A Particular Man

Udell Dooley takes a hands-on approach, putting his stamp on every detail as he installs new systems and replacement drainfields
A Particular Man

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A two-year recovery after a car wreck gave Udell Dooley time to consider his future. Combining his love of the outdoors with his mechanical interests, he decided to buy a backhoe and start Dooley’s Backhoe Service.

At first, he took every job that came his way and found himself working in his home state of Missouri as well as Kansas. New to the business, he kept his eyes open, eager to learn. He quickly recognized that businesses focused on a few niches prospered more than those that did everything.

“I also discovered that two older excavating contractors in the area would soon be retiring, and their departure would be an opportunity for me,” he says. “These things led me to focus on onsite system installations.”

Dooley has never regretted his decision. Working in six counties within a 50-mile radius of Raymore, Mo., he specializes in new systems and replacement drainfields, relying on a wide range of technologies with a heavy emphasis on low-pressure distribution. His stock-in-trade during 33 years in the business has been close attention to detail on every job.


Must be right

Dooley never wanted to grow into a multiple-crew operation, although he easily could have. “I’m particular,” he says. “Every aspect of every job must be done right. I want to be on every job, every day.” That keeps him focused and in touch – with customers, emerging technologies and regulators. With a hands-on approach, he learned every task needed to construct a successful system. He also learned what wouldn’t work and discovered the best, most efficient ways to get the job done.

“Over the years, the basic services and necessary skills have not changed a lot, but the details sure have,” Dooley says. He considers himself too old (at age 70) to change jobs now, but definitely not too old to keep learning new technologies.

“Originally, we worked jobs in two states, but work became so plentiful that we have restricted ourselves to jobs in Missouri,” he says. Six-day work weeks were common in the early days; today he has no trouble filling a five-day schedule, and he does not see the pace slowing further.


Managing costs

When it comes to equipment, Dooley takes a conservative path. “I never wanted to work to pay off my equipment,” he says. Rather than buy brand new, he looks for used machines with about 500 hours on the meter. He does not own a dump truck, preferring to buy aggregate delivered, so that it arrives exactly when and where he wants it. That eliminates job site and home-based stockpiles. Dooley once owned a dump truck but, “I could not justify the cost for the little value I got from it.”

He regularly rents the specialized vibratory plow needed to install drip tubing into slit trenches six to eight inches deep. “We use our equipment to handle all of the other installation tasks, including tank excavations, manifold and return line trenches, and final grading,” he says. “It just seems to work best that way.”

The equipment pool, carefully chosen for diverse capabilities, includes a 1998 Case 580 Super L backhoe and a 2004 John Deere 250 skid-steer handle – these two machines handle nearly all tasks on job sites. When a machine reaches about 5,000 hours, Dooley sells it and replaces it with a newer machine.


The right jobs

While equipped for almost anything, Dooley is selective when considering jobs: He scrutinizes every project before accepting it. He will not work for a customer who tries to dictate the system technology without considering site conditions. If the system is not right for the site, he will pass.

“I sometimes discover an overflow pipe to a ditch,” he says. “This is not a solution. It merely transfers the problem while making it less noticeable. I want to provide permanent solutions, not sell Band-Aids. I will not expand an existing absorption area that will delay, but not prevent, a total absorption area replacement.”

For every malfunction he encounters, Dooley recommends that a new absorption area be designed based on comprehensive site evaluation, and with consideration of the homeowners’ lifestyle.

He replaces broken pipes, faulty controls or burned-out pumps like-for-like. In some cases, it’s feasible to reuse the existing treatment tank, but if there is reason to replace the tank and Dooley believes that is the best route, he will decline the job if the customer refuses the replacement. As he says, “I’m particular.”


Focused diversity

Dooley has installed a wide range of systems, including conventional beds and trenches, gravel mounds and sand mounds, pressurized trench and bed systems, drip irrigation systems and waste stabilization ponds (also known as sewage lagoons). “Each has its advantages, and I am willing to explain to a customer the characteristics, opportunities and drawbacks of each type,” Dooley says.

“When they were first introduced, we recognized that low-pressure distribution systems would become a highly profitable business opportunity. We pioneered their installation in our service area.” Today, about 80 percent of the systems he installs use that technology.

Dooley and the local regulators learned together on his first installations, and it was an opportunity to build bridges and rapport. “These systems let us both learn the technology, and the respect built in the process continues today,” he says. “Now we see this as a really simple system, and it always was, except when it was new.”

Dooley has nurtured relationships with builder developers, and they have brought opportunities not found in single-homeowner interactions­. Over the years, working in three subdivisions, he installed nearly 100 systems. The homes in each development were pretty much alike, and they were significantly different from the older properties and smaller houses for which he has installed replacements.

“These larger, high-dollar-value homes typically have six or more bedrooms,” he says. “The owners use a lot more water and don’t even think about conservation or cutting back on their use.”

Dooley works with the designers to be certain that each system is oversized to address the occupants’ lifestyle. He strongly cautions homeowners against using garbage disposals. “I tell them that every drop of water that you use is going to stay on your property, and if you abuse your system, it will let you know it in a most unpleasant way. You can’t keep doing whatever you want to and av­oid a problem forever.”


Crossing county lines

The diversity of his work and the size of his territory are made easier to handle by the regulatory scheme. “We work in six counties, all of which share a common set of state-mandated regulations,” Dooley says. “The consistency helps us. The site may hide some surprises, but we know that the regulations will not change from job site to job site.”

Inspectors are a resource Dooley cultivates and respects. There are jobs where the site evaluator, engineer, system designer, or permitting agency may miss something that he as the installer uncovers. “At times like this, you want the inspector on your side,” Dooley says. “You want him to be on your problem-solving team.”

His experience tells him that when a system reaches about 25 years old, absorption area problems begin to occur. When a system fails, especially in a catastrophic manner, the homeowner is usually desperate for a solution. Dealing with repairs, Dooley finds himself speaking with the wife more often than the husband. “Women are not ashamed to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand,’” he says. “They are willing to ask questions and willing to learn.”

Even when the husband places the initial call, the wife often handles the follow-up. As long as the customer is willing to learn and there is a satisfactory outcome, Dooley does not care with whom he speaks.


Pleasing customers

Investing in positive customer interactions is the best source of promotion, he has found. “When you solve someone’s problems, their happy voice is the best advertisement you can get,” he says. He regularly receives thank-you cards with heartfelt notes inside. His jobs may take a bit longer, but when he leaves, the site is fully restored. “Digging up someone’s beautiful yard can be devastating,” he says. “Putting everything back so the owner does not notice the disturbance is priceless – it is better than money in the bank.”

Dooley has shaped his business so that his stamp of approval is on every aspect of every job. For 14 years, his only employee was son-in-law Dan Owens, but then things changed. Owens earned a designer credential and now specializes in that area.

Finding a new employee was challenging. In Dooley’s experience, it takes at least a year to train someone in the industry and in company practices. Michael Wilcox fit the bill and has been with Dooley for 14 years. “Mike does all the field stake-outs and the heavy lifting,” says Dooley. “He looks after me when we’re in the field together.”

Dooley’s wife Mary handles the bookwork. The company’s small workforce is both focused and effective.

As he approaches retirement, Dooley ponders what lies ahead. Doing things differently has been a part of the firm’s success. It’s basics like holding grades, using a sealant to make unused tank access ports waterproof, bedding tanks in fine aggregate rather than dropping them on bare soil, and following designs with precision that attest to his being different, particular, and effective.


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