'Rightsizing' Ensured Coleman Lyttle Sr. He’d Be Able to Continue Providing a Personal Touch

Direct and honest is the only approach to customer communication at Virginia’s Stamie E. Lyttle Co.

'Rightsizing' Ensured Coleman Lyttle Sr. He’d Be Able to Continue Providing a Personal Touch

  A crew member operates a Kobelco excavator as workers build trench lines for an onsite project in a state park.

Email Stamie E. Lyttle Co. (SELCO) or call the office in Richmond, Virginia, and both are answered promptly — by people.

“My parents believed that the personal touch was a keystone of providing quality service,” says Coleman Lyttle Sr., SELCO’s 66-year-old owner. “Those principles remain the backbone of our company’s culture and saw us through the oil embargoes and four crippling economic recessions.”

His parents, Stamie and Virginia Lyttle, founded SELCO in 1947. Stamie Lyttle and a partner installed septic systems, cleaned tanks and established a reputation for solving problems others wouldn’t attempt. Always looking for new niches, Lyttle expanded the company until it peaked in the mid-1980s with 90 people, five septic crews and eight utility crews. The latter installed, repaired and replaced residential and commercial sewer and water laterals.

SELCO was an advocate for advanced treatment systems. (Health officials are still cautious about approving them.) For example, in 1985, crews installed one of Virginia’s first decentralized systems with individual septic tanks, lift stations and force mains feeding acres of remote drainfields. The project was of great interest to regulators and helped to increase their acceptance of new technologies.

Today, SELO’s 48 employees specialize in onsite design, installation, maintenance, pumping and transfer of property inspections. “We learned the hard way that bigger isn’t always better,” Coleman Lyttle says. “If stretched too thin, quality suffers.”


Lyttle grew up washing company trucks, carrying water for percolation tests and riding shotgun in the vacuum truck. With an eye toward one day running the company, he graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1975 with a business administration degree. From 1976 to 1982, Lyttle was SELCO’s senior estimator and project manager before advancing to president in 1994. His father died in 1991.

By 2000, SELCO had shed its plumbing, portable restroom and equipment rental divisions and was focused on residential and commercial onsite work.

“In hindsight, I should have stayed small, but didn’t. From 2003 to 2007, the onsite industry was rocking and so were we,” Lyttle says. “When the 2008-09 recession hit, we never saw it coming, and the next two years were devastating.”

After six years of progressing at a crawl, Lyttle had a halfway-respectable company again, but it was often outflanked by competitors who had survived the recession by staying small and simple. In 2017, he began the painful process of downsizing, doing less volume with fewer people and returning to the way the business was 30 years ago.

The toughest decision was releasing top-notch management. “We’d worked together for years and had become close,” Lyttle says. “They all landed on their feet, so I probably did them a favor.”

An advantage of downsizing was shedding less productive workers and keeping the A-teams. “We’re proud of our low turnover,” Lyttle says. “Three foremen have been with us for 25 to 30 years.”

The service board reflects a balance between small and midsize projects. Lyttle defines midsize as $300,000 to $500,000 jobs. Large ones from yesteryears were bonded $2 million to $3 million projects, generating an annual revenue of $13 million. “We still install some commercial systems, like at the campground in Pocahontas State Park,” Lyttle says. “It has seven tanks and massive drainfields, but now we prefer jobs that take two weeks instead of two months.”

In 2019, SELCO installed 200 onsite systems, mostly residential. New construction equaled 25% and repairs 75%, comprising 47% of the company’s annual revenue.


Two state regulations have influenced SELCO’s world: the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and the privatization of septic evaluations and designs. The preservation act requires septic tanks to be pumped every five years and owners of advanced treatment units to have evidence of annual maintenance agreements.

Local health departments send yearly pumping reminders to residents in 84 localities, and SELCO piggybacks this by mailing service reminders to customers flagged by its database. In 2019, the company pumped 1.2 million gallons of septage and cleaned 1,300 grease traps, which amounted to 23% of annual revenue. Septage is offloaded at municipal wastewater treatment facilities in Richmond and neighboring counties.

“We also have 100 maintenance agreements, an increase of 25 from 2019,” Lyttle says. “We want to expand this niche along with stormwater quality maintenance, which will be the next big thing because we’re in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

Many private commercial properties, such as strip malls, shopping centers and apartment complexes, have underground stormwater detention basins with rechargeable, media-filled cartridges to trap pollutants. Those filters require cleaning. A vacuum truck operator removes the sediment in the vault and the media in the cartridges, then swaps out the empty cartridges with refurbished units.

“Many property owners don’t know these stormwater regulations exist, so our next sweet spot will be maintaining these filtration devices,” Lyttle says.

The privatization of septic permits made it easier for SELCO to initiate design-build procedures. With design-build, the designer, installer and homeowner work together from the beginning toward unified proposals that fit the client’s budget and schedule.

In 2015, Lyttle hired Eric Tambourine, a licensed alternative onsite sewage evaluator, operator and professional soil scientist to prepare permit applications and manage projects. SELCO’s engineer of record for systems greater than 1,000 gpd is the 3-Engineering firm. Another key longtime employee is Randy Poling, crew foreman.


An example of a difficult repair emphasizing SELCO’s design-build capabilities began in 2018 with wastewater occasionally flowing across the driveway of a six-bedroom home in Richmond, accompanied by persistent odors. A technician discovered wastewater ponding when the dose pump activated.

Tambourine’s soil evaluation revealed fill material over most of the 1.125-acre lot and a concrete storm drain running through the middle of it. A previous soil scientist had deemed the site impractical to use. “The limiting soils were sand and gravel with the water table 16 inches below grade and an average loading rate of 0.32 gpd per square foot,” Tambourine says.

Tambourine worked with the homeowners and engineer to find a solution. A private force main or tying to the sewer was too expensive. That left an advanced treatment unit pumping to a slope adjacent to a stream. Because of the site’s complexity, code specified a professional engineer design the 900-gpd system, which includes:

  • 1,500-gallon CEN10 system with nitrogen reduction (Fuji Clean USA)
  • E-Z Treat 101 UV light disinfection unit (E-Z Treat)
  • 36-inch-diameter pump vault (Orenco) with a Barnes pump (Crane Pumps & Systems)
  • Zoeller spider valve manifold (Clarus Environmental) in a 24-inch riser (Orenco)
  • 12-inch-diameter EZflow by Infiltrator drainage bundles (Infiltrator Water Technologies) in a 940-square-foot drainfield
  • 30-inch N-12 Mega Green storm drain pipe (Advanced Drainage Systems)
  • Simplex control panel (Orenco)

The wooded, built-out lot had a downgradient slope of 19% to 12%. “We squeezed our equipment between buildings, an intermittent stream, a fountain and fishpond, a stamped driveway, and an orange safety fence marking the property line,” Tambourine says.

To allow the three inhabitants to stay home, the crew worked backward from the replacement drainfield, built on a sand mound with a 2:1 slope. They lined 10 trenches of varying lengths with wicking geotextile to disperse equal, 60-gallon doses along the trenches five times per day.

“After the drainfield was inspected, a gully washer eroded the topsoil on the bottom edge,” Tambourine says. “We fixed it and installed a riprap channel to divert future runoff.”

The crew also extended the concrete storm drain via an adapter collar and 12 feet of corrugated plastic pipe. “We bedded the pipe in No. 57 stone and backfilled with compacted No. 10 screenings (rock dust),” Tambourine says. “We needed 12 inches of screenings to support the force main, which went on top.” The job used a combined 223 tons of soil, sand and fill.

The septic tank and settling tank were under a slate patio that the owner cut to allow access. After exposing those tanks and the nearby dose tank, they were cleaned. “It took 18 cubic yards of cement to fill them, all of it pumped uphill,” Tambourine says.


SELCO always uses the best available products and materials, which increases the client’s upfront cost. “We don’t scrimp on anything, because quality saves money in the long run,” Lyttle says. “Furthermore, the state has one-year construction warranties. We explain that $750 pumps are built better, operate at lower rpms and last longer. Homeowners are lucky if a $300 pump lasts two years. [Homeowners] get it, which is why we prefer dealing directly with them.”

Quality components ensure satisfied customers. If a problem occurs later because of something SELCO did, it is repaired free of charge. The approach is effective, retaining many customers since the 1950s. Some write complimentary letters or notes, but mostly they give word-of-mouth referrals.

Because the state Health Department enforces the septic code, the repair and rehabilitation market has remained strong. However, Lyttle sees a problem in that septic maintenance companies have become a commodity. “Robocalls have made it a lot more competitive. In addition, companies use software to create that personal-touch feeling,” Lyttle says. “We’re losing humanity behind the keyboard. Staying old school with our customers has helped.”

Meanwhile, Lyttle has found another positive to downsizing — rekindling relationships with developers, builders and former customers. “I get a kick out of business development, scouting for new work as we catch up over beers,” he says. “I also visit job sites and talk to the guys so they know they are appreciated and not taken for granted. As Dad always said, ‘A company’s biggest asset is its employees.’”

Personal relationships remain SELCO’s hallmark. “Texts and emails can’t resolve conflicts when negotiating change orders,” Lyttle says. “Whenever they are about extra money for unknowns, the two parties must sit at a table and talk face to face. That art is being lost in today’s world of social media and keyboarding.”

After years of running a $13 million “rat wheel,” Lyttle believes owning a company that size today is crazy. He dislikes the term “downsizing,” preferring to say he is rightsizing the company to establish a solid foundation for the next generation. The heir apparent is Coleman Lyttle Jr., 27, a SELCO field superintendent and project manager. And yes, his father is coaching him in the fine art of the personal touch. 


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.