Bob Willis Shares the Recipe for Doubling, Tripling His Installing Business

Rodeo roper and septic service pro Bob Willis casts a line and pulls in a huge workload replacing onsite systems, performing inspections in rugged Southern California.
Bob Willis Shares the Recipe for Doubling, Tripling His Installing Business
The Bob’s Septic Service crew includes, from left, Lane McIver, Dominic Garcia, Salvador Morales, Brad Groff, Bob Willis, Dave Page, Todd Durham, DeeDee Brink, Tina Rousseau and Jonette Durham. In the background are the company’s two vacuum trucks, a Hino with an NVE pump from House of Imports and a Peterbilt with an NVE pump from Lely Tank & Waste Solutions.

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Cutting his teeth in the construction trade, Bob Willis struck out on his own in 2004 when he and his wife, Terri, opened Bob’s Septic Service in Escondido, California. Willis and two employees installed onsite systems for a home developer, then transitioned to system repairs after the 2008 economic crash.

“My destiny changed in 2015 when I entered into a long-term licensing agreement with Arrow Pipeline and Pacific Drain to use the name R.F. McKenna Construction,” says Willis, age 57.

“Suddenly, we were growing so fast that it was overwhelming.” His business doubled in 18 months, and may triple this year.

Through it all, Willis developed a specialty for replacing failed seepage pits commonly employed to treat residential wastewater for San Diego County’s coastal region. He also built many solid professional relationships — with other contractors and in the real estate world — to broaden the scope of his business.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Punching cattle on his father’s ranch in Valley Center, California, Willis learned the value of hard work, handshake relationships, common sense and staying out of debt. From eight years running a finish bulldozer for Basil Construction, Willis learned to leave job sites presentable. “Homeowners never know we’ve been there other than now their toilets flush,” he says.

A relationship formed while rodeo team roping led to Willis’ independence. In 2004, the housing industry in northern San Diego County was booming and Bub Akans, a fellow roper and septic contractor, suggested Willis help as a subcontractor. “I bought a used 416 Caterpillar backhoe, opened my business, and worked with Bub for two years,” says Willis. “He was my mentor and cheerleader, even after I earned my installer license in 2006.” Willis also hired Salvador Morales as a pipelayer that year.

Willis was soon installing new systems for a home developer and doing septic repairs for customers referred by Eric de Jong, owner of Diamond Environmental Services. Then his office manager and Realtor Jonette Durham suggested another key to growing the company: focus on real estate home sales, because septic inspections often uncovered needed repairs.

Willis attended real estate meetings, sponsoring the room or providing breakfast as his invitation to talk briefly about his business and help agents with septic issues. His down-to-earth approach reassured the Realtors and their clients, he explains.

The collapse of the housing market spurred the company to new heights. Although California has no standards for septic inspection, many national lending institutions and most large mortgage companies required inspection and certification before making loans. Durham’s father, a Realtor and team roper, asked Willis who to call to inspect the septic system for a property he was listing. The agents, he said, were looking for a trusted contractor who wouldn’t find something wrong with every system.

Willis began inspecting and certifying systems following the San Diego County Waste Haulers Association guidelines. “My relationship with Realtors has achieved outstanding results,” says Willis. “Today, we do three or four inspections a week, and half the systems need something fixed.”

Short-sale homes left vacant for many months are Willis’ greatest inspection challenge, because the systems are dry. Had they failed before drying out, the receiving soil would be clogged from the viscous fluid released by dying bacteria. “We are extremely careful to evaluate the soil type,” says Willis. “We even pothole leach lines looking for signs of excessive biomat.”

ON THE JOB

Repairs drove the company’s revenue, with only 20 percent generated by new installations. Replacing failed seepage pits remains the most common repair. Biomat forms on the bottom of pits in one to two years, but as the column of effluent rises, hydraulic pressure pushes water through the biomat. Eventually, the biomat clogs and the rising column pushes effluent through the walls. Many years pass before the water column shows any activity, then it begins to rise rapidly. Once the pit is almost full, it begins to fail and a new one is drilled.

Most systems along the San Diego coast have septic tanks draining to 4-foot-diameter vertical seepage pits. This area has a deep layer of heavy clay in which percolation rates might exceed 120 minutes per inch. Furthermore, the topography is hilly with bluffs, requiring capped pits. The cap depth is the distance from the surface to the discharge pipe’s invert.

“Slopes can cause cap depths to be 20 feet deep with 80 feet of pit below them to reach the receiving soils — sandstone and sand,” says Willis.

Seepage pits contain 1.5-inch septic rock with a 4- or 6-inch perforated PVC pipe in the center to disperse effluent. “We dig a keyway around the outside of the pit, then pour the concrete cap,” says Willis. The cap prevents dirt from infiltrating the rock. Pits should last a minimum of 20 years.

Most inland systems have septic tanks with a 12-inch fall to the first leach line. Willis uses 24-inch chambers (Infiltrator Water Technologies) with dams and siphons connecting the trenches, each on a contour and slightly lower than the previous trench. (Distribution boxes were discontinued in 1972 because the tops collapsed as soil shifted on hillsides or slopes.)

Dams and siphons require competent trench sidewalls. After two-member crews mount a tee with 90-degree elbow to one end of each 4-inch perforated SDR pipe, they point the elbow down grade to the next line. Using a trench shovel, the workers dig a trench in the sidewalls for the cross connection to the next leach line. They leave a foot of competent soil while pouring concrete around the connecting pipe to prevent water from using the trench as a conduit.

SOIL CHALLENGES

Climate causes the second most common repair — replacing septic tanks. Installers switched from concrete to plastic or polyethylene tanks as they entered the market, but the state’s wet-dry cycles cause some troubles.

“Our inspections seem to uncover at least one collapsed tank every week,” says Willis. “Soil saturated by winter rains first exerts pressure on the tanks. In summer, the ground bakes and shrinks, allowing soil to trickle in around the tanks. Then the cycle repeats, compressing round spaces to oblong until we can’t remove the riser lids. At that stage, the tanks are collapsing or have collapsed.”

When concrete tanks aren’t a replacement option, crews use MultiTanks from Roth North America, a Roth Industries Co. The blow-molded tanks have a FDA-approved virgin high-density polyethylene layer covered with two layers of polyethylene for stability and one layer of black, UV-stabilized polyethylene.

In 2011, Willis had a repair involving groundwater 18 inches below grade. The only solution was an aerobic treatment unit. He chose a system from Jet Inc. and has remained brand loyal. “The units are simplicity itself and produce high-quality effluent averaging 9 mg/L CBOD5 and 8 mg/L TSS,” he says. Jet installations involve effluent flowing to a precast tank, then on-demand alternating pumps dose 1/2-inch driplines (Geoflow) trenched into 6 inches of soil.

STRATEGIC RELATIONSHIPS

Saddled with still more work, Willis hired 19-year-old Dominic Garcia in 2013. Within two years, Willis promoted him to installation foreman and managing repairs. “Dominic’s ability to absorb and understand everything he sees is phenomenal,” says Willis.

In 2015, Willis entered into a long-term leasing agreement with Lane and Kevin Post of Arrow Pipeline and Pacific Drain for the name and phone number of R.F. McKenna Construction. McKenna’s owner, Bruce Cornell, specialized in boring vertical seepage pits, and referred drainfield work to Willis. When Cornell’s health failed, his wife referred work to Bob’s Septic Service and Arrow Pipeline and Pacific Drain. The owners’ teamwork evolved into the strategic relationship.

To invigorate the former construction company, they renamed it McKenna Septic and Sewer and added a pumping service. Willis bought a Model 338 Hino vacuum truck with a 2,400-gallon steel tank, National Vacuum Equipment pump and 3,500 psi/5 gpm jetter from House of Imports. “We put McKenna’s name on the tank because of its huge recognition factor and the company is our flagship,” he says.

Willis does the septic work and Durham dispatches calls. Arrow Pipeline and Pacific Drain specialize in plumbing, drain cleaning, jetting, sewer connections and waterlines. Pumpouts are booked under McKenna. “Jeff McCabe came over from McKenna to work for me, and I hired Dave Page to run the Hino and perform inspections,” says Willis. “Salvador still lays pipe, but now he also rebuilds corroded concrete septic tanks with Lane McIver.”

Rebuilding tanks involves exposing the top and sides by hand digging down to the waterline. “Because the surrounding soil becomes the concrete form, these digs are very delicate,” says Willis. Then the team overlays the structure with rebar, sets a black corrugated pipe as a riser, pours 4 inches of concrete, and seals the pipe with a Tuf-Tite lid. Once the concrete hardens, they backfill with Willis’ Caterpillar 257 tracked skid-loader.

The leasing agreement enabled Willis to strengthen his relationship with Evan, Chase and Ryan Grenke of Alliance Diversified Enterprises. “Other subcontracted drillers were only able to bore 60-foot-deep pits, which often didn’t penetrate the sand layer,” says Willis. “The brothers, however, have several rotary D-6 size drilling rigs that penetrate to 80 feet. These pits have much higher dispersal rates and represent the quality of work for which we strive.”

ON THE GROW

In 2015, the office phones rarely stopped ringing. Workers installed 24 seepage pits, three ATUs and eight new systems. They also repaired 24 systems and fixed 165 septic problems.

Willis hired Todd Durham to manage the pumping division, while technician Dave Page saw 60 to 70 pumpouts per month snowball into working 20 hours overtime some weeks. The 64-mile round-trip to the San Diego Wastewater Treatment Plant was partly responsible.

Every six months, Willis realized he needed another employee — he now has 10 — or piece of equipment. At the 2016 WWETT Show, he ordered a Peterbilt 348 dual-axle truck with 3,600-gallon steel tank and NVE pump built by Lely Tank & Waste Solutions and took delivery in May.

“We’ll probably do almost 200 jobs this year, mainly repairs, and that’s where we need the new truck,” says Willis. “Fortunately, I have a great bunch of guys. Dominic, his helper Brad Groff and Lane are go-getters in their early 20s. I’m hoping to put more responsibility on them in a few years and take some days off each week. The future looks bright. The man upstairs has blessed me.”


Tall in the saddle

Before opening the doors of Bob’s Septic Service, owner Bob Willis is in the gym at 5 a.m. daily. Workouts help manage stress, but also keep him fit to compete in rodeo team roping.

In the timed event, contestants start from a box on either side of a steer in a chute. When the steer is released, a string attached to its neck breaks the rope barrier stretched across the first rider out — the header, who tries to rope the animal’s head or horns. Once the catch is made, the header turns the steer left for the “heeler”– Willis’ role. He ropes the steer’s hind legs, the more difficult of the two tasks. Willis then backs his mount to stretch the steer slightly between the two horses. When both ropes are taut, the clock stops.

Willis has steers and an arena on his property, and practices at least three days a week. “I’m home by 5 or 6 o’clock, saddle B.C. or Drover — both Quarter horses — and rope with my wife, Terri, or some of the guys from work until dark,” says Willis. “We also have a company barbecue at the house, and we all rope and visit and have a good time.”

Most weekends are spent at team roping competitions. During the first quarter of this year, Willis and Terri have won trophy saddles in a husband-and-wife event. Bob also won a trophy saddle competing in Phoenix, Arizona, and was high money winner at the annual Ropes Galore Customer Appreciation Team Roping and Barrel Race in Ramona, California. “I brought home a trophy buckle and an ice chest,” says Willis. “Curtis Nelson and I roped our steers for an average time of 19.25 seconds. We’re very blessed to win every now and then.”



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