Three Peninsulas

Outback tackles challenging site conditions and strict regulations in the diverse environment and rolling terrain around Chesapeake Bay
Three Peninsulas
Steve and Crystal Willson, owners of Outback Porta-Jon, have served the Huntingtown area since 2003. (Photography by Reid Silverman)

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Outback Porta-Jon is a multi-faceted business that installs onsite systems, pumps, tanks, and rents portable toilets from Huntingtown, Md. Owners Steve and Crystal Willson handle complementary tasks in their third-generation enterprise.

The company’s service area lies on three peninsulas, and Steve drives up to 100 miles to do installations, sometimes traveling to the Eastern Shore, the peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. When he gets to the job site after two or more hours’ drive, he may be just 25 straight-line miles from home.

Together the Willsons have found success in their mostly rural rolling area near Huntingtown, about 45 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. “No matter who answers a customer’s phone call, they will always be talking to an owner,” says Steve.

The Willsons believe this direct access sets their business apart. In their service area, Steve is known among regulators and other installers as a problem-solver, unafraid to take on difficult sites and challenges others seek to avoid.

 

Nurturing relationships

Steve Willson grew up in his dad’s installation and pumping business. Shortly after high school, he started a portable restroom, pumping and installation business. “When dad started to cut back on his hours, I picked up his workload, much like he did with his dad years earlier,” Steve recalls.

“When I get to a job site, I see friends I have known sometimes since I was a teenager. I feel these relationships. I don’t look at what we do as a series of unrelated jobs. Rather, they are parts of many enduring connections my dad or his dad started. We value and nurture these relationships as friendships. It’s all interconnected.”

While keeping long-time customers, the company takes a low-key approach to winning new ones. The lettering on the three vacuum trucks promotes all services. Yellow Pages promotions reach three counties, but word of mouth reaches much farther. Crystal is typically the first person callers meet. She also handles accounting and payroll.

Pumping helps feed repair and installation work. “Our vacuum truck operators identify needed repair work, which owners are briefed on,” says Steve. “Because our employees are knowledgeable about system repairs, they can present basic information to owners, explaining the significance of the defect discovered.”

 

Water changes everything

When it comes to installations, there’s an interplay of regulations, politics and emotions around the largest estuary in North America, where “Save the Bay” signs, bumper stickers and flags are common.

“If a proposed onsite system is within 1,000 feet of the water’s edge, specific technologies are required to minimize nitrogen impacts on the bay,” explains Steve. Each county may have its own approach to administering onsite system regulations, but each county must satisfy the same statewide regulations. That means different processes in each of the five counties where the company works.

“In these sensitive areas, we are restricted to Hoot, Jet, Norweco and Orenco advanced treatment units that perform denitrification,” says Steve. “Management or dispersal of the treated effluent is handled in a variety of traditional ways that take into account the site’s water-handling capabilities and the county’s preferences.”

Even when working a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay or a river, water is a limiting factor in system options. Sites that appear well drained often have major drainage problems with sandy near-surface soils overlying clay that prevents downward water movement. Other sites are truly sandy – for dozens of feet below the surface. Each condition brings its own challenges, and sometimes opportunities. Soils vary widely from peninsula to peninsula.

Across the service area, the company may install conventional trenches one day, a shallow pressurized distribution bed the next, and pressurized mound the next. If the absorption area is outside the 1,000-foot buffer and the site is suitable for conventional technology, that is the system the county health department will design.

 

The right fix

As for repairs, Steve takes the time to understand the site, the existing system and why it failed, and then considers all potential repair options before suggesting a solution. It makes no difference if the problem was discovered by a pumper, during a presale inspection, or by a homeowner who found a squishy spot: The right answer is the only one Steve will offer.

“Not all problems are big problems, but without a thorough investigation, you can’t have confidence that your solution is the right solution,” says Steve. On one occasion, called to investigate a wet spot in a lawn, Steve felt obligated to give the homeowner some potential bad news up front. “I told him that if we had to install a new absorption area, it would include an advanced treatment component with a price tag well into five figures,” he recalls. “He was astounded. I explained this was because the replacement absorption area encroached a few feet into the 1,000-foot coastal buffer.”

Steve got busy and quickly localized the problem to a broken section of Orangeburg pipe. “That gave me good news to share: Only the pipe needed to be replaced, and not the entire system. It was a simple fix, and it was the right fix.” By investing time to identify the problem, Steve saved the landowner significant money and headache. The transaction was the start of a new relationship.

One reason repairs can lead to additional business is that the company leaves job sites well graded and thoroughly seeded. “The quick-buck guys do not take pride in their work and often leave an eyesore for the unhappy customer,” says Crystal. “That’s not how we do business.”

 

The management market

While installations are an important part of the business, system management is gaining importance in the mix. “Mandatory pumping is on its way,” says Steve. “Counties are being pushed to take steps to save the bay, and they see periodic tank pumping as the tool to help in that cause.”

Steve and Crystal agree that management programs will bring opportunities, but they have a somewhat laid-back attitude about how to capitalize on it. “We will offer management services to landowners when they need to satisfy the various counties’ requirements,” Steve says. “We will follow that market wave rather than push it. We’ll let the counties drive demand, and we will sell customers their compliance solution.”

When the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Program pays to install a repair system, the installation price must include a five-year service contract. After five years, Outback can enter a management contract with the owner. It doesn’t matter who installed the system or which technology it uses – all qualified service providers can compete for the business. Steve and his team are constantly expanding their system knowledge so they can perform management work on any technology they encounter.

Management is already a big part of the business. “We have a contract with a county to manage 4,000 individual septic tanks in a single community,” says Steve. “The tanks discharge to small-diameter sewers for collection and treatment. We do the tank pumping and repair baffles and similar components as we encounter them.”

Crystal adds, “Through another contract, we provide similar services to an entire island where about 500 houses are located. In that case, we do the pumping, and if we identify problems, the county’s utility department does the repairs.”

 

Selecting technology

In most new installations and system replacements, customers select the product they will buy, except that in Calvert County, the county is the customer. Because the county uses Bay Restoration funds to pay for the repair, the county selects the technology that the landowner must install and maintain. The health department, through competitive bidding, chose Orenco Systems units for all replacements the county funds.

Atlantic Solutions, an Orenco distributor, won the equipment and installation bid, and Outback is Atlantic’s sole installer. “Like Atlantic did with the county, we had to bid for Atlantic Solutions’ work,” says Steve. “This is a three-year contract, during which we get a fixed fee for every system we install.”

The company’s price to Atlantic Solutions includes all materials, labor and equipment, except for the Orenco unit, which Atlantic Solutions provides. “Some jobs are a bit tighter than others, but the arrangement has proven profitable for us,” Crystal says. They see the future management work as the logical extension of landowner relationships built during installations.

 

Well equipped

The locality’s diverse terrain and the array of system types require a flexible equipment fleet. The company deploys a variety of machines, including a 2008 John Deere 80C excavator, a 2010 35D John Deere mini excavator, a 2010 John Deere 410J backhoe, and a 2001 260 Bobcat.

Willson uses a 2009 Ford F-350 pickup to tow a 2010 lowboy trailer to move equipment. Equally at ease in the office and in the field, Crystal sometimes works on job sites next to Clifton Tudder and Toby Sealey, both service technicians. Steve is the head installer and operator.

Deploying the right resources, mechanical and human, lets the Willsons continue building systems and relationships that will carry the business into the future. What sets the company apart is talking to customers in a forthright manner and letting them know Outback is there to solve a problem, not sell a job. It is also a business model that binds this husband-and-wife team together.



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