Using Government Grants to Build (Save) Your Business

I find it strange that, when you have children and grandchildren, tools tend to wander, particularly cool tools, like hammers. And when you find your favorite implement somewhere in the yard, all beat up and covered in rust, you ask the presumed offenders who was responsible, and you get the same answer, “Wasn’t me.”

So there I was looking to replenish my hammer supply at the local hardware store, when I heard, “Hi Jim,” behind me. I looked around, and there was Matt*. I had known Matt for about 20 years, and his septic business story was the same story a lot of younger guys had. He started out as a grunt man for an installer, but after a few years of getting an hourly wage while the boss took home a large paycheck, he used the knowledge he had learned from said boss, got his certifications and hung out his shingle.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Matt. It was the mid 1990’s, and the housing market was in overdrive. Soon Matt had a full crew and all the equipment to go along with it. I liked Matt, he was always in a great mood—the kind that was infectious and made you feel good after talking to him, and he had good reason. He was in his early twenties, with a business firing on all cylinders and more money than he knew what to do with. I would run into him a couple of times a season, and he always had that spring in his step, twinkle in his eyes and permanent smile on his face.

He had the trappings that went along with owning a successful business: a boat, motorcycles, jet skis
and 4-wheelers. All his work equipment was new, too. Oh yes, Matt was loving life. He justified these purchases by considering them an investment if things slowed down.

Unfortunately, Matt wasn’t getting a fair assessment of what business really looked like. He felt this was the life of a business owner—the phone ringing off the hook, jobs booked months out and turning away the small jobs he felt he couldn’t be bothered with. To be honest, I was jealous of him, even toyed with the idea of getting back in the saddle, but I saw the writing on the wall and gave up on it. I tried warning him, but there was no way he was going to let me rain on his parade.

By 2006, he started getting a dose of reality when the phone calls started to drop off. In 2007, it got worse, and by 2008, it was down to nothing. When I saw him last year, he was in rare form, the polar opposite of before and angry. He was angry because the Repo Man had come to collect his toys.

He started in with a “woe is me” attitude, but I cut him off. “Look,” I told him, “I don’t want to hear it. Your mortgage company didn’t force you to squeeze every last penny out of your house to buy boats, motorcycles and take fishing vacations to South America. The D.O.T. didn’t make you buy new equipment every time you got a scratch or a ding. Those were choices you made, and now they want their cash. Don’t blame them—blame yourself.”

I was surprised that he wanted to talk to me at all after that, but it was obvious there was something on his mind so I hung that nice, new 18-ounce hammer back on the hook and asked him if he wanted to go grab a beer on me.

Minutes later, we were at the bar with two cold ones and a plate full of fries. I already knew which way he was going to steer the conversation, so I struck first, “Matt, do you read American Liquid Waste Magazine?” He told me he read it every month, and my articles always made him laugh. I responded, “Apparently, you only look for the one-liners because you aren’t following what I’m saying. Have you tried selling upgrades and annual inspections?”

He gave me that exasperated I’m the expert here…you just don’t understand look and said, “Jim, there isn’t any money installing risers, filters, inspections—I need to install systems. My house payment alone is…”

I stopped him short and asked, “How much are you making doing those installs right now?” That shut him up.

“You work East Bethel and Coon Lake; both of these areas have been pushing for treatment plants. A handful of citizens have been trying to fight the projects, but they are losing ground because most of their neighbors don’t care either way. And why don’t they care? Because no one has bothered to tell them the whole story,” I said.

In most cases, people are led to believe they will all have to pay huge money for a new septic while it would only be a small sewer assessment. Even with a monthly fee, the pipe doesn’t look that bad, so residents sit back and ignore rather than join the group. If someone told them the whole story—that it would probably run residents at least $30,000 each and deplete their water supplies, they’ll take notice.
When they find out that not everyone is going to need a new system, they will not only join the group, but they’ll be standing on the steps of City Hall with pitchforks and clubs looking to straighten the council members out. “These are your customers Matt,” I told him, “you took them to the dance, sprung for dinner, but now you are just standing there watching someone else take them home.”

Of course, Matt asked what he was supposed to do about it. “You can get involved with the group,” I said, “Offer your septic expertise to them, put on educational programs, write letters to the editor of your local paper. I’ve been trying to tell you about this for years.”

This definitely got him thinking, but he really perked up when I mentioned free government money to help businesses. “I thought only big companies could get bailouts?” he said.

“It’s not bailout money,” I answered, “Bailouts are high interest loans with lots of strings attached. This is grant money that you don’t have to pay back.”

Now he was really tuning in and asked where he had to go to get these grants. I said, “These grants aren’t for you, they’re for your customers. And they don’t just hand over cash to the average Joe as soon as he walks through the door. You need to find the programs and jump through lots of hoops to get the loot, and you’re customers aren’t going to get the full ticket, the grant money would be used as incentive to get people to replace, repair and upgrade their systems.”

He looked defeated again, and said, “Why would someone pay money to have their system worked on? And even if they did, who’s to say they’re going to hire me to do it?”

I briefly thought about running back home to get that 18-ounce hammer and told him the key was to educate, “You lay out the facts to them. Tell them if they get the pipe it will cost over $30,0000, each, and eventually, when their wells run dry, they will be forced to shell out the money for city water. On the other hand, with septic systems, they will pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to install filters and risers, and for those that need a total replacement, if they do it right, they are looking at probably five to eight thousand dollars. Either way, it is going to cost, but septic systems are going to be a lot cheaper. And here is the ammunition you use to get them fired-up.”

I went on to tell him about a call I got from a lady down the road from these people in Hugo. Seven years ago, the city said they wanted to run the pipe down their street but it wouldn’t cost them anything because it was going to a commercial zone and the businesses that would be going in were going to pay the costs. They were also told they would never have to hook-up.

It sounded like a sweet deal with nothing to lose, so everyone on her street said okay. They ran the pipe, but guess what happened? The economy crashed, only a few businesses got built and they refused to pick-up the tab. This woman got assessed $47,000. Now, she just got a mandatory hook-up notice that will run her another $25,000. She is getting hit for $72,000 for something that she was told wouldn’t cost her a dime!

Here is another one that really puts the costs in perspective. A community was given a bid of $76 million for the pipe and told what a great bargain they were getting. I pointed out to them that they could all put in brand new septic systems for $21 million. That got them scratching their heads, but here is what closed the deal. Only about 30% of the existing systems needed to be replaced, and that could be done for about $7 million.

I also pointed out that the $76 million was just an estimate and it’s not uncommon for these projects to go well over budget. They were looking at a price difference of at least $69 million, and no matter which way they went, the property owners would be footing the bill. I told Matt, “You tell your people these stories about the wonders of the pipe and they will be on your team.”

By now the fries were gone, and I knew I had to be getting home. We walked out to the parking lot, and as I got in my truck, I left him with one last piece of advice: “Matt, the business climate is always changing, and a smart business owner changes with it. You can keep beating that install horse, but he’s not getting up anytime soon. In your case, you have plenty of customers; they just don’t know it yet. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, get off the couch and help them. Either that or apply for a job working at that new treatment plant.”

*name has been changed

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/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.

Contact Jim at 1-763-856-3800 or jvonmeier@septicprotector.com.

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