Wisconsin Installer Is On The Rebound From Local Economic Woes

Fanning Excavating fights through the closing of a major local employer and a deep housing recession and emerges as a strong, more diversified business with a bright future.
Wisconsin Installer Is On The Rebound From Local Economic Woes
When an economic downturn had a major impact on its hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, three-generation family company Fanning Excavating tweaked the business plan and started providing service work, including septic pumping. Onsite installation remains the company’s bedrock mission with cousins Roger (left) and Don Fanning (shown on a work site with a Case excavator) at the helm.

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Even a historic recession and the closing of a huge automotive plant in the heart of its trade area couldn’t stop Fanning Excavating.

The third-generation company in Janesville, Wisconsin, now 69 years old, slowed down for a while but switched gears, augmenting its onsite installation business with more septic system pumping and service work. The business recovered as the general economy improved and as new and growing business slowly restored local jobs.

Roger Fanning Jr., who owns the company with cousin Don Fanning, admits it may be a long time before the return of prosperous times to rival the 1990s, when crews installed as many as 150 systems in a year. Still, through it all, Fanning Excavating held on to its longtime team members, diversified its offerings, deepened its roots in the community with charitable activities, remained profitable and positioned itself to grow.

Today the company installs about 30 onsite systems per year, mainly conventional systems and mounds, while pumping some 800 systems annually, performing system inspections for real estate sales and handling a variety of repairs. The continued success is a testament to the power of good customer relations, a hard-earned reputation for fair dealing and excellent work, and a positive attitude.


The Fannings’ grandfather and grandmother started the company in 1946. “They were farmers and were having a hard time making a living,” says Roger Fanning. “So my grandfather bought a backhoe and started fixing waterlines and doing other projects for farmers.’’ His first big job was building roads around nearby Whitewater Lake.

He branched out into septic systems in the 1950s. In 1980, Roger (Duff) Fanning Sr. and his brother, William Fanning, bought the company. Don, William’s son, served in the U.S. Air Force and, upon discharge, came back to the family business.

Roger Jr., meanwhile, tried college for a time, then for a few years poured septic tanks for local precaster Dalmaray Concrete Products. In 1990, he joined the family company. “I came in with nothing,” he recalls. “I started with a shovel.” He is now a certified soil tester and site evaluator and is state licensed as a privately owned wastewater treatment systems maintainer. He also holds a master plumber license (restricted).

As for Don, “When he came back he pretty much just jumped on the equipment. He runs all the machinery. He’s more the dirt guy and I’m more the pipe guy.” The two took over the business in 2012. Roger Sr. remains active in estimating projects, “and he still likes to climb into the excavators once in a while,” says his son. William Fanning handles most of the company finances. Don’s daughter, Elly, works part time supporting Melisa Lowell, office manager.


Don and Roger Jr. bought the business during a challenging period. In the 1990s, the company’s business was about 85 percent installation and the balance maintenance. Janesville was a growing area and home to a General Motors assembly plant that had produced more than 16 million vehicles starting in 1918.

In 2009 the plant closed, putting about 1,200 highly paid people out of work. This was at a time when the housing market was collapsing as the economy went into recession. “Once GM left, all the plant’s suppliers left, too. A lot of good jobs were lost. The local economy took a big hit. It didn’t kill us, but it sure put us down on the ground for a while. Over the last three years, you can see it getting better and better.”

That’s largely because Roger Jr. and Don and their team refused to let hard times defeat them. One longtime employee had recently retired, lightening the payroll. To make up for the loss of installations, the company boosted its septic tank pumping side.

“You’ve got to put food on your table,” says Roger Jr. “We had always pumped septic tanks, but we had never really pursued it hard. We pretty much took care of our own customers and used the vacuum truck when we had to deal with a failing system.”

That changed quickly. The company began aggressively promoting its pumping service, deploying its 1990 Mack tri-axle vacuum truck with a Jurop/Chandler pump and 4,500-gallon aluminum tank fabricated by Longhorn Tank & Trailer of Gravette, Arkansas.


“When the county went to a three-year maintenance requirement on septic tanks under state law, we went to the health department and looked up people who were due for pumping,” Roger Jr. says. “We did that for several months. The business also grew by word-of-mouth. People would see the kind job we did.

“We cost a little more than most competitors, but we don’t charge for add-ons, like if we have to drag out an extra hose, or clean the filter, or pump the pump chamber. We have a flat fee for up to 2,000 gallons, and we do everything that needs to be done while we’re there. People also notice the truck on the roads with its nice, shiny tank and say, ‘We’ve got to call them.’”

The company also moved into system evaluations for home sales, using a protocol created by the Wisconsin Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (WOWRA). “They’ve created a uniform evaluation course so that no matter what part of the state you’re in, you have the same evaluation done,” he says. “It’s very detailed. It’s not a pass-fail thing as in the past. It’s a thorough evaluation of what the owner has on the property.’’

He met with real estate agents and showed them the program. “Some of them bit into it. It’s going pretty well,” Roger Jr. says. Don notes that system evaluations have led to new sources of business: “We get whole different groups of people calling. We get contacts from real estate agents and from people who want to sell or buy a home. It really has opened a new chapter.”


Meanwhile, installations are growing, though at a slower pace. Most new systems are replacements on alternate sites now required by code. Fanning Excavating starts with thorough site and soil evaluation, usually performed by team member William Steinke. Soils vary from challenging clay to system-friendly sand and gravel.

In difficult soils, the company installs mounds and, occasionally, such as on space-constrained riverfront sites, FAST systems (Bio-Microbics). The field crew includes heavy equipment operators Richard Gregg, Michael Halverson and Alex Poad, and laborer Alex Zainer.

The equipment inventory includes four Mack dump trucks and earth-moving machines that include a 1996 Case 621 wheel loader, 1996 Case 580SK backhoe, 1997 Bomag 172D-2 roller, 1999 Kobelco SK-200IV excavator, 2000 Case 1845C Uniloader, 2002 Kobelco SK035 SR excavator, 2004 Case CX130 excavator, 2006 Case 850K dozer and a 2013 Case SR200 skid loader.

Fanning Excavating prefers EZflow drainfield media (Infiltrator Systems) for ease of handling and durability and uses mostly precast concrete tanks (Dalmaray). While not eager to share company secrets, Roger Jr. notes several characteristics of the company’s systems: “I can come back in 20 years and look at a system and tell you if we put it in.”

High on the agenda is ease of maintenance – installing pumps with ample service access and installing filters so that they’re easy to pull out and clean. “Some competitors put a distribution box deep in the ground and bury it,” says Roger Jr. “Why put in a box if you’re going to bury it? Our boxes are up at ground level as much as possible because you want to be able to access them.”


“Suppose you put in a system with three trenches and you have tank effluent going out to three different lines. If you can’t turn one of those lines off because it’s saturated, what good is the box? That’s the beauty of a box – if one line out of three gets saturated, you can just plug it for a while and let the trench dry out,” says Roger Jr. 

There’s also the matter of leaving a clean site behind after a job. “We like to leave the site the way we found it. You have to, or you won’t be around very long. People drive by in the country and see you working, and they’re going to look at the property when you’re done.”

Good work often leads to more customers. “A lot of our business over the years has been word-of-mouth,” Don observes. “We don’t do a lot of advertising. Farmers speak to each other, residential property owners speak to each other. A lot of times someone will call and say, ‘You did a job for so-and-so, and he recommended you.’ We do hear that quite often.”


While treating customers right, Fanning also takes special care of its team. Says Roger Jr., “I learned from my dad, uncle and grandfather that if you treat people fairly, they will treat you fairly. They also taught us the importance of showing people what you want and then stepping back and letting them figure things out on their own. They never micromanaged us, and we don’t micromanage our people today.”

The company offers competitive wages and a benefit package that includes health insurance, a retirement plan and paid vacations. Uniforms are provided.

Good treatment likely accounts for the team’s longevity. Soil tester Steinke has been with the company for 33 years; equipment operator Gregg for almost 40. “Richie is the best dozer operator you’ll ever see,” says Roger Jr. “Halvy [Halverson] has been with us for 16 years and loves driving truck.”

Don notes that satisfied employees pay dividends for the business: “They don’t complain. If we have to work late, which we do often, or if we need them to come in on Saturday for any reason on short notice, it’s not very often they tell us no.”

A smooth-functioning team allows Roger Jr. to dedicate time to WOWRA, where he serves on the board of directors, as his uncle William did in the 1980s. “I started going to the conventions and was impressed by the wisdom of some of the older members,” he says. “As a young guy in my 20s, I listened to people like Claire McQuestion, Jim Tesmer, Wayne Pett and Rick Apfel talk about how they installed systems and the little tricks they used.”

The knowledge he gained now helps him win over prospective customers. “If they spend 15 minutes on a site with me, they’ll realize that I know what I’m talking about. We’ve also been around long enough so that people know who we are – they know what they’re getting,’’ says Roger Jr. “We’re here because we do a good job, and I’m proud of that.’’ 


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