Cleaner Rewind: Stayin’ Alive Under Pressure

CANCO can do, through strong relationships, smart investments and savvy vertical diversification
Cleaner Rewind: Stayin’ Alive Under Pressure
CANCO technician Tony Estes uses a 55,000 psi hydroblaster with Husky pump made by Flow International to clean a tank at a chemical plant.

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We celebrate the continued dedication and hard work of drain cleaning contractors by revisiting companies profiled 10 years ago in Cleaner magazine. Check out the original story on the CANCO industrial cleaning company we featured in the February 2004 issue: “Seizing the Day.”

When we first profiled CANCO 10 years ago, owners Ray and Edie Cantrell had just relocated their industrial hydroblasting and vacuum recovery services company to a new 15-acre complex with a 14,250-square-foot office/shop facility in Chester, S.C. The firm was buzzing along, with 15 field technicians and four office staff performing environmental cleanup and industrial cleaning primarily for manufacturing and utility plants. 

CANCO was enjoying success gained by taking advantage of opportunities to grow and diversify. Though company President Ray Cantrell had recently had a heart attack, he had fully recovered and was learning to delegate more. Their son, Chris Cantrell, was picking up the slack, moving into a position of greater responsibility, and the future looked bright. 

Then along came the Wall Street crash of 2008, and everything changed. 

Several of CANCO’s largest customers, independent utility companies with coal-fired plants, succumbed to the financial pressure of environmental regulation compliance and closed down. It had always been a tightly run, agile shop with Edie Cantrell at the helm in the office, but now CANCO had to show amazing flexibility just to stay alive. 

Tough times, tough measures

Their service mix then included asbestos and lead abatement, heat exchanger and condenser cleaning, cleaning contaminated chemical and food processing tanks, chemical reactors and confined-space tanks and pipes. They also performed video pipe inspection, and prepared steel and concrete surfaces for impervious coating applications. 

“We tightened our belt and managed to make it through that time,” recalls Vice President Edie Cantrell, after losing those big utility customers. “We had to lay off almost half our employees. I cried all week. It was hard, but we really didn’t have any choice.” 

It was a lean couple of years before business began bouncing back. “Our regular customers just started calling us more,” she explains. “It was very gradual. We slowly picked up new customers through word of mouth. When people got rehired throughout the industry, some of our connections went to new companies and started using us there. 

“Downsizing companies were sending people to plants in other locations, which expanded our geographic reach within our existing customers. That’s how we got a customer as far away as Illinois.” 

CANCO now covers a 200-mile radius around Chester County, with capacity and willingness to service more distant customers should the need arise. 

Regaining equilibrium

As work picked up again, employees who’d been laid off and didn’t find other jobs came back to work at CANCO, with others hired to replace those who did. The office runs leaner at three people instead of four, but there are once again 15 technicians in the field. 

As of the company’s 20th anniversary last year, the service mix remains pretty much the same, with less abatement and a lot more condenser cleaning due to the change in customer types. “We are as busy as manufacturing is,” Cantrell says.

“If they’re doing well and have a lot of business, they’re going to need our services.” Emergency response cleanup has also been added, predominantly to mop up diesel oil spilled from tanker trucks that have been in accidents. 

Hydroblasting used to be about 60 percent of total billable hours and industrial vacuuming close to 40 percent. That ratio has now nearly evened out between the two. Some jobs require both services at the same time. Split out along revenue lines, emergency response would be less than 10 percent of the business mix, but that’s growing, says Cantrell.

“The industrial sector accounts for the overwhelming majority of our work. Emergency cleanup work is paid by insurance companies on behalf of private trucking companies.” 

Retooling for the future

One new aspect of CANCO’s services is the addition of hydrolancing to their blasting arsenal, primarily for cleaning heat exchangers. CANCO’s crews run three rigid lance machines, designed specifically for them by Flow International and StoneAge Inc. These powerful tools are rigged on tripods — or however they can be solidly mounted amid the usual tangle of pipes and equipment — to reach the exchangers. This is done so a wand doesn’t need to be handled by the operator; a safety consideration, since backouts are always possible and could seriously injure the technician. Instead, the operator stands off to the side to remotely control the lance, which goes into each tube individually. 

This equipment addition was made on the suggestion of Chris Cantrell, says his mother. “Chris has taken on a lot more responsibility for the operations management side of things. He does a great job with it. Because he still handles project management, he sees what’s going on out there and has a good understanding of customers’ needs and what we must do to meet those needs more effectively.” 

Investing intelligently, measured moves forward

Another important addition to the CANCO fleet has been two 55,000 psi hydroblasters with Husky pumps made by Flow International. The efficiency of these ultra-high-pressure blasters has made the company truly competitive when bidding industrial cleaning jobs. But Edie says simply throwing money at new equipment is not the company’s standard approach. They first do their research and cost analyses to determine if the purchase makes sense. 

“We have learned to optimize the resources we already have, rather than try to go in a direction that doesn’t fit with what we’re already doing,” she explains. “It’s important to us to stay within the framework of our expertise, so we can be the best at what we do.” They’ve actually turned down requests for additional work that didn’t fit with their strategic vision for the company. 

It ended up being a prescient move: The potential client was ultimately bought out and CANCO’s connections left that firm. “We would have been left holding the bag, and that would have hurt us,” Cantrell says, adding a bit of advice for those who may be in a similar potential growth situation. “Be extremely selective and thoughtful about the opportunities you pursue. Don’t get caught up in the immediate return, but overlay your strategic plan and long-term goals onto those decisions, to see if they match up.” 

Other new equipment CANCO has added to accommodate growing business include a Kubota KX121 excavator; a New Holland Construction L170 skid-steer; and a Wells Cargo emergency response trailer, stocked with absorbent booms and pads; construction materials to build an underflow dam; and shovels and sandbags, to contain and clean up spills, including hazmats. 

Leveraging relationships

Being judicious about new equipment purchases has allowed them to have credit reserves when a must-have investment arises. It’s also been important that they’ve established a strong relationship with their local bank. “They understand exactly what we do,” Cantrell says. “Our banker has been introduced to some of our customers. So when we pick up the phone and say we have an opportunity, we stick with that one bank that understands our needs.” 

This newer equipment joins the ranks of CANCO’s existing inventory, which includes two 20,000 psi hydroblasters from Butterworth Inc. and Gardner Denver; a 3,000 psi hydroblaster from Tuff Pressure Washers; two industrial vacuum trucks and a Camel combination truck from Super Products; and 11 pickup trucks. 

As critical as these vehicles and this equipment are to CANCO’s success, Cantrell says it’s the investment in human resources that is probably one of the most important things about the success of the company. “The human resources — their skill sets — we take very seriously, by investing in training and keeping the right people on staff,” she says. “When we send a crew to a job, we have every confidence they’re going to be safe, respect our customers and do good, quality work.

“We’ve gone out of our way to make our employees feel like this is also their company, and to identify with us almost as part of the family. Our core group of customers appreciates that. We may only see that customer twice a year, but they feel good seeing familiar faces they can trust and are comfortable with, confident that they have trained, competent people on the job.”

Conscious planning

As for the next 10 years at CANCO, Cantrell sees a shift in promotional strategy to continue the vertical diversification. “A lot of our marketing direction involves promoting our 55K pump and related equipment and personnel. We’re making sure about the people we bring onto our team, as far as what they have to offer and having a handle on the direction the manufacturing industry is going in. We need to be very responsive to that, while always looking ahead.”

Her mantra for continued success? “Be very intentional about establishing strong relationships with your customers and listening to them. Work with them to help them be successful. Value your employees and your customers. If you focus on them and not you, you’ll be fine.”


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