Embracing the Call

A lean start laid the foundation for a life in the sewer and drain industry.

Embracing the Call

Stephen Jobe gets his equipment ready for a residential drain cleaning job.

In a business that’s generally pretty dirty, Hugh McLaughlin has a clean conscience —even after nearly 40 years’ of sewer and drain work.

“Since day one, I’ve tried to be consistently fair, overwhelmingly honest, and provide just the service needed — no upsell,” says the owner of Quality Drain Service, doing business as 88 Drain, in Tucson, Arizona. 

“I hope, more times than not, that I’m making the right decisions, the fair decisions, the value-driven decisions. Sure, there have been some lean times, but I’m always able to sleep well at night because of how I conduct business. I like helping people, and that’s one reason why a service business and I do so well together.”

It hasn’t always been easy, but McLaughlin has stuck to his values and walked the straight and narrow in both business and life. 

An early start

Despite the standard teenage idealism, he decided early that he’d never be what he aspired to be, either a rock star playing to thousands of adoring fans or a major league third baseman. “But this is the path I was given, to be of service to people, and I embrace that.”

McLaughlin got his start while he was in college, working long hours at a restaurant. “My dad, a Navy Seabee familiar with the construction world, suggested there was always a need for sewer and drain cleaning providers and I could do that work on the side while going to classes. I was studying business and figured this would be an interesting way to apply what I was learning in the classroom to real-world life.”

Thus, Quality Drain Service got its start with a strategically chosen name — “I picked it because Q is right before R in the phone book and Roto-Rooter was the big name company. I wanted my ad to be seen on the same page. 88 Drain is our phone number and registered trademark, so we started answering calls with ‘88 Drain.’” 

McLaughlin wrote up some handmade flyers and beat the pavement trying to develop a customer base, gradually getting a sporadic call or two; and the routine got established — finish a class, go do a service call, then go back for another class. “By the time I’d finished my schooling, I’d created this nice little business that paid decently and allowed me to be self-employed, and that was important to me. Over all these years, I’ve never collected a paycheck from anyone else.”

Like most startups, the early days were tough. “I bought my first vehicle, a beat-up gray primer van, for a couple hundred dollars. It leaked oil so badly, I’d pull into a service station and say, ‘Check the gas — and fill it up with oil.’”

He says at first, a good week might have brought in a total of 10 service calls, which was huge. Nowadays, he takes 10 calls before noon. 

Business maturation

The company specializes in residential and light commercial sewer and drain cleaning, as well as other drain-related services. “We respond to homeowner problems involving clogged sewers and drains including any and all toilet repairs. We also help folks locate their sewer clean-outs and work with them in preventive care for all their drains,” McLaughlin says.

His initial toolkit didn’t contain much. While he was mentoring with a couple plumbers who gave him a subcontract job or two, he’d buy a used snake from one and haunt swap meets and used-tool supply shops, grabbing a tool here and there, buying inventory as he truly needed it. He ran so lean that if he needed a seal or a toilet part, he’d have to make a trip to the store each time because he didn’t have enough money to keep inventory on hand.

“The first time I made a thousand dollars in a month, I thought that was a big deal. And in 1980, when you’re only 19 years old, it was.” As the business grew, he’d budget for a more expensive piece of equipment. “Eventually, I got to the point where I could actually pay cash for a new ladder or buy a pair of gloves that didn’t already have holes in them.”

Today, McLaughlin and his crew have a more robust stable of equipment to lean on. “We use Spartan Tool equipment, modern state-of-the-art equipment with the latest technologies in sewer and drain cleaning. One of our favorite tools is the Spartan 300, which allows us flexibility in unclogging sewer lines from roof vents if a clean-out is unavailable at the time of service, providing some kind of plumbing relief to customers until a clean-out can be established.”

Among his fondest early-day memories — the day he bought his first new van where everything worked and the vehicle bore his company logo on the side. He worked for nearly 15 years as a solo act, laboring 6 or 7 day weeks and on holidays. “It wasn’t like I had this tremendous volume of work coming in, and even if you had a family birthday party on a Sunday, if the pager went off, you’d answer it and go out on a $20 or $25 service call. This is a specialized sector of the plumbing industry, a niche, so there weren’t a lot of big-dollar jobs. A lot of our calls involved the minimum payment, so you had to do quite a few of them before they added up.

“If I didn’t get any service calls on a Thursday or a Friday but two came in on Sunday, I responded because customer service was what helped build the business. You take care of your customers whenever they need you. If they had water flowing down their hallway, they wanted someone, a real person, who would answer the phone, not a machine asking them to leave a message. If you weren’t there for that one customer, they might go find somebody else and never come back.”

Staying ahead

Slow and steady over the years, the business now has five on-the-road service technicians in addition to McLaughlin, who answers calls, coordinates dispatch, and is lead communicator between the customers and his service techs. Wife Cheri does all the bookkeeping and accounting for the half-million-dollar-a-year business. 

“There’s about 400 different companies in town that incorporate a little bit of what we do: the national firms, as well as guys who work for plumbing companies that also do side jobs and others, like handymen, maintenance men, and people who have left full-time careers but still do jobs on the side. And we’re competing with all of them. But we’ve always kept our prices reasonable and have had nice steady growth with some long-term customers of 30 years whose children are now our customers too.

“The excitement of unclogging a drain has diminished over the years, but I still love the interaction with my customers as we provide quality service at a price people can afford.” (88 Drain’s minimum service call is $65 with average actual cost about $93 per call.) “It’s like having a large extended family, and it’s nice to know you’re part of the fabric of their life, woven into it to some degree.”

At age 57, McLaughlin says he’d do it all over again. “I’ve learned a lot over the years and there are some things I’d do differently, but the base values of how I operate my business wouldn’t change — my core values would stay the same. And I’ll be doing this as long I’m able, probably right up until they throw dirt on my face because I still love what I do and that keeps giving me the ability to do what I love.”


Doing the dirty work

Every service tech in this industry can provide stories — some humorous, some horrendous — about their experiences in the field. 

With nearly 40 years in the business, in and out of thousands of homes and businesses, Hugh McLaughlin, owner of Quality Drain Service in Tucson, Arizona, has his own set of unique experiences to share.

“No diamond rings, but we’ve retrieved a number of plain gold wedding bands over the years,” he says. “If you pull off a sink trap, you’ll often find an earring or maybe a bracelet. And with toilets, we’ve taken anything that will fit in there out of there. Our finds include everything from false teeth to eye glasses to dog toys, TV remote controls, and cellphones. 

“We used to joke that whatever toy prize the hamburger joint was giving away in the kids meal was what we’d find in toilets and tubs that week.

“We do a lot of hair salons, and when we clean out a sink filled with hair, we frequently hear, ‘Oh, that’s so gross,’ from the stylists. I’m thinking: Oh, yeah, well you wash everybody’s dirty heads, but at least I get to wear gloves on my job.

“If you’ve ever had children, there’s nothing you didn’t see in a diaper that’s going to be any worse than what we encounter in this job.”

But the kicker story deals with a call to a hotel where people had been living and raising chickens in one of the rooms. “I don’t think the birds ever went outside because when we got a call about a clogged bathtub, we found it full to the top with chicken waste. Even for me, this was, by far, the most disgusting service call I’ve ever been on.”




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