APPLYING LESSONS LEARNED
But as a successful entrepreneur over the years, Gross, 54, has learned a thing or two about business. For starters, being both resilient and proactive in the face of adversity matters greatly.
“You have to be resourceful or you’re dead in the water,” he notes.
Furthermore, it’s also critical to create a professional image through effective branding. And last but not least, it’s essential to charge prices that are high enough to pay employees well, invest in reliable and productive equipment, and still turn a reasonable profit.
So in short, Gross found himself well-equipped to handle the forces unexpectedly battering the business, which he bought after selling a semi-trailer repair business. He’d operated the company for about 10 years before selling it to a national maintenance company. Before that, he worked for his father, who ran a similar business, as well as a semi-trailer leasing company.
When Gross sold his company in 2018, he took some time off to think about his next move. That’s when he learned that Turner Sanitation was for sale. The founder of the company, Bob Turner, had passed away about 10 years ago and his daughter and her husband, who had assumed ownership, now wanted to retire.
“The business is located five minutes from my home, was well-established and had a great reputation,” he says. “Financial records showed slow growth, but the business had been profitable every year. I sensed it was a huge opportunity.
“I found all of that very enticing — a great chance to see if I could build something again.”
EXPERIENCE PAYS OFF
To mitigate the pandemic’s impact, Gross drew on his experience with the 2008 recession, which hit about a year after he established his trailer-repair company.
Related: Product Focus/Portable Sanitation – October 2019
“It taught me how to be very proactive in finding new business,” he explains. “I got on the phone and made numerous calls to companies with truck fleets to ask for work. And it paid off.”
During the next decade, Gross built the business to more than 50 mobile service trucks serving multiple trucking companies in nearly half a dozen states. “That experience taught me how to grow a company,” he says.
In the wake of the pandemic, Gross hit the phones again. He and his office staff made hundreds of calls to both existing and potential customers to drum up business. Along the way, he secured a contract to clean county-owned portable restrooms located in parks as well as pump out RV waste tanks at county-owned campgrounds.
“That helped us a lot as far as generating revenue goes,” he says. “The main thing in cases like this is to be proactive instead of shutting down. You have to push forward and find out where the business is.”
Gross also raised rates for septic pumping. He believed the rates being charged weren’t commensurate with the value of the services provided. In addition, the rates didn’t generate enough revenue to allow the company to invest in newer equipment and pay employees better, he says.
“So I tested the market and increased rates,” he says. “And so far, it’s working the way I thought it would … revenue is up 25% more than the same time period last year, and that’s with only 50% of the business operating (the pumping business).”
To produce more revenue, Gross also added a service-call charge to his pumping fees. His rationale? Businesses that send out expensive vehicles every day that require constant upkeep and maintenance should generate a separate revenue stream to fund those expenses.
The trip fee is based on the distance to reach the customer. “If you pump 100 tanks a week, it adds up quickly,” he says. But at the same time, he also offers a discounted pumping rate for repeat customers.
The bottom line: Maintaining and investing in new vehicle and equipment must be a top priority, he says.
Gross also had to upgrade the company’s service vehicles, another factor that spurred him to raise rates. He did that not only to improve vehicle reliability and boost customer service, but to improve working conditions for route drivers.
On the septic side of the business, the company runs a 2021 International HV607-H1 built out by FlowMark Vacuum Trucks with a 4,200-gallon aluminum tank and National Vacuum Equipment pump; a 2020 International CV515-4 with a 1,600-gallon aluminum tank from FlowMark and an NVE pump; and a 2007 Sterling outfitted with a 3,600-gallon steel tank from U.S. Tanks Industry and a Wallenstein pump (Elmira Machine Industries).
Two other trucks round out the septic fleet: A 2005 International 4000 with a 2,000-gallon steel tank from Progress Tank and a Masport pump, and a 2001 Sterling with a 3,500-gallon steel tank from TankTec and a Wallenstein pump.
The company also owns four restroom service trucks: a 2016 Dodge Ram 4500 with a 550-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank built by TankTec; a 2015 Dodge Ram 3500 with a 400-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater aluminum tank, also manufactured by TankTec; a 2006 Ford LCF with a 440-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank; and a 2005 GMC Sierra outfitted with a 300-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater aluminum tank. Progress Tank built the tanks for the latter two trucks. All four trucks feature Masport vacuum pumps.
The business also owns about 400 standard and 57 handicapped-accessible restrooms, 57 hand-wash stations and a 14-foot restroom trailer from Satellite Industries. To transport restrooms, the company relies on three Ford pickup trucks and trailers from McKee Technologies and Golden Trailers.
REBRAND, RAISE PAY
Revamping the company’s image was another early focal point. That included building a new website, creating a new logo and developing an integrated marketing campaign where everything from brochures to invoices were uniformly branded.
“These days, it’s all about technology and image,” Gross says. “There’s no question that rebranding the image of the company was huge.”
Gross also raised pay for employees. He didn’t do it to ensure the staff, all of whom stayed on board, would like their new boss. Instead, he considered it an essential part of his business plan, which wouldn’t succeed if employees left the company. He also felt they were underpaid.
“To me, it’s all about the people,” he explains. “You can’t have a great business without great people. I certainly can’t run a business by myself. So to recruit and retain quality employees, you have to treat them with respect and pay them enough to enjoy a good livelihood.”
In early 2021, Gross also plans to offer health insurance and 401(k) retirement plans.
The investments in new equipment, marketing and employees helped ease what otherwise can be an awkward transition period between new owner and existing staff. After employees saw Gross was willing to put money into the business to make it better, morale increased, he says.
“In terms of personnel, the main goal for me is find out what our people do and what’s their expertise — really push what they know,” he explains. “I try to let them make decisions based on what they know, versus me just telling them what to do.
“The way I see it, we don’t have any bosses,” he adds. “We just try to respect everyone’s job. Everyone plays a key role. They’ve been very appreciative. And if they’re happy, then I’m happy.”
The full-time employees include septic-route drivers Mike Daly (a 20-year employee), Robert Lawton, John Bolvee, Steven Burk (also a certified mechanic) and Charles Cross; Don Siegers, field manager and certified mechanic; Fallon Eldred, accounts manager; Jim Smith, business-development representative; and restroom-route drivers Daniel Siegers, Jake Eldred and John Fowler.
The company also employs two part-timers: Shyanne Welch, accounts manager assistant, and Zack Gross, field assistant.
Looking ahead, Gross sums up his business goals in two words: total domination.
“That’s what I want,” he says. “In the next five years, I want everyone to know about us and use us.”
The potential for growth is high, he says, noting that in Oakland County alone, where the business is located, there are roughly 80,000 potential septic customers.
“And we currently service only a small percentage of them, so there’s opportunity for extreme growth everywhere,” he says. “We’re doing well right now, but we’re not even close to firing on all cylinders.”
Gross also believes the restroom-rental business will rebound in 2021. Currently septic pumping generates about 75% of the company’s annual revenue, but he expects sales levels to revert back to the approximately 50/50 split between septic and restrooms that existed when he bought the company.
“Despite all the challenges, I’m really excited — we’re positioned to do great things,” he concludes. “I’m very confident about what we’re doing and where we’re going.”