Responsive service and quality jobs at a fair price mean steady growth and a diversifying business base for Miller’s Septic.
To Jamie Miller, the inconvenience of responding to an after-hours call is an opportunity for growth. Delivering whatever service is needed every hour of every day makes Miller's Septic Service different from every other onsite business in its service territory.
Matching the level of response to the level of need, Miller deploys his company's resources until a solution is found. That approach has helped this 39-year-old company grow into an organization with 21 employees and a strong competitive position in an area extending up to 100 miles around home base in Saluda, Va., about 50 miles east of Richmond.
Moving on up
Growing to adulthood, Miller didn't expect to become part of the family business, but his list of accomplishments with the company testifies to his willingness to get involved. There is no task employees do that Miller has not done and will not do himself.
He's the third generation to step into an ownership role with the company his grandparents founded. Under his grandfather and his dad, James, he started out as a pump truck helper. From there, he moved on to truck driver and operator, and steadily up the ranks. Today, he's looking for new things to learn and new services to offer his customers.
As a full-time college student, Miller kept working part-time. He eventually switched to full-time, and college became a part-time enterprise. "When our only driver quit, I stepped up. I got a CDL," he recalls. Just two years later, he bought the business from his grandmother along with his mom, Sallie Miller, and his dad, Jim Miller Jr. That was 2002, and the company had one vacuum truck and one employee.
From 2004 through 2008, the company grew rapidly. "First, we bought the pumping components of Tom's Septic Service and Bay Sanitation Service, and we acquired B & B Septic Service," Miller says. With each purchase, Miller could select which equipment to retain and which to sell. He also offered employment to qualified workers from the acquired businesses.
"The most significant growth came from the books of business we acquired with each purchase," Miller says. The company is headquartered on a 17-acre property. The service territory bridges two rivers and Chesapeake Bay.
Miller's Septic expanded into installation after a contractor Miller had hired to install a system failed to show up on time or stay until the job was completed. Miller felt that contractor had let his company down. "It was my reputation that was being tarnished," he says. He also saw that he had been referring thousands of dollars of work that his company could do on its own.
Today, installation comprises one-fourth of the total business. Seventy-five percent of installs are replacements and the balance are systems on virgin sites. The rest of the business consists of onsite system management and commercial pump station management (25 percent) and septic tank pumping and cleaning (50 percent).
Moving to the installation side meant keeping up with Virginia's onsite regulatory scheme, which has become more complex in recent years with basic and specialty credentials required for various tasks. "I believe in cross-training employees and in preparing several employees to do the same tasks," Miller says. "All our people are appropriately credentialed for the tasks for which they have the necessary skills." In addition, Miller holds all the credentials necessary to do every job himself.
"All of our employees are important to our success," he observes. "Each has a unique skill set that would be hard and expensive to replace. These skills keep us moving forward." The company pays for training and covers annual credential fees, considering it an investment not just for his benefit but for the employees' futures.
A higher standard
In turn, employees need to embrace the company's service ethic. Service is a driving force in the business plan and stands at the heart of every customer interaction. "I am not much on cutting corners," says Miller. "I believe in charging a fair price for a quality job, and I have lost jobs because of our pricing."
After hours, all calls are directed to his personal cellphone. Regularly answering calls keeps him in touch with the workflow and customers' expectations. There are times – such as when attending trade shows – when he transfers after-hours phone duties to operations manager Aaron West or to his mother.
There are two scheduling truths in Miller's world: No day and no time are immune to service calls. Some are emergencies, like the school administrator who called for service on a Sunday. Miller got the call when another contractor, after two days' work, failed to find the problem. "Because we had a multilayer depth of skilled employees and equipment, we were able to work for two days," says Miller. "The school opened on time Tuesday morning after we found a clog in the main building sewer. Fortunately, it was under a broad concrete pedestrian plaza and not under a classroom.
"There is a premium cost for a timely response with well prepared and equipped personnel, and we address that during our first conversation. In the long run, we will make it happen because we have structured our employee relationships and pay policies accordingly."
Miller has coached homeowners through difficult times so that they could hold on until a crew could respond during normal business hours. "This practice is not off-putting, but rather it helps the caller understand the underlying value for the appropriate level of response," says Miller. "It is part of enabling an informed purchasing decision."
Planning for everything
Being prepared is essential to Miller's success: It is a concept he honed in his role as lieutenant for the Gloucester County volunteer fire company. Miller's employees know that if they are called out for after-hours work, they will be appropriately compensated.
"We used to pay employees a weekend on-call rate, but the randomness of calls had us paying for a lot of time that was never productive," Miller says. He addressed the issue through a revamped overtime pay arrangement.
"Our employees get paid overtime – that's time and-a-half – for any time worked over eight hours on week days," Miller says. "All Saturday work is paid at that rate, while Sunday and holiday work earns double time." On-call slots are still filled to ensure that employees with essential skills will always be available. Miller works hard to accommodate employees' personal schedules. All parties seem to win under the arrangement.
Miller knows many competitors turn their answering machines on at 5 p.m., and that if they answer, a timely response is unlikely. "We have planned to be able to be on site with the appropriately skilled, properly equipped workers in less than two hours from the time we receive the call," he says. "Often we are there sooner."
Never saying no to emergency work brings challenges. Once during a few days of sustained heavy rain, and while on an emergency call himself, Miller dispatched nine emergency calls from that job site. "At the end of that day we worked the depth chart hard; we had five guys on the road at five locations," he says.
Part of the growth plan seems to be self-implementing. By responding to emergencies with qualified personnel and staying until the job is done, the company is building a strong and diverse customer base.
With so much cross-training, employees don't get highly specific job titles or work exclusively in discrete groups. The division of labor covers three major categories. Ricky Kurtz, Alvin Lowney, David Allsop, Mike Emond, Tony Blevin and Justin Joyce focus on pumping.
Braz Tull, Alex Heintz, Weldon Stevens and Justin Smith mainly handle installation and service, while Cindy James handles office and administrative matters.
The leadership team includes operations manager West, service manager Robert Hornec, operations and maintenance manager Kevin Blassing, and maintenance program manager Ashley Miller (Jamie's sister). His mom is office manager. Miller himself acts as chief operations officer, while his dad is a mentor for all.
These groups can call on a deep and diverse fleet. For installations, a John Deere 120 track excavator, a John Deere backhoe, two Gehl tracked skid-steers, a Kubota 91E mini excavator and a Kubota tractor are available. Three vacuum trucks and two 18-wheeler septage tankers are deployed daily. A Vac-Con vacuum truck is used to remove used peat from biofilter systems and sees work cleaning storm drains and vessels in municipal systems.
The right personnel and equipment sustain a robust onsite management program. "We have over 1,000 advanced onsite systems under annual operations contracts," says Miller. "Our combined in-house service experience on these systems is well over 100 years."
Typically, more than one person is qualified to install and service products from Anua, Delta Environmental, Premier Tech Aqua, Bio-Microbics, Orenco Systems, Clearstream Wastewater Systems, Bio Gator, Hoot Systems, Norweco, CajunAire (Acquired Wastewater Technologies), American Manufacturing and Geoflow.
"Often an installer becomes comfortable with one or two technologies, and that comfort tends to limit the options they choose to offer customers," says Miller. "This is even more the case for installer-dealers. We are establishing a distributor relationship with one manufacturer, but we are committed to offering customers the right product for their specific situation, regardless of our distributor relationships."
To keep himself and the industry current across a variety of subjects, Miller is a member of NOWRA and the National Environmental Health Association, as well as the National Association of Wastewater Technicians (education committee member) and the Virginia Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association.
Growing through recession
All this activity has helped keep Miller's Septic on a steady growth path, even in a slow economy. "Septic systems are recession-proof," says Miller. "They are a necessity of life, and while there may be fewer new installs, every system needs to be taken care of. It is the service work that has kept and will keep us busy."
Still, Miller sees more opportunities. He plans to expand his system service and management base. He believes tank fabrication is a ripe opportunity, and he wants to expand his in-house electrical services capability beyond its narrow focus on the onsite market. "We have encountered and fixed so many plumber-installed problems that I know there is both need and opportunity in this field," he says.
Moving into new endeavors is not new for Miller's Septic. Meeting customers' routines and urgent needs and enabling employees to grow provides a recipe for confidence in a promising future.