Canadian Pair Take Over an Established Excavating Firm and Rename It Dirtwerx

Childhood friends Josh Melanson and Clint Watrich reunite and tap into a growing market for septic system installation around Vancouver, British Columbia

Canadian Pair Take Over an Established Excavating Firm and Rename It Dirtwerx

Clint Watrich tests pressure distribution in a sand mound, time-dosed system during installation.

After growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Josh Melanson and Clint Watrich went their separate ways. But after working for several years, they wanted different and better careers and found them in the wastewater industry back at home. And happily, they are starting in the industry as business is booming.

Melanson went to Southern California in his mid-20s, drawn by the expanding technology industry, and worked as an independent construction contractor for wireless communications companies. After he married and had children, he felt drawn back to British Columbia to be near his family. There, he reconnected with Watrich who was feeling the strain of a long career in corrections for the Canadian government.

A couple of years ago, Melanson was working as senior vice president of business development for a regional British Columbia contracting company when he hired Tim Wilson to work on his home wastewater system. Melanson knew the corporate world was not for him and wanted to be his own boss again. Wilson was contemplating retirement. Melanson asked whether he would consider selling his business. Wilson would. Melanson brought in Watrich, and in the spring of 2018, Wilson Tractor Service of Langley in suburban Vancouver became Dirtwerx.

Melanson and Watrich, both 44, have known each other since they were 12, and together they form a complementary team. Watrich has no experience in construction, but he learned a lot about leadership during his corrections career and after serving 18 years as a military reservist. Melanson brings his experience running a construction business.


The company’s territory is the Fraser River Valley east of Vancouver, south of the coastal mountains and up against the U.S. border. It is home to farms, subdivisions and small cities.

Vancouver consistently ranks among the top 10 most livable cities in the world. It has a strong economy, mild climate and easy access to mountains and the ocean for recreation. People from outside are moving in for that quality of life, and people in the city are moving out to suburbs and rural areas. That brings a diversity of problems to solve and means Dirtwerx installs a variety of onsite systems.

“Having not been experienced in that, and growing up on septic and having experience with a simple gravity system, I had no idea there are so many different types of systems. For a while, it felt like we never put the same type of system in twice,” Melanson says.

Gravity systems with a standard tank and drainfield represent one end of the company’s spectrum of jobs, about 15% of the workload. For suburban lots, like the one Melanson lives on, they may install miniature treatment plants, pressure systems, UV, the whole range, he says. Knowing what should go where is not difficult because Wilson remains a consultant for the company. Although he started in the industry decades ago, he is very much up to date on the newest and best options in the market, Melanson says.

The company operates with a small inventory of equipment and depends on rental companies for specialty equipment such as mini-excavators. The standing list of Dirtwerx equipment is a John Deere 135C excavator; Peterbilt 357 dump truck with a box by Langfab in Surrey; and a 25-foot low-boy trailer by Trail-Eze. The company also has a Spectra Precision GL412N laser level.


In British Columbia, there are no government inspections. As of 2005, complete responsibility for proper design and installation rests with the contractor, Wilson says. It’s called the professional reliance system.

“We have no government oversight, no government inspections,” Wilson says. “We’re not required to have an engineer do the design or have oversight on the systems. I took all the courses, and I am certified as a planner-installer in my own right. I have a little rubber stamp, same as the engineers do, and I sign off on my own stuff.”

To his knowledge, British Columbia is the only Canadian province with this system.

“When there’s no oversight, some of the more unscrupulous people tend to cut corners, and when I do a quote, I have to bid against them,” he says. “It’s a little frustrating in that respect.” But he doesn’t want to return to the times when he had to wait three days for an inspector to show up and approve his work. And if he thinks of some adjustments to make in his plans, he can make them without asking anyone’s permission.

“I like it,” he says. “For one thing, I like to do the design work. I actually took a night course and learned to use AutoCAD so I can make my designs look nice.”

A job site is like a blank canvas, he says. He has to figure out where to put the system and what to use, and then build it. “And when I’m done, I can stand back and say, ‘Yeah, I did that, and it works fine.’ And there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

This freedom of action attracted Melanson as well. It makes the company the authority. Given his background in California construction, British Columbia’s system was a shock. “I was a licensed electrician in California, but that didn’t mean anything. The city of Los Angeles was still coming out to inspect my work and tell me what I did wrong, if anything. And then I see this,” Melanson says.

Of course the British Columbia system also transfers all liability to the contractor. Wilson says he was paying about $5,000 a year for insurance and omissions, pollution and general liability coverage.

A small percentage of the company’s jobs are commercial, but the company is open to more, Melanson says. A separate division of the company, an outgrowth of Melanson’s background in heavy construction, does large commercial projects.


Wilson started Wilson Tractor Service in 1979 doing general excavation work, and he did that until 1991 when he found a mentor and friend, older than he was, who brought Wilson into the wastewater industry. In 1995 the friend and mentor died, and Wilson kept going.

“At that time, I switched from backhoe to excavator. I had a small Bobcat excavator, like a (Model) 100, which they don’t even make any more,” he says.

Wilson is 72 now. For a decade he worked with another installer with his own company. About three years ago, that partner went off on his own. “At that time, I thought, Well, I’ll just fade into the woodwork, maybe do a little consulting for other people,” he says.

Then he met Melanson and Watrich and heard their offer to buy his business. “I did check into them. They’re pretty decent guys, and they want to do it right. That impressed me right off the bat — that they were concerned about making the right choices and doing the right thing.”

Most of Wilson’s returning customers are custom-home builders doing three to 10 jobs per year. To make the transition of owners go smoothly, Wilson does personal introductions to his customers on a job site and explains who the new invoice will come from. “It’s worked pretty well. We have not lost any customers over the transition.”

During the first year, Watrich went through British Columbia’s onsite design courses and obtained a certification. He is now learning from Wilson’s experience. Wilson says his training is informal. “I take them to the bad jobs and say, ‘Here you are. What are you going to do?’ He figures it out, and then I pick holes in his design. Early days, it took half a dozen tries before he got it right.”

The sale agreement requires Wilson to stay on as a consultant for two years. His time on the consulting is, “to be honest, more than I would like,” he says. “I probably spend 40 or 50 hours a week doing it.”

He works with Watrich every day, then goes home to do his own paperwork and check Watrich’s work. But he also has a 30-foot oceangoing boat that he wants to get in the water. “I have a couple of Harleys that I’d love to go riding on. I have lots of air miles saved up, and I’d like to see the Panama Canal.”


Wilson never advertised — never found the need to.

“I talked to him a couple of times about a website and business cards, and he chuckled and told me he hasn’t advertised since 1984,” Melanson says.

Melanson comes from a different world. Working in business development for his former employer was difficult because of the amount of competition. “Then here’s a guy with a great business and he does no advertising.”

For their first two years, Melanson says he is talking to people about the sale of the business and the story of how that happened. “Canadians being very conservative people in general, I’ve kind of been doing it in a very soft way to make sure there’s a good comfort level.”

An advantage is that his wife, Renee, spent her career in digital marketing. Growing the business will involve heavy use of social media, such as Facebook, but doing it very locally. “That’s the real goal: to leverage what (Wilson) has done and built, get that story out there and try to gain momentum on a local level,” he says. “The thing that has worked best in my whole career is this: When you are perceived as the expert, getting business is easy.”

In the short term, the goal is to double the business. That’s the simplest strategy, and given the relatively restricted geography of the area, that should be easy for Watrich, who must oversee all the work because he holds the designer’s certification, Melanson says.

But he’s also honest about his knowledge of the industry and the market. “I still don’t know what I don’t know about the market opportunity — how many systems it’s feasible for us to do.”

At the same time, the housing market is booming, he says. Keeping up with it is a challenge — the job calendar is full for the foreseeable future — but at the same time, growing the business requires money, and Melanson and Watrich are just starting out.

Part of the future for Dirtwerx lies in the retirement of the people who entered the business 20 or 30 years ago and will soon be retiring, he says.

“I have a shotgun philosophy where I start pushing on a whole bunch of things, and as one moves, I give it more attention. And I have this problem: I see opportunities everywhere,” Melanson says.

With all that enthusiasm and strong demand, Dirtwerx is poised to grow.

Perfecting the work-life balance

“Running a business isn’t new to me, and I have the support of a wife who has seen me in business before,” says Josh Melanson, CEO of Dirtwerx in Vancouver, British Columbia. With his experience working as a contractor in California, Melanson has some habits to keep both the business and personal parts of his life on track. It starts with one key skill.

“I’m very good at managing my time,” he says. You need the work to support your family, he says, but what does it matter if you provide the big house but aren’t there for your children’s lives?

“As a business owner, you could work all day every day. You’ve got to have an idea of all the things that need to get done and when they need to get done. And, yeah, there are some days when I’m working on estimates at 9 at night or 5 in the morning, and there are other days when I bounce out of work at 12 o’clock on Fridays, which is kind of a goal, and I go duck hunting with my buddies. Or I bounce out on Wednesday afternoon to catch my daughter’s volleyball game.”

There are some tools he uses to accomplish this, but not what one might expect in the era of phone apps for every part of life.

“I carry a notebook with me at all times, and on a daily basis, I capture a list of activities that have to happen that day, and I physically cross them off when they’re done.”

This creates a visual list of action items, from estimates to ordering to returning sales calls.

“As you mark that off, it frees your mind.” As an entrepreneur, there are always moments late at night when you remember some task that wasn’t done. But write tasks down and cross them off, and you stop worrying, he says. Yes, it’s old fashioned to use paper.

“It’s terribly unsexy for a guy who’s been in technology his whole career. I’ve tried all of those apps, from Evernote to To Do List to Notes in my phone — boy, there’s something about the paper notebook. It’s very simple. It’s very tactile,” he says. “I do leverage my calendar in my phone. I still like the calendar for set appointments like sales calls.”

The other tool is being disciplined about personal time. “And you have to be disciplined.”

Melanson makes a point of never talking on the phone when he comes into the house at the end of the day. It’s important for him to pay attention as he greets his wife, Renee, and children. “I’m not going to bring work in the door the first time they see me as I come home.” And he makes every effort to be home for dinner with his family.


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