Oklahoma Installer Builds a Rewarding Business Career

Jason Birdsong left the high-adrenaline life of a “repo man” for a less exciting but highly successful business in onsite treatment systems and storm shelters.
Oklahoma Installer Builds a Rewarding Business Career
The J & T Service crew includes (back row, from left) Jason Birdsong, Josh Calvert and Jeff Eagle; (front row, from left) Charlotte Teehee, Becky Swan and Breanna Perry.

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Jason Birdsong admits he liked the “adrenaline rush” of repossessing cars from owners who didn’t make their payments.

But when the repo business became less profitable, and when the occupational hazards included bullets whizzing over his tow truck, he decided to look for something more sedate.

Today, he owns J & T Service Co., specializing in onsite systems and excavation, and Survivor Shelters, installing storm shelters within Oklahoma’s “tornado alley.”

It has been a profitable transition. He and his seven-member team install about 70 onsite systems per year — 80 percent of them with aerobic treatment units — and about 100 storm shelters. J & T Service also does a brisk business in maintaining ATUs within a 50-mile radius of home base in Claremore, about 15 miles northeast of Tulsa.

The businesses are founded on the ideal of providing quality work and responsiveness to customers. Aggressive marketing through conventional and social media channels helps keep the companies top of mind in the marketplace, and innovative financing helps make the offerings affordable.


Birdsong grew up on a small beef farm near Claremore; he learned about machinery while working around his grandfather’s larger farm. After high school, though, he headed in a different direction, riding with and helping local “repo men.”

He eventually started his own repossession business. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe,” he says. “More or less, it’s like legally stealing cars. You drive around in the middle of the night and try to outsmart the people, because they’re trying to hide the cars from you.” He drove a special tow truck, sometimes maneuvering into backyards to hook up to a car, once in a while dragging a car sideways.

After a few years, Birdsong sold his business to another company and went to work for that firm, which a larger company then acquired. In time, the repossession business began to sour. “When I started in repo, I was making $500 a car, and at the end I was making $125,” Birdsong says. “What really did me in was that I had a wife (Erin) and a little girl (Delia), and I was being shot at about every couple of weeks. I decided that $125 a car wasn’t really worth it.”

While still working in the repo business, he bought a tractor with a box blade and started doing earth-moving work on the side. Next he bought a skid-steer and broadened his offerings.

He then connected with another contractor, Bill Vinson, who began giving him overflow work.

“I started installing septic systems here and there, and finally I got enough work where I could get out of the repo industry,” Birdsong says. “I sold my repo truck, bought a backhoe and got my installer certification. I took the ball and ran with it, and now Bill is one of my team members.”


There are usually seven team members. Becky Swan, office manager, handles day-to-day matters, deals with credit unions on customers’ financing and helps with storm shelter sales.

Birdsong’s mother, Charlotte Teehee, serves as controller. Breanna Perry helps in the office, handles social media marketing and works weekends.

In the field, Birdsong and Vinson (head installer) lead projects with support from Josh Calvert and Jeff Eagle. Extra workers help with storm shelter installations during tornado season.

The company’s equipment inventory includes two Case 580 Super L Series 2 backhoes, a Caterpillar skid-steer with numerous attachments, a Bobcat mini-excavator, two service trucks and a Massey Ferguson box blade tractor.

Onsite treatment work has grown more challenging with changes in state regulations. “Until four years ago, for every 10 systems we installed, eight were conventional,” Birdsong says.

“Now eight out of 10 are aerobic treatment systems.”

The biggest reason for that is what installers call the Creek Law, which says any system within 1,320 feet (1/4 mile) of a water body that is or leads to a public drinking water supply requires an aerobic treatment unit. Systems within 600 feet of such water bodies also require nitrogen reduction.

Oklahoma’s geology can make installations extra challenging. Much of J & T Service’s territory has limestone bedrock under as little as a foot of soil. Aerobic treatment systems typically discharge to spray irrigation, for which the company uses purple piping (the standard color coding for reclaimed water) and K-Rain sprinkler heads.

For conventional systems, J & T Service uses precast concrete septic tanks (Allegiant Precast) and washed rock drainfield media. The ATU of choice is the NuWater extended aeration system (Enviro-Flo).


Birdsong doesn’t claim to be the lowest-cost installer, yet he strives to help customers afford new systems — especially important in the case of replacements for failed systems. He does this by helping to arrange zero-interest financing through a local credit union. In essence, he buys down the market interest rate and adds the interest cost to his bill.

On one recent job, a couple had just bought a house, only to find later that the septic tank lid had collapsed. A closer look showed that the drainfield had failed. “Their whole system was junk, and because of the new laws they needed an aerobic system,” Birdsong says. “They were facing an expense of several thousand dollars.”

In such cases, if the owners have acceptable credit and a good work history, they can qualify for the financing. Birdsong gets paid up front, and the owners get their new system with a monthly payment they can afford.

Once an aerobic system is in the ground, state law requires the installer to maintain it for the first two years. After that, owners can contract for maintenance or take care of the system on their own and submit the maintenance logs to the state Department of Health.

Birdsong encourages customers to contract with J & T Service and offers a choice of two management programs, for which they can pay monthly or annually. The Standard Service offering includes two annual visits for basic maintenance and inspection. The Elite Service offering, at roughly four times the price, also covers pumping (by a subcontractor) in alternate years, plus the cost of any components that need replacing. About 60 percent of customers who opt for management programs choose the Elite package.

“It’s easy to justify,” says Birdsong. “Suppose their effluent pump goes out. Now they have to pay $500 to have the system pumped so we can work on it, and the pump and primary floats cost another $500 to $600. They’re looking at $1,000 easily for the service call, whereas for an annual cost less than that, they get the Elite Service contract.” J & T sells the contracts even for systems it did not install, provided the systems are in suitable working order.


Another money-saving offering from J & T Service is essentially a one-stop site preparation service for new homes. It started through a relationship with Ubuildit, a company that provides consultation services to help people build their own homes.  

For Ubuildit projects, and for a few other builders who have come on board, J & T offers to clear the site if needed, pour the house pad, grade the yard for proper drainage, prepare a gravel driveway, and install the waterline and septic system. “We do all that in one to two days,” says Birdsong. “They don’t have to wait for the plumber, wait for the house pad guy, and coordinate all the different contractors’ schedules.”

Good word-of-mouth and effective marketing help keep this and all services humming. J & T Service and Survivor Shelters operate from the same location with frontage on a major highway and a billboard on the property. Each business has its own website. They print and distribute brochures and flyers on the various services and exhibit at farm and home shows.

Birdsong uses Google AdWords and Facebook to market specifically to rural couples who own homes; calls on Scott Roy of Trigger-Switch Marketing Services to design printed materials, including T-shirts; and IT consultant Charles Roush is available to help with computer issues.


An effective team helps Birdsong spend time on what he regards as a critical task: educating customers. “When I install a system, if I see that the owner is home, I knock on the door,” he says. “I ask them, ‘Have you had a septic system before? Have you ever had an aerobic system?’ I give them a brochure that tells what to do and what not to do.

“There is a third option on my maintenance program: For a one-time fee, I will teach them everything they need to know. Education is a big deal. It’s very important in whether these systems work right. The more people know about their systems, the better.”

To the Rescue!

J & T Service gets lots of marketing mileage out of its service truck. Looking for a vehicle with ample space for tools and parts inventory, company owner Jason Birdsong considered various vans and U-Haul rental trucks, but in the end he bought an old ambulance.

He kept all the vehicle’s emergency lights but converted them to yellow. The unit has a brand-new wrap that includes an orange stripe down the side and the company’s logo in bold color. “It stands out,” Birdsong says. “People remember it.”

Its spacious interior also makes it highly practical: “Ninety percent of our service business is working on systems other people installed. That means I may have to carry nine different parts for one little joint that everybody does differently. Having space for all those parts saves the time it takes to drive to the parts store.”

Shelter from the storm

Storm shelters are a booming business in Oklahoma, which receives more than its fair share of the 1,000 or so tornadoes that strike the United States each year.

Jason Birdsong got into the business after his septic tank precaster began producing storm shelters. But he didn’t stop with just one product line. Birdsong noticed sellers of the various types of shelters — concrete and fiberglass, inground, in-garage, in-home — all claiming to be the best. The result was customer confusion.

Birdsong chose a different approach, launching a Survivor Shelters superstore where he offers multiple models. “If it’s made, I sell it,” he says. “Now when people come to me, I can tell them there is no one right storm shelter for everybody. I tell them the pros and cons of each shelter and help them choose one that fits their budget.”

He offers zero-interest financing arranged through a local credit union: “I even have a shelter they can get if they can’t be approved for the zero-interest loan. It’s basically a buy here/pay here shelter, in-house financed. As long as they have a job and a heartbeat, they can get a shelter. There is no reason anybody should leave my store without a shelter.”

The company offers Lifesaver shelters in fiberglass underground, safe room and in-garage models. The buy here/pay here model is by Defiance Shelters. What happens if a buy here/pay here customer doesn’t pay? “It’s in our contract that we will get a replevin from the court system at the cost to repossess it,” says Birdsong. “So far we have not had to repossess any — just persuade a couple of people that it wasn’t in their best interest for us to do that. They paid.”

The shelter business goes ballistic after major storms. “A tornado hits the ground, everybody wants a storm shelter yesterday,” Birdsong says. “After the last big tornado, I literally had to turn the phones off. Within three days, I was booked for eight months.”


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