Government Contract Work Spurs On Big Growth for Kansas Drain Cleaner

Kansas’ A-1 Pump & Jet Services has transformed from a small septic pumping outfit into a diversified company taking on multiple federal government contracts

Government Contract Work Spurs On Big Growth for Kansas Drain Cleaner

A-1 Pump & Jet owners Ronald and Judith McCoy have grown the company considerably since starting it in 2014 off the assets of an old septic pumping company. 

Interested in Cleaning?

Get Cleaning articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Cleaning + Get Alerts

Operating a business can be a bit like inspecting and cleaning pipelines — it’s all about negotiating unexpected twists and turns.

A good case in point is A-1 Pump & Jet Services of Emporia, Kansas, which started out as a septic pumping company but quickly morphed into something quite different: a company that cleans and inspects both food-processing lines at factories and sewer lines for municipalities; handles government contracts for cleaning sewer lines at military facilities; and hauls away and land-applies food-processing waste.

“In the nine years since we started out, I don’t think we’ve pumped out more than a dozen septic tanks,” says Ronald McCoy, who co-owns the company with wife Judith, the majority owner. “We almost immediately transitioned from septic pumping jobs to commercial work for municipalities and food-processing companies.”

The McCoys’ journey underscores the importance of providing top-notch customer service, the value of word-of-mouth referrals and the benefits of taking calculated risks in order to capitalize on unexpected business opportunities. Those traits have served the company well since its inception in 2014, when the McCoys purchased the assets of a longtime septic pumping company. Since then, A-1’s fleet of equipment has expanded significantly and its gross revenue nearly hit $5 million in 2022.

“We’re 25 times the size we were when we started,” McCoy says. “And in all honesty, we expect to double in size again during the next three years. We even doubled the size of our business during the pandemic because we always did whatever we could to keep our customers’ systems up and running. It all boils down to investing in good equipment and providing great customer service. If you’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep customers’ plants running, they’ll appreciate your commitment and will stay with you as long as you keep charging a fair price.”

Varied career path

McCoy took a decidedly roundabout path to commercial and municipal drain cleaning. After spending 10 years as a hospital administrator, he went back to school and earned a master’s degree in business administration from Emporia State University, where he also taught undergraduate classes in business.

After graduating from the master’s program, McCoy switched gears and bought a refrigerated trucking business that he ended up running for 20 years. Eager to try something else, he and his wife then bought the assets of a septic pumping company, which included an old water jetter made by O’Brien (Hi-Vac Corp.).

A former customer from his refrigerated-trucking days helped McCoy land his first major client, a meat-packing plant in Emporia, which is about 105 miles southwest of Kansas City in southeastern Kansas. As luck would have it, the plant had just fired a contractor who cleaned the processing pipelines at the facility. McCoy was hired on the spot.

“It was just dumb luck,” he says. “But the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

What did McCoy know about running a water jetter and cleaning pipelines? Not one thing in the beginning, he admits.

“But I became a hospital administrator at age 24 and I’d never been in a hospital before in my life,” he says. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about business, it’s that you can talk your way into a lot of things, but once you do so, you have to figure out how to deliver. So we went out and figured out how to operate a water jetter.”

McCoy says he listens to a lot of motivational talks on YouTube and one overall theme he encounters is that hard work works.

“You just have to get in there and apply yourself, do a good job and charge a fair price,” he says. “Determination and persistence will carry you a long way.”

Growth follows great service

Providing good customer service to the meat-packing plant enabled McCoy to parlay the connection into something much bigger. That company owned dozens of other plants around the country, including one in western Kansas and one in western Nebraska. They hired A-1 based on the reputation established on the Emporia plant job.

“Most of our customers are Fortune 500 companies with 15 to 20 plants,” McCoy says. “So if you start with one and do a good job, they just might ask you to work at another plant, say, six months down the road. One of the first things I learned at business school is that the easiest way to grow a business is to do more business with the customers you have, and that formula has worked very well for us. If one plant engineer has good things to say about you, he’ll recommend you to other plant engineers.”

In 2019, business had grown substantially enough to warrant A-1 opening a second location in Holcomb, a small town about 300 miles west of Emporia in southwestern Kansas. Once again, providing great customer service played a role in expansion, McCoy says.

For example, he cites a company that called A-1 for emergency work, even though it was a 300-mile drive away.

“They called us at 10 at night and said we needed to hurry,” McCoy recalls. “After we solved their problem and did a few other things while we were out there, I asked the plant engineer why he called us, given that there had to be a local contractor that could do the same work. He told me there was another contractor, but the company was too busy to take the job. So they called us, and the plant engineer guaranteed me they’d never call that other contractor again. Since then, we’ve greatly expanded the work we do at that plant.”

A-1 has also diversified by expanding into sewer cleaning work for military bases, which opened the McCoys’ eyes to the potential of federal government contracts. Such contracts now generate about one-third of the company’s revenue, McCoy says.

Government contracts pay off

Some contractors avoid bidding on federal contracts, which have developed a reputation for being a hassle and involving too much red tape and paperwork. Sure, bidding on federal contracts requires dotting a lot of i’s and crossing a lot of t’s, but on the other hand, there’s often less competition than a contractor might expect because so many companies don’t want to bid on federal projects. Plus there often aren’t enough qualified small businesses submitting bids, McCoy notes.

That leaves the door open a little wider for companies like A-1, which took its first step into government work in 2017 by cleaning out a waste lagoon operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a reservoir in Iowa.

“From that one job, we then won a contract the following year to maintain oil-and-water separators in a half-dozen states for U.S. Army Reserve centers,” McCoy says. “And the next year, we won a contract to maintain sanitary sewer lines at a U.S. Air Force base in Boston.”

The company is currently working under five federal contracts for inspecting and cleaning sewer lines for the Air Force, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Army and the National Park Service. The keys to success? Get thoroughly familiar with how the bidding system works, plus a healthy dose of sheer determination, McCoy says.

The first step for bidding on federal contracts is getting listed in the System for Award Management, a government-wide registry for vendors that obtain certification to do business with the federal government. After a company is registered, it must renew its registration annually.

SAM has regional offices with staff that help business owners walk through the registration process, which can take a bit of persistence, McCoy says.

“I’d always heard that government work is a hassle and that it’s all rigged,” he says. “But on an annual basis, the government awards billions of dollars worth of contracts set aside for small businesses. And many times there aren’t enough small businesses competing for those competitive-bid projects. We even compete head-to-head against the big boys and win contracts. Too many small companies think they just can’t work through it. But as a smaller company, we’re more flexible and responsive than some big competitors. It can be daunting going up against big companies with seemingly endless resources, but you have to focus on your strengths. You have to want it and be willing to put in the work to learn how to do it. And once you do, there’s huge potential out there.”

There’s another benefit to government contracts: Many run for five years, so once a company wins a contract, there’s guaranteed income for a set period of time.

“So you’re not out there constantly trying to generate more business,” McCoy says.

McCoy recommends that companies start out small and build up from there, bidding on bigger and bigger projects as their capabilities and resources — equipment, employees and so forth — increase. For example, A-1 started out bidding on contracts worth around $100,000 and now is considering competing for million-dollar contracts. 

“Never bite off more than you can chew,” McCoy advises. “It’s always tempting to take on a really big contract. But if you do and you don’t perform, you’ll get sued into submission. So we always make sure we bid on projects that we can handle.”

Furthermore, every job gets a written assessment from a contract officer, and companies that consistently earn good ratings get invited to bid on other contracts.

“If you do good work, earn good ratings and charge a competitive price, I guarantee you can get government work,” McCoy says. “It can be hard to get your foot in the door, but you take baby steps. Start with a smaller project and do a good job with it. You get one, then another. We have built a good reputation, and now we’ll sometimes get a heads up about bids opening on a job, telling us they’d like us to submit a bid.” 

More customers, more equipment

As A-1 has grown, so has its fleet of equipment. Today the company owns four vacuum trucks, used primarily for cleaning wet wells, lift stations and sewer lines. Two of the trucks were built by local fabricators, one by Garsite and one by FlowMark. They feature Freightliner and International chassis, 1,500- to 4,700-gallon debris tanks and Masport pumps.

A-1 also owns eight vacuum trailers built by Dragon Products and used mainly for hauling food-processing waste. They’re pulled by Kenworth, Freightliner and International tractor cabs. The trailers feature aluminum tanks ranging from 6,300 to 7,000 gallons and Masport or National Vacuum Equipment pumps.

The company has also invested in two trailer-mounted water jetters from O’Brien (a brand owned by Hi-Vac Corp.) equipped with 750-gallon water tanks and Myers (a brand owned by Pentair) that generate pressure of 2,000 psi and flow of up to 35 gpm. It also owns a US Jetting jetter (4,000 psi at 35 gpm) that features two 350-gallon water tanks.

The company relies on two truck-mounted jetters built by Sewer Equipment CO. of America (2,000 psi at up to 50 gpm) with 1,500-gallon water tanks. The units, mostly used for cleaning sanitary sewer lines, are carried by Freightliner trucks.

To inspect pipelines, the company owns one wheeled Rovver pipeline inspection camera and a push camera, both from Envirosight.

How did the company handle the financial burden of buying so much expensive equipment in a relatively short amount of time? By purchasing used — but still quality — equipment until the business could afford newer equipment, McCoy says.

More growth expected

Looking back, McCoy says he never could’ve imagined years ago that he’d be in the pipeline cleaning business and that he and his wife would be running a multi-million-dollar-a-year company.

“I’m basically just a white-collar guy that got into a real dirty job,” he says.  

The McCoys expect further growth, as evidenced by the company’s recent move to a larger facility that includes a 12,000-square-foot building and a 10,000-square-foot building for housing trucks and performing repairs and maintenance.

McCoy says he expects municipal work to dominate for the next two to three years, due to the billions of dollars in federal funding available for infrastructure projects, including pipe lining projects for which A-1 would perform pre-lining inspections and cleaning.

“We won’t be tapping on the brakes,” he says. “This business is largely recession proof and there’s more and more new (trenchless pipeline renewal) technology coming out. I believe there’s unlimited opportunity in this industry. All you have to do is get out there and put in the work. After that, the sky’s the limit.”


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.