Four Generations of Doing it Right the Texas Way

Van Delden Wastewater Systems is an award-winning company and is leading the way in the liquid waste industry in Texas. Pam Van Delden is the proud recipient of the National Association of Wastewater Technician’s (NAWT) Excellence in Service Award (You can read more about the award and why Pam Van Delden received it on the company’s website). Four generations of Van Delden’s have worked seamlessly together to build one of the most successful wastewater companies in all of Texas, and beyond. What follows is a thoughtful interview with Courtney Van Delden who, with her brother Chad, both fourth generation, runs the daily operations of the company.

Can you please tell me in your own words a little about the history of Van Delden Wastewater Systems —how it came about, and how it developed and expanded.
Frank J. Van Delden began installing septic systems in 1937. His son, Gary Van Delden, took over the business in 1972. His son, Garrett, began working for the business out of high school and married Pam soon thereafter. When Garrett and Pam began having children, the office was in need of a secretary, which Pam fulfilled and was able to bring the children to work. Operations maintained successful growth for the company until Gary retired in 1989. Garrett Van Delden was the third generation to run the family business with his wife, Pam, who currently own the business. While we continued to provide installations, expansion of the business occurred with the addition of pumping services, aerobic system installation, aerobic system maintenance and real estate inspections. Garrett and Pam have now entrusted the daily operations of their family business to their daughter and son, Courtney and Chad, fourth generation, who continue to uphold the distinct excellence and quality reputation in the wastewater systems industry.
What are the keys to your great success in coming to dominant in your field? Could you please articulate 3-5 principles/guidelines/pointers that you have developed over the years to keep your company in the top class of the liquid waste industry?
Having an office team to answer the phones within the first two rings – a lot of our competitors answer their own mobile phone while on the jobsite or don’t answer the phone at all. We couldn’t do what we do without the excellent work of our office personnel. All are very well trained and knowledgeable. It’s important that our customers can always reach us. We specialize in septic systems and aerobic systems only. We don’t dabble in plumbing, excavation or site work. We specialize in one aerobic system manufacturer, Clearstream Wastewater Systems. Each aerobic brand operates with many different types of parts, so instead of knowing a little about a lot of aerobic system brands, we know Clearstream inside and out. Our technicians are certified and specialized in Clearstream, each service van is fully stocked with Clearstream parts, and our office staff is knowledgeable about Clearstream systems to better answer specific customer questions, and so the end result is that our customers receive specialized service on their system and higher quality of customer service. We could expand our aerobic system service to other brands which would grow that part of service greatly, but we feel quality is more important than quantity.

How would you describe the company’s professionalism and work ethic?
We are always looking for the most honest and hardworking individuals to join our team. All installers, technicians and pumpers wear company supplied uniform shirts, are polite and courteous, and are well trained. All service vehicles and pump trucks are kept clean in appearance. Our employees work together as a team and are committed and trustworthy. Employees love what they do and strive to keep our company’s reputation what it is. Annual bonuses are based on performance.

Have you established a set of core values that can make an emotional connection to your target audience? How do you connect/communicate the company values and what they stand for to your target clients?

We stand behind our work, which is part of the reason for our success and 78 years in business. The biggest emotional connection we have with our customers is the years of service for them or their family. It’s very common for us to have installed a septic system 30+ years ago and either still service it or install a new system after their original system extended its life.

What do you expect of your employees?
We expect our staff to be honest and trustworthy. All must be team players – we all work together to get the job done. We expect them to do every job right the first time, but if a mistake occurs we expect them to acknowledge mistakes so that our customers don’t get charged unfairly. We expect them to learn from their mistakes. We expect them to keep customer and business confidentiality.

Who trains them, what is the training process, etc.?
Field workers are trained by an experienced licensed installer, and overseen by management. Aerobic technicians get a 45 day training period with an experienced licensed technician, manufacturer certification, and State training and License. If licensing or certification is required, we pay for the training and licensing.

Tell me a little bit about the day-to-day operations. What typically goes on at a job site? Give me the run down on what your workers do, how they do it, etc. How does your team share information back and forth? How are they managed, and by whom?

For installations the crews come in at 7:30 AM and meet with Chad to discuss the scope of work to be completed from the prior day to obtain that day’s instructions and work orders. They prepare and load their trucks with required materials and machinery and head to the jobsite. Most of our work is in the hill country and requires a considerable amount of rock excavation using hoe-rams. Once the tank holes are completed tanks are set, plumbed to house, electrical conduit and control panels are installed, distribution lines are rock sawed out and installed. Chad makes daily job rounds to insure the jobs are running smoothly and going as planned.
As far as septic tank pumping is concerned, if the trucks are full in the morning, the pumpers arrive at 5 AM to take their trucks to the dump station. They return to the office by 7:30 AM to pick up their helper and their day’s work orders. Typically, 4 pumping jobs are scheduled per truck per day. This could be more or less, depending on the job. The trucks may go to the dump several times per day depending on how many gallons they collect at each job. Each pumping job has a work order which includes customer information and tank location. Once the tank is located, the lid(s) are exposed by shovel. We pump the tank, rinse it out, check the tank for missing baffles or any problems found while pumping the tank (corrosion, leaking tanks, fallen dividing walls, sprinkler lines over the tank, etc.). The work order is completed and everything is documented. All office staff is trained to schedule pump jobs, but pumpers are overseen daily by Jill (our Pump Truck Scheduler). For servicing aerobic systems the techs arrive at 7:30 AM to obtain daily work orders and to re-stock their service vans. Most items are inventoried and are checked out by one designated technician who is in charge of inventory. Each service includes (at a minimum) checking aerator, submersible pump, spray heads, diffuser, air filters, alarms, floats, timer, photocell, and chlorine supply and sludge levels. All office staff is trained to obtain service calls from customers, but the technicians are overseen by Shawna.

Please give me a sense of how many septic tanks you install, pump and service, and inspect on monthly basis: How many clients would you say you service on a regular basis?
We install roughly 8 septic tanks per month; we service and pump out around 175 tanks; service 180 aerobic systems, and do around 25 real estate inspections per month. We currently have 1170 aerobic service contracts which we service every 4 months. Most of our pump jobs are from repeat customers. We send out reminder cards every year to customers once they reach their 3 year pumping anniversary. We work from a database of over 15,050 properties that we have serviced in some way over the years.

How, where, and why do you get rid of your wastes, etc.
Most of San Antonio’s centralized sewer is collected and treated at the San Antonio Water Systems Dos Rios Treatment Plant. They have a dump station for waste haulers; it’s the only dump station in the San Antonio area. Our vacuum trucks are permitted by TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) and by SAWS (San Antonio Water Systems). SAWS requires all the wastewater dumped at the treatment plant to be manifested. Manifest tickets are required to be given to the customer within 15 days after disposal. We mail the customer a computer generated receipt with the manifest ticket a few days after the waste is disposed of.

Can you please tell me in your own words about the full range of services you offer? Which ones? Tell me about your septic tank design, installation, repairs and inspection processes, video inspections, testing procedures, etc. talk a little about aerobic system installation, pumping and service and inspections.
For system designs we have our “in house” Registered Sanitarian (Courtney Van Delden – Chad’s Wife – not sister), who creates the design criteria, system requirements and the layout system for the permitting process. No one installs a more efficient aerobic system than we do. Van Delden was the first to install an aerobic system with spray distribution in Bexar County in 1990, and our commitment to using the best quality products had led to our installing, servicing, and maintaining only the Clearstream aerobic system. We have 3 installation crews, all of which are run by TCEQ Installer II licensed foremen. We provide the most thorough service checks: we routinely check 15-20 items while our competitors only check 8-10 items. We forward each report to the county for our customers. We detail records of service, part replacement, and warranties. Our service technicians are TCEQ licensed maintenance technicians. We have 4 maintenance technicians.

Tell me about your fleet of pumper trucks.
Vacuum Trucks:
2016 Kenworth with a 4000 gallon tank
2007 Kenworth with a 4000 gallon tank
1997 Freightliner with a 3600 gallon tank
1994 Kenworth with a 3000 gallon tank

We operate 3 vacuum trucks full time. The 1994 truck is used as a backup in the event one truck is down for maintenance or repairs. All vacuum trucks are equipped with Cummings engines and standard transmissions. Vacuum pumps are all Masport 400XL’s. Each truck carries 260 ft of 3” vacuum hose, extra septic tank lids and are equipped with probes, magnetic locators and Prototek flushable tracing devices and receivers.

Other equipment/machinery we use on a regular basis:
Takeuki & Tramav Hammer Excavator
2006 Case 580 SM Backhoe
2006 Case 580 SM Backhoe
2004 Case 580 SM backhoe
2- Kelly rock hammers
2006 Ditch Which with Rocksaw
1990 Case Skid Loader
2013 Hydraulic Breaker
2013 Kabota Excavator
2011 Bobcat
2010 Mack Dump Truck
2006 Case 11201 Backhoe with 2006 Kelly Hammer 600
Variety of trailers
8 Service Vehicles

What are some of the distinguishing features and services of your company that are unique and that no other local company has, so that you can deliver the greatest value to customers at a price-point or cost comparable to, or lower than, your competition?
We are the largest septic operation in our area, not only because we’ve been around the longest, but because we consistently provide the highest quality service. We have a lot more overhead than most other companies. If a customer is price shopping, we are not the lowest in cost for any of the services we offer. However the quality of workmanship, quality of materials, and quality of customer service exceeds our competitors. We always answer our phone and return calls, we have office staff to ensure procedures are followed, customers are followed up on, and we go through our checks and balances to be sure nothing falls through the cracks.
All of our pumpers are knowledgeable about septic systems, how they function, and about local regulations Two-compartment septic tanks are very common. We frequently discover that most of our competitors only pump out one of the compartments of a two-compartment tank yet charge for the entire tank as most homeowners aren’t aware that their tank has two compartments. We pump out both compartments every time the tank is pumped. Customers are shocked when we locate and expose a second lid that no other company has ever looked for before.
All of management (4) and installation foremen (3) are experienced and have TCEQ Installer II licenses. Therefore, with 7 licensed installers, we are equipped to correctly and knowledgeably provide information to our customers whether its general inquires, site specific questions, estimates, etc.
We educate and train our office staff to help assist customers on the phone. They are able to accurately answer a variety of questions by callers, rather than having to be called back later. Several times daily, they help customers determine whether their backup may be caused by the septic system or a plumbing issue. If we feel the customer has a plumbing issue, we don’t waste the customer’s time or money by sending out one of our crew members. Customers appreciate receiving straight forward, honest, and knowledgeable answers by the first person they speak with.
We provide turn-key installations. Some companies only design or only install systems. Once we have a signed proposal for a new system, we take care of everything (site evaluation, inspection design, permitting, and installation). This saves the owner time from finding a separate designer, applying for the permit themselves, then finding an installer. Therefore, our services are valued by customers short on time or who just want someone to handle everything for them.
For installations, we cater to higher income customers who are willing to pay for the best quality. There are many ways to cut corners during design and installation, but we don’t. We take the time to address all options and concerns during their consultation, and from there, the customer doesn’t have to worry about a thing. We handle the design, permit, installation, etc. They are provided with a thorough orientation upon system completion, complete with a 2 year warranty.
We also cater to homebuilders. We keep the jobs running smooth. We are currently scheduled 6 months in advance. All new homes that are scheduled for installation are monitored weekly and the installation schedule is updated weekly to ensure builders that we will be there when the home is ready for the septic system installation.

Tell me about the financial growth of the company.
In the last 5 years our sales have increased 30%; pumping jobs 31%; Aerobic Systems 25%; and installations 37%.

How are things handled in the office? Do you take advantage of social media?
There are many software programs for service providers that would streamline our work orders and data entry, however, there are none that will provide all the functions we feel are necessary for our checks and balances. Some may find it unnecessary to manually enter information from each work order into a database, but doing so also ensures a second eye is looking at all the information to be sure the technicians and pumpers completed the job thoroughly and helps us to follow up on anything needed. This results in better quality control and customer service.
We post blogs regularly on our website, which are also syndicated on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The blogs are educational and on topics that come from customers and our experience. Every quarter, those blogs are put together in a newsletter that is e-mailed to our customers. We also advertise on Facebook and have downloadable information on our website.

What are the most challenging aspects of your business? What hurdles, obstacles, etc. do you face and how do you overcome them?
Finding experienced installers, pumpers and aerobic techs are a huge challenge. Even when we do find someone experienced, they usually require re-training to our standards. We’ve come to accept that training will always be part of hiring in our industry. The upside is that we get to train them to do things the right way and train to excel.

For more information on Van Delden Wastewater Systems, visit their website at: www.vdwws.com

Story by Mark Joseph Manion

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