Action Drain Moves Beyond The Status Quo And Outdoes The Competition With Improved Services

Action Drain outperforms the competition by focusing on ways to improve cleaning and inspection services.
Action Drain Moves Beyond The Status Quo And Outdoes The Competition With Improved Services
Rob Robinson, service manager for Action Drain & Rooter Service, keeps a close eye on the monitor of his Vivax-Metrotech vCam-5 while inspecting for a suspected crack in a standpipe used by firefighters.

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In 2013, Brent McLaws realized his business, Action Drain & Rooter Service in Washington state, would benefit from the input of someone with an outside perspective.

Enter Rob Robinson, who came on board as a manager with experience that included a degree in construction management and six years as the owner of a company that handled condominium conversions. He had worked on projects that involved contractors ranging from smaller drain cleaning firms to giants such as Halliburton.

“Brent liked what I could contribute. He was looking for leadership, and I was someone who could take the company in the direction he was seeking,” Robinson says. “He liked that I had a solid understanding of the construction process from top to bottom as well as plumbing, and had sewer systems knowledge.”

McLaws became involved with the company in 2005 after a tragedy in Action Drain & Rooter Service’s founding family. Over the years he’d played an advisory role with the company and was the person they trusted to carry on the Spokane institution. With a background in engineering and mechanical development, he brought a substantial and varied expertise in both business and process implementation to Action Drain.

“The greatest challenge for me as president was to discover the status quo in the industry, and then determine how it could be improved,” McLaws says. “There is a tendency for people to follow certain methods, but they may not always be the best way. I wanted to know what I could do to improve upon the status quo. I needed to look at things in another way. The company was pretty much doing what everyone else was doing in the services we offered. There are a lot of mom-and-pops out there, and then there are the big guys. We looked at Action Drain as one of the medium level service providers in the region.

“We had some equipment that was fairly well used. We have been able to upgrade much of our equipment, and build upon the services offered. We are investing in stronger, faster products. I tend to not look at what other people are doing, but what we can do better.”

McLaws says technicians were frequently wearing too many hats. “They would be good at many things, but perhaps not excel in specific areas of what we offered. We started hiring more people, because I believe that with more people you get more ideas, sometimes great ideas. People were encouraged to feed off one another, offer steps to improve profits, improve our work in the field, to specialize. We wanted input from multiple people.”

The new president knew he had to study and understand the latest technology in the industry.

“In my past experience, I had always attended many trade shows,” he says. “You can find new ideas – sometimes a small company with an outstanding product. I started taking technicians to the trade shows. I wanted them to see what was out there and I wanted their feedback, for them to discover things that we could use at Action Drain. It’s not cheap to send people to the trade shows, but I am more than willing to give them this opportunity.”

Calling the plays

Robinson and McLaws worked together to set goals and lay out priorities, primarily to be more effective and efficient. They also agreed that communication was going to be a key moving forward.

The new manager says his belief in communication comes from his background in sports and a belief in teamwork.

“You will never have success unless you function as a team member – not necessarily a coach,” he says. “That role is for Brent. He is the coach. I may be the captain on the field, but I am still a member of the team. My role is to empower, train and give the team members the power to be successful.”                

Robinson says that it was time to “steady the ship,” a reference to the circumstance that brought McLaws to the top of the ticket.

Within a short period of time after Robinson came on board, the two men began to set a steady course forward, with safety initiatives and a new marketing campaign aimed at helping them reach their goals.

“I came into an excellent team already in place, which was a huge advantage,” he says. “Brent is a phenomenal employer. He is not a micromanager.

“Our business model was to operate on volume. We wanted to solve problems quickly and at a fair price. We want our guys on a good day to complete a set number of jobs. But we always look for ways to keep our prices down and contain costs.”

Meeting all challenges

In the Spokane area, just across the border from Idaho, many of the concrete tile and clay sewer lines were installed 70 years ago. Many have offsets and joints that have been infiltrated with roots. The soils are a geological mix of gravel, soft sand and rocks, and the ground is prone to frequent shifting that can cause lines to break and collapse.

Many lines were never properly vetted after installation, which resulted in problems. They recently found a 5-inch rock in a 4-inch line. The line was badly damaged and had to be replaced. Lines will sometimes have a bell or a low spot and thus a sludge blockage. Robinson says you can run a cable through those spots a hundred times and not clear the line. If a replacement is required they will often recommend another contractor.

Another issue is the non-flushable products, a major contributor to problems in the pipes.

“With roots, we use the cables. For the non-flushable situation the jetter is the answer,” Robinson says.

Residential lateral and drain lines, beginning with the kitchen sink, are Action’s bread and butter.

“We love working with the homeowner,” Robinson says. “Our service has been tailored to them. But we want to open up and offer solutions to more commercial and municipal customers. Including pipe patching has been exciting for us as we launch that service. Right now we have a 24-inch system and when an opportunity comes along to repair a 48-inch line we will quickly get that equipment in-house. That is in our plan.”

Technicians are all trained on pipe patching, jetting and all other services. Their skills and understanding of systems are evaluated and then they can specialize.

“Our trailer jetter provides 12 gpm/3,000 psi, and it’s essential a tech understand the situation when working in the basement of a home with the jetter trying to get through a blockage in the line,” Robinson says. “You’re putting that water in the pipe and could cause a flood if not done appropriately. You could flood that home. We have to have confidence in our employees so they can evaluate a situation. ‘OK. This is how I can do the job without damage to the home.’ We want a superb product and no damage to the home.”

Robinson says they encourage homeowners to have an outside clean-out and educate them as to the advantages. He says they usually understand the benefits but can’t always afford the extra expense.

Robinson has also started working with real estate agents to educate them on the benefits of the buyer or seller having a line evaluated prior to a sale.

Municipal work still represents a small portion of the business, but in some rural areas, or towns without their own equipment, Action can step in and clean manholes and sewer mains.

Race for the cup

Robinson says that in this day and age, good upper management is a necessity.

“This industry is very different than it was 25 years ago in a drain cleaning shop – or just about any business,” he says. “Business can be hostile. You have regulations, tax codes. In our area we might have one tech do eight jobs in a day, but he might be in five different tax rates. I can’t expect my technicians to keep all that straight. They have a job to do. We have business license fees and other issues to address. Upper management is the key.

“We set specific goals for each month,” he says. “These might go up or down, but there will come a time when we decide to add a truck and a man. We will continually assess the situation before we take another step.”

Surpassing expectations

McLaws is outspoken about his search for superior equipment. The company handles inspections with two Vivax-Metrotech vCam-5 systems, which he considers state of the art.

They primarily use Spartan jetters and cable machines. For spot repair, they rely on PipePatch (Source One Environmental).

Five service vans are on the road continually, with two additional vans reserved for backup and emergency situations. Although this can be an added expense, McLaws says it ensures their ability to service the customer properly.

Safety has become a focus for Robinson, and he is developing a new program to involve a weekly meeting and participation with the crew, as well as creating standard operating procedures. They want the crew trained across the board in these matters.

“We want uniformity in our training,” he says. “We want to feel completely comfortable sending a technician out on even a simple job. But we ask ourselves, are we keeping this person too busy? It can be like a chess game.”

Speaking for himself as well as McLaws, Robinson says they both are rewarded on a daily basis when they have an opportunity to work in the field. “Using that video, the locating equipment, working with the jetter, providing a needed service to our customer.”

More Information

Source One Environmental - 877/450-3701 -

Spartan Tool, LLC - 800/435-3866 -

Vivax-Metrotech Corp. - 800/446-3392 -


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