Onsite and Community Systems, Municipal Repair Boost Revenue for Iowa Company

Iowa business partners sell off portable restrooms and give away inspection work to concentrate on a profitable installing niche
Onsite and Community Systems, Municipal Repair Boost Revenue for Iowa Company
Scott Chapin uses a Spectra Precision/Trimble laser level to measure drainfield depth as Colby Nichols operates a Yanmar Vi075 mini-excavator.

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Despite only having a few years of construction-related experience between them, Dain Mann and Corey Nichols decided to join forces and form NISS (North Iowa Septic Solutions) Excavation back in 2006. They were driven by a common goal (one that motivates many entrepreneurs in the wastewater industry): a burning desire to work for themselves.

At first, the pair — Mann, now 37, and Nichols, 36 — chose to broaden their path to profitability, looking to add many revenue streams associated with small wastewater businesses in rural areas like their Mason City, Iowa. They performed excavation, system installation, onsite inspections and portable sanitation, among other things. A decade later, they’ve honed in on a few specialties as a way to more efficiently build the business.

CREATE A SHARPER FOCUS

Focus didn’t happen overnight, nor did it happen by accident. It has meant consciously giving up business along the way. For example, until recently, NISS Excavation did time-of-sale inspections on residential wastewater systems. But even such a logical diversification wasn’t the best position for their business, says Mann.

“If you show up and you’re both the inspector and installer, maybe 20 or 30 percent of the time the client suspects you’re favoring yourself and trying to sell additional services that aren’t necessary. From a business standpoint it’s a lot more profitable for us to do just one thing instead of trying to be the entity that does everything,” Mann says.

“All we’re doing now is uncovering a system for the guy who inspects it,” Nichols adds. “That’s also why we sold the portable restroom business. For us, there’s more profit in being very good at one thing.”

Letting go of business still helps their business. The guy who bought the NISS Excavation pump truck also acquired a license to do time-of-sale inspections. Mann and Nichols now refer business to him, and he does the same. He also owns a jetter, and when NISS Excavation needs a pipe cleaned out, they know whom to call.

This focus has brought them to a 50-50 business: 50 percent onsite installations and 50 percent installations of components for community and municipal wastewater systems.

“The community work comes and goes. In 2015, we installed pipes and tanks for a community system in Woden, Iowa, but in 2016, we didn’t do any of that work,” Mann says.

Yet, they have been pushing to expand the share of business from work that serves multiple homes.

“Single onsite systems are easy: You drive out into the country and get them when you can. The law requiring a time-of-sale inspection changed the market for single-system work.

Previously, people updated onsite systems because a long time had elapsed and it was the right thing to do,” Nichols says. The inspection rule is causing people to look further into the future. They delay work as long as possible because of the inspection cost and fear that a system will not pass inspection, or they work out a property transfer within a family so an inspection and system update are not necessary.

AdvanTex (Orenco Systems) is the main system they use, Mann says. They’ve used ATUs on small parcels of hunting property and developments built on marshes.

Monitoring advanced systems for individual property owners in rural Iowa is challenging, Mann says. It’s difficult to charge a single homeowner for a 100-mile round-trip service call generated by a false alarm. However, it’s easier to justify a service call to a community system because the cost is spread over many property owners.

On the municipal end, they install sewer mains, perform pipe rehabilitation, replace manholes and do spot repairs.

CHANGING EMPHASIS

NISS Excavation began as strictly an excavating company. Mann had worked a few different jobs, but that included time in a plumbing company. Nichols had about 18 months’ experience in excavating.

In 2007, they bought a company that provided portable restrooms and pumping services. But their decision to focus on onsite work led them to sell the restroom business in 2013 as well as the septic service truck and its associated business in 2015.

In 2013, they began pursuing community systems and municipal work more aggressively. They did one project replacing water mains in Clear Lake, Iowa, and then they did a few similar projects. They made it work by contacting engineering firms to learn about projects coming up. And, of course, this required a capital investment to acquire larger equipment.

A Case CX160 excavator joined their smaller equipment, a Yanmar ViO75 excavator and Case 410 skid-steer loader.

Each year, they try to do two or three larger projects. It took forever to win those first five large projects, but over a decade, sales have never showed anything but a steady rise, Mann says.

“I don’t know why we don’t use Facebook, but we don’t,” Nichols says. When they had the portable restroom company, they spent thousands on advertising. Now, they depend on referrals.

“North Iowa is a small community. We get calls from people who heard about our work from another customer and want us to work for them,” Mann explains. “In a way, it’s not difficult to get to this point. You do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t tell the customer you’ll dig a stump and then leave without doing it because the customer will remember that you didn’t follow through.”

They redesigned the website recently and are happy with its look and their new logo. What doesn’t quite fit is the company name.

“We kind of think of it as North Iowa Site Solutions because we take care of anything your site might need from draining to excavating. If you don’t shy away from hard jobs and those that may put you at a bit of risk, people get to know you. Now, the big general contractors are reaching out to us,” Mann says.

Smaller communities, for example, may not have the expertise to work down in trenches. So NISS Excavation will go out with an excavator and a trench box and do that part of a job while municipal employees handle the rest.

TEAMWORK COUNTS

Keeping the company strong and profitable means keeping a good crew together. Technicians receive a uniform allowance and a food allowance. Supervisors have health insurance, and all employees receive five days of leave per year.

“When you work in a seasonal business, it’s like going out on a boat in the ocean. There’s nothing to do but work, but we don’t work Saturday and Sunday. That’s something we pride ourselves on,” Mann says.

Mann or Nichols may come in on a weekend to dig a basement or do some demolition, and one of the guys may come in to help, but they don’t have to. When Mann and Nichols started the business, they were both in their 20s and both had children.

“It’s hard to have time off in this business because you don’t know what any day will bring and what may break. But everyone needs reasons to live, and as a young company, we have younger guys, and one of their reasons for living is to go home to their families at night,” Mann says.

Helping make sure technicians have that weekend time is Georgia Nichols, who is Corey’s mom and the office manager. Over the course of several years, she learned what technicians need to do their jobs as efficiently as possible.

That led to a worksheet. Customers want to give you the right information, but they don’t know what information you need, Mann says. When a call comes in, a worksheet comes out, and using it means the right questions are asked even if everyone is very busy that day.

Mann and Nichols condensed their needs into two worksheets, one for onsite projects and one for public works. A sheet will list, for example, important contact and permit information, whether a crew is cutting asphalt or concrete, whether trucking is required to move equipment or materials, and what size septic tank is required. When a job is done, the supervisor draws maps of what went in the ground for a good record.

ENGAGING WORKERS

They built the worksheet in Excel, but it’s a printed copy that’s filled out and placed in a folder that goes out with the crew. Information from the sheet is not entered into a computer: it’s enough for technicians to get dirty and tired during a 12- or 13-hour day without requiring more hours spent on office work, Nichols says. Some of the technicians are now sending back videos, and those are stored on the computer and tagged with the job number.

“We have a pretty healthy inventory list, too, so our technicians aren’t waiting for a tool to be free from another job,” Nichols says.

Finding good technicians can still be difficult. The partners insist that technicians be engaged at work.

“We’re dealing with life and death every day,” Mann says. “It may not seem that way to the average person, but the reality is that the people who locate utility lines are overworked and underpaid. Every time you put a bucket in the ground, you’re taking a risk. When you’re doing that — when you’re hauling heavy equipment — you need your guys to have their minds present in the work.”

The entire crew has a safety meeting every Monday morning. Instead of preparing a lecture, Mann and Nichols ask their technicians to bring issues. They also ask if technicians have seen unsafe practices in the field. “If a concrete truck came to a job site, and its backup alarm wasn’t working, we want to know about that,” Mann says.

Mann and Nichols have the firsthand experience with safety needs. In 2009, Mann lost the tip of a finger while hauling snow when his glove became caught in the equipment. A friend of theirs was cutting concrete pipe with a saw on unlevel ground; the saw bound, jerked, broke his nose and some teeth; and sent him to a doctor for corrective surgery. The worst was an employee of their portable restroom business who drove a company truck into an intersection and collided with a semitruck. He died as a result.

EQUIPMENT LIST

The company no longer maintains a vacuum truck or portable restrooms, but it keeps a versatile inventory of earth-moving machines. In addition to the Yanmar and Case equipment they started out with, NISS Excavation maintains a Case CX235 excavator; 2007 Yanmar ViO35 excavator; Case 590 rubber-tired backhoe; Case 2014 TR320, 2016 TR270, and a 2013 TR270 tracked skid loaders; two Mack dump trucks with Interstate trailers; and a low-boy triple-axle trailer pulled by a 1991 Kenworth semitractor. In addition, they have a MyTana Mfg. push camera and locator, a RIDGID cable sewer cleaner, and a Spectra Precision/Trimble laser level.

BUSINESS AND FAMILY

Rural Iowa provides many varied opportunities for work, Nichols says. When septic installations began booming, the NISS Excavation owners saw an opening in a market where few people were ready to do the work. They pounced. Then came the shift to community system work, and they remain open to change because they know they will have to adapt to whatever happens next.

But it’s more than a business. They both have children, and they want to make sure the world is in good shape for their kids and there is a business for them to work in.


Iowa needs uniform onsite rules

Like the patchwork of fields that cover most of its land, Iowa is also a patchwork of wastewater rules. And that doesn’t provide the best outcome for citizens or businesspeople.

“You go to one county, and you don’t need a permit, and no one is doing inspections,” says Dain Mann, co-owner of NISS (North Iowa Septic Solutions) Excavation. Two counties away, local officials are extremely tight with regulations.

“Iowa needs to be unified. Every county has to do the same thing, not this county does one thing and a mile later another county does something else,” says Corey Nichols, the other co-owner of NISS Excavation.

Many counties have cut funding for local sanitary employees; there are sanitarians, he says. These people take it upon themselves to get training and they recognize the importance of keeping the environment clean, yet they’re paid part-time or volunteer their services because their counties do not recognize the importance of the job.

And in Iowa, Nichols says, any homeowner can legally install his own system as long as he receives a permit. That’s fine with him, but when counties don’t have the same standards, it makes it hard for a business owner to talk to people about why they need technical help, he says.

This lack of statewide rules is holding back business. It’s why NISS Excavation gave up on transfer inspections. The changes in rules, or absence of them, made the service too uncertain.

This isn’t saying Iowa’s system is bad, Mann says, but it’s not doing the good job it could do if there were uniform rules.



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