One-Man Show

Go-it-alone contractor’s only workday companions are reliable equipment and a passion for customer-oriented drain cleaning service.
One-Man Show
Steve Nerheim checks a message from a customer and writes down job details in his shop before heading out for the day.

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It’s estimated more than half of small businesses fail during their first year of operation. When Steve Nerheim established Steve’s Professional Sewer & Drain Service in 2009, he was bound and determined not to become one of them.

So far, so good. In the last eight years, the company — based in New Brighton, Minnesota — has grown considerably. His secret sauce? A very basic and simple set of principles: Be honest. Provide great service. Invest in the best equipment you can afford. Be frugal and avoid getting too far in debt. Focus on what you do best. And hustle like crazy.

“I make 600 to 650 service calls a year and work Monday through Saturday,” says the plain-spoken Nerheim, 61. “I’ve grown incrementally each year, and that’s fine with me.

There were a couple of years when revenue was flat, but I never went backward.

“I try to bring honesty along everywhere I go,” he adds, explaining how he avoided the first-year small-business curse. “In a business that’s rife with fly-by-night outfits, I’ve built up a great reputation through word-of-mouth referrals.”

Nerheim has also benefited from concentrating on just one thing and doing it well. Almost all his business comes from cleaning and inspecting residential drains; if a job requires other services, he refers customers to other contractors he trusts. And he maintains healthy profit margins by steadfastly refusing to buy market share by lowering his rates to meet competitors’ prices. That may seem like a bold move for a sole proprietor whose livelihood depends on a steady flow of customers every week, but Nerheim understands the importance of covering his overhead costs — a concept that many failed entrepreneurs don’t grasp until it’s too late.

“Customers always tell you that so-and-so will do the job for less,” he says. “But more often than not, that guy can’t get there for two or three weeks. So I tell those customers to go ahead and use him. I’m a professional, and the low-ballers are usually doing it on the side. I tell customers that I need to cover my overhead and also mention that they’re paying for my training and expertise.”

Experienced drain cleaner

Early in Nerheim’s career, he worked in a factory, a job that he hated. “I went home every day with my head down and my tail between my legs,” he recalls. Then he saw a recruitment ad for a national drain cleaning franchise that would pay for the cost of training and decided to give it a go. “You don’t necessarily wake up one day, slap your thigh and say, ‘I want to get into the sewer and drain cleaning business.’ But it’s worked out OK.

“I was a volunteer firefighter for 30 years and we always used to say that we show up at people’s homes on their worst day,” he notes. “Now it’s essentially the same thing — I’m helping them on their worst day by producing a successful outcome.”

After working for the national drain cleaning franchise on two different occasions for a total of nearly seven years, he started thinking about being his own boss. After talking with other small-business owners about the pros and cons of sole proprietorship, he decided it was time to make the break. “I’m a bit adventurous, so I took the plunge,” he says. “I have a bit of an independent streak and I don’t suffer fools gladly, so being on my own was an attractive option.”

Not that Nerheim didn’t feel a bit daunted. “It was absolutely frightening,” he recalls. “I’d equate it to when you first start taking swimming lessons … and one day they say, ‘Today you’re jumping into the deep end of the pool.’ It’s either sink or swim. And I figured if things didn’t work out after a year, I could always go back and work for one of the big boys.”

But armed with determination and a commonsense marketing plan as simple and direct as the name he chose for his company, Nerheim quickly established himself. His first move: order 5,000 promotional magnets imprinted with the company name and phone number. “I walked in a local parade and passed out about 4,000 of them, and some of my customers still have those original magnets,” he explains.

“From the Tuesday after Labor Day 2009 to the following Friday, I also walked a lot of neighborhoods and distributed 2,000 to 3,000 flyers,” he continues. “I also covered all the townhome and condominium complexes in New Brighton (suburban Minneapolis/St. Paul).”

The results were almost instant. In fact, Nerheim was out distributing flyers when someone who’d received one called him; he had to run home and put on his work uniform. “I still remember that day very clearly and she’s still one of my customers,” he says.

Equipment matters

To save money, Nerheim bought a used 2007 Ford Econoline 250 van; formerly utilized as a service truck for a local natural gas utility, it was already outfitted with an interior storage system.

To maintain a high level of productivity and efficiency, Nerheim invested in reliable, quality equipment. His equipment includes a RIDGID K-7500 drum cable machine for cleaning mainlines; a RIDGID K-3800 for cleaning branch lines; a self-leveling, color inspection camera built by MyTana Manufacturing; and a MyTana Accu-Stic 512 pipe locator.

He also relies on a smaller MyTana camera with a 1 1/16-inch-diameter camera head designed for inspecting floor drains.

When it comes to buying equipment, Nerheim follows a philosophy espoused by Clint Eastwood when he played Detective Harry Callahan in Magnum Force: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” He says he pays cash whenever possible, doesn’t buy what he can’t afford and keeps business debt to a minimum. “I prefer to pay for it as I go — that’s just the way I’ve always been,” he explains. “When I was a young man, I got into credit card debt. It took me a long time to get out of it and I didn’t like it. So I always want to be able to pay off things in a reasonable amount of time.”

Investing in reliable equipment is a form of good service because frequent breakdowns lead to dissatisfied customers. But along with good equipment, Nerheim also offers customers the courtesy of treating their homes like his own. “I just unclogged a kitchen sink for a little old lady who’s been widowed for at least 20 years,” he says, citing an example. “The drain hadn’t been cleaned for years. It was full of black yuck that was like molasses. So I put down a towel and a tarp, and try to keep the mess to a minimum.

It’s not easy because this is not a clean business — no two ways about that.”

Keep plugging away

When Nerheim started out, he was the company’s only employee. Eight years later, he’s still a sole proprietor, mostly by design and partly because his workload rarely exceeds his ability to keep up. The bottom line: Nerheim is one of the country’s roughly 23 million sole proprietors who prefer a less-is-more approach to running a business. Bigger may be better to some, but it also carries the potential for management and operational headaches Nerheim prefers to avoid. Moreover, skilled and reliable employees are hard to find.

So what lies ahead for Nerheim? More of the same, he says. “My wife asks me when I’m going to retire and I say I’m going to keep doing it until I can’t,” he quips. “I know some guys who are pushing their mid-70s and still doing kitchen sinks and baths.”

After all these years, does Nerheim still find the work fulfilling? Absolutely, he says. “When I was a trainer for my previous employer, I always impressed on the new guys how important it was to prove your work to customers. For instance, when you’re finished with a clogged sink drain, you should always fill the sink with water and pull the stopper while the customer is watching.

“They see that tornado of water forming and the drain makes a sucking sound,” he continues. “And the customer says, ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw and heard it drain like that.’ I can’t put into words how thrilling it is for me to still hear those unprompted words.”

Inspection camera seals the deal for doubting customers

Most everyone is familiar with the old saying about how a picture is worth a thousand words. But for drain cleaning contractor Steve Nerheim, pictures are also worth a lot of money — more specifically, videos taken by a pipeline inspection camera made by MyTana Manufacturing.

The owner of Steve’s Professional Sewer & Drain Service in New Brighton (suburban Minneapolis/St. Paul), Minnesota, Nerheim invested in the self-leveling color camera system in 2010. It was a game-changer not only for him, but for customers, too.

Instead of just guessing at the cause of a blocked drainline, Nerheim can see exactly what’s creating the problem — and confidently take the appropriate course of action. And seeing is believing for doubting customers who otherwise might not commit to paying for an expensive repair because of suspicions they’re being scammed by an unscrupulous contractor.

Moreover, when Nerheim uses the camera in conjunction with a MyTana Accu-Stic 512 locator, he knows exactly where the blockage is occurring. The camera’s self-leveling capability also plays a role here, because the radio signal travels in whatever direction the top of the camera head is pointing. As such, if the camera head isn’t level, the signal doesn’t travel straight upward, which leads to inaccurate pipe locating, he notes.

“When you find the blockage and shut off the television picture, the camera head emits a tone for the locator,” he explains. “The (radio) signal shoots straight out from the camera head — all you have to do is find the spot where the signal is strongest. Without self-leveling capability, the signal doesn’t always go straight up … and it’s pretty embarrassing when you mark a spot for an excavation company to come out and dig up a broken line and you find out you were, say, 8 feet off.”

The self-leveling feature also makes it much easier to tell what’s going on inside a drainline during an inspection, as opposed to trying to make sense of an upside-down video.

It’s even more important if there’s a customer watching the video with him. The camera’s LED lights, coupled with a high-resolution color monitor, create clear, easy-to-see videos. That’s critical when he’s trying to point out a problem to a customer, Nerheim says.

The contractor also cites the camera’s durability, pointing out it rarely breaks down — a critical factor in customer satisfaction. “But I take care of it, too,” he says. “And if you take care of your equipment, it’ll take care of you. After a job, I wipe everything off so it doesn’t rust. You have to make it last because it’s expensive equipment.

“In addition, I don’t beat it up,” he adds. “If I see the camera is about to get into a tight spot, I slowly edge up to it instead of trying to ram it through. If the camera head breaks off when it’s 8 feet underground and 60 feet away from you, how are you going to get it back?”

One of the best gauges of contractors’ esteem for a product is their willingness to buy it again. When asked, Nerheim says there’s no question he’d invest in another MyTana camera, but points out that he has no plans to do so right now. “That’s because I don’t think this one is going to wear out anytime soon,” he says.


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