CAT CANS Portable Services of Manhattan- An Interview with Owner, Matt Wallace

Matt Wallace is the owner and septic expert of Cat Cans Portable Services of Manhattan. They are located in Manhattan, Kansas with over 17 years of plumbing experience. Their main goal as a company is to provide exceptional customers service to all their clients. They also provide top-notch portable restrooms that they also service all over the Kansas area. There’s even a very unique project that Cat Cans is a part of that you’ll find out at the end of the interview. Let’s hear a little bit more about what Matt’s excellent company has to offer for the liquid waste industry.

Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background and how you got into the septic business?
My personal background is such that I was a farm kid in southwest Kansas working on the farm. I went to Kansas State University and majored in the study of soil and plants and how everything intertwines. I wanted to do something in the soil area, and when I was going to school I worked for a friend of mine whose dad owned a plumbing company. I was always looking for more and saw a need in my community for this type of service and there wasn’t much competition at that time. There was only one other guy in town, who had a portable restroom business almost 40 miles away. It wasn’t what I envisioned for life, but it seemed to work out well for me.

How many offices do you have and what does your employee base look like?
We have one physical office location in Manhattan and a satellite location that is near Chapman. I acquired a company along the way and this location. I don’t own the actual location, but we do a lot of business out of this farming spot with composting and things like that. For employees, we have my wife who plays a vital role in the operation and ten full-time employees. Of course in the summer we carry some seasonal help, so that’s an extra 8-10 people based on the seasonal work and events that we do. Those kids really help out a lot though.

How did you decide on what types of trucks and equipment to invest in?
Of course, like most people say everyone is operated differently. The people in the industry, as far as equipment goes, decide on what works best for them. So the same equipment used in some septic businesses, might not be useful for another. You can gain a lot of information by simply talking to people. We’re close to Kansas City, with two big truck manufacturers that are available. I don’t have to go far to find equipment at least. Plus, the wastewater expo in February, helps. You can see things in person and talk to others in the industry. When I first started I did everything with a 550 slide-in vacuum tank unit from Satellite Industries, which was good until business improved. That’s probably what I have done the most.
What are the different services you offer?
As far as the liquid waste side of things, we offer septic pumping, septic tank inspection, sewer camera inspection, main line sewer inspection, clean out, locating and digging up tanks, septic system repair, and installation. We also send out and maintain portable restroom systems.

Which service do you do most often?
When you break the company down, the portable restroom business is how we started, but I wanted to get into pumping and septic. A good septic truck is around $150,000. So I kind of had to work my way up to the septic angle. We’ve acquired two companies, and one was an older septic company that had been in business since 1963. I had to use older stuff until I could afford new equipment. Septic is well over 50 percent of the total services we provide. Portable restrooms are probably at 20-25 percent. We also design and install wastewater systems for residential homes. The other 10-15 percent is restroom trailer rentals for wedding, rallies, and other special events. Handwash stations and holding tanks are a part of that too for jobs in the construction industry. One of the other services we offer is also grease trap pumping. We just handle trap waste under the septic umbrellas.

What are some of the distinguishing services of your company that are unique to you, which allow you to run a great business?
We only have one other competitor in our area, so they do good work as well. Quite honestly, to me, it starts with our employees who do the work. They are all in uniform, not sloppily dressed, polite, and they truly listen to a customer’s problems. All of our equipment is uniform, so nothing sticks out and looks awkward. We’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Being consistent in uniform and being the best possible company we can be is part of our success.

What is your target growth percentage, and some challenges along the way?
You always want to have good qualified people that work for you. They are on the front lines. It’s not a huge challenge to keep good people, but with the growth of our company, I have people that come to me wanting jobs. I don’t have to advertise really for “help wanted.”
I always have a backlog of resumes that I can turn to. Turnover isn’t a huge issue for us, but I know it’s a factor for other companies. Another aspect of the industry is that you’re always trying to get new customers, so that’s always a challenge, especially with competition. Some other challenges, going outside of your expertise and not specializing in one thing can become a problem. We believe in doing a couple of things very well. With regulation and compliance through KDHD, our city and county government with grease trap pumping is very specific. So the laws and regulations have to be followed flawlessly.

How do you boost efficiency and morale in your workers?
I think that’s always on my mind. You don’t want anybody to not look forward to coming to work. I cross train a lot of my guys, so they know how to do a lot of different stuff which helps break up the monotony, so they aren’t doing the same thing every day. This isn’t the same for everyone, but it depends on the individual.
I was reading a book by Richard Branson, so you can get a lot of business information from those people who are successful. Little tidbits along the way. Some things he says make sense, when you are ranking things in your company, many people say customers are the most important factor, but he says no, it’s your employees who should be number one. I try to follow this and place them number one. I listen to them and talk to them first if a customer complains. Employees who care about what they do and enjoy who they work with, it comes through in our service. Putting your employees first and everyone shows up and has a good attitude, the customers realize that.

Tell us about the different trucks and other equipment we would see if we looked in your parking lot?
For the truck itself, we have seven pump trucks with everything from a Ford F 350 with a slide-in unit and flatbed, to a 2010 Peterbilt, with a 4000-gallon tank and a couple of smaller 2000 gallon ones, and a Dodge truck.

How many clients would you say you serviced or pumped per month? Who are some of your bigger clients?
On the septic side, my wife handles the office duties running it with another lady, so probably 160 different contracts pumped per month. That includes industrial pumping as well which is also car washes and wastewater. There’s a Hormel plant that we service. That’s definitely one of the bigger ones. On the porta-potty side, it’s three portable restrooms drivers to maintain what we have out in the field.

Anything else you’d like to share about your company?
One other thing that might be significant is that they are building a structure NBAF (National Biological Agriculture Defense Facility) and its goal is to basically prevent our food supply form a terror attack. They just moved it here. It’s given our whole community a shot in the arm. We were doing okay in the downturn, but it’s a college town with a military installation, Port Riley, and we do a lot of work with them. This project is a billion dollar construction site that we service on this massive job site. It’s kind of a big deal. They are our number one customer hiring right now and it’s a ten-year project. Pretty cool!

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