The Keller Family of East Texas is Ready to Address Any Septic or Plumbing Emergency

Bulldog Contractors hasn’t shied away from shifting gears over the years, responding to whatever customer needs arise in its rural Texas service area

The Keller Family of East Texas is Ready to Address Any Septic or Plumbing Emergency

Jeff Keller, general manager of Bulldog Contractors started by his father in 1978, alongside one of the company’s employees, Nathan Harrah. 

Adapting to changing business conditions is nothing new to Bulldog Contractors, a company in Jefferson, Texas, that’s been as tenacious as the dog breed after which it’s named.

The business started out 45 years ago as a home building and remodeling contractor, then morphed into a plumbing and drain cleaning company in the early 2000s. Soon after that, the company expanded into septic tank pumping and septic system repairs and installations, then went on to add electrical contracting to its repertoire.

Part of this evolution of services stemmed from the company’s remote location in northeast Texas, near the state’s border with Louisiana, explains Jeff Keller, general manager for the business, established by his father, Carl, in 1978.

“We provide services to a very rural area, so you have to be diverse and be able to take care of a lot of things,” says Keller, 35. “Customers love the one-stop shop aspect.”

But the broad array of services also reflects the Kellers’ ability to spot and capitalize on underserved market niches, as well as their willingness to make capital investments to serve those markets. It is also a testament to their desire to provide better customer service by avoiding reliance on subcontractors who aren’t always available when needed.

The roster of services also opens the door to more business opportunities.

“When I’m in front of customers, I always tell them about all of our services,” Keller says. “When they find out we work in all these different trades, it often leads to other work. We might go to a customer’s home to pump out a septic tank, but maybe they also need a new water heater or new lighting installed. We can handle all kinds of issues in their homes.”

Unexpected business detour

Keller’s father founded Bulldog Contractors in 1978. Like many other businesses in the area, the company is named after the local high school’s mascot.

“There are a lot of businesses around here with bulldog in the name,” Keller says.

The shift toward plumbing occurred both randomly and unexpectedly when plumbers in a nearby town refused to do work on a remodeling project.

“They didn’t like out-of-town contractors, so they all blackballed my father and wouldn’t work for him,” Keller explains. 

That put the elder Keller into full bulldog mode, refusing to back down.

“My dad got so fed up and irritated that he went out and got his own plumbing license,” Keller recalls. “And as it turns out, there’s a lot of money in plumbing. Looking back, it was a good thing we made the change because it led to what we are today. It was 100% a blessing in disguise.”

It also helped that there’s only one other licensed plumber in Jefferson, Keller says.

Logical extension of services

The company expanded into septic services in 2004. The move made sense because septic systems are common in the rural area and when customers called with plumbing issues, the odds were about 50/50 that a septic system was the problem, Keller says.

“We started pumping and repairing septic systems to better serve our customers and add another service feather to our hat,” he says. “Plus it made us more efficient than having to rely on a subcontractor to come out for a septic system problem.”

Most of the time, the company sends out a plumbing service vehicle and a vacuum pump truck on service calls.

“Labor is expensive,” Keller says. “So it’s cheaper for me to run a second guy in a septic truck alongside me because many of our jobs are 17 to 20 miles away from the shop. It wastes too much time to drive back and get a septic truck. It’s all about efficiency.”

To minimize startup costs, the company bought a used vacuum truck. The Kellers also opted to focus on septic system repairs and installations because the profit margins are better than for just pumping tanks.

“There’s little money to be made in septic pumping,” Keller says. “The money is in septic repairs and installations. So we dove in headfirst and obtained licenses for installs and repairs along with pumping. It made sense to offer everything, not just pumping.”

In addition, pumping tanks often can lead to repairs or even installations if a system is failing, he says.

The business eventually added electrical contracting to its services because septic systems include pumps and controls powered by electricity. Once again, the Kellers decided they could better serve customers by not being tied down by the availability of electricians.

Keys to success

Three keys to the company’s success and longevity are prompt response times, reliability and communication with customers.

“A lot of our customers call us because other contractors don’t return their phone calls or don’t show up when they say they will,” Keller says. “Without communication with customers, you have nothing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on a service call and people say, ‘Are you for real? You showed up when you said you would.’ For us, that’s the easy part, but I guess it’s a difficult thing for a lot of contractors.”

Keller also says flat-rate pricing, which the company started using several years ago, has enhanced customer service.

“Telling people the cost upfront puts their minds at ease because they’re not sitting there watching the clock and wondering what the bill is going to be,” he says. “Flat-rate pricing has been a game-changer for us and customers. We don’t do a single job without upfront pricing.”

No free job estimates

To bolster profitability, the company doesn’t offer free estimates. About 10 years ago, the company started charging $95 for service calls in town and $125 for out-of-town calls. The charge gets waived if customers hire Bulldog Contractors to do the work.

“It’s one of the best things I ever did,” Keller says. “What it does is prequalify customers to make sure they’re serious. There are too many tire-kickers out there. There were days when I’d literally drive around all day long, doing estimates, and not get a single job. You end up wasting so much time dealing with bottom-feeders who only are concerned about the price. You have to value your time.”

Isn’t there some resistance from customers?

“Some do,” Keller says. “But I don’t want customers like that anyway. If they can’t value my time, I can’t value theirs. I want to deal with customers who want a job done and done right.”

To enhance cash flow, the company also requires customers to pay when jobs are completed.

“I don’t have time to chase people down for money,” he says.

Equipped to work

As Bulldog Contractors grew, so did its roster of equipment. On the septic side of the business, the company relies on a 1996 International truck outfitted with a 1,650-gallon steel tank made by Lely Tank & Waste Solutions and a vacuum pump made by National Vacuum Equipment.

To do repairs and system installations (the company only installs a handful of new septic systems a year), as well as replace waterlines and sewer lines, the company also owns a JCB backhoe, a trencher made by Ditch Witch and a 35-foot flatbed trailer made by McLendon Trailers.

For plumbing and drain cleaning, the company owns a 2017 Chevrolet Express cutaway van with a 12-foot box body made by Supreme (a company owned by Wabash National) and storage and shelving units built by Hackney. The company relies on power tools made by RIDGID and Milwaukee Tool.

For drain cleaning, the company invested in a cart-mounted JM-2900 water jetter (3,000 psi at 4 gpm) from General Pipe Cleaners; a RIDGID K-6200 drum machine (for 3- to 6-inch-diameter pipes); an M18 Drain Snake built by Milwaukee Tool; and a RIDGID FlexShaft drain machine.

The company also relies on a RIDGID standard SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera, a SeeSnake microReel camera and a RIDGID SR-60 SeekTech pipeline locator.

Looking ahead

Keller doesn’t anticipate much growth in the years ahead. More customers now are asking Bulldog to expand into heating and air conditioning work, but Keller says his small crew is too busy to consider such a move.

“If we ever would decide to expand into another trade service, HVAC would be it,” he says. “But right now, we’re not looking to grow. We’re going to stay in our comfortable spot — it’s a nice place to be.”

As for Keller himself, who’s never worked for anyone else except his father, he has no regrets about his career path. He’ll eventually become the owner of Bulldog Contractors whenever his father decides to sell it.

“I absolutely love my job,” he says. “I don’t even look at it as a job.

“I’m also grateful for my father’s wisdom and support. I look up to him so much. He built this business and provided me with a path to follow. Not many people can say they’ve worked an entire career in a family business and loved every minute of it. I’m very happy as well as humbled by what this business provides for me and our employees.”


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