Gray Brothers, Spectacular Past, Stunning Future!

2019 is the 90th anniversary year of Gray Brothers Septic Services, founded in 1929. Sustaining a family business for nearly a century is an astounding legacy. Steadily serving their Spring City, Pennsylvania community in the Main Line area of Philadelphia over so many decades of changes whirling around them, the business has established itself as a Philadelphia institution. Over the past several years, since we last interviewed Gray Brother’s owner Dan Spracklin, the institution has undergone some extraordinary changes.
Today, Gray Brothers is still located on the same spot where George Gray opened for business on that first day a lifetime ago. The purchase documents for George’s first pumper truck (for $500) still hang on the office wall, along with a government permit, granting the Gray Brothers permission to use fuel for business purposes during WWII.
Through the early years, the brothers grew a customer base largely through referrals, due to their reputation for honesty and expertise in the field. Now, 90 years later, the modern company serves tens of thousands of customers.

Wow! Nearly a Century at Gray Brothers!

Identifying a need in the community for expert and dependable septic tank services, George formed the George B. Gray Company in 1929. After returning from the war, Robert, George’s brother joined the business, and it became Gray Brothers. Amy (Gray) Spracklin and her husband Dan Spracklin took over in 2013, Amy as managing owner and Dan as CEO.
Since the turn of the century, a new story is being written at Gray Brothers, a great new-century legacy. Prior to coming on board at Gray Brothers, Dan had had a successful career developing businesses in the financial and insurance services industries. With Amy’s deep knowledge of the company and Dan’s experience in creating organizations, it made sense for the couple to lead Gray Brothers into its next generation of growth. Currently, Amy is raising the couple’s three young children full-time, plus managing the marketing and accounting. Dan explains that, she’ll later resume her full-time management role in the company.

New Era – State-of-the-Art Operations Model

Dan reflects on the couple’s years of moving the company into the 21st century, first incorporating in 2013, then reconfiguring systems, bringing the business into the digital age, streamlining, standardizing, and fully modernizing operations, significantly increasing productivity. The new management has employed the best in industrial process improvement methodologies, such as Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, and other Lean policies and practices.
Transitioning to Lean operations models involves reconfiguring operating systems to eliminate process redundancies, time waste, and other process deficiencies. Those improvements enabled the company to increase revenues by expanding their service capacity for commercial and industrial contracts. Streamlining work order processing and routing, and taking advantage of economies of scale has increased operational efficiency, productivity, and margins.
The Business Model 90 Years Later
Gray Brothers remains one of the few full-scope septic services companies in their area. They do it all: septic systems design and install, inspection, servicing. Through 90 years of developing the company’s collective knowledge and perfecting methods, the team is one of master craftsmen and expert technicians.
Just a few years ago, the company was doing around 8,000-9,000 pumping services per year. Today, it’s about double that volume. They had been moving about 4.2 million gallons of sewage annually. Dan mentions that last year the number was a little over 20 million gallons. The company’s customer base is still largely residential (around 70%). Most of their work is still in pumping and servicing, which continues to be about 85% residential and around 15% commercial and industrial combined. Another 20% or so from septic system installs, and approximately 10% is from inspection services.
The company has built an exceptionally strong local brand over its many decades of pumping and servicing the same residences. Even after homes change owners, often the new homeowners have continued with Gray Brothers. The company’s superior workmanship and service quality, their septic tank expertise, and their commitment to fair prices has proven a sustainable branding model.
Through the years, the company has built strong working relationships with around 25 universities in the Greater Philadelphia area. They provide grease trap services to most of the kitchen and food service operations for the institutions. Plus, many own numerous residential homes, many of which have septic tanks serviced by Gray Brothers. The company’s 24-hour emergency services provides a reliable resource for residential and municipal emergencies in the area.
Because of the depth of professional relationships with the community that Gray Brothers has cultivated over nearly a century, today, the company has around 90% of the liquid waste market share across its areas of operation. That ratio negates the need for anything more than the passive marketing and branding the team consistently does, in the form of full focus on exemplary workmanship and service.

Transformative Technology from Gray Brothers & Somax BioEnergy

If you feel inclined to ask what’s new at Gray Brothers, here’s an astounding little announcement. We started by merely asking about new staff or other major changes to talk about on that front in 2019. Dan mentioned that the company has added two new admin employees. But then he mentioned that his team has now developed technology to convert waste material they’re hauling into renewable energy.
Wait. What?!!! Dan explained that Gray Brothers has launched a sister company, Somax Bioenergy, Inc., which is dedicated to advancement and roll out of the technology. The two companies now operate out of a single space. They’ve just moved into their new shared 110,000-square-foot facility, leaving behind their former 10,000-square-foot space. Dan announces that in Q2 of 2020, the first plant will be up and running, putting its $400K grant money for waste water treatment to good use.
Asked what he thinks the significance of Gray Brothers’ new Somax technology will be, Dan said simply, “I believe it’s going to revolutionize the waste water hauling industry and the waste water treatment industry.”
Of course, ALW will soon bring readers details on this new technology and the Gray Brothers new team of five engineers and their endeavor at Somax. For now, see somaxbioenergy.com for information about this extraordinary development from Gray Brothers.

Ideal Septic Service Equipment for Pennsylvania Market

Returning to more familiar terrain, and anticipating upcoming in-depth discussion of the new Gray Brothers technology, we move along to ask for updates on other operational fronts. Dan shares that Gray Brothers currently has 6 pumper trucks, including 348-model Peterbilt’s, with 4,000-gallon aluminum tanks and Masport or NVE pumps, automatics and Eaton 10-speeds, as well as Sterling trucks with 4,000-gallon tanks of either carbon steel or aluminum and Acterra NVE pumps. Their excavating equipment includes several Case 380 Super M backhoes and a couple of Terex TL-800 skid steers. They also have a tri-axle Ford L 9000 dump truck and a single-axle Chevy Kodiak, and a fleet of well-equipped full-sized Ford and Dodge maintenance and other service trucks. At the time we last spoke to Dan, the company was also about to buy additional midi and mini excavators.
Gray Brothers inspectors use Mytana wireless video-feed systems, enabling them to show customers the video on smart phones and upload it to the company’s YouTube channel, to help people become better informed about the work being done. The company also uses state-of-the-art fleet management software, linked to its GPS in all its field services vehicles. Fleetmatics is their chosen platform.

Family-Like Company Culture

The average length of employment at Gray Brothers is 10-15 years. Some employees have been with the company for more than 20 years, and others longer than 30 years. One person recently retired after 38 years with the company. Another retired in recent years after 45 years, and another after 52 years. The Spracklins find that their team are among their region’s most dedicated and loyal workers.
Most employees have worked for the company over 10 years. Dan doesn’t note much that the company does in the way of design for building team culture. He just says they provide their team with the best equipment, warm winter work clothes, a great break area with a kitchen to congregate in, cook, and relax. He also mentioned the company’s Wall of Fame, where they retire the timecards of employees who retire after 25 years, like retiring ball players’ jersey numbers. Dan emphasizes that the company’s exceptional record of success in retaining its talented staff is about respect, just mutual respect.

Team Talent – What Makes Gray Brothers Great

A total of 14 people work at Gray Brothers today, including 4-5 full-time drivers and technicians who all started as laborers and advanced through continuous training in all facets of septic services. The company also employs from two to three laborers in apprenticeships to become installers, technicians, and drivers. There are two full-time office employees, and the company’s dispatcher, who worked for the company out in the field for over 25 years and has since provided an ideal training resource for drivers and others. The company’s two installers are true master craftsmen with over 70 years of combined experience installing septic systems. The company has five very talented PSMA-certified inspectors.
Bari Harvey is the VP of operations, managing daily operations, including scheduling, parts ordering. Gary Gray still contributes as a top consultant to the company. He’s called in to consult when workers or homeowners cannot locate an underground septic system, and he and Dan work together on some systems designs. Dan does most systems design and installation oversight.
Dan notes that the company will have to get a person soon, to help with management of day to day operations at Gray Brothers, as the expansion by way of the new business becomes more demanding. He says they hope to promote from within.

Gray Brothers Septic Services, PA, Growth Plan

Gray Brothers’ growth has been strong and steady. When we spoke to them a few years ago, they were projecting a solid 5% growth rate over coming years. They’re now projecting 20% growth. We asked Dan if that has to do with the Somax expansion of the business model. He said that it’s actually due to new the upswing in the regional housing market — lots of new homes and septic systems. Three out of every five homes in the near future will be built with, or need on-site septic systems. The company’s expansion plans, per our earlier discussion with Dan, include a few acquisitions of local septic services whose owners will be retiring in coming years, with no line of business succession. The company has maintained good relationships with area competitors, so they can expect smooth transitions.

Technical Consultancy to Major Academic Institutions

Over the years, Gray Brothers has been involved with Villanova University’s RISE (Resilient, Innovation, Sustainable, and Engineering) a consortium of professors and grad students researching various solutions, including some involving liquid waste, for twenty high-technology corporations, including Merck, Boeing, and Comcast Cable, among others. Gray Brothers provides technical consultancy for that research. The researchers also help Gray Brothers better understand their environmental and strategic solutions for minimizing it as part of their business model.

Key Current and Future Challenges

Throughout the liquid waste industry, there are the two common challenges of maintaining equipment in optimal condition and finding good employment candidates with skills or strong potential to develop them through apprenticeships and masterships, to fill openings as people retire. Dan Spracklin lists those as two of the major challenges for his company as well.
He also views the need to constantly be aware of emerging technologies, particularly in septic drain fields as another major challenge. He lists an additional key challenge in the need to continue finding the best ways to work together with local agencies and the legal system to obtain necessary approvals of new technologies.
Learning from Dan Spracklin of Gray Brothers Septic Services
The amount to be learned from the story of Gray Brothers and its astounding 90 years of successful operations and growth in the competitive Philadelphia metro septic services market is incalculable. The company represents a model for success in the septic services industry, but also much more broadly for U.S. American business sustainability.
From the long-time entrenchment of the Gray brothers into the Philadelphia market, to the inculcation of Lean by Dan Spracklin, to the company’s highly structured and rare fully systemically embedded employee development assurance program, to the company’s deep family-values model for employee engagement and satisfaction, the company has easily among the richest environments for cultivation of success we’ve discovered.
As so clearly evidenced by the business’s utterly spectacular historical record of employment longevity across its staff, the unusual longevity of the company itself, the organizational ethos so long generated by the passion of the Gray Brothers, and nurtured under the continued leadership of Dan Spracklin is of the highest entrepreneurial order.
The company’s contribution to academic knowledge in its collaboration with Villanova sets Gray Brothers apart as a premier industry expert. Now, the company has achieved a technological breakthrough into a realm of contribution that will transform the industry. Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected any less from an industry leader like Dan Spracklin and his extraordinary team at Gray Brothers.
For new entrants into the U.S. septic services industry, the best advice you may ever get is to absorb as much knowledge as you can from a large-market dominator and innovator like Gray Brothers Septic Services in Philadelphia PA. A company can naturally be only as great as its leadership. As the phenomenal Gray Brothers’ CEO, an extraordinary organizational development expert, and a septic systems design master, it’s fair to assert that Dan Spracklin stands out as a, or perhaps more accurately as the septic services industry’s foremost national, and perhaps global authority.
For more information about Gray Brothers Septic Services, visit http://graybrothersinc.com.
For more information about Somax Bioenergy, Inc., visit https://www.somaxbioenergy.com/.
Source
https://www.somaxbioenergy.com/
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