Pro Drain Targets Profitable Market

Two-man New York cleaning shop focuses on providing high-end service to an affluent client base.
Pro Drain Targets Profitable Market
Cesar Ortiz closes the clean-out after clearing a branch line.

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“I’ll keep this company small long before I ever have technicians who do not fulfill my vision,” Heckman says. “I want my employees to always do the right thing on a job for my company. If worse comes to worse, I won’t grow. I don’t want to tarnish the brand I am building.

“What is the sense of having a bigger company and a less-than-perfect name? I am willing to work a little harder in order to develop a pristine image. That is my goal.”

Heckman started in the industry at the age of 12 when a neighbor with a small drain-cleaning business would take him along on jobs. That continued through high school, and Heckman continued working in the industry while he was in college studying criminal justice.

After studying for two years, he left college early to work for larger sewer-cleaning companies. Along the way, he learned not only the finer mechanics of drain cleaning, but also how a business should be run. Heckman wanted to make his career as a drain cleaning professional and saw opportunity as a business owner.

Establishing priorities

Heckman clearly defined his company goals at the outset. He wanted a client base that would value a higher level of service, and he set his sights on the wealthy neighborhoods of Westchester County in New York state. Having worked in the area for so many years, he realized that the type of company he wanted to build would appeal to the area’s higher income clientele.

He opened Pro Drain in September 2012, taking jobs on weekends and off-hours while continuing to work for another company for the first eight months. He initially focused on basic drain cleaning, but he knew from past experience that he needed to invest in jetting and inspection equipment. He purchased his first camera and jetter within a year, and both paid for themselves within eight months.

After three years, the company has grown “by leaps and bounds.” He credits much of this to his ability to interact with people and the fact he is more of a problem-solver than salesman.

“We are still challenged in building the customer base,” Heckman says. “I go after a particular type of customer. I like to get real estate management companies. People that have responsibility for 30 or 60 buildings or multiple units, and that way the phone rings a lot more often.   

“We can take care of these customers because we are a true 24/7 shop.”

Pro Drain puts great emphasis on courteous, professional service. “We wear booties, put down paper and dropcloths. We don’t try to ‘sell’ anything the customer doesn’t need. Because we operate in Westchester County and sometimes in New York City, we are able to charge a little more for our services and our customers appreciate our methods. They want the job done professionally and not have to worry about the final results. We want to perform a higher-end service. Just to go in a house and unclog a drain is not enough, because our customers have a higher expectation when they call us in. That is our reputation.”

Heckman says they do not push using the jetter, but they will sell it if it’s needed to get the job done.

“I let the customer make that decision,” he says. “My clients tend to want the line cleared. I always inform people of their options and let them know what they are getting for their money. Sometimes you just can’t get the cable through.”

The camera is another important tool. He finds that customers are aware of video inspection and will often request it, but it’s not always necessary. He will snake the line and if something is not right he will suggest a full inspection. Sometimes he will talk them out of an inspection because it isn’t necessary for the situation.

“They appreciate my honesty,” he says. “We charge $375 for one hour with the camera and $145 for each additional hour. We charge $475 for the first two hours for the jetter and $175 for each additional hour.”

Pro Drain was recently called in to solve a problem for a new client where a previous company had broken a cable and left it in the sewer. The woman had been told the only way to take care of the problem was to dig and replace the line. When she got the same comment from another company, she was reluctant to bring in a third contractor, but she finally called Pro Drain. Heckman says they were able to retrieve the line in a short time period, and for a lot less than doing a replacement. He was pleased when this new customer wrote a glowing letter to Angie’s List.

“Any job is a job worth doing well. That is what we do for a living, and I’m proud of that,” he says.

In the neighborhood

Residential service laterals are typically 80 to 100 feet, but Heckman has seen them up to 300 feet, and he recently worked on a line that was only 22 feet. Pipes are usually 4-inch cast iron pipe from the house transitioning to 6-inch clay. These pipes are generally serviceable, even though they may be around 50 to 60 years old. He also sees decent clay lines that could be up to 100 years old.

“I rarely see perfect lines,” he says. “The ground settles and the pipes shift ever so slightly. So typically I like to refer to them as in ‘serviceable’ condition. If you can clear a line every other year, I call that a serviceable line.”

They see the typical issues: lots of roots, baby wipes and grease. He encourages his customers to have preventive maintenance contracts in order to avoid root problems and other issues with their systems.

As an example, Heckman points to a building owned by Donald Trump, a high-rise luxury residential building of some 70 stories where he has been called on for service and where he has a preventive maintenance contract so they can avoid any recurring problems. This customer came to him as a result of a call from another drain company that could not take care of the client at that time.

Other multi-family projects can include 50 or more homes within a project, where they have their own sewer system that feeds into the city main. Here again they will see clay or cast iron lines, and still some Orangeburg.

Pro Drain also works as a subcontractor and does sewer cleaning for the New York City Housing Authority, cleaning and inspecting the larger 10- to 14-inch pipes. His company has worked in four of the five boroughs in New York City.

“This is where our jetter really performs,” he says.

The 4018 skid jetter (4,000 psi/18 gpm) from US Jetting is carried on the 2014 Ford E-450 box truck with side and rear roll-up doors, a power pull-out reel, remote controls, and an antifreeze system plus twin 150-gallon water tanks. The truck carries jetter hose in four sizes from 1/8- to 1/2-inch, and nozzles from Enz, StoneAge (Warthog), Aqua Mole and US Jetting for all hose sizes. The truck also carries a full-size RIDGID SeeSnake with a self-leveling color camera, CS1000 monitor, Navitrak 2 locator and a 100-foot SeeSnake micro-reel.

To round it out there is 200 feet of Electric Eel cable with a full assortment of blades, run by a DEWALT DW 124, along with Duracable DM175 and DM150 machines.

The second truck in the fleet is a 1999 Chevrolet 2500 van, stocked with a Spartan Model 300 and 600, a RIDGID K-7500, two Duracable drain cleaning machines (DM150 and DM138), and a General Pipe Cleaners Handylectric for small lines.

Heckman also uses General Pipe Cleaners wire drop and bulb-head toilet augers.

Both vehicles carry a full assortment of hand tools and a full range of plumbing parts and fixtures.

The ringing phone

Heckman says one of his favorite parts of owning the business is hearing the phone ring. Early on, it was often much too quiet, but today it’s steady enough that he has an answering service that takes calls 24/7. But it took a lot of initiative to get to this point.

“In the beginning, I never turned down an opportunity to work,” he says. “Vacations, weekends — if somebody called, I went and would be there within an hour. Other drain companies would refer work to me when they were too busy or if it was on the weekend. I always went. I marketed myself to a lot of plumbers in the area because many don’t want to do drain cleaning. Some plumbing operations have large customer bases. I also did a lot of mailings, knocked on doors. I would tell them I could clean much faster. I still do a lot of this work.

“The important thing was exposure,” he says. “If I didn’t show my face to everybody and then do the job right — jobs other people couldn’t do — I would not grow.”

Heckman says that when he or his lone technician go on a job for another firm, they always wear their Pro Drain uniform and are in their Pro Drain lettered truck, but they identify as a member of the plumbing company that has referred them. If the client asks for a business card, they will hand over the one from the plumbing company they are there for.

“A lot of plumbers won’t use us because our trucks are lettered up,” says Heckman. “We have one gentleman who uses us frequently, and initially he was concerned. However, we have a good relationship and do a lot of business together.”

Moving forward

Heckman contends that future growth for Pro Drain depends on several variables.

“I have to continue to promote my name, and we have a new Web designer working on that,” he says. “We want people to be able to find us. We do direct mailings every three months sending about 600 fliers to very specific companies we want to work for. And the last part is doing the right thing — every time. You cannot put a price on word-of-mouth referrals. You have to get out there, serve people properly and do the job honestly and with integrity. You want to impress people. Give them more than expected.”

Raising the standard

T.J. Heckman is proud to be in the drain cleaning profession. He says it’s not always looked upon favorably, but it provides an opportunity to make a good living and perform an important service to the community.

“Some people dismiss this type of work and fail to see the potential,” Heckman says. “Even some plumbers demean what drain cleaners do.”

After attending college for two years studying criminal justice, Heckman decided it wasn’t what he wanted and returned to drain cleaning. He had been around the industry since age 12 and knew it was the right move.

“I’ve been in this industry for 25 years, and I know it better than anything in my life. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work, and I know my competition. And I know my market area.”

Heckman’s five-year plan calls for continued growth, but he knows finding technicians who can meet his standard will be a challenge. To that end, he says he would like to see more training opportunities and points out the potential for someone to make a very good living working in the industry.

“We need to promote critical thinking in this country, especially with young kids who go to college and memorize procedures but often come out going in a different direction. I wish they could learn to have a vision and learn to analyze a situation, and ask, ‘How could I do this better? How can it be done more effectively, more efficiently?’ To think outside the box — this is important in many trades, but most important in the industry I happen to serve.”


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