Quality to No End

A commitment to excellence means growth by word-of-mouth alone for a two-generation installation business in northern Kentucky

Matt Thompson remembers the day he found out his father, Greg, was serious about quality. “My dad fired me because I did not meet the standards for a Thompson Septic Systems employee,” he says.

He and his father laugh about it now, but at the time it was serious business. “Dad is extraordinarily particular,” says Matt. And he now knows his dad did the right thing. Because he learned his lesson, someday, he will own Thompson Septic, which Greg and Sherry Thompson started 29 years ago in Smithfield, Ky.

A successful tool and die maker, Greg got a bug to buy a backhoe, and did so in 1981. “Not long after I bought the machine I said to myself, ‘Look what I have — what do I do with it?’” he recalls. With the local health department’s guidance, he installed an experimental system for a house that he was building himself. That was his first onsite job experience.

Today the company installs dozens of onsite systems per year, repairs many more and does general excavation.

A side job

For 12 years, he installed and repaired onsite systems as a side job. Nights and weekends, when he wasn’t on his machine working, he was telling friends and strangers about his business. The informal marketing approach was successful, and a friend hired him to install a system for his new house. “All our promotion has been by word-of-mouth,” he says. “We have never advertised in any other way, and we have never been without work.” The first jobs were close to home, but today Thompson Septic serves customers from seven counties in a 50-mile radius from Smithfield, about 20 miles east of Louisville.

In the early days, learning was constant, and he plans to keep on learning new products and techniques as long as he is in the business.

“Dad is a workaholic, for whom the right way is the only way to do a job,” says Matt. “If he encounters a problem he is unfamiliar with, he will search for and learn what he needs to know to do the job right.”

Side work and a full-time job created a hectic work pace, and the deaths of two relatives forced Greg Thompson to look at his schedule and choose between his tool and die job and his onsite business. The morning after he made his decision, he gave notice at the factory and became a full-time installer.

Controlling destiny

Greg Thompson believes bigger does not equal better. He has intentionally kept control of his success and the destiny of his business through direct involvement with every aspect of every job. In his first year, he got so busy, so fast that he hired his brother-in-law as an equipment operator. That gave him flexibility to do more promotion and related off-site work.

All the Thompsons agree that Greg’s success came from his mechanical aptitude and his ability to observe, evaluate and identify workable solutions to complex problems. Transferring these skills to onsite systems and their electrical and mechanical components was a smooth transition.

He looked at his installation business as a route to a higher income than he could earn working for someone else. He also knew it was not an eight-to-five job. Walking away from one of his jobs had the added value of being a stress reliever.

It was in 2003 that Greg first hired and then fired Matt. Matt worked for a time on someone else’s backhoe and in related building trades.

“I even went to technical school in Phoenix, where I learned how to maintain mobile electronic equipment,” Matt says. He quickly learned that being an employee had its limitations. “I realized I was not going to make what I wanted,” he says. “I also realized that the family business was right there waiting for me.”

The firing incident was soon forgotten: Greg welcomed Matt back into the business in spring 2006.

Team of three

Locally, Sherry Thompson is known as “Bobcat Betty,” a nickname she is proud of. She has always been active in the business. When kids came along, Sherry’s mom babysat Matt and his sister so Sherry could work in the field beside Greg.

“I’ve just always done it,” she says. “I have never felt lost in a man’s world.” When she shows up on a job site to run a machine, the men who do not know her will stop and watch, but not for long.

“They quickly recognize that she knows what she is doing and that she can do it as well as any man,” says Greg. Today, Sherry handles the bookkeeping and office duties. Still an adroit Bobcat operator, she enjoys sitting behind the controls when the opportunity presents.

Matt, 24, is a former state high school wrestling champion, and is well known in the community. He is less known in onsite circles. “I have a good rapport with our customers, but some builders dad has worked with for a long time still ask for him,” he says.

Greg says, “The builders know me, we have worked together for a long time, and I look older. I’ve been asked not to send Matt to some jobs, but I tell them, ‘He will tell you the same thing I will.’” Matt’s experience in the industry has built his confidence and his acceptance by others. His dad points out, “It takes time to gather the common sense that lets you succeed. When onsite installers gather, I’m usually older than most and Matt is younger than most.”

To help Matt grow, Greg hangs back, taking a mentor role. “Matt makes his observations, then gives me his diagnosis and plan of attack. We discuss it and he takes the lead in the field.”

Problem-solving teamwork

When a homeowner calls with a problem, Greg follows a routine, interviewing the caller to gather basic system information. About 25 percent of the time, he can solve the problem over the phone. “A large portion of our calls deal with tripped-out breakers that protect pumps,” he says. “I help the homeowner diagnose, then solve his problem.”

The downside of this approach is that Greg doesn’t charge for the solution — but he’s OK with that. The calls build a bridge of trust and generate positive feelings, and they are the fuel that drives positive word-of-mouth for Thompson Septic. When a trip to the site is necessary, he is better informed and will definitely have the needed job-specific parts on board.

Greg first evaluates their situation. “In a forthright conversation, I explain the problem and suggest the solution I feel is best, one which can likely be permitted,” he says. “I offer a price estimate, and then seek their permission to discuss the matter with the health department.” The conversation helps the homeowner understand the process, get an idea of the cost, and share ownership in the solution.

Diagnosing malfunctions

Repairs, other than pump failures, are the biggest challenge. Finding the malfunction is the starting point toward discovering why it occurred. After ruling out electrical and mechanical causes, the Thompsons look into the absorption area and evaluate the soil-aggregate interface.

“We use a hand auger and look for a biomat-impaired soil interface,” says Greg. “This is a common cause of failure for absorption areas with over 25 years of service,” says Greg. If there is no biomat problem, they look for and eliminate or validate other potential causes. Curtain drain discharge points can give clues about groundwater’s influence on the drainfield. These drains, installed upslope, carry intercepted groundwater around and downslope from the drainfield.

Drains are installed by excavating a 12-inch-wide trench 3 or 4 feet deep, then placing a perforated pipe on a few inches of coarse aggregate and backfilling nearly to the surface with more coarse aggregate. When water moving downslope encounters the aggregate, it moves down to the pipe and is carried away. Curtain drains discharge to the surface, and examining the discharge sites gives insights about groundwater’s impact on the system.

Another tool for diagnosing groundwater’s affect is baking flour. “It is nearly impossible to recognize water’s movement in a drop box or a distribution box,” says Greg. “Dropping flour onto the water’s apparently motionless surface quickly reveals the water’s direction of flow.”

The Thompsons tried dead leaves, blades of grass and twigs for this purpose until one day Sherry suggested flour. Now, they carry small bags of flour on all of the trucks.

Once they diagnose the problems and select a repair solution, it usually must be permitted by the health department under Kentucky’s statewide onsite regulations.

Prepared for success

“When we arrive on site we are prepared for the job at hand,” says Sherry. “Everyone knows their tasks, and there is no confusion.”

The equipment pool is carefully selected to eliminate duplication of effort and maximize productivity. In addition to a 2007 Bobcat T180, the Thompsons rely on a 1998 Case 580 L backhoe, a 1990 3500 Ditch Witch trencher, a FINN Corporation straw blower and two dump trucks. A custom-designed 2006 Chevy box-body truck is a warehouse on wheels, carrying a complete set of parts and all hand tools, while also providing a sheltered workspace.

The Thompsons prepared for the economic downturn with a willingness to do more general excavation and to take a hard look at every opportunity that comes to them. Two years ago, they installed about 80 systems, but last year that number was down more than 40 percent.

“We are doing things we never did before to stay busy and get paid for a day’s work,” says Greg. “That is a lot better than having no work and no income.”

As he prepares for retirement, Greg’s goals have changed. “My goal is to get smarter and smarter so that I can retire and Matt will hire me,” he says. In the Thompson family, learning is preparation, and it never stops. It is essential for growth and success and a value taught by one generation to the next through a relationship marked by mutual respect, trust and love.


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