SOS Liquid Waste Haulers, An Interview with Carter Mayfield

Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background and how your journey began in the septic business?
My father, Jess Mayfield, used to operate wastewater treatment plants as a side job to make money for family vacations. That quickly became his main job. I used to spend summers working on wastewater plants and vowed that I would get a good education, so that I wouldn’t have to do that. I ended up getting a degree in Chemical Engineering with a concentration on environmental engineering. I went on to become a process design engineer. In the meanwhile, my father acquired a septic business and met a man named Jason Breithaupt who told him that he could make real money in the grease trap business pumping 13 traps a day, which was unheard of to my father, who was used to 2-3 callouts per day in the septic business. They ended up growing the business to pumping over 100 traps a day.
I got a call from my dad in 2006 after I had worked as an engineer, got an MBA from Wharton, and had worked as a consultant. He needed help growing the business and was thinking about retiring. I came to the family business in 2007 and have worked there ever since. For the record, my dad isn’t retired yet.

What is your business model?
First, we are focused on grease traps, which is strictly restaurants and commercial establishments and grit traps at car washes. We do not do residential septic unless it is as a favor to a restaurant owner. We only do septic if it is for a restaurant. We are a one stop shop that does both trap pumping services and plumbing services on drain lines. We have just found that we get a lot of calls on clogs at restaurants that get blamed on the grease trap. It was easier to unclog them than it was to get into a fight with a third party plumber on whether or not the grease trap was actually the issue, which it almost never is, if we are pumping them.
The key to our business is that we are vertically integrated, which is to say that we have our own processing facility that de-waters the sludge and then either composts it or land applies it. We haven’t taken sludge to a landfill for years, so we are green that way.

What plans do you use that may help your workforce do their job?
One of the things we have discovered is that we need to make pumping grease traps as easy as possible for our employees. It is hard work. Jason Breithaupt used to pump grease traps and that is probably the most important thing that he has taught me over the years… that you can’t ask drivers to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. Pressure washers are part of that. At one point, before mobile phones were standard, we had GPS. We also have very specific instructions for servicing every location.

What marketing research have you done regarding the types of trucks and equipment in which you use at the company?
I have done market sizing projects, but those were primarily to determine the feasibility of plant expansion projects and whether to expand into different markets. As for the decision to buy trucks and equipment, Jason handles that strategy… we basically buy more vehicles and tankers as needed. My father handles procurement. Jason is constantly tweaking the trucks, as I mentioned earlier, to make life easier and more efficient on the drivers. He really is a genius when it comes to that.

What different services do you offer, and what is the breakdown of percentages for your company’s productivity?
We offer grease trap pumping and grit trap pumping. About 80% of our pumping business is grease trap, 15% is grit trap, and 5% is various other (such as septic and sludge). On our plumbing side, we used to have a large percent of that business as emergency hydro jetting, but now it is primarily grease trap repair, not because our hydrojet work shrank, but because our repair business grew.

What are some of the distinguishing features and services of your company that are unique to you which make your company thrive?
The face that we offer plumbing services has allowed us to differentiate ourselves. Our competitors offer preventative maintenance hydro jetting, but couldn’t unclog anything to save their lives, so they really can’t solve customer pain points. I also mentioned that we are vertically integrated. Because we do our own processing, we can perform our service cheaper than our “independent” smaller competitors.

How did you arrive at creating this image for your company, and how does this make your company better than the competition?
As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t want to get into the jetting business. Plumbers forced our hand by not understanding how grease traps work and telling customers that we were doing our service improperly, which was unacceptable to us. In the end, hydro jetting is a low margin business, but we keep it because we feel it differentiates us in the eyes of our customers.

What is your target growth percentage, and what are some challenges you’ve faced along the way?
It is difficult to set a target for growth. Market share in our market has been stable for a while and we have about 60% market share relative to Liquid Environmental Solutions and Southwaste, our major competitors. The biggest factor in market growth is cities enforcing their pumping ordinances and pressure from the EPA is causing this to happen more and more. We used to have a bunch of customers on 180-day cycles and even annual cycles, but the city ordinances are almost all 90 days, and more customers are having to move in that direction. We have averaged about 5% revenue growth over the past 5 years for our pumping business, but have seen over 10% annual growth in our plumbing business.

How many employees do you have working at the company?
We have around 45 employees. Of those, about 13 are CDL drivers. The rest are either office staff or non-CDL field technicians employed in other service lines.

How is your executive staff and office managers set up?
We are a really flat organization with three executives, a dispatch manager and plant manager, and then employees. This makes for lower overhead and less of a requirement for lots of coordination and communication between the parties.

How do you boost efficiency in your work crews and keep morale high?
Like I mentioned, we try to make the job as easy as possible. We teach our guys to have respect for the work we do. What they do isn’t easy. We are a small business, and our favorite part of the year is the Christmas party, where we thank God for the year, because we recognize everyone’s hard work and give out bonuses in successful years, which thankfully has been the last several.

What do you expect out of your crews?
Our only immediately fireable offense is an improperly pumped grease trap. Everything else in our employee handbook gives multiple offenses. If a customer can’t trust our work, then that’s it. So I would say our expectations are high.

Tell us about the different trucks and other equipment you use most often?
We have our trucks and tankers. Our trucks are primarily pre-2008 Internationals. We just don’t like messing with the newer trucks with the emission systems that take the trucks out of service all of the time, Our understanding is that the newer trucks are much more reliable, so we are looking into those. Our tankers are all customized to our specifications, as mentioned earlier, to make life as easy as possible on drivers. We have a bunch of pickup trucks of various makes and models for our plumbing crews. And we have our jetting machines. We also have a couple of compressors to drive hydraulic power tools, etc.
We service about 3,200 locations on a regular basis. All said and done, we have about 1,800 customers.

Who are some of your more important clients?
I would love to tell you, but our major clients have agreements in place that we are not to reveal their names. Sorry!

What are the most challenging parts of your industry?
First of all, senseless regulation. It is almost impossible to get a permit in our market. That makes it very profitable as nobody new can get in, but it also makes it very hard to grow and we would rather grow. People think of Texas as a business-friendly state. That is great marketing, but in practice, Texas can be tough, maybe not as tough as California, but certainly tough.
The other thing is finding drivers. When the Eagleford Shale Deposit was discovered, the oil companies came in and were pulling away our drivers by paying $22 – $24 an hour. As oil prices tanked, those jobs went away, but now we got a wave of applicants who had worked in the oil field, which is a very different skill set from what we need for a route driver. Retraining oil field guys to being route drivers is challenging, and it doesn’t work out a lot of the time. We discovered a long time ago that over-the-road drivers tend not to make a good fit in terms of drivers for our company.

Story by Katherine Nolan

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