Contractor Blends Septic Service and Drain Cleaning Into Successful New Venture

After a decade of working in Oregon’s timber industry, Austin Willetts found success returning to his family’s roots in septic and drain cleaning

Contractor Blends Septic Service and Drain Cleaning Into Successful New Venture

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Austin Willetts could have followed his father or uncle and stepped into a family-owned septic or drain cleaning business right out of high school. Instead, the Roseburg, Oregon, native opted to establish himself in another trade in town.

For a decade he worked at Roseburg Forest Products doing machine and facility maintenance, accumulating a whole other set of skills. But he eventually ended up transferring those skills to the industry he grew up around, starting his own septic and drain cleaning venture in 2020.

“Looking back, it was scary. It was the scariest thing I’ve done in my life,” Willetts says. “To quit my job after 10 years as a lead millwright for the largest hardwood plywood manufacturer on the West Coast, to give up job security and just say, ‘I’m done’ and walk away — that leap was huge.”

But he landed safely.

“It also is by far the most rewarding thing I have ever done,” Willetts says. “It gave me a whole different perspective on life. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade what I am doing now for the world.”

A return to roots

This whole scenario played out in the Douglas County seat of Roseburg, a city of about 25,000 people in the west-central part of Oregon. Trees dominate the landscape and the economy. The city once dubbed itself the nation’s “Timber Capital.”

Willetts’ first career was wedded to the timber industry. Specifically, he worked in the Roseburg Forest Products mill for a decade, earning his journeyman millwright certification, which meant that he helped maintain the mill’s heavy equipment and systems that turn timber into lumber.

After a decade at the mill, Willetts became dissatisfied with management and did what any reasonable married man would at that point: He had a serious talk with his wife, Kara, a nurse in the intensive care unit of the local hospital. More to the point, she is Willetts’ personal business consultant.

“She is a driving force in her support of the company. I couldn’t do it without her,” Willetts says.

The couple agreed that it was time for Willetts to get back to his roots, to move from helping manufacture wood products to ripping out tree roots that invade septic systems and drainpipes. They started the company as a part-time venture at first while Willetts remained at the mill. He began to solicit customers for the new company, Roseburg Rooter & Drain Cleaning, and things looked promising. Willetts soon quit the mill and went all in. 

The year was 2020, the same year that the COVID-19 pandemic fully arrived on the scene.

“The first year, we didn’t know what to expect,” Willetts says. “As soon as I went full time, boom, there was the pandemic. It got scary for a little bit.”

But what Willetts soon realized — as did others in the industry — is that the pandemic’s disrupted work routines and subsequent public policies actually benefited septic and drain cleaning businesses in certain ways. Because people were staying at home for longer periods and utilizing their home plumbing systems more hours in the day, the frequency of clogged pipes and full septic tanks increased.

“The pandemic drove business up for me,” Willetts says. “Today, the pandemic is not as big of an issue, but business never leveled out or dove back down. We got busier.”

Family guidance

Willetts is a one-man operation at this stage, so “busier” means longer days and frequent emergency runs on weekends and after hours. His day begins stocking the truck and checking to ensure his various machines are ready to run. He is usually on a first job by 8:30 a.m. and calls it a day 11 to 12 hours later.

“Scheduling is the toughest part,” Willetts says. “You don’t know for sure how long a job is going to take. I might have six snaking jobs a day and they will take all day. Another day, six jobs might only take till 11 a.m.”

He’s learned to be flexible. 

The earlier generations of Willettses in the industry were his father, Kevin, who from 1998 until retirement in 2017 operated the largest drain cleaning business in the area. Willetts started riding to jobs with his father at age 8 and eventually worked alongside him as a teenager.

An uncle, Brian, owned the largest septic tank pumping company in Douglas County, dating to the early 1990s. He sold the company two years ago. Growing up, Willetts periodically worked for his uncle, learning the pumping side of things.

Willetts says he always saw the potential of both businesses — drain cleaning and septic — yet was undecided as a younger man if it was for him.

“At that point, they were happy just maintaining the level of their business activity,” Willetts says of his father and uncle. “Me, I saw so many things they could do to grow the business by upping their game. I just saw more opportunity.”

So he decided to work at the Roseburg Forest Products mill instead.

When Willetts finally returned to the drain cleaning and septic industries, both relatives “wholeheartedly supported him” in the new venture. They talked about the difference between working for someone else and working for himself.

“We’ve definitely had lots of talks about that,” Willetts says. “It’s a 24-hours-a-day deal.”

Today, he still looks to his father and uncle for guidance.

“If I have questions or need help with something, I have 60 years of experience a phone call away,” Willetts says.

Equipment lineup

The initial equipment for Roseburg Rooter & Drain Cleaning was a utility box service truck stuffed with tools of the trade. That included Spartan and RIDGID cable and sink machines and a MyTana electric jetter for quiet indoor operation. For inspecting pipe, Willetts has a Jetters Northwest Brute 20/20 push camera system that works well in pipe 3 to 8 inches in diameter, as well as a smaller SECON unit. He also packs a ProtoTek Linefinder 2000, a 512 Hz pipe locator that he uses in conjunction with his push camera to establish the path of a pipe.

“People sometimes buy homes with septic tanks without having lines visually inspected and then start having issues,” Willetts says. “Sometimes they don’t even know where the tank is. That’s where the locator and camera come in.”

In 2022, when he expanded his septic maintenance work to include pumping, he bought an older model Autocar chassis with a 2,200-gallon tank and a National Vacuum Equipment pump. Willetts says the unit has proven to be a “workhorse.” He averages 10 septic tank pumpouts a week.

Willetts also has a self-fabricated jetter, a unit he built utilizing the talents he developed at the mill. He installed it in a 4-by-6-foot trailer with a 125-gallon water tank, 250 feet of jetter line on a reel, 150 feet of water supply hose on another reel, and a Cat pump powered by a Honda GX390 engine.

“I knew what I wanted. To go out and buy it was going to cost me $20,000 to $30,000,” Willetts says. “I decided there was no need for that. Having the background that I do definitely has helped me.”

He also built and installed on his truck a pivoting arm and winch system to help move heavy equipment and supplies.

“They wanted two grand for one of those. I built one for a few hundred dollars,” he says.

Caring for customers 

The trucks and trailer roll to rural Douglas County septic tank service calls and to drain cleaning calls inside Roseburg. The company’s service area is an 80-mile-square segment within the county. Willetts says he determined that going farther out than that would not be cost-effective nor competitive. Rural clients include a couple of wineries, of which there are several in the county. Roseburg customers are residences as well as various commercial properties, including Walmart, In-N-Out Burger and shopping malls.

One septic service the company offers is installing risers on tanks to provide easier access for pumping. The capped openings are often below the surface of the ground and risers make them more accessible. Willetts has an interesting way of encouraging the purchase of risers.

“Customers sometimes dig out the access openings themselves. I let them,” he says. “If you can get customers to dig them out themselves, we then can offer to put in risers so they don’t have to find them and dig them out again. They often opt to go with a riser.”

Willetts says he enjoys the pumping and drainline work because he enjoys the people for whom he’s doing it.

“You get to go into all these homes and sometimes I meet some incredible people. I enjoy meeting and helping them,” he says. “Douglas County sort of has two ends of the spectrum — wealthy people and not-so-wealthy people. It humbles me sometimes to realize what I have. Helping people is a huge drive for me in doing what I do.”

Willetts says he recognizes that people call because they need help — it’s not a social call — so he makes it a point to always answer the phone as much as possible.

“I try to answer the phone immediately, at least 90% of the time,” Willetts says. “Even if I have to tell them I won’t be able to get to them till tomorrow or something, they appreciate me picking up. That’s one of the biggest things my dad drummed into me: You have to answer the phone.”

Looking ahead

What’s in Willetts’ future? Some help, he hopes. He’s working on hiring his first employee.

Willetts is going to need the help. In 2023, he is going after two markets in particular. One is grease traps at restaurants where cooking oils and liquids accumulate. Currently, some companies travel from town to town along Interstate 5, including Roseburg, cleaning grease traps. They focus on the easy work, Willetts says.

“I’m going to offer the restaurants not only tank pumping but also the cleaning of lines running from the kitchen as well as tank maintenance,” he says. “We’re going to offer to maintain a whole system. I’ve already talked to a couple of restaurant owners here in town.”  

The other slice of business Willetts wants to develop further is apartment complex drain cleaning.

“We’ve contracted a ton of work with property managers,” he says. “Some managers have 3,000 or 4,000 units apiece and we’re going to go after them. Those alone will keep work pretty steady.”

Willetts is convinced both the pumping and drain cleaning sides of the business have equal growth potential. He just needs to get the trucks and personnel, maintain the professional image he’s thus far cultivated, and continue to attract five-star customer reviews on Google.

“We’re going to stay the course we’re on and do it with integrity,” Willetts says.


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