Constant training, respect for employees and customers, and old-fashioned fairness and quality drive success for D.J.’s Backhoe

As a family business prepares for a change in ownership, the values that made it a success will remain.

“Dad built this business on old-school values,” says Don Moats Jr., whose father started the company in 1991. “That will not change. He was always focused on delivering value first. He knew that quality service and fairness in his custo- mer relations would bring financial success — more as a consequence than as a goal.”

Serving a customer base in a 100-mile radius of Kirtland, N.M., D.J.’s Backhoe Inc. emerged when Don Moats Sr. needed a service provider to clean grit and debris from the drains in his carwash bays, and needed onsite systems installed for a mobile home park he was developing. About 200 miles north of Albuquerque, Kirtland is in the heart of a natural gas extraction and exploration area.

Today, the business mix includes about 30 percent installations, 30 percent real estate inspections, 15 percent septic system pumping, 15 percent system repairs, and 10 percent portable restroom rental.

It just grew

After Don Sr. bought a vacuum truck for the carwash, a friend taught him how to pump septic tanks. Soon, Don Jr. was pumping tanks in the evenings after school and in summer. As work on the real estate project advanced, none of Don Sr.’s contractor buddies would help him learn the ropes of system installation.

“When the local regulator told me I needed a contractor’s license to do my own installation, I studied for the exam and passed it on the first try,” he recalls. It was 1991 when he really focused on installation and pumping.

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“I liked it,” he says. “Every day was different. Every day we were providing a service somebody wanted and needed. It just stuck to me.” From a one-man operation, the business has grown to a nine-person enterprise.

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Don Sr.’s wife, Bertha, handles the books and is an as-needed relief person in the office. Don Jr.’s wife, Jamie, administers the portable restroom side of the business, while Ella Charles handles secretarial duties.

In the field, brothers Jesus and Edmundo Verela are equipment operators. Shawn May and Ben Burge are cross-trained to service portable toilets and pump treatment tanks. Don Jr. and Don Sr. do it all. These days, Don Jr. focuses on crew and job coordination, while Don Sr. is the primary customer contact person.

Busy through the downturn

The younger Moats at first didn’t intend to move into his father’s place. After high school, he went to work in the gas industry: He didn’t want to listen to his dad or have him for a boss. But after about six years, his gas industry job was gone.

“When I went to the other job, I didn’t understand what I’d walked away from,” he says. “It took me 15 years to figure out what dad had here.” He has now worked with his father for two years.

A gas exploration frenzy, and the resulting influx of people, now keeps D.J.’s Backhoe’s trucks and personnel busy in an area where the overall unemployment is 10.7 percent. Because of a new state law that requires all onsite systems to be inspected when properties are sold, the Moats men are busy.

“This is not necessarily a sign of happy times for all, by any means,” says Don Jr. “We have inspected the same system multiple times in a very short period because when one person’s mortgage application fails, the next buyer’s lender demands a current inspection.” In a typical year, about 30 percent of their work is pre-sale inspections, but in the last year or so, that has jumped to nearly 60 percent. “What powers our success is this company’s reputation in the marketplace,” says Don Jr. “My dad didn’t just make a business. He made a name for the business that is rooted in our values and his fair dealings. These are, in large part, what set us apart from others in this marketplace.”

Don Sr. adds, “Quality work comes from a thorough understanding of what we do, why we do it and how systems work in different site conditions. We have been to every training event we can find and get to.” Three or four times a year, father and son take a seven-hour drive to Ruidoso for two-day seminars sponsored by the Lincoln County Advanced Treatment System (ATS) Summit Group.

The dedication to learning also sets them apart. Don Sr. estimates that 90 percent of local installers have not taken training. “If you don’t understand the what and why, you can’t possibly explain the job to your customer,” he says. “Without that explanation, the customer cannot make an informed decision. Helping homeowners become informed buyers is part of our job as well.”

Leadership and pride

The business thrives on respect for employees and customers alike. Don Sr. observes, “If I am not willing to do a particular job, I will not ask a crew member to do it.” And his son adds, “If dad and I are not convinced a particular technology will work, or we do not like the way it is manufactured, we will not install or service it.”

Both believe in looking and acting professional. They treat their equipment as a reflection of their business and their attention to detail, and they know that cleanliness telegraphs to customers how they will treat a property.

“A clean truck says, ‘We care about you and what we do,’” Don Sr. says. What customers can’t see is the attention to the mechanical health of every piece of equipment.

When it comes to job materials, “Gravel aggregate is out,” says Don Sr. The cost of the aggregate itself and the cost of transportation make the material unattractive. Many repair sites present significant obstacles to the delivery and stockpiling of material. Even new construction sites with significant slopes can make it difficult to move aggregate to an installation area.

O&M for the future

“We substitute EZflow aggregate (Infiltrator Systems),” says Don. Sr. “It’s easy to carry and install, and if you can walk to the installation site, you can get the material to it.” The men also like Infiltrator chambers. Improving on a good thing, Don Sr. believes it is important to use two additional soil infiltration barriers in EZflow installations. After the product is placed, he covers it with a layer of permeable geotextile fabric, then with a layer of straw. The need to keep soil and media separate emerged from his observation of many failed systems that suffered from soil intrusion. “I’m a plain and simple guy — I know what works,” he says. Moats and son both like the Wisconsin mound design, whether served by gravity or pressure distribution. Don Jr. sees operation and maintenance as the future of the onsite industry and of the family business. He continues to build that line of service. “If demand for O&M continues, we’ll be adding a half-time employee in the near future,” he says.

The company now provides O&M services on Jet, Bio-Microbics, Delta Environmental and Norweco advanced treatment systems. They see a disconnect with what the state now requires for O&M and the realities in the field.

While manufacturers and installers agree that advanced systems require lifelong O&M, New Mexico, like many other states, requires owners or installers of new systems to guarantee only two years. “After that, what?” Don Jr. wonders.

Part of the overhead

On the installation side, the equipment pool includes a 2000 Cat 430D backhoe, a 14-foot dump trailer, three portable toilet trucks, a 2009 Dodge 3500 truck, and a 1997 2000G Ford equipped with a 2,000-gallon vacuum tank. The company has 250 rentable portable toilets.

A digital camera enables documentation of every step of every job. Photos are archived and are used as an education tool when talking to landowners. Owners of new systems receive a set of photos, an as-built drawing, the permit and system design, and an owner’s manual.

Don Sr. and Don Jr. don’t charge their time to individual jobs. “That means we are part of the overhead costs of doing business,” says Don Sr. “For 99 percent of our jobs, one of us is on the job site at each key point. If we mess up, we go back and fix it. This is part of the value we bring to every job. It is part of our core values, and it is part of what sets us apart.”

As the transition from father to son nears, Don Moats Sr. sees a bright future for his son. Don Jr. knows that integrity, value, education and even-handed dealings are the keys to his dad’s success. They are the attributes that will continue through his generation of leadership, and that he will pass on to his children.

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