Thriving in Paradise

A fourth-generation contractor enjoys success on Maui, helping landowners make challenging repairs and install systems on difficult sites
Thriving in Paradise

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Tom Hoeffken, a third-generation entrepreneur, grew up in the excavating business his grandfather started in the 1890s.

Today, he and his son, Gabe, operate Tom’s Backhoe and Excavation Co. on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Amid the island’s challenging soils and topography, they specialize in remedies for failing systems and in new installations for difficult sites. Founded in 1978 as Tom’s Backhoe Services, the company has become one of the largest onsite installation businesses in the Islands.

“In the 1950s, our family’s excavating and road building business was the largest in Illinois,” Tom Hoeffken says. Today, the company’s service territory is restricted to Maui, not by any law or regulation, but by many miles of ocean.

Gabe grew up in the family business, although he took a detour for schooling. “I was doing the low-end handwork, and I wanted to get away from dirt,” he says.

After earning a master’s degree in educational technology and turning 30, he rejoined the company as part of its management team. He has led the company’s onsite installation business for five years as Tom transitions into a working retirement. “My whole life was on-the-job training and I did not realize it,” he says.


Back to the earth

Tom decided to move from Illinois to Maui for one basic reason: “To get away from the hot, humid summers and bitter, cold winters.” On arrival on Maui in 1972, Tom opened the island’s fist pizza shop. Soon, he returned to excavating, and in 1978 he bought a used backhoe.

The first generation of modern onsite systems used in Hawaii was cesspools. “Until 1991, this was the only onsite technology approved for installation,” Gabe says. “Then, reacting to federal mandates, the state of Hawaii stopped allowing cesspools in favor of conventional septic tank and drainfield systems.”

Early on, the Hoeffken’s business focused on cesspool installations. In 1991, they transitioned from cesspool work to conventional systems for new construction. The mix then was about 1 percent replacement systems and 99 percent new construction.

On the excavation side at that time, they were doing a good bit of commercial site preparation work. “Our earth-moving equipment was diverted to installation work without the need for capital investment, and that gave us a competitive advantage, too,” Tom adds. “When conventional systems were first introduced, we installed a lot of trench systems, but the simple sites have been mostly used. Rectangular excavations known as absorption beds are becoming the pre-dominant absorption area type.”

As property values go up, lots are getting smaller — 10,000 square feet is typical. That reduces the area available for onsite systems. Repair installations are more challenging because access is often limited on established lots. Even where space is available, homeowners do not want to remove established plantings to accommodate systems. In both situations, beds become the default choice.

More recently, the state, responding to U.S. EPA policies began a program of identifying and replacing large-capacity cesspools — single or multiple cesspools that serve two or more homes or more than five bedrooms. These large cesspools did not have to be failing to trigger replacement.

Another impetus for upgrading was a mandatory time-of-sale inspection. The state required replacement systems to use one or more septic tanks and a conventional absorption area. “Our business followed this mandate, and we found about 25 percent of our work coming from this new ‘market,’” says Gabe.


Challenges welcome

Gabe notes that the company lost the easy jobs to small operators years ago. The firm is sought out by engineers who have encountered challenging sites and situations. “Engineers are required to prepare system designs here,” says Tom. “They know situations occur that can’t be anticipated, and they have grown comfortable with our field assessments and the solutions we recommend.”

Homeowners also seek out Tom’s Backhoe. Tom and Gabe believe it is important to give property owners choices. “Usually, there is not a single solution for a site,” says Tom. “We believe informed customers are better customers, and we offer options regardless of cost.” Choices encompass different conventional system configurations and advanced treatment units.

Gabe observes, “There is a tendency to continue using what has worked in the past, what owners may be comfortable with. Aerobic treatment units are permittable, but many designers are unfamiliar with them and are somewhat reluctant to include them.”

Gabe and Tom hope to change that. “We see the greatest use of aerobic systems in close proximity to wells and to tidal areas,” says Gabe. In one case, the designer and permitting authority were considering conventional technology to resolve a malfunction until Gabe pointed out the combination of high water tables and closeness to a beach. He suggested an aerobic system from Jet Inc., which eventually was installed.

Rarely do the men travel off-island for installations: The logistical challenges of moving equipment are too great. All work stays relatively close to home, at least in straight-line miles.


Change and opportunity

Through the years, the owners have found it essential to embrace evolving opportunities. They have capitalized on the change from cesspools to conventional systems, learned to work in a broad range of microenvironments, and positioned themselves ahead of the demand for advanced treatment units by becoming a Jet dealer.

Tom’s Backhoe is also in the quarrying and road building businesses. Quarrying gives them direct access to low-cost aggregate for use in onsite systems. The quarry lies on the far east end of the island. “Dad acquired some land in Hana as an investment,” Gabe says. “As it turned out, the land was naturally suited for quarry development, and we operate a quarry there.”

Roadwork is a different matter. “We got into the road maintenance business in 2007 when onsite system work was a bit slow and we saw an opportunity to do contract road maintenance work,” Gabe says. The work kept their employees busy; they already had most of the equipment they needed.

To protect its capital investment in road surfaces, the Hawaii Department of Transportation initiated a pavement management strategy. Breaking the “build it, forget about it, rebuild it” cycle, the department wanted a contractor to apply a systematic approach to road surface management. “No other company was interested so we stepped up,” says Tom. “We are now a well regarded slurry seal contractor for the state and for private pavement owners as well.”

About two years ago, the recession forced another refocusing of onsite system work. Now onsite work is primarily repairs or conversion. “We bid on jobs we previously did not even consider,” says Gabe. “We also go after government-sponsored water and sewage treatment plants, and distribution and collection systems.”


Cross-trained personnel

Tom and Gabe think of their employees as co-workers. They are willing to do any job they would ask an employee to do. They see employees as valuable assets in whom they have invested a great deal. Their diverse service menu demands diverse skills. Rather than field an army of focused specialists, they dispatch a few generalists.

Jeremy Smith brings operator, driver and plumbing technician skills to every job site. Chad Kailiehu is a mechanic and operator and he pre-assembles every Jet system in the shop before it is delivered to the site. Dan Vasey, located in Hana at the quarry, is also a mechanic, plumbing technician, driver and crusher operator. Gabe heads up the onsite projects, while Tom handles tasks beyond onsite work and is heavily involved in marketing.

Nora Masters, office manager, supports the onsite work by assembling the post-construction package of as-built drawings, construction photos, and completed permit documents. Nancy Hoeffken, Tom’s wife, gave up her role as office manager in favor of spending time with three grandchildren.

All of the men are cross-trained, and that is essential when getting from place to place consumes so much time and so many payroll dollars. Although she doesn’t work in the business full-time, Tom’s daughter Cherie is an equipment operator in Colorado. “When she comes home, part of her visit always turns into a working vacation,” says Tom.

The onsite side regularly draws on the excavation equipment fleet. In addition to dump and service trucks, the most used items on installation jobs are two Case backhoes; a 2002 580 and a 680L. Both are four-in-one models equipped with the Extend-a-Hoe option. A Cat 312 excavator, a Hitachi excavator, and a Cat D4 dozer also get significant use.


Cluster of strengths

Hoeffkens recognize that pumpers find many things wrong with systems, and appreciate the many repair job referrals they get from pumper friends. However, they are not going into pumping, which they see as a poor fit with their other activities.

“We do not see onsite system operation and maintenance as a service we will soon add,” says Tom. “It requires a specialty license from the state, and that is a considerable obstacle at this time. We are required by Jet to provide a two-year maintenance program for new installations, but because that service is included in the purchase price, the additional license is not required. Like everything we do, it is part of providing what the customer wants and needs.”

By putting themselves in the customer’s shoes, father and son try to anticipate every question and to be ready with the appropriate answer. By carefully observing and reacting to industry trends and economic conditions, they enjoy success on an island paradise where riding the wave of change is more essential than the skill to ride the waves at Diamond Head.


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