The Keller Family of East Texas is Ready to Address Any Septic or Plumbing Emergency

The onsite pros at Bulldog Contractors take a cradle-to-grave approach to wastewater — installing, maintaining and repairing systems for their happy customers

The Keller Family of East Texas is Ready to Address Any Septic or Plumbing Emergency

Jeff Keller, in the foreground, is shown with technician Cameron Corpier. The truck is an International outfitted with a 1,650-gallon steel tank from Lely Tank & Waste Solutions and a National Vacuum Equipment vacuum pump. (Craig D. Blackmon photo)

Several years after Bulldog Contractors left the home-remodeling business to concentrate on more lucrative plumbing and drain-cleaning work, the Jefferson, Texas-based company steered into yet another market: Repairing and installing septic systems and pumping septic tanks.

The rational for the move was simple: In Jefferson — located in rural East Texas, about 15 miles west of the Texas-Louisiana state line — most homes have septic systems. And if a customer calls with a plumbing problem, there’s a good chance a septic-system issue is the cause, says Jeff Keller, general manager.

“When someone calls us for a backed-up drain, there’s a 50-50 chance it’s a septic issue,” says Keller, who runs the company for his semiretired father, Carl. The elder Keller established the company in 1978 and named it after the mascot of the local school system sports teams.

“Everything is ‘bulldog’ around here, so we decided to jump on the bandwagon,” he says. “Plus we had a bulldog at the time.”

The move into the septic repairs and installations underscores two valuable lessons for small business owners. First of all, it pays to be aware of new opportunities — especially ones that complement existing services and skills offered. Second, providing a range of diversified services makes companies more attractive to customers who’d rather not deal with multiple contractors.

“We wanted to be a one-stop shop for our customers,” says Keller. “No matter what the problem is, we want to be able to take care of it, right then and there.”

Today, system installations, repairs and pumping account for about 35% of the company’s revenue. Plumbing and drain cleaning still dominate with 65% of the company’s revenue, Keller says.

Dual-truck service 

To provide faster and more efficient service, the company typically sends a vacuum truck and a plumbing vehicle to rural job sites, just to avoid making customers wait for service. Keller charges customers more to bring both vehicles, but he gives them the option of bringing just one truck or both.

“If people tell me it’s been a long time since their tank was pumped, I can pretty much predict what the problem is,” he explains. “We usually take both trucks with us so we don’t have to backtrack and cost customers time.

“If they haven’t had the tank pumped in, say, 10 years or more, they’re going to need that done anyway,” he continues. “I usually try to pump the tank first, and if that doesn’t fix the problem, then we’ve got a plumbing truck parked right there.”

The company relies on a 1996 International truck outfitted with a 1,650-gallon steel tank made by Lely Tank & Waste Solutions and a vacuum pump from National Vacuum Equipment. To perform repairs and system installations, as well as replace water and sewer lines, the company also owns a JCB North America backhoe, a trencher made by Ditch Witch (Charles Machine Works) and a 35-foot flatbed trailer made by McLendon Trailers.

On the plumbing side of the business, the company owns a 2017 Chevrolet Express cutaway van with a 12-foot box body from Supreme Corp. (owned by Wabash National Corp.) and storage and shelving units built by Hackney. The company also relies on power tools from RIDGID and Milwaukee Tool.

For cleaning pipelines, the company invested in a RIDGID standard SeeSnake pipeline-inspection camera; a SeeSnake microReel camera; a RIDGID SR-60 SeekTech pipeline locator; and a cart-mounted JM-2900 water jetter (4 gpm at 3,000 psi), built by General Pipe Cleaners, div. of General Wire Spring.

In addition, the company owns a RIDGID K-6200 drum machine (for 3- to 6-inch-diameter pipes) and an M18 Drain Snake, manufactured by Milwaukee Tool.

Priced right

How is a smaller company able to afford so much equipment? By charging prices high enough to cover overhead costs, as well as generate sufficient profit margins to keep reinvesting in more tools and equipment that boost efficiency and productivity.

A good example is pipeline-inspection cameras, which Keller says are among the smartest investments he’s ever made. The main benefit: The ability to see and diagnose problems without digging up customers’ yards to find the problem, he notes.

“We don’t want to just go out to customers’ yards and dig them up for no reason,” he says. “An inspection camera assures customers that you’re a professional who can locate problems without tearing up their yards like a gopher.”

The cameras also can help sell jobs because skeptical customers can actually see what’s causing a problem. To recover the cost of expensive video equipment, Keller charges an add-on fee to camera lines, which he offers as an option. As he puts it, “There’s nothing free in this world.”

But Keller gives customers a free one-year warranty on his work if a post-cleaning camera inspection shows a line is running free and clear and the pipeline system is in good working order.

But in the end, it’s hard to make equipment investments by charging just below or about what competitors charge. “I charge based on what a job is worth and how long it’ll take me to finish it,” he says.

Pleasing customers

The way Keller sees it, investing in reliable, advanced technology that enhances productivity and efficiency is a form of customer service. It’s hard to be a one-stop shop for customers and fix a variety of plumbing and septic issues without a full complement of reliable equipment.

“We’ve built a reputation for having the right machine for the job, which is a necessity to provide great customer service,” he says. “The industry is constantly changing, so if you don’t adapt and change with the way it’s evolving, then you’re going to get left behind, plain and simple. So we try to keep up with most innovative tools and technology.”

Projecting a professional image is important, too; uniforms and clean, well-maintained trucks go a long way toward assuring customers they’re in good hands. It’s also important to do the simple things well, such as arriving at jobs on time and doing what you say you’re going to do — and doing it when you said you were going to do it, he notes.

Educating customers — especially those that haven’t ever owned a home with a septic system — is also part of the customer-service equation. “An uneducated customer is the worst kind of customer,” Keller says. “They get upset about prices because they don’t understand what you did.

“We take time to explain everything — go over the process step by step,” he continues. “Sometimes customers are stressed out and frustrated because they’re taking time off work to be at home, which is a huge hurdle to overcome. But if you can take the time to show them you’re going to do a professional job, it can help minimize price objections.”

Emergency service 

Most of the septic-related work Bulldog performs centers on emergency repairs to fix backed-up tanks. Usually the problem is a broken pump or a failed leachfield. “So we either replace the lines or upgrade to a different system,” he says. “Each situation is different.”

Keller is manufacturer-certified to repair and service aerobic systems made by the following companies: Clearstream Wastewater Systems, Hydro-Action, Jet Inc., Norweco, Hoot Systems, Socia Septic Systems (Cajun Aire), Centex Hydro-Flo, Ecological Tanks, Consolidated Treatment System and Delta Treatment Systems (Infiltrator Water Technologies).

The company only installs about a half dozen new systems a year, primarily because an influx of competitors bent on competing on price has made it difficult for Bulldog to turn a profit.

“They’re doing it for pennies on the dollar and I can’t compete because I’m charging plumbing rates for septic work,” he explains.

When the company does install a new system, Keller says he prefers aerobic systems made by Clearstream, with either concrete or fiberglass tanks made by Clearstream.

“We have a lot of red clay around here with poor percolation, so we usually have to use aerobic systems,” he says.

One tough job 

One of the toughest jobs Keller ever encountered occurred in 2011. It involved a failed septic system on a lakefront home, so the water table was high. Bulldog started excavating for a new aerobic system in March — and didn’t finish until early October. The culprit? An unusually rainy summer that continually ruined repeated excavation efforts, Keller says.

“We shot the grade and made sure the water table was below the excavation ditch,” he explains. “Then we dug the hole. But that night, a huge storm blew in and the lake rose three feet and flooded.

“Our excavation flooded and the walls collapsed,” he says. “We ended up digging it out five times … and the lot was so small that we couldn’t dig in another location. And water just kept coming in because it rained every couple days. It was a total freak of nature because it never rains that much during summers in Texas.”

The situation was even more complicated because an addition to the home had been built over the existing tank, which made it impossible to disconnect it. The solution? Keller installed a grinder pump in the old tank, which served as both a holding tank and a lift station from which septage was pumped uphill through a 2-inch PVC line to the new system, some 80 feet away, Keller explains.

“Installing that system required septic, plumbing and electrical skills. It showed the value of being a one-stop shop … it would’ve been a real headache for the customer to deal with three different contractors on a job like that.”

After seven months of fighting the weather, Keller knew he had to complete the installation because the normal fall rainy season was looming. So he used the company’s vacuum truck to pump water from the excavation while setting the new concrete tanks. (The roughly 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot home required three 1,000-gallon tanks.)

“We didn’t have any other choice,” he says. “At one point, water came in so fast that one of the tanks we were trying to set was actually floating.

“It was crazy — a real nightmare,” he adds. “I hope I never have to do that again.”

Work-life balance 

Looking ahead, Keller says he eventually will buy the company from his father. But that won’t change the company’s less-is-more business strategy, which prompted a gradual downsizing during the last 10 years. Growing smaller instead of larger allowed the company to operate at a saner pace and pay even more attention to customer service, he says.

“I’m not looking for the headaches that come from more growth,” he says. “There was a time when I was married to the business, with no life and no family time. But now I place more value on time with my family and friends and spending time doing things I want to do. And that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

Pumping the brakes on growth
For many business owners, growth is the be-all and end-all objective after starting a business —the ultimate benchmark for measuring success. After all, bigger is better, right?

Not always, as Carl Keller, the owner of Bulldog Contractors, and his son, Jeff, can attest. Carl established Bulldog in 1978. And by 1985, the company grew to 22 employees and was running three plumbing service trucks, plus a vacuum truck used to pump out septic tanks.

But while growth can be great, it also can spur hassles and headaches, too, including mounting overhead costs and increased personnel and managerial responsibilities that suck up that most precious of commodities: time.

So when all those factors combined with the growing difficulty of finding qualified technicians, the company started downsizing about a decade ago, Jeff Keller explains.

“It got harder and harder to find good, reliable workers who you can trust with your company name and brand,” he says. “In fact, nowadays it’s hard to find someone who’ll just show up to work. We just got tired of all the babysitting — just wasn’t worth all the headaches.

“You reach a breaking point when you spend so much more time managing people and your overhead costs just keep getting bigger and bigger,” he adds. “And even though you’re bigger, you aren’t making any more money than when you were smaller.”

Today, the company has just three employees: the two Kellers (Carl is semiretired) and Cameron Corpier, a technician who’s been with the firm for six years.

“We have a lot fewer headaches because now there’s no need to always be checking up on everyone out in the field,” explains the younger Keller, who grew up in the business and always planned on working for his father. “And my father could finally step away from working out in the field.”


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