Installers Show How to Make a Smooth Business Handoff

A long and carefully planned transition made it easy for Randy Dolesy to buy out two partners and assume ownership of Halverson Plumbing.
Installers Show How to Make a Smooth Business Handoff
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The baton pass in a relay race is a thing of beauty; two runners make the exchange with no delay and without even breaking stride.

In a way, that describes the transition of ownership at Halverson Plumbing in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The “baton pass” actually took about two years, but through it all the business never missed a step, and it continues to thrive.

Randy Dolesy, 40, who had been with the company since age 19, bought out partners Rich Halverson and Dave Puttbrese last October. Puttbrese retired; Halverson remains on board as a full-time employee handling mainly soil testing and designs for onsite treatment systems.

Halverson and Puttbrese raised the prospect of ownership with Dolesy early in his tenure. Dolesy steadily added responsibility as he progressed over several years from helper to master plumber. In the last two years before the sale, he essentially ran the business as the partners worked two to three days a week.

“I hate to say the transition was fairly easy, because most people don’t believe that,” Dolesy says. “But I was already taking care of most things — inventory, scheduling work, purchasing tools, making sure the guys had what they needed to get the jobs done. In the two years before the buyout I was directly involved in everything except things like choosing health insurance plans and figuring taxes.”

Dolesy now operates a business with seven employees, built around 40 percent onsite installation and service and 60 percent residential and light commercial plumbing. The onsite side completes about 40 installations per year in Jackson, Monroe and Clark counties in west-central Wisconsin.

THROUGH THE RANKS

Dolesy joined Halverson Plumbing (first profiled in Onsite Installer in November 2004) as a helper in 1995, working on plumbing for new homes. After three years, he became an apprentice and did plumbing service and repair. Half a dozen years later, he was a journeyman working on new construction, including nearly five years plumbing some 150 cabins at a campground and resort complex — one of the biggest projects in Halverson Plumbing’s history.

Once that project was done, he moved into the office and began working in earnest toward eventual ownership. “When I started with the company, Rich and Dave told me they had a target date when they hoped to retire,” Dolesy says. “They said that if I followed through with my apprenticeship and received my master license on schedule, the option would be available to me to buy them out.”

Halverson observes, “It seemed like a logical fit. Randy is 20 years younger than I am, he’s energetic, and he’s excited about getting things done. About two years ago, Dave and I basically let him start running the show to get a feel for it. For all practical purposes he’s been running 90 percent of the business for the last couple of years.”

Halverson stayed with the company for a couple of key reasons. “I’d just turned 61, and like everybody else I need health insurance,” he says. “In addition, I absolutely love what I do. I wasn’t excited about being an owner anymore, with all the stress involved. I had done it for a long time. Now, just to be able to concentrate on what I love to do, it’s great. I’m doing more service work, more home water treatment systems and water heaters than before, but onsite is still my main focus.”

DO-IT-ALL TEAM

Dolesy took over a solid business with an experienced team, sufficiently cross-trained to help everyone keep busy even in winter when the onsite business goes largely into hibernation.

“Everybody here is really good at something, and pretty good at a little bit of everything,” Dolesy says.

“We don’t lay anybody off for the winter, because anytime you lay somebody off, there’s a chance you might not get them back. Our onsite system installers hold other licenses that allow them to work all winter. Most of our guys are licensed pump installers for well work.”

Jeff Stear, who joined the company six months before Dolesy did, is an equipment operator and septic system installer, oversees crews in the field, and serves as safety coordinator. “He’s a super good guy, a great operator, and extremely intelligent,” Dolesy says. “He has a restricted master license for appliance service that allows him to work inside homes when there’s no excavating to do. He’s also a licensed cross-connection inspector. He is a very versatile asset for us.” The other full-time team members are:

  • Dan Wieczorkowski, septic system installation and maintenance
  • Roy Puttbrese, well work and septic system maintenance
  • Charlie Hackelberg, septic system maintenance and service plumbing
  • Kevin Fredrickson, plumbing for new construction and water treatment
  • Jodi Krueger, office manager and human resources

SOILS AND TERRAIN

The company’s onsite specialists deal with varied terrain and soil types. It all starts with Halverson conducting soil tests, preparing the designs and securing the permits. “We’re right on the west edge of the central plains and the east edge of the central uplands, and the two are divided by the Black River,” he says. “The flat land is basically all sand, and the uplands are heavier, silty soils. There’s a distinct difference from one side of the river to the other. In terms of soils, we run the gamut. We install pretty much any kind of system that’s out there.”

In the early 1990s, the company installed a number of Multi-Flo aerobic treatment units (Consolidated Treatment Systems), driven in part by research projects conducted by the University of Wisconsin. “We were installing them on lots that had too small an area for a normal-sized drainfield,” Halverson says. “Or on properties that had failed systems and no room for replacements, we’d put a Multi-Flo unit in, clean the water up, and get the drainfield working again.

“We don’t put in as many ATUs as we used to, mostly because demand isn’t there. We always try to find alternatives that have the most bang for the buck. I like ATUs — I have one at my own house — but they constantly cost money for electricity, repairs and maintenance. If we can put in a passive system, that’s our goal.”

These days, on sites requiring more advanced treatment, Halverson tends to choose SludgeHammer aerobic bacterial generators and White Knight microbial inoculator/generators (Knight Treatment Systems), installed inside septic tanks. On sites with high bedrock or seasonal high groundwater, he favors mound systems.

While installing fewer ATUs in recent years, Halverson Plumbing has built a good business in maintaining them every six months as the manufacturers and state law require. Dolesy states, “There are many Multi-Flo systems in the ground, and we’re traveling over an hour from our base to service them, just because nobody else is interested in taking care of them. We run a regular route, and it seems like every year more homes are on it.”

INTO THE GROUND

As for installations, Halverson handles scheduling of the crew. “Once he gets the permit, he knows how long it’s going to take to do the project,” Dolesy says. “He makes sure those guys know what’s coming next and what county they’re going to be working in.”

Dolesy sees an advantage to being a multifaceted company owning excavating machinery: “Once we get to the site, we can take care of the septic system, the well excavation, the pump installation and the house plumbing. The owner or builder doesn’t have to call multiple contractors — we do it all.” Well drilling
is subcontracted.

Most projects incorporate EZflow media from Infiltrator Water Technologies and a couple of variations of concrete tanks, which Halverson Plumbing purchases from Crest Precast Concrete Inc.

“Our guys are excellent at finish grading. When they get done, there is very little work for the homeowner. We take care of spreading topsoil and seed, and even straw if that’s what the owner wants,’’ he says.

The company’s key machines are a 30,000-pound Kobelco 135SR excavator, a Kubota KX121 mini-excavator, a Case 650G dozer, and a Ford L9000 dump truck. “The Kobelco has been very good to us,” Dolesy says. “It has caused us almost no problems and it’s the machine we use for most of our install jobs.

“The Kubota is also really a good machine. We use it for most of our repair jobs. The hydraulics are fantastic. It starts any time we want to go with it. If it’s 20 below zero and we need to use a hydraulic hammer to bust concrete to get at a water main break, that machine will go. We pull it with a 1-ton diesel pickup.’’

WORKING WITH REGULATORS

Working across county lines means staying close to multiple health department officials. Dolesy and Halverson are on a first-name basis with most of them. One key to solid relationships is attendance at a five-county meeting organized by the health departments and held every year in March.

“It’s a meeting for installers, plumbers, regulators, vendors, soil testers — anyone involved in the industry,” says Halverson. “It’s always an interesting meeting. I touch base with everyone, hang out with them and listen to what they have to say. It helps get me fired up for the upcoming season.”

While his passion for the industry remains, Halverson looks forward to slowing down and spending more time with his extended family, which includes three grandsons. “I don’t have a time frame in mind for actual retirement,” he says. “If I’m healthy enough to work in spring, summer and part of the fall, and take off in winter, that would be awesome. I could see doing something like that, if my new boss will let me.”

Dolesy and Halverson would suggest their approach to other businesses looking to make a transition in ownership. They recommend engaging a good attorney and accountant to help identify and work out the details that inevitably arise. “They’ll come up with the questions and work on getting you the answers,” Halverson says.

Meanwhile, Dolesy looks forward to keeping the business on the same solid path where it has been. “I have the best team here that I could ask for,” he says. “We have a very experienced group with multiple licenses between us. My goal is to add a couple of younger people to the mix who can learn from those who are older.”



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