Joe Bruening Partners With Other Installers to Cope With a Labor Shortage

Ohio installer uses a unique approach to avoid the headaches of attracting, retaining and managing hard-to-find employees

Joe Bruening Partners With Other Installers to Cope With a Labor Shortage

Behind the controls of a Takeuchi mini-excavator, Joe Bruening, of Bruening Excavating, places a Norweco Singulair Green treatment system at a residential property. (Photos by Amy Voigt)

In early 2020, shortly after Joe Bruening established his excavation and septic system installation business, he was already frustrated by and tired of employees who lacked his passion for productivity and customer service.

So the 32-year-old entrepreneur took an unorthodox step to solve the labor dilemma at Bruening Excavating Corp: He downsized the company’s in-the-field employees from five to just himself and his brother, Christopher, and started using independent installation companies as subcontractors whenever possible. The only other employee is Bruening’s wife, Hallie, who runs the office.

“We put in about 50 systems a year, and I kept running into quality and production problems,” says Bruening, whose company is based in Wickliffe, Ohio. “You arrive on a job site expecting a job to be done and it’s not … a lot of times; you find guys are just milking the clock, which leads to dissatisfied customers. So I downsized and started over from scratch and hired my brother — trained him to do installs that would meet my standards,” he continues. “Demand for work was still high, so I referred customers to other companies for a while, but then I started hiring those companies as subcontractors.”

Bruening works primarily with one installation company and occasionally mixes in two others as needed. To vet the companies, he considers their reputations, talks to them about their business principles and gives each of them a “test” job to ensure they’d meet his criteria.

“When you hire another company, they’re more passionate and caring about the work they do,” he explains. “They have reputations to protect, so they don’t come in and slop things together. They put into jobs the same quality and passion that I do.”

Currently, subcontractors do about 25% of the company’s system installations, but Bruening says he’d like to eventually expand that to 50%.


Many benefits flow from Bruening’s decision. For starters, he’s more productive and less stressed out because he spends considerably less time solving recurring problems on job sites.

“As an owner of the company, you become the fixer — chasing all the problems and not being productive,” he says. “With subcontractors, I haven’t had any problems with loose ends or screwups. They want to do an excellent job because they’re not just a guy on a payroll.”

Furthermore, there’s less wear-and-tear on equipment because other companies’ employees don’t mistreat equipment the way some on-staff employees might. And in some cases, subcontractors even use their own equipment instead of Bruening’s, he says.

In addition, fewer employees results in lower payroll and overhead expenses, not to mention fewer management headaches. Bruening concedes that hiring subcontractors decreases his profit margins because he doesn’t charge customers more when he uses them, but he says it’s still worth it in the long run.

“I’d rather have lower margins than refer jobs to someone else or not finish a job on time and have a dissatisfied customer,” he says. 


So far, subcontractor availability hasn’t been an issue. Bruening says he’s careful to not just drop jobs on them on short notice. But in some instances, if an emergency job pops up on short notice, he might take on that project and ask a subcontractor to do a job he otherwise would’ve handled.

“I’m not afraid of losing business,” he says. “I care less about the money and more about customer satisfaction.”

Of course, sustaining relationships with subcontractors means making things as easy as possible. To that end, Bruening strengthens the business bonds with subcontractors by supplying all the materials needed for each job.

“I organize each job as if it were my own,” he explains. “It’s totally hassle-less for them — they just have to show up with labor and equipment. They don’t need to spend time figuring out what materials they need and then going out to buy those materials.”

To minimize expenses that cut into profits, Bruening also suggests hiring subcontractors on a flat-rate basis, which gives them motivation to finish jobs as fast as possible.


Bruening’s unconventional approach to labor reflects his penchant for doing things a little differently.

“I think that’s true,” he says. “I like to try different things — do things that might seem scary at first.”

Take marketing, for example. Bruening embraces social media, a sales tool he believes is underutilized by many older installers. As such, using a website and social media platforms such as LinkedIn allow him to reach out to customers that competitors might miss, which makes it easier to carve out market share.

“The older generation doesn’t care to learn how to use it,” he says. “A lot of Realtors are on LinkedIn, and lots of times they refer customers to me for inspections and installations.” 

While he’s not exactly sure where his against-the-grain ideas come from, he partly attributes it to being exposed to multiple businesses while growing up. His father, Bud Bruening, founded Solid Rock Excavating in 1988 and later purchased a service company called Fry Septic around 2003. He’s now a co-owner of the company.

“I was home-schooled, so I spent a lot of time working for my father,” he explains. “Instead of going to school, I was at school while I was working.”

Bruening also was heavily into motocross racing as a youth and was good enough to earn 20 corporate sponsorships. That added to the business experience he was picking up from his father.

“It all helped me develop an entrepreneurial personality,” he says. “I look at things as if I were the customer.”

Bruening became a certified installer and distributor for Norweco. This helps boost the company’s bottom line because he buys septic system components direct from the manufacturer with no middle-man markups.


Bruening started managing the septic division of the company for his father before branching out on his own in early 2020. He still works out of space he rents in his father’s shop and often refers customers to Fry Septic, which does septic system service and pumps tanks.

“It really helps with customer service because they can rely on me for any issue,” he notes. “It’s a turnkey situation for them, which gives me a competitive advantage.”

Bruening says he refers customers to septic system design engineers and soil evaluators that he knows provide great customer service. And he does so with no guarantee that he’ll get the resulting installation work. Why? Bruening says it enhances customer trust and builds relationships that could lead to work down the line.

“I like the concept of giving a recommendation without any strings attached,” he explains.” It’s a marketing tactic, really. Most companies will only give that kind of referral if the customer signs a contract upfront for them to do the installation.”

To best serve customers, Bruening also relies on two Takeuchi compact excavators — a TB290 and a TB250; a TL10 track loader, also built by Takeuchi; bucket and “thumb” attachments made by Werk-Brau; a 1988 Mack dumptruck with a Godwin Manufacturing dump body; a 20-ton and a 10-ton flatbed trailer, made by Interstate and Behnke Enterprises, respectively; a 14-foot enclosed cargo trailer manufactured by Diamond Cargo Trailers; laser levels made by Spectra Precision; Chevrolet and GMC pickup trucks; and Stihl and Milwaukee Tool power tools.


Bruening installs a lot of aerobic pre-treatment systems from Norweco because of the high water tables and thick clay common to the region, not to mention pockets of bedrock.

“The Norweco Singulair systems earn us a reduction in the height of a sand mound or the depth of the trenches,” he explains. “We use it in front of drip, mound, spray and leachfield systems to get a depth credit for required soil-separation distances.”

About 40% of those Norweco installations involve obtaining a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which places limits on sewage treatment and allows discharge off-lot into a storm sewer, ditch, stream or some other surface-water body.

The other 60% are either traditional leachfield systems (Bruening prefers the plastic chambers that Infiltrator Water Technologies makes), engineer-designed sand-mound systems built with pumps made by Champion Pump Co.; and drip-mound systems created with Active brand drip systems.

The majority of the concrete tanks Bruening uses are made by McGill Septic Tank Co. and the rest are plastic tanks manufactured by Infiltrator and Norweco.


In the end, however, providing great customer service is the key to his successful business model. It leads to repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.

What are the hallmarks of great customer service? Many times, it boils down to simple things that nonetheless are important to customers, Bruening says, such as promptly returning phone calls and responding to emails. It never hurts to come through in the clutch on emergency jobs, either. Sometimes he encounters customers that are selling a house and need a system installed within a week, for instance.

“That’s where I shine,” he says. “People have said in Google reviews that they’re shocked when I follow through and install a system on short notice. So following through on your promises and meeting customers’ deadlines makes a big difference.” 


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.