Sewer and Drain Contractor Grows with Plumbing and Pumping

Careful, calculated expansion helps build market share and stability for small-town cleaning contractor.
Sewer and Drain Contractor Grows with Plumbing and Pumping
The Fayette Drain & Sewer Service team includes (from left) Justin Simmons, Jerry House, Melissa Vice, Harrison Kummer, Mark Vice, Will Byers, Jamarcus Hughes, Russell Oswalt, Josh Jackson, Shawn Leonard and Jeff Goree.

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That’s why Fayette Drain & Sewer Service in Fayette, Alabama, also pumps out septic tanks. And cleans grease traps. And installs natural gas lines. And provides commercial and residential plumbing service, just for good measure.

“Fayette is a small town, so to survive you have to do a little bit of everything,” says Mark Vice, who co-owns the company with his wife, Melissa. “So if it’s got water running through it, we go after it. The thought of calling someone else to do something that I can provide to our customers is awful.”

The Vices started the company in 2000 with a primary focus on drain cleaning. A year or so later, Mark got his master plumber’s license and started doing residential and commercial plumbing work. A few years after that, Vice started pumping out septic tanks and grease traps. There were several reasons for the last move. First of all, he already had septic pumping experience. Second, there was only one other competitor in the area at the time. Moreover, the profit margins were good. And last but not least, he didn’t want to be too reliant on one service sector.

The strategy has paid dividends. Today, Fayette Drain generates about 35 percent of its revenue from drain cleaning, another 35 percent from septic system and grease trap services (including system installations) and the rest from plumbing services. And thanks to its diverse customer base, the company has grown steadily since its inception. The company now employs 12 people and owns a sizeable fleet of equipment that includes two vacuum trucks, two mini-excavators, a trailer-mounted water jetter, numerous drain cleaning machines and several video inspection systems.

“I bought a used pump truck for $20,000 in 2002 and it’s still running,” Vice says. “There’s no telling how many thousands of dollars it’s earned.”

Like every major equipment purchase Vice makes, he approached the vacuum truck investment with caution. “I’m always sure I have the business before I buy equipment,” he says.

He started out by asking the owners of fast-food chain restaurants if they’d hire him to clean their grease traps if he bought a vacuum truck. After he received verbal commitments from about a dozen businesses, he bought the truck. “I put the math together and figured out how many customers it would take to enable me to make the payments,” he explains.

“At that point, I figured any septic work would be a bonus.

“I got into septic work because I did it when I worked for a Roto-Rooter franchise,” he adds. “So I knew how to do it and I knew there was a market for it. I always had intended to do it ever since I first went into business, but I had to wait until I felt comfortable enough to make that investment.”

Perseverance pays off

There was a time when buying trucks and equipment seemed like a pipe dream to Vice, who worked in a cotton mill for about 11 years before taking a job as a technician at the Roto-Rooter operation. He worked there for four years, gaining valuable experience. When the franchise encountered financial trouble, he decided to strike off on his own.

“I bought a service van and some used drain cleaning equipment and started going door to door in Fayette, handing out business cards and begging for work,” he recalls. “I was flat broke at the time and was lucky to find a banker who loaned me $7,000 to buy the van and drain machines.

“I did a lot of footwork — and a lot of praying,” he says. “I gave out 3,000 business cards my first year alone and asked people if there was anything I could do for them. I even painted someone’s house because we didn’t have enough plumbing work.” After three months, Vice had just $700 left in a checking account and was seriously questioning his business prospects. “I knew one thing, though: I didn’t want to go back and work in a factory again. I loved service work and dealing with people. … I was driven by my fear of going back to a plant.”

Then fate intervened with a cold spell that generated a lot of work repairing broken lines. After six months, Vice had made enough money to pay off the $7,000 loan. And things took off from there. “Business just exploded,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. People who I’d given business cards to just started calling with jobs. We’re thankful that the Lord sent us a hard freeze.”

By 2008, the company employed about five workers, then six. Vice expanded into industrial cleaning and apartment complex work. As the company’s reputation grew, he pushed for more commercial business. “Residential work is great, but it’s very unpredictable,” he points out. “You might get 10 calls today and just two tomorrow and 15 two days from now. But apartment complexes and restaurants provide steadier work. You’re not going to pump a lot of septic tanks when it’s dry, but you’ll pump out grease traps whether it’s wet or dry.”

Vice says he tries to get commercial customers — especially the owners of restaurants and apartment complexes — to buy into the concept of scheduled maintenance cleanings because they’re easier to schedule than emergency calls. He does not ask for formal signed contracts, just verbal agreements. “We want customers to be able to drop us at any time if they’re not happy with our work,” he explains. “We don’t want them to feel trapped by a written contract — just pleased with our service.”

Equipment matters

The company currently owns two vacuum trucks. Abernethy Welding & Repair built Vice’s newer truck on a 2012 International chassis. It features a 2,500-gallon steel tank and a Jurop/Chandler water-cooled pump. The other truck, a 1991 International, features a 2,500-gallon steel tank built by Keith Huber and a 350 cfm pump made by Power-Flo Pumps & Systems.

The company also owns two Kubota mini-excavators, a Caterpillar backhoe/loader, two dump trucks with chassis made by Mack Trucks and Chevrolet and dump bodies built by Ox Bodies, a trailer-mounted water jetter (4,000 psi at 18 gpm) made by US Jetting, three Chevrolet service vans with Knapheide KUV bodies and two Chevrolet service trucks. Each service van is equipped with three Duracable drain cleaning machines, a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection system and a locator made by Pipehorn Utility Tool Co.                         

Of course, all the great machinery in the world isn’t worth much without good people running it. Vice says that Fayette Drain provides a high level of customer satisfaction through great employees and a rather simple philosophy: always answer the phone.

“When people can’t flush their toilet (because of a backup), they want someone and they want someone right away,” Vice explains. “So when they call, they want to talk to someone, not an answering machine. … They want to be assured that someone is going to come and fix their problem.”

As such, Fayette Drain contracts with a 24-hour answering service that runs from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. “It’s a great investment,” he says. “If people get an answering machine when they call, most times they’re probably going to call someone else. You have to value every phone call because every time you miss one, you miss out on at least $100 in work. The answering service costs about $160 a month, so it easily pays for itself with, say, one septic tank pumping job.”

Looking back, Vice says that despite those tough early years, he has no regrets about starting his own business. “When you start something from scratch, you eat, breath and sleep it,” he says. “It’s basically all I do, other than family and God. If I could do it all over again, I still wouldn’t do anything else.”

More equipment equals less subcontracting, higher profits

To maximize revenue, Fayette Drain & Sewer Service co-owner Mark Vice prefers to avoid subcontracting work whenever possible. As such, part of his business model includes buying more than one machine or piece of equipment whenever possible.

“If I have one excavator on a pipe replacement job, for example, and I get another call for a job that requires an excavator, I can’t stand the thought of pulling that first excavator off and sending it to the other job and having nothing for an emergency backup,” he says. “As I went along, I wanted two sets of trucks, two excavators and so forth so there’d always be a backup.

“When you’re in the emergency service business, that’s where you make your money,” he adds. “If there’s a whole building shut down and a customer says, ‘I need you now,’ I want equipment at my disposal so we can do timely and quality work. I don’t want to have to depend on someone else to be there for me when I need it.”

A wide array of equipment also ensures additional revenue streams. “After most jobs, I’ve made money off unclogging a drainline, I’ve made money on televising the line and, if needed, I’ve made money digging up the drainline and replacing it.”

Vice also continually reinvests in equipment that improves efficiency, such as RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection cameras. The cameras save valuable time by helping technicians accurately diagnose drainline problems and find exactly where the problem is located. “It turns potentially large jobs into smaller jobs, which significantly reduces the cost to customers by eliminating all the guesswork,” he says. “It also allows you to develop the best plan for a repair.”

The SeeSnake also helps Vice get more work referrals from small municipalities around Fayette, for whom his company does work. “The city officials we work for know people in their towns and recommend us to their customers,” he says. “If you keep those city guys happy, they’ll keep sending you more and more work.”


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