A (Not So) Traditional Family Business

Reynolds Sewer Service, Inc. is a family business, but it sure didn’t start out the way most family businesses do. When Tom Reynolds was 13 years old, his dad, who worked for a company that manufactured high-end office furniture, told Tom that if he wanted spending money, he needed to earn it. So he started mowing lawns.

Then, a new job opportunity presented itself: working for a local septic contractor. Tom did the math—he could mow lawns for 50 cents an hour, supplying the mower and gas himself, or work for 65 cents an hour and actually learn something. It was a no brainer.

Back in those days, driving regulations weren’t so strict, particularly in rural areas. Kids would often be seen driving farm and construction equipment on open roads, and Tom remembers an old Diamond T Model Flatbed Truck he used to haul gravel with. There was no power steering on the Diamond T, and when it got out on the highway, the two speed rear end was a nice feature. But, as a skinny teenager, it literally took two hands and two feet on the lever for Tom to make it shift. Also, sucking tanks at the time was done with a hand pump connected to a three inch line, and, of course, most of the digging was done with a shovel. It was hard work and primitive, but Tom was learning the basics of septic systems.

Once out of high school, he took a welding job, and, at 22, he got married. Coincidentally, his new father-in-law had a pumping business, and Tom soon gave up his welding career to start working for him. Anyone who worked in the pumping business in the pre-regulation days knows a pumper didn’t just pump tanks. It still happens today, but, back then, things were really bad, and you didn’t know what you were going to find when you got to a job. Bottomless block tanks were common, and so were clay tile lines that collapsed, as well as pipes running off to who knows where. When a tank or line had problems, the pumper often had to man-up with the shovel and track down the source by hand.

By the second season, Tom realized hard physical work wasn’t as rewarding as he thought it would be, so he built his own pump truck—with an actual pump—and bought an old backhoe. Equipped with these two new tools, it was a matter of weeks before he was on his own, not only doing septic pumping and repairs, but also installing new systems, digging water lines, clearing rocks for farmers and a multitude of other paying gigs.

Tom was learning as he went along, and he was realizing that he could learn more. Although it wasn’t required in those days, he voluntarily attended the certification classes put on by Roger Machmeier and the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Tom is the first to admit the knowledge he gained in the classes on proper design and installations was invaluable. In fact, he was handed one of the first mound systems in the state, and for all he knows, the system is still working today.

It wasn’t long before his hard work and good business ethics started to pay off, and, in 1973, he was so busy that he knew he needed help. Then he did things a little differently. He convinced his dad to stop screwing around with his life, find some purpose, quit his job and come work for Tom in the family business, not the conventional other way around. With his dad pumping systems, Tom was free to do the designs and installs.

Over the years, more of the family got involved. Today, Tom’s wife, Samantha, does the designs. His son, Brent, and grandson, Derek, handle the pumping and help with installs. Even his daughter, Mary, is involved. And his dad, well his dad kept pumping tanks and lived to the ripe old age of 92.

At the end of the day, Tom doesn’t just sit back with a cocktail and get lost in TV Land. He is always thinking of ways to do things better. Pumping tanks may not bring in the big paychecks that a new system does, but it is a solid revenue stream. Because he’s certified to do land applications, rather than pay extra per gallon to a treatment or dump facility, he can still do it for a reasonable price and pass those savings onto his customers.

I have always called Tom to pump my tank, and I recommend him to others for several reasons. For one, he does it all. In addition to designs, installations and pumping, he can jet lines, thaw a frozen system, install an effluent filter and much more. One-stop shopping is a huge convenience for homeowners.

His price is also right. He isn’t the cheapest in town (one farmer is a part-time pumper that does it for rock bottom pricing, but he only pumps tanks and nothing else), nor is he the most expensive. In some cases, Tom goes in with an open bid, but for standard jobs, he bases the bid on what the average time and materials should be, not what the next guy would charge or what the customer would be willing to pay. Occasionally, the job doesn’t go as planned, but Tom sticks by that bid because the customer shouldn’t have to pay for him or his crew having a bad day. It’s old school thinking, but it works and it’s won him a solid customer list.

But there’s another reason I so highly recommend Tom. He’s as honest as the day is long. He has told homeowners, “You don’t need your tank pumped. Save your money and call me next year.” Some people are going to say it’s stupid to turn away a paying gig, but guess what happens? About half of those people tell him to pump it anyway, and the other half, well, they will be calling Tom next year and anytime after that when they need a septic contractor.

Thinking Ahead Saves Time and Money
Being able to do land applications does save Tom and his customers money, but one bottleneck Tom saw was the time involved. Driving miles out to his dumpsite and back chewed up a big part of the day, which put a limit on how many tanks he could service. He came up with a solution and set up his own dump/holding/treatment system at his shop, located at his home.

He started out small but has added onto the system, and today he has six 2,000 gallon septic tanks in series that flow to a 6,000 square foot drain field. He used chambers for the field because they were quick and easy to add onto when it came time to expand. Tom has a 3,000 gallon truck which means he can pump two or three tanks before he heads back to the shop where the load is gravity dumped into the first tank that is equipped with a gate valve to control the flow to the next tanks to maximize settling.

While the truck is draining, Tom and his family have the opportunity to file the paperwork, grab a sandwich and hit the road again. If in a rush, they can use the truck pump to speed things up. Tom figures they have almost doubled the number of tanks they can pump in a day by not having to do the land application every time the truck is full. Sure, they have to empty these tanks from time to time, but it breaks down to once or twice a month, not several times a day, and even this can be improved upon.

When Tom was showing me his set-up, I was totally blown away. I mean, it was such a simple concept, it was brilliant. He said the only drawback was that the solids were ‘heavier’ and harder to handle. As we talked, another solution came up—adding an aerobic component to the system to provide better treatment within the system, breakdown the solids further and faster and, therefore, ‘lighten’ the remaining solids.

A few days later, I was telling my friend, Colorado Brad, about Tom’s setup and suddenly, a lightbulb went off. Brad was excited. He said he had two choices when it came to dealing with his loads. He could either dump at a sanitary recycle site for 50 dollars per thousand or dump into the treatment plant at 100 dollars per thousand.

Believe it or not, Brad usually chose the more expensive option because it was closer and he was in and out right away, unlike the alternative, which was miles off the beaten track where he often found himself sitting in line for hours parked behind the other contractors who were trying to save a few bucks. “Hey, time is money,” he told me.

He asked if I thought Tom would consider working with him to set up his own dump/holding/treatment system. I said Tom was a pretty quiet guy, but I would ask him. I also talked to Lee Verbridge at Septi-tech about collaborating with Tom and Brad on these systems, and he was all for it.

If you are interested in learning more about setting up your own station, call or email me and I will pass the information along. It could not only be a time saving solution but a money solution for your company, as well.

Last month’s article was about our trade deteriorating and I mentioned that even when the economy does start to recover, our industry will not improve along with it because there are just too many new houses out there already. Your businesses could be losing customers in record numbers to the pipe. The solution I suggested was to go after the existing market for upgrades and lucrative annual inspections. Guess who is doing the upgrades and inspections in my neighborhood? Tom Reynolds.

The man is a visionary. 

Story by Jim vonMeier

Jim vonMeier performs educational programs directed at homeowners, teaching them the health and environmental need for proper septic systems and how to find a certified septic professional to inspect, design, install and maintain their systems. He has also represented homeowners in their fight against public sewer projects and speaks at contractor programs around the country on the subject of customer service.

He can be reached at 1-763-856-3800 or jvonmeier@septicprotector.com

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