Onsite Insights: Customer Care Never Goes Out of Style

Thriving in a location near the economically troubled Detroit metro area, Janette & Son’s Excavating concentrates on customer service, professional training and diversification into septic pumping.
Onsite Insights: Customer Care Never Goes Out of Style
The Janette & Son’s crew includes, from left, Matthew Kidd, Ron Germain, David Janette, Tim Vallette and Darnell Janette. They are shown in the company yard with a fleet of work trucks.

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Detroit has been on a long slide; no news there. But the same is not true of the sprawling area surrounding the blighted city. There are new office parks and new houses. Farther out the municipal sewers stop but building continues, and here on the edge of the metropolitan area is where Janette & Son’s Excavating has found a good place to do business and to grow thoughtfully.

In 1953, Frank Janette took over the septic business that his father had run part time while also operating a farm. Frank focused on septic systems and expanded. He manufactured his own concrete septic tanks and sold them to other installers. Many things have changed for the company based in Milford, Michigan. It is about 25 miles northwest of the Motor City and is in Oakland County, one of the three counties that form the core of the Detroit metropolitan area.

“When Dad had the business and I worked for him, we concentrated on home septic systems and didn’t do much excavation or commercial work. After he began disengaging from the business in late 1980s, we started doing some commercial work,” says current owner David Janette. Those were systems to control runoff from parking lots. The company became licensed and bonded for sewer work, installing early CULTEC systems in the Detroit suburbs. Then the company expanded further, into larger onsite systems for restaurants and schools.


Despite the years and growth, the company is still a family operation, except for one employee who isn’t related but has been with the company for 19 years and understands the culture. There is a separate excavation division that is run by David Janette’s brother-in-law, Tim Vallette. The wastewater business breaks down as about 30 percent pumping and 70 percent installations.

“We all have the same outlook: We take care of customers and go the extra mile. It’s not always about the business and making the revenue. We look at people’s homes as if they were ours. If that’s my home, I don’t want to be steered wrong by the person I hire to serve me,” Janette says.

The shiny red vacuum truck featured on the company’s website marks the most recent expansion of the business. That was in 2010, and it was a change intended to make the company more self-sufficient by providing a new stream of revenue, and it is a change that has met the goal.

“We really went after it in 2010. We don’t make a lot on pumping, but it was nice to see that revenue and have return customers,” Janette says. And because it forms connections in communities, pumping has also provided good leads for other services the company provides.

The person driving this end of the business, literally driving it in the pumping truck, is Janette’s 30-year-old son Darnell, the fourth generation at Janette & Son’s. Darnell didn’t set out with that intention. As a boy, he of course worked with his dad, but when he grew older it wasn’t the work he wanted to do. “I told him to follow his dreams,” Janette says. Darnell did, becoming a certified mechanic for General Motors. Then the recession came. Auto dealerships went out of business, and Darnell was the guy with the least seniority. Now he’s back with Janette and Son’s, and David Janette says he’s doing a really good job with the pumping service.


There are more than 80,000 onsite systems in Oakland County, the company’s primary service area. Following the economic downturn, municipal sewers have not expanded much, and that’s good even though Janette’s company would make a lot of money from connecting homes to sewers. He thinks septic systems are the right choice for many in his area.

Proposals in his area have suggested high-pressure sewers with grinder pumps. For a homeowner it’s $17,000 to $20,000 to connect to the system (Janette’s company is certified to tap into these pressurized mains), and then there’s a quarterly bill. “I’m not looking at it with my financial gain in mind. Around the lakes I agree that’s not a bad idea to have central systems. But for longevity in general, people are better off staying on septic systems,” he says.

When Janette’s technicians pump a tank, they prefer the owner to be present. It’s a good opportunity to teach people about the systems buried in their yards and perhaps inform them about special circumstances impacting wastewater treatment. “We pumped a tank not all that long ago, and the mother-in-law living in the home was receiving cancer therapy. That tank was almost glowing; it had an aqua-green tint to it, and there were no solids in the tank,” Janette says.

Janette’s service area includes a mix of longtime residents and newer, younger people building large homes. When any customer’s tank is pumped, along with the invoice comes a list of tips for proper care of a septic system. Janette compiled his list from tips produced by a variety of health departments. Education is also good for referrals because customers will remember the customer care they received and recommend the company to others.

“We get a lot of customers who call us when their systems fail. They want us to provide a second opinion, and these contacts are directly related to how we treat people,” Janette says.


For its pumping business, the company has a single-axle 2003 Freightliner with a 2,600-gallon steel tank and a Challenger pump. The pumping business is going well enough that he has begun thinking about the purchase of a larger truck.

For installing chores, the company has a 2006 quad-axle Sterling with a Rock Box on it; a 1996 tri-axle Ford 9000 with a 15-yard dump box; a 1998 Kenworth tractor that pulls a quad-axle Fruehauf dump trailer; a 2003 Load King triple-axle tag-along trailer; 1998 Talbert and 2005 Eager Beaver trailers pulled by the dump trucks; a 2004 1-ton Chevrolet stake truck; two 3/4-ton pickups, one a 2005 GMC and a 2011 Ford; and a 2003 Ford box truck.

Like any excavation company, Janette also maintains a large fleet of heavy equipment and mini equipment. He has a pair of Case excavators, a Caterpillar mini excavator, a pair of Caterpillar backhoes, a Case loader, two Caterpillar dozers and two skid-steers — one Caterpillar and one Case.

Janette doesn’t have any plans to venture into a new service, but that doesn’t mean he’s standing still. It’s just the opposite. “We’re not stopping. Any new technologies that are coming out, you have to be certified in them. I encourage that for any company,” he says.

It’s not a matter of keeping up with the industry but of keeping the revenue flowing. Because the company is licensed and bonded to work on large water mains, when the recession hit Janette found jobs doing that, which helped the company’s bottom line. And certification is important for future work. The availability of newer technologies such as those from Eljen and Bio-Microbics makes development possible on lands that will not support traditional septic systems. That’s where the new development is in Janette’s area.


The company depends on more than good relationships with customers to stay prosperous. Relationships going in other directions are just as important. For example, one logical expansion for Janette and Son’s might be into engineering so the company would become a one-stop point for wastewater services. But Janette doesn’t want it. He has very good working relationships with local engineers, and those relationships almost make his company a one-stop service provider as it is. And he gets a number of referrals from them. Trying to start his own division would give him one more thing to worry about, and would diminish the relationships he has built.

The same applies to the local health departments. “You can’t butt heads. It’s not going to get you anywhere with the government,” Janette says. The company’s good connections with health departments go back to his father. Less engineering was done in those days, and health departments relied on contractors to find and resolve problems, so Janette’s father was often contacting health departments to inform them of some problem.

“It’s the way you present yourself. Personality goes a long way. You have to be upbeat,” Janette says.

Patience also helps because government agencies sometimes resist change. With other members of his local installers association, Janette spent about four years working for a change in the health code to license installers. Previously, if a landscaper put in a wastewater system — a real situation Janette heard about — it would draw only a $50 fine from the county.

“It’s a slap on the hand,” he says. Now installers must be licensed, and at least one licensed person must be on site during an installation.


Janette is now 54, and where does he see the company 10 years from now?

“Me being retired and on a sandy beach somewhere,” he says with a chuckle. Then he turns serious. “I think where we’re at right now is strong.”

He has concerns, but those encompass the entire industry. “We don’t have any younger generation coming into this industry. That bothers me.”

Janette sees a graying of the industry and a lot of retirements of qualified installers on the horizon. He hopes the labor gap will be filled by younger workers, and he has played his own role in that. Some of his competitors started out by working for him. They learned the trade and went out on their own. “It’s a thorn in my side sometimes, but they’ve been very successful in their businesses. I’ve done my part I guess,” he says.

But, he says, there is a different attitude among many young people and perhaps a misunderstanding of what the industry does. “It’s not an $80,000-a-year job. You’re not working for General Motors, and that’s what these kids are going for. They look at wastewater and think it’s gross without understanding the protective equipment and other procedures that are standard in the industry. And for many younger people, pumping and installing seem too hard. They’d rather sit in front of a computer.” That’s not Janette. He’s found his career niche.

“Me, I’d rather be outside than behind the desk,” Janette says.

Finding strength as a group

When installers in Oakland County, Michigan, faced a problem, they persevered by working together. In the process, they have a lesson for anyone who wants to simultaneously improve the industry and their own business interests.

The problem was unlicensed and unskilled people installing systems and generally pulling down the business prospects of honest installers, says David Janette of Janette and Son’s Excavating LLC in Milford, Michigan. So he and fellow installer Tim Brendel started the Oakland County Septic Installers Association. Only 30 people came to the first meeting, but Janette and Brendel persisted. Membership grew. More important, the association produced change. It took four years of patient work, but the county now licenses septic installers and requires that at least one licensed person be on a job site. Other counties issue licenses by the business. The Oakland County rule is better because it makes the individual responsible, Janette says.

For installers, being in the group means having a voice. “Our county listens to us, and we vote on regulations. And how many other counties listen like that? I think it’s rare that we have such a relationship,” Janette says.

More immediate interests are also served by joining the association. When he and Brendel were starting the group, Janette approached a major tank supplier and negotiated a 5 percent discount for members. Equipment dealers and manufacturers recognized the benefit of associating with the group, and now comprise some of the 110 members.

Janette also approached Case, Caterpillar, John Deere, Alta Equipment and other companies. “They want to host our meetings, which is nice. So the guys get to check out brand-new equipment, and they get a nice meal out of the deal.” Some of the dealers run monthly specials for meetings. It may be tires for backhoes, a good deal on insurance, half-price on a rental or $10,000 off on a piece of mini equipment at year’s end.

This doesn’t count the people who aren’t members but also attend. These may be local engineers who want to network with installers or health department staff.

Membership is only $50 a year.

“That covers stamps and other office supplies. Everything else is volunteer. It takes a lot out of me, but it’s worthwhile because it helps make the group and the industry stronger,” Janette says.


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