Aardvark Waste, An Interview With Stephen Biggs

Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background and how you got into the septic business?
Back in 1999 I was renting an apartment from a man who owned a pumping and drain cleaning company. I was in the construction industry, framing houses, at the time. He would hire me to do side work on his rental properties and would often suggest to me that I should buy his pumping and drain cleaning company from him. In 2000 my sister, her husband, my wife, and I worked out a deal to purchase his company. After three years of partnership, we decided to split the drain cleaning portion of the business from the pumping portion. My sister and her husband took the drain cleaning side and I took the pumping side, calling it Aardvark Waste Services.

Tell me a little about your education and training?
After getting into the business I wanted to learn as much as I could about the industry so I could better serve my customers. I went through the Utah State Onsite Wastewater (UOWA) System Design certification program and the NAWT training program. The Utah State program certified me to design conventional septic systems as well as non- conventional systems like packed bed media, and recirculating sand filter systems, etc. The UOWA and NAWT programs helped to give me a better foundation and helped put me above the competition. I’d say the best education has come from doing it for 17 years!

What does your business model look like?
Our business model has always been to do what the customer needs. Sometimes this involves educating the customer to the fact that they don’t need us. Often they have a plugged main line or a plugged inlet “T”, not a backed up system, or they want to be proactive and call us for maintenance but their system isn’t ready for maintenance. When many people would see this as a quick easy job, I use it as an opportunity to educate my customers. I feel this has served me well because they definitely call me back in a couple years and they talk to their neighbors about what they’ve learned. This usually results in a call from the neighbor and good word of mouth advertising.

How is your company structured in terms of services, equipment, and employee base?
Aardvark Waste Services has one 3500 gal fix mounted pump truck and a roll off truck that can carry a 3500 gal vacuum tank. The roll off truck is also used for taking our dewatering box to the landfill. We use a gravity filter dewatering box and polymer injection unit to dewater restaurant grease trap waste and septic waste from out of area location that our municipal treatment plant won’t except. We’ve been dewatering for 13 years now. Aardvark Waste Services usually employs three people. My wife runs the office and I, along with another driver, do the pumping and other related work. For the last couple months though I’ve been doing the pumping and other work myself. Our employee of eight years left for a higher paying job with health benefits.

How did you decide on what types of trucks and equipment to invest in?
Internet research, attending the pumper show, and talking with the manufacturers.

What are the different services you offer?
We pump grease traps for restaurants and other commercial facilities with kitchens like nursing homes, hospitals, hotels, jails, and in-patient care facilities. We pump septic tanks and pit toilets for residential, commercial, and government customers and we pump car wash sumps and auto shop sumps. We also do point of sale inspection of septic systems for real estate transactions. We also do locating and excavation of septic systems and install risers and lids.

Which service do you do most often?
The largest portion of our business is grease trap service. It’s about 70% with septic being about 25% and sumps being 5%.

What are some of the distinguishing features and services of your company that are unique to you which allow you to be successful?
13 years ago we purchased a dewatering system from Aqua Zyme. Dewatering allowed us to eliminate the expensive heavy metals testing that each customer was required to have in order for us to dispose of their waste at the landfill as a slurry. We are able to service these customers right away instead of waiting for testing. This has been key to our success. Along with our reputation for doing the job right and getting the trap or septic tank clean no matter how hard it is. We never make excuses or leave sludge or grease in the tank. If needed, we do permitted confined entry to get the job done.

What is your target growth percentage, and what are your challenges along the way?
I don’t really have a growth percentage goal. Our goals are to keep operation costs low so we can weather the economic storms that will arise. Right now our biggest challenge is trying to figure out a fair and competitive pricing structure, so we can afford to compete for employees and pay for health care. As I stated earlier we just lost our employee of eight years and I don’t blame him for leaving. He was offered more money than I can pay and health care benefits which I can’t afford to pay for. We don’t even have health care for our own family. Since he left we’ve decided we need to raise our prices regardless of whether or not our competitors will. We’ve never tried to be the cheapest. We’ve always felt that our service justified a higher price but there’s a limit to how much more people will pay for better service. At some point, it just comes down to dollars. It’s my opinion that this industry needs to start charging what we’re worth. There’s a reason you never meet a wealthy retired pumper. There’s a reason most pumpers work until they’re too old to work. There’s a reason pumpers have a reputation as being shirtless, overall wearing hillbillies. Because there’s always one willing to do the job for cheaper with his leaky truck and excuses for leaving sludge in the tank. Until three years ago Utah state rule referred to us as “waste scavengers”. So simply put, our biggest challenge is how to come up with an extra $25k so we can purchase health insurance for our family and an employee so we can be more competitive when hiring.

Who works at the company, and how many people are employed?
As of now, it’s just myself in the truck full time and my wife in the office.

Tell us about the different trucks and other equipment we would see if we looked in your parking lot?
If you came to my yard you would see 2006 Ford F-250. This is my personal/work truck. You would also see a Peterbilt with a 3500 gallon vacuum tank with a robuschi blower. A 500 gallon freshwater tank and a 10 gpm 4000 psi jetter. And an International 7600 roll off truck which carries a 3500 gallon vacuum tank with 200 gallons of fresh water and a 10 gpm 4000 psi jetter. This truck also carries my dewatering box to the landfill.
How many clients would you say you serviced or pumped per month?
It really varies, we just try to be ready when the demand is there!

Who are some of your bigger clients?
Our biggest clients are the local and national government.

What are the most challenging aspects of your business and industry?
The biggest challenge I face is how to increase my revenue so I can afford to purchase health insurance and become compliant under Obama Care and offer healthcare to an employee so I can be more competitive when looking for help. Right now in my area, the construction business is going crazy. Contractors can’t keep up with all the work and there is a severe labor shortage. In response to this problem, they are offering really high wages and benefits. They are starting laborers at $15 an hour and if you have some experience you can quickly make $20 an hour. Two years ago this was a high wage, now it’s expected.

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