Multitasking Equipment Takes Industrial Cleaning Contractor to the Next Level

Keeping up on new tools and technology gives cleaning contractor the ability to serve a diverse clientele

Multitasking Equipment Takes Industrial Cleaning Contractor to the Next Level

 The brothers’ wives are also key parts of the operation of ESP&P: (from left) office manager Adrienne Stewart, Ian Stewart, Stuart Stewart, and project estimator Sunnie Stewart. 

Interested in Municipal/Industrial?

Get Municipal/Industrial articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Municipal/Industrial + Get Alerts

As Ian Stewart and his brother, Stuart, began charting a course for their new company, ESP&P Industrial Services, a simple but effective business philosophy served as their North Star: A multilegged stool is much more stable than a stool with just one leg.

“The more kinds of work you can do, the better,” Ian Stewart says of the company the brothers established in 2011 in Jonesborough in northeastern Tennessee, branching off from their father’s plumbing and industrial cleaning business. “Disney World has more than just one kind of roller-coaster ride, right?”

As a result, on any given day, the company’s work crews might be using a remote-controlled triple lance machine to scour bundles of tubes in a power plant heat exchanger, a hydroblasting unit to flush coal ash out of a process sewer line, a skid-steer to remove lime mud from a 1 million-gallon tank in a paper mill or a combination vacuum truck to clear a clogged culvert in a dam by a hydroelectric plant.

“Our work is never boring, that’s for sure,” Stewart says.

Another central philosophy also shaped the company’s growth and direction: Invest in cutting-edge technology that can be applied to more than just one market sector.

“If you have only one tool in the box, you’re just not as useful to customers,” Stewart explains. “We invest in different kinds of equipment that can play multiple roles in multiple markets.”

As an example, Stewart cites the company’s four vacuum trucks, made by GapVax, Super Products and Guzzler Mfg. (a subsidiary of Federal Signal Corp.).

“We can use a vac truck to clean everything from a sewer mainline to a chemical tank to a sludge lagoon,” he says. “This hammer isn’t made for just one kind of nail. We use some of them for hydroexcavation, too.”

Easing downturns

Furthermore, the ability to serve customers in different market sectors helps shield the company from cyclical downturns.

“They all may be somewhat interconnected, but each of those markets can sustain itself as well,” Stewart says. “So if one sector of the market slows down, our employees are multifaceted and multitrained, so we can go work in another sector.”

Industrial cleaning for the chemical, utility, papermaking and mining industries, to name a few, generates about 60% of the company’s revenue. The balance is provided by hydroexcavation work; applying industrial coatings; and cleaning and inspecting sewer lines for a range of customers, including municipalities, big-box retailers and apartment complexes.

The industrial coatings capability underscores the company’s ability to react to customers’ needs by providing services that complement its core services. The company started applying high-performance paints and chemical coatings in 2016.

The company already was doing a lot of cleaning and prep work on tanks, pipelines and so forth, but customers also needed those surfaces painted or chemically coated.

“So they asked us if we could just do the whole thing — be a one-stop shop for them,” Stewart says. “And that allowed us to branch into a lot of different avenues.”

For painting and coating, ESP&P uses products made by Blome International, Sherwin Williams and Carboline. Most painting and coating is done by hand in a three- to five-step process, but the company uses a Graco King pneumatic airless sprayer for some applications.

Built-in branding

The company’s name reflects that additional service; ESP&P stands for Essential Services, Pressure-washing and Painting. But it also plays off the acronym for the company founded by Stewart’s father, Ed: ESP, which stands for Ed Stewart Plumbing, a business that also did smaller-scale industrial cleaning.

The brothers worked for their father for about 15 years before striking out on their own.

“We learned everything we know from him,” Stewart says of his father, now retired at age 81. “But we wanted to expand and broaden the company’s services, and he was happy doing what he was doing.

“You sort of reach a bubble point where you’re not growing … we wanted to expand into larger industries and into a larger service area. But he didn’t want to deal with all the additional headaches that come with more employees, more overhead costs and so on.”

The example set by their hardworking father left a lasting impression on the brothers.

“I’m not afraid to work and neither is my brother,” Stewart says. “We’re very proud of the work we do — we’re very emotionally attached to our jobs.

“Our dad was a real hard-ass … but he taught us a lot about striving to be the best because there’s always someone new coming up behind you. He also showed us how important it is to be passionate about what you do for a living. I know it sounds kind of like a BS cliche, but it’s true.

“If you get up every day and hate what you do, you’re not going to provide a good service.”

Valuable investments

To serve different markets requires investments in different kinds of equipment, such as the four vac trucks: one from GapVax, two made by Super Products and one built by Guzzler (a brand built by Vactor).

The GapVax unit features a 2020 Peterbilt tri-axle chassis with a 15-cubic-yard debris tank, a 1,200-gallon water tank and a 5,200 cfm Roots blower (a brand owned by the Howden Group). The Super Products trucks were built on 2017 and 2018 Freightliner chassis with 12-cubic-yard carbon steel debris tanks, 1,000-gallon water tanks and 4,500 cfm Roots blowers.

“I don’t like little blowers,” Stewart says. “I try to overpower everything. We do a fair amount of work 500 feet from the truck, so we need that kind of power to pull material.”

The Guzzler unit is built on a 2015 Kenworth chassis with a 15-cubic-yard carbon steel debris tank and a Roots blower (5,200 cfm).

The company also owns 13 trailer-mounted hydroblasting units. Four were built by Hammelmann Corp. Three of them feature water pumps that generate pressure of 40,000 psi and flow of up to 5.5 gpm and one that delivers 15,000 psi at 50 gpm.

“We use the three bigger hydroblasters for larger stripping and descaling jobs and the smaller one for descaling and tank cleaning,” Stewart explains. “Sometimes you need to cut material but not move it while other times you need to cut material and move it.

“A butcher owns more than one knife. You can’t use a paring knife for slaughtering.”

ESP&P also owns four hydroblasters built by NLB Corp. (two that generate 20,000 psi at 30 gpm and two that produce 22,000 psi at 18 gpm); three from Jetstream of Houston (15,000 psi at 13 gpm); one manufactured by Aquadyne Industrial Pump Systems (10,000 psi at 40 gpm); and one made by Butterworth (10,000 psi at 40 gpm).

In addition, for long vacuum pulls of thick solids on job sites that are inaccessible for vacuum trucks, the company relies on Sludge Master plunger pumps built by Wastecorp Pumps.

For pipeline inspections, the company owns a push camera made by MyTana as well as a Proteus crawler camera system by Visual Imaging Resources and pole cameras built by Mini-Cam (a Halma company).

For excavation, ESP&P also owns a mini-excavator and several track-loaders made by Bobcat and a Freightliner dump truck with a 15-cubic-yard dump bed made by Ox Bodies.

Furthermore, the company invested in a remote-controlled, triple-lance tube-cleaning machine built by Peinemann Mobilift Groep B.V. The company also owns three hot-water pressure washers made by Alkota Cleaning Systems (4,500 psi at 6 gpm).

Game-changing technology

Part of the company’s success stems from investing in equipment that boosts productivity, improves employee safety and provides customers with peace of mind. A good example is the triple-lancing machine from Peinemann, which Stewart says was a game-changing investment.

Because it can be controlled from a distance, the $50,000 machine is significantly safer. This benefits employees while also qualifying ESP&P for projects at companies that demand top-tier safety records, he says.

Moreover, the machine reduced manpower needs on job sites from 12 to just two people. “So we can take all those other people and put them on different jobs, which increases revenue. Plus it gives customers peace of mind because they know we’re a company that puts safety first.

“Any time you can invest in technology that removes people from hazardous situations, makes work easier on employees, increases efficiency and keeps customers happy, it’s really worthwhile.”

Stewart sums up a primary key to the company’s success in two words: “We care.”

“You know how when moms tell their kids to clean their bedrooms and they throw everything under the bed? Well, a lot of companies have that mentality, instead of doing the right thing and leaving a job with a clear conscience. They get too big and everything becomes just a procedure and work suffers.”

Driven to thrive

Countering that mentality requires hiring people who are just as proud of the company as the owners, Stewart says. And while he admits he has no magic formula for figuring out which prospective employees have that intangible quality and which ones don’t, he says the ones that do generally have one common denominator: They either have strong sports backgrounds or come out of the military.

“People who have that athletic drive also tend to have a good work attitude,” he says. “Most of our guys played sports — they’re in good physical shape, embrace challenges, are open to coaching and love to win.

“You can’t hire people based just on that, but a sports background helps. It’s much the same for ex-military people. They’ve already made it through big challenges and are self-disciplined.”

That’s not to say the company doesn’t have good employees who never played sports or joined the military, Stewart notes. But those that thrive understand that hard work and long hours come with the territory.

“If you like a fixed schedule and want to know exactly when you’re going to get off work every day, this job ain’t for you,” he says.

To help attract and retain quality employees, the company offers above-average salaries, pays performance bonuses and also quickly promotes high-performing workers. The company also will pay for specialized training classes and other educational opportunities for employees that are highly motivated and have a strong desire to learn more, Stewart says.

“Those kinds of employees ­— people who ask questions and want to take on more responsibilities without always asking for a pay raise — are like unicorns. So you need to feed that motivation and internal drive.”

Stewart also says his wife, Adrienne, the company’s office manager, along with his brother, Stuart, and his wife, Sunnie, are key forces behind the company’s success.

“Stuart works his ass off every day,” he says. “Sunnie manages all of our coating jobs, government-project bids and department of transportation compliance.

“And Adrienne is the glue that keeps it all together. She stays remarkably calm under pressure, which is a magic ability. I would be lost without her.”

Foot on the gas

There was a time when Stewart wasn’t entirely amped about constantly growing bigger. But now he’s overcome any concerns about that.

“It’s like having kids,” he says. “You might initially be hesitant, but after the third one, you’re not afraid anymore.”

As such, the brothers plan to keep pressing down on the gas pedal. Stewart believes that for successful companies, getting bigger is a necessity because it requires the company to keep its competitive edge sharp.

“We plan to keep building a skilled workforce and stay up to date on technology — keep moving with the times,” he says. “We all might be going to work on hoverboards five or 10 years from now; who knows what’s coming next in terms of technology?

“I sure don’t. All I know is that five years from now, I’d like to have another conversation and talk about how we took things to the next level. If you don’t have any kind of plan, you’re not going anywhere at all.” 

A tall order

Ian Stewart truly enjoys coming up with outside-the-box solutions that solve customers’ problems. In fact, it’s one of the things he likes most about running ESP&P Industrial Services, the Jonesborough, Tennessee-based business he co-owns with his brother, Stuart.

“Problem-solving is the most fun part of my job,” Stewart says. “That’s the real thrill — finding that next challenge we can take on and solve for our customers.”

The company faced such a challenge about two years ago at a paper mill in Tennessee. The problem: A broken auger located at the base of a huge silo used to store wood dust from the papermaking process.

The silo was about 60 feet in diameter and roughly 60 feet tall. The auger — about the size of a dump truck — needed to be repaired, but the silo was about 75% full of wood dust, a byproduct of the papermaking process.

“We had to get inside it to clean it out because we couldn’t do much from the outside,” Stewart explains.

The only access to the silo’s interior was via a roughly 24-inch-wide manway located about 30 feet up, which was surrounded by a larger maintenance door — think of it as a smaller door inside a larger door. But opening the larger door to provide enough room for entry would have put employees at risk if the debris inside collapsed as it was opened, he says. The only other alternative was cutting into the silo, which would’ve ruined the structure.

Stewart got to work on a solution. It started with building scaffolding up to the manway. Then employees pushed the material away from the manway with an NLB Corp. hydroblaster. At the same time, they used a Guzzler vacuum truck (built by Vactor) to remove the material.

“The wood dust was very compacted, so we had to use a hydroblaster to bust it loose,” he says. “When that dust sits around like that, with all that weight on it, it likes to turn back into a tree.

“It was like hydroexcavating wood dust. We removed enough material to relieve any pressure on the larger maintenance door and eliminate the hazard of that material collapsing when we opened it.”

Next, employees built a long wooden ramp about 150 feet long and 60 feet wide up to the manway. Then an operator “drove” a remote-controlled Bobcat skid-steer up the ramp and through the maintenance door and began removing the wood dust. The skid-steer dropped its loads on the ramp, where workers shoveled it onto the ground for collection by skid loaders, Stewart says.

“That Bobcat allowed us to do the work safely, without any confined-space entry that would put employees at risk.”

It took about four days of around-the-clock work to remove all the material.

“We had to get it done as quickly as possible,” Stewart says. “Downtime costs customers money. So we did what we always do: develop solutions using a risk-versus-gain formula.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.