Willie Brown and His Small Western Installing Business Are Ready for Anything

Black Mountain Excavating tames unruly home sites to provide quality onsite wastewater treatment in a remote and inhospitable region of central Arizona

Willie Brown and His Small Western Installing Business Are Ready for Anything

Willie Brown constructs a drainfield into a slope using Eljen GSF, or Geotextile Sand Filter, drainfield media covered by a geotextile fabric provided by Eljen. The laser level is from Spectra Precision/Trimble.

Installing septic systems in a remote and rugged region of central Arizona presents many challenges for Willie Brown, who works mostly by himself, with a summer assist from his younger brother, Daylen. There’s the challenging topography and rocky soils, long hauls with heavy equipment to reach many job sites, even trying to avoid venomous snakes and spiders in residential crawl spaces.

And that doesn’t even get into the challenge of a painfully slow economic recovery after the real-estate collapse a decade ago. While other parts of the country have enjoyed a steady climb out of the doldrums, that’s not the case in the lightly populated Gila County, located in the Tonto National Forest. It’s been a slog, but things are starting to look up.

After working 17 years in the family’s Black Mountain Excavating business in Payson, Brown suddenly became the sole operator in 2016. “Dad told me he needed to get out,” he says. Bill and Lori Brown still co-own the business with their son, but no longer participate in it.

Willie Brown, 37, installed a total of 10 standard and alternative systems in 2017, the busiest the company has been in years. “We’re just beginning to see what looks like an economic recovery,” he says.

To supplement onsite work, Brown works as a subcontractor on gated-community developments laying municipal sewer and water pipes and conduits for Arizona Public Service. He also completes the site work for these homes in the Payson area.

Over the mountains

Gila County covers 4,796 square miles and is home to 53,500 residents. Brown lives in Tonto Basin, a small community with two full-time excavating companies that receive the majority of work. “We do better in the Payson-Pine-Strawberry area in the northern half of the county,” he says.

The 31-mile trip over the Mazatzal Mountains takes 30 minutes and places Brown at a disadvantage. “To remain competitive, I absorb the expense of transporting equipment from Tonto Basin to Payson by piggybacking trips,” he says. “I’ll haul soil to Payson for different jobs and bring brush or spoils home to sell.”

Besides the Mack RD688CH 10-wheel dump truck Brown drives, the company owns two Kenworth T800 10-wheelers (one is for off-road work only). All three have 10-cubic-yard boxes by K and H Mfg. Machinery is transported on a low-boy trailer pulled by a Peterbilt 567 with an oversize load permit. “The trucks are the most expensive things we own,” Brown says.

Mechanical maintenance and welding happen in a 40-by-60-foot one-room shop on the 80-acre homestead. It has no office. Brown runs the company with a cellphone and in-home office. “My wife, Megan, works in Payson three days a week as a dental office manager and cares for our 1-, 4-, and 7-year-old boys,” Brown says. “My only office help is QuickBooks, and I’m still learning to deal with the unending paperwork.”

Family ties

Because Gila County is a tightknit community, referrals generate most of the company’s work, eliminating the need for advertising and a website. Furthermore, the Brown family has been in the area for decades. Grandfather Jim Brown owned an excavating business, but his twin sons, Bill and Joe Brown, wanted to see the country by working for larger companies.

“Dad was with F&F Construction for almost 30 years,” Willie Brown says. “By then, he was ready to stay closer to home, and that’s why he opened Black Mountain Excavating in July 1999. Uncle Joe returned home, too, and he opened Quality Pumping in Payson.” Like the close family they are, the twins share heavy machinery (mostly Caterpillar).

Lori Brown, who worked in the office and answered phones, saw an opportunity to increase business by becoming a soil tester. Being the first onsite professional to work with homeowners often opened the door for Bill Brown to be the installer. Empowered by the trust customers had in them, Lori Brown certified as a designer of standard systems. With Bill Brown as installer, Black Mountain became a turnkey business. (Today, Lori Brown continues to do soil tests for other contractors.)

Willie Brown joined the company full time after graduating from high school in 1999. “Dad and I were installing 20 to 25 new systems annually, and 75 percent were advanced treatment units,” he says. “As subcontractors, we also did residential site work for new home developments in the Payson area.”

County work

Much of their onsite work was for Gila County, which still had grandfathered cesspools in the pine forest subdivisions of Young, Tonto Basin and the northern half of the county. Most cesspools had failed and also were near waterways. “Homeowners couldn’t afford the expensive replacement systems, so beginning in 2006, the county received grants to fix a few a year,” Brown says. The easy installs each took 10 days for the following reasons.

The 45-home Kohl’s Ranch subdivision north of Payson was the most difficult project. Year-round Tonto Creek flows past eight to 10 lots per acre with homes built within feet of the hillside. Properties received a 1,000-gallon precast septic tank and AX20 AdvanTex aerobic treatment unit (Orenco Systems) pumping to a 60-by-50-foot-wide pressurized dripfield (Geoflow). “Sometimes even our compact machines wouldn’t fit on the lots,” Brown says. “We did a tremendous amount of hand work.” The company owns a Bobcat S55 skid-steer, two Bobcat 322 mini-excavators, a Bobcat 425 mini-excavator and a Caterpillar 416 C backhoe.

Working in the high country also meant pounding through shelf rock with a hydraulic hammer, but the mini-excavators often lacked the power to break it. Forced to set tanks on the ledge, Bill and Willie Brown built numerous retaining walls into the hill, set the tanks against the wall and backfilled. Some sites even required raised dripfields inside retaining walls.

The houses, built on slabs, had crawl spaces under them, ideal homes for venomous reptiles, spiders and critters seeking shade. “I didn’t like being down there to redirect toilet stub-outs to the new systems,” Brown says. “All I had was a flashlight and my tools, and I couldn’t move fast.” After Joe Brown pumped the cesspools, Bill and Willie Brown filled them with concrete.

To help offset the cost of septic stone, the family purchased a diesel-powered two-deck quarry incline screen (Kolberg-Pioneer) in 2004. The rock in the bottom of Tonto Creek is exactly the right size for septic gravel, less than 2 inches in diameter. After Brown excavates material from the creek, he washes and screens it. Larger rocks come off the upper 40-foot-long screen box, leach rock comes out the second screen, and fines fall through to the bottom for bedding and backfill. “We get three to four loads of backfill per hour,” Brown says. Nearby stone-crushing companies process the larger rocks.

No negotiating price

Brown says he was never deliberately groomed to take over the company, but he learned plenty from watching his dad. The biggest lesson was listening to Bill Brown cope with customers as they bullied him to lower prices or refused to pay the full amount after receiving a discount. Dealing with their attitudes while trying to build customer relations took a toll. Fed up, he left the company two years ago to run the family cattle ranches.

“I don’t play the negotiating game,” Willie Brown says. “If customers argue price with me, I give them another phone number and walk away. My quotes are competitive, so why should I lose money to these people? In the end, it means I’ll be unable to pay a bill.” The attitude adjustment works for most customers, who call Brown again.

When bidding jobs, Brown lists materials but not prices. “That opens the door to homeowners calling around to double-check my quotes, especially if I’m within dollars of other bids,” he says. “I use high-end products and only Orenco parts on Orenco systems. I buy their kits to ensure I always have what I need on the job.” The local Orenco distributor carries most parts and holds all the AdvanTex service contracts.

Brown bids municipal sewer installations differently. “If an ejector pump goes out, I want homeowners or repair technicians to buy a replacement at a do-it-yourself store that same day,” he says. “Consequently, I install commercially available pump brands.”

Learning from Dad

Brown also experienced how his dad’s philosophy of not going into debt too deeply positioned the company to withstand the housing collapse. “We were subcontracting for high-end housing developments and weren’t paid for quite a few jobs,” Brown says. Bill Brown, however, always paid off the past purchase before buying something new. He never filed for bankruptcy or had to return a piece of equipment to the bank.

One thing Willie Brown wishes his parents had done was give him more responsibility sooner in the business relationship. “It’s discouraging to work so long without climbing the corporate ladder,” he says. “Parents should loosen the reins here and there. Let their kids take over something, and leave a little room for failure once in a while. They are valuable learning experiences.” 

Preserving a rural heritage

Farming with draft horses relieved stress for Bill Brown. When he wasn’t running Black Mountain Excavating with his wife, Lori Brown, he used 10 Belgians and two Percherons in wide-abreast hitches to plow, disk and mow 40 acres of animal-feed crops on their H-4 Ranch in Tonto Basin, Arizona.

“Today, Dad hitches the teams mostly for weddings, funerals and parades,” says son Willie Brown, who took over the company in 2016. “We also have 15 quarter horses for riding lessons and a government lease to run 300 head of Angus cattle in the Tonto National Forest.”

Bill Brown bought his trained draft horses at an annual stock sale in Colorado, and always from Daniel Stutzman, an Amish farmer from Indiana. The men became friends, and in 2012 they created the annual Driving and Harnessing Clinic. “It also was a way for Daniel to bring his family to a warmer climate in winter,” Willie Brown says. Proceeds from the clinic paid for their train tickets.

The three-day clinic in late January attracts 10 to 15 teamsters from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The hands-on demonstrations in harnessing and hitching include the proper fit of the harness and collars as well as hitching from a single horse to three and four abreast, and four up (one pair in front of the other). “We use our own horses because we know which ones work together well and the position they prefer in the hitch,” Brown says.

Farming demonstrations occur on the last day and illustrate various ways rope pulleys and jockey sticks connect teamsters’ lines to each horse’s bit in wide-abreast hitches. Then it’s into the fields to work with farm implements such as a two-bottom plow pulled by a four-abreast or six-up hitch.

“Fortunately, we have draft horse enthusiasts and the Amish to preserve our early farming heritage,” Brown says. “We’re proud H-4 Ranch is a microcosm of that culture.”


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