Minnesota’s Bob Billiet weathers seasonal slowdowns, rocky economic times and changing customer demands to grow a business … just as he’s planning for retirement.
Winter is more than a seasonal inconvenience for Bob Billiet, owner of Mid MN Septic Services in rural Hutchinson, Minnesota. It has influenced the course of his life.
“Typically, we have six or seven months to earn 90 percent of our income,” says Billiet. “While thawing frozen onsite systems or pumping tanks puts some work on the service board in winter, it doesn’t generate sufficient revenue for a small enterprise like ours to retain trained help.”
Over the company’s 23-year history, Billiet has earned every license necessary to help sustain or grow the business: designer, installer, pumper, inspector, maintenance provider, real estate broker and appraiser, and plumber.
Winter also gave the company a fluid profile, exacerbated by a sometimes unstable economy. The only constant has been Billiet’s guiding presence, but that is about to change as he approaches retirement.
FINDING A NICHE
Early on, Billiet operated a real estate company, then worked as a real estate appraiser. That didn’t make for steady work. “I was laid off whenever the market took a downturn. It happened frequently and I had a family to feed,” he recalls.
Brother-in-law Dan Crotteau, who owned a local plumbing and heating company and was expanding into onsite installations, suggested Billiet design systems for him. Billiet took installer and design/inspection courses at the University of Minnesota, joining Crotteau in 1992.
Soils in the area are wet loam, clay loam and clay with pockets of sand and loamy sand. “Then and now, 80 percent of new and replacement systems are mounds, with the remainder advanced treatment units or inground trenches with gravelless chambers,” says Billiet. “Our niche is 450 to 600 gpd residential systems.” The company’s only commercial install was a winery.
The work suited Billiet. He bought out Crotteau in 1997 and registered the business as Mid MN Septic Services. With only two pumping companies in a 20-mile radius, Billiet saw an opportunity to grow the business by becoming a septic first responder. “Many callers had sewage backing into their basements,” he says.
“We introduced ourselves through pumping, then offered a replacement system.”
In 1998, Billiet purchased a 1993 Kenworth T600 chassis and added a 3,000-gallon Imperial steel tank and Masport W15X pump. Business boomed. He hired four employees and bought a pre-owned 2000 Sterling vacuum truck with 4,500-gallon steel tank and Wittig pump. Then winter would arrive.
THE COLD SNAP
Laying off workers and hoping they would return in spring didn’t sit well with Billiet, since training replacements takes two years. “One winter I kept two salaried employees,” he says. “There wasn’t enough work and I had to borrow money to meet payroll.” The decision also led to one of the company’s worst periods.
Searching for ways to survive the lean months, Billiet branched into plumbing, purchased 20 Five Peaks portable restrooms and hired a master plumber to supervise the new divisions. Both of the new service areas stalled, and four years after opening the branches, he sold them.
By 2005-06, the company had recovered and saw its revenue peak. “We were averaging 10 new mound systems and 40 to 50 replacement systems annually,” says Billiet. “For comparison, we installed two new systems and replaced 20 failed ones in 2014.”
The low numbers reflect more than an economic backwater. Last May and June were some of the wettest on record, with rainfall totaling almost 13 inches. “We didn’t install our first system until July 8,” says Billiet.
Most replacements involve failed inground trenches or illegal tile field systems. Where possible, Billiet installs ATUs to rejuvenate drainfields. “When the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved Nayadic and Multi-Flo units from Consolidated Treatment Systems, we were one of the first in McLeod County to adopt the technology,” he says. Today, Billiet is a Consolidated distributor in four counties and maintains 40 service contracts.
WORKING LAKE COUNTRY
While most replacement systems have challenging elements, lake lots with steep grades test the mettle of Billiet’s crew and machines. Besides poor soils, setbacks often leave only 5 feet between houses and property lines. “Typically, we install an ATU in the front yard, which faces the lake, and pump to a new drainfield in the backyard,” he says.
Another part of the problem began 30 to 40 years ago when developers filled all the ravines with fill soil, then built houses or cabins on them. “Those are some of our most challenging sites,” says Billiet. “The ravines still drain groundwater, and we never know what debris we’ll hit during excavation.”
Besides a 1992 John Deere 310D tractor/backhoe, Billiet has a 2014 Kubota SVC75 track loader, a 2013 Kubota KX080-3 excavator and a BX25 tractor/backhoe.
The fleet also includes a 1986 Mack dump truck with a Brehmer box, a 1987 Ford dump truck, a 1999 Freightliner F70 dump truck, a Chevy express van, a Dodge pickup, two homemade open flatbed trailers, a 20,000-pound Ehrl open flatbed trailer, an Alra open flatbed trailer, and two enclosed trailers: one by Look Trailers and the other by Carry-On Trailer. Dale Brenhaug, full-time foreman, and a part-time summer laborer comprise the crew.
“The small equipment works really well on these lots,” says Billiet. “We often have to tie off the excavator so it doesn’t roll into the lake, support it with another piece of equipment, then build a pad from which to dig the tank holes.” He prefers Infiltrator Water Technologies tanks and chambers for such projects.
When Billiet isn’t designing or installing, he dons his onsite inspector and property transfer/point-of-sale inspector hats for Sibley County. He’s done some 4,000 inspections and occasionally acts as the county’s liaison if homeowners need help.
One case occurred last year when floods caused a 100-foot-long section of an onsite system to slough off 2 feet down a ravine. The exposed septic tank was still in place with the pipes connected.
“Someone had installed the 12-year-old system into a bluff along a creek,” says Billiet. “The design should never have been permitted because Sibley County has a 75-foot setback to bluffs that wasn’t met.” Local septic ordinances vary from county to county.
For Billiet, bearing bad news is often the most difficult part of being an inspector. He’s had more than his share since MPCA adopted the 2008 septic code. “In the mid- to late-1990s and depending on the county, certain contractors were installing trench systems instead of mounds,” says Billiet. “Mounds were the correct technology, but they cost $2,000 to $3,000 more.”
The 2008 code required verifying the limiting layer at the site for the depth to the periodically saturated soil. The rule eliminated most cheating. Then point-of-sale inspections became law, and homeowners learned their 10- or 15-year-old systems were noncompliant. “These people have little legal recourse,” says Billiet.
Besides witnessing the fallout of such failures, Billiet also has had to worry about his safety. Feuding neighbors occasionally file invalid complaints about the other’s septic system. Sibley County then asks the homeowners if Billiet may visit the properties to verify the situation. Several years ago, five citizens filed such complaints, and the county needed search warrants for three of them.
Billiet faced another calculated risk after the 2008 economic downturn. The company, which took the hit later than most, confronted uncertain days. For two years, Billiet and Brenhaug did everything. Then Dan Crotteau, now working for Plumbing and Heating by Craig, made a proposal.
“Their geothermal heat pump installations were increasing, and they were contemplating buying directional boring equipment, backhoes and trucks,” says Billiet.
“Since I owned everything except the machine, Dan guaranteed a certain amount of work if I purchased it. I didn’t have a clue how to operate one.”
Billiet bought a 2006 JT2020 machine and mixing tanks from Ditch Witch of Minnesota. “On our first job, the territory manager showed us how to run the machine and use the different additives,” says Billiet. “From then on, it was trial and error.”
Mid MN Geothermal Services opened in 2010. The company focuses on installing geothermal loops and exchange piping, and 2-inch pressure lines for subdivision drainfields. “We will install electric, gas and waterlines for homeowners, but heavy competition makes vying for major utility or municipality contracts unrealistic,” says Billiet.
KNOW THE GEOLOGY
Billiet quickly learned that running the machine was half the equation. One job involved boring septic lines through a golf course. The contractor assured him the soil was clay. “We began drilling and hit sand and gravel,” says Billiet. “Drill heads don’t want to turn in that combination because it’s too soft, too wet or so hard the drill head overheats.” The bore took 40 percent longer than estimated.
Another project 60 miles from Hutchinson offered an opportunity to highlight the company. A local firm hired by an HVAC contractor to install geothermal piping had burst through the water and sewer lines of a million-dollar home.
“The contractor said the drilling was easy,” says Billiet. “Just bore under the driveways, garages, landscaping and the basement floor to the other side of the house. Then he would cut a hole in the floor and make the connections.”
Instead of clay, Billiet and his worker encountered rock. After advancing 300 feet over most of the day, they were forced to abandon the job 20 feet from the house or ruin the equipment. Since then, Billiet checks an area’s geology before accepting large jobs or leaving town. He uses well drillers’ public records, which show the location of gravel and bedrock.
While this year offers the promise of economic improvement, it also signals Billiet’s transition to retirement. After selling the company, he plans to return as part-time manager until the new owner and Brenhaug earn the necessary licenses. Meanwhile, Billiet has signed another two-year contract with Sibley County and purchased a home in Arizona to escape the Minnesota winters.