the next step until we’re sure the base foundation is solid.”
But it wasn’t always easy, Hagan observes, noting that it took about five years to get a handle on things. “We had to figure out how to do all the things that Dad had done himself — we didn’t have an owner’s manual,” she explains. “We had to get to know the customers and figure out the best way to do things and how to price our services. It was a big learning curve, but through it all, our community continued to support us.”
Spreading the word
The company takes a proactive, multifaceted approach to marketing. The elements include clean, well-maintained, vinyl-wrapped trucks that prominently feature the company’s logo; a website; a large billboard that stands in front of the company’s new facility, located in a rehabbed old building that stands along a state highway; and sponsorship of local events, such as food drives.
The company also sponsors youth sports teams. In other instances, it offers customers a $10-off coupon if they donate goods to a local food drive, she says.
Hagan also works with a marketing consultant and runs ads on local radio stations; those ads feature a catchy jingle she had a Nashville company compose. The cost? About $4,000. Worth it? “Absolutely,” she says. “It’s all about brand recognition. The jingle is catchy and upbeat — it definitely reflects who we are.” To enhance name recognition, the jingle also plays when customers who call the company are put on hold.
Hagan’s marketing philosophy centers on investing money where it gets the best return. “We wanted to get away from phone books — step outside the box a little,” she says. “I try to do things a little differently. It’s more fun and exciting that way.”
The company also employs an effective marketing technique that doesn’t cost a penny: Follow-up phone calls asking customers if they were pleased with the service they received.
The retail store also effectively works as a marketing tool by drawing in potential customers. Because two national, big-box home centers are located nearby, the store stocks unique items — such as risers and tank lids — that the large retailers typically don’t carry. The store offers another benefit: By combining orders for store inventory with parts needed by technicians to make repairs, the company gets a better volume discount, which helps reduce operating costs, she says.
“It also eliminates the need for our technicians to make time-consuming stops to buy parts at big-box retailers,” she adds. “And the store is right on a state highway, so it provides easy access for customers. A lot of people just swing in to make appointments to get their tanks pumped. We’ve found that people still appreciate that face-to-face contact.”
Keeping expenses in line
Of course, as the company offers more services, operating expenses for items such as insurance, equipment and employee training rise correspondingly. “But you can’t get bigger if you’re not willing to assume that risk,” Hagan says.
As such, Hagan does a number of things to control operating expenses, including continually analyzing costs — everything from business insurance to repair parts — to ensure the company gets the best possible price; constantly monitoring profit margins on jobs; analyzing monthly revenue vs. expenses; and so forth. “We really try to avoid getting complacent,” she says.
“The numbers don’t lie,” she points out. “You have to know your overhead costs and your pricing has to reflect those costs. You need to do more than just cover your costs. On the flip side, I know we’re not the cheapest company out there. But your service has to be worth something.”
Looking ahead, Hagan envisions steady growth as opposed to exponential increases in sales. With 14 employees’ families now reliant on the company for their livelihoods — as opposed to just her, Ian and her mother 15 years ago — the Hagans feel obligated to avoid any rash moves that would jeopardize the company’s business prospects.
But no matter what happens, the company’s family-rooted values and emphasis on diverse, quality service will continue to be the backbone of its operations, preserving Dickie Rowell Jr.’s legacy. “We sell our service, our smiles and our enthusiasm,” Hagan says. “That’s just who we are. I know it might sound corny, but it’s true.”