A Technology Sales Expert Waded Into the Wastewater World — and Is Having a Blast!

James Stiksma learned on the run after buying and retooling the sales and marketing game of an established septic installation company

A Technology Sales Expert Waded Into the Wastewater World — and Is Having a Blast!

 As the clouds roll in over a mountain range, Stiksma, left, and Arien Brouwer, the operations manager, review plans during a septic system installation in British Columbia.  (Photos by Taehoon Kim)

When James Stiksma left his corporate sales job in the cellphone industry in 2016 and bought Septic Expert, a septic system design and installation company, he knew absolutely zilch about the world of drainfields, distribution boxes and dosing tanks.

“There were times when I thought I was crazy for making such a big career change and entering a world I knew nothing about,” admits Stiksma, 36, who rebranded the company as Canadian Septic and moved it to Langley, a city about 25 miles southeast of downtown Vancouver in southwestern British Columbia.

So far, Stiksma’s lack of experience hasn’t been a handicap. If anything, being a novice enabled him to take a more objective look at how to reshape the company, founded in 1999, and maximize its potential. After assessing the lay of the land for about a year while he learned the business, Stiksma leaned on his experience in the cellphone industry and adopted technologies to make processes and operations more efficient and marketing programs more effective.

“I like to look at the big picture and drill down into things,” says Stiksma. “I’m always looking for ways to make things easier for everyone at the company — and for our customers.

“With just a three-man shop and two of us always on the road, time is always a challenge,” he adds. “So I’m always looking for anything I can do to increase efficiency, give me more time to chase after sales instead of getting bogged down in paperwork.”

While it took some time to gain traction, Stiksma’s efforts are paying financial dividends. In 2021, the company’s revenue was about 40% more than in 2017, its first full year of operation.


Before his career U-turn, Stiksma held several different jobs. He worked for three years as a sales and service representative for Cintas, which supplies work uniforms for companies. He also served as a corporate account manager for a national wireless carrier dealership.

“I met a lot of people who worked in different industries,” he says. “I learned about the hows and whys of their operations and helped them implement technology to streamline their operations.”

But ultimately, Stiksma wanted a more sustainable and lucrative job to support his growing family. When he was unable to find a job he liked, he decided that buying a company would be a better alternative. “I wanted something I could call my own,” he says.


Stiksma was intrigued when he ran across Septic Expert. He liked the fact that there was high demand for design, installation and repair/maintenance services; that the industry is regulated, so not just anyone can do it; and that it required education and certification.

“Nobody grows up thinking they’re going to put ‘poo’ water into the ground,” Stiksma says. “But this business kept on checking boxes, including high barriers to market entry.

“And as I looked over the financials, I was confident there was something worthwhile there,” he continues. “I also compiled four or five pages of questions about the business and gave them to the owner — did a lot of digging. And the more I probed, the more I thought this was a really interesting industry.”

Stiksma dug in even deeper by actually working for the company’s owner, Martin Sparkes, for a week to get a real-life glimpse into the company’s operations. And after he bought the business, Sparkes helped him with the first three or four installations and “basically held my hand for about the first three months,” Stiksma says.

“For the first year, I also was able to bounce any questions I had off of him,” he adds. “Overall, it still was a bit terrifying to make that leap. But based on what I learned about the business, I knew the calls were going to come. It was just a matter of ramping up my knowledge and experience so I could effectively communicate with customers.”


Today Canadian Septic designs 20 to 30 septic systems a year and installs 30 to 36 a year.

“We work closely with a number of local engineers that do design work,” says Stiksma, who sits on the board of directors for the Western Canada Onsite Wastewater Management Association-British Columbia.

To perform installations, the company owns a SK755 mini skid-steer made by Ditch Witch (a brand owned by The Toro Company); two pickup trucks — a 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and a 2021 Silverado 3500; a 20-foot cargo trailer made by Continental Cargo (a division of Forest River Inc.); a dump trailer built by Big Tex Trailers; two pipeline-inspection cameras made by Hathorn Corp.; and a NaviTrack Scout and an RS-24 pipe locator, both built by RIDGID.

On the technology end, the company uses iPads to create service reports and invoices and make presentations to customers; FastField software that creates customized mobile forms; and Apple AirTag asset-tracking devices. To design septic systems, Stiksma uses a MacBook Pro and AutoCAD software.

In addition, Stiksma utilizes Google Drive, which allows him to store and easily access photos, documents and the like, as opposed to running back to the office to look things up — a real time-saver, he notes.


To stay better organized and streamline the design process, Stiksma developed a spreadsheet program into which he inputs all the data gathered from customers to design systems — things such as how many people live in a home, the number of bedrooms, the total square footage of the building and so forth.

“Then I plunk the soil characteristics into the same spreadsheet to determine things like linear loading rate, vertical separations and the minimum drainfield area,” he says. “It’s invaluable to be able to access all this data quickly so that we can provide accurate answers to customers’ questions. It allows us to deal with more customers in a shorter period of time.”

When the company completes an installation, Stiksma and his team document all aspects of the project, from the size and brand of the pumps to exact measurements, photos and detailed notes, including any changes made after consulting with engineers.

“Then we give the commissioning report to the design engineers so they can update their as-built plans, which ensures accuracy,” he explains. “Undocumented changes are fairly common in the industry, so we’ve found it’s incredibly helpful to have everything documented in this digital form.”

This summary report also serves as a marketing tool, he adds. “We just finished up our first install with an engineer and after we sent him the form, he asked if he could give our name to his customers,” Stiksma says. “He said we saved him a ton of time and paperwork on the back end.”


Stiksma says the company also benefits from comprehensive communication with customers, with an emphasis on explaining why systems are designed a certain way.

“It’s very important to us to take time to explain to customers why you’re doing what you’re doing,” he says. “It also helps because we’re not the cheapest company around and I’m not going to be that guy (who lowers prices to sell jobs). We prefer to concentrate on quality instead of quantity.”

To keep costs down and minimize the need to hire more employees, which are hard to find, Stiksma typically hires an excavating company for installations. This helps him avoid tying up significant capital in equipment that might sit idle much of the time, like a variety of sizes of excavators needed for different jobs.

“My guys are on the ground, guiding the excavation subcontractors,” he notes. “We also benefit from this because I use different contractors in different areas, so we don’t have to pay subcontractors to travel all over the province. This helps us maintain competitive pricing on out-of-town projects.”

Stiksma’s righthand man is his brother-in-law, Arien Brouwer. “During my first year in business, I was doing everything,” Stiksma says. “But now he’s out in the field, which leaves me time to concentrate on sales and bids — focus on filling the back end, which is where I have the most experience.”


The company primarily installs advanced aeration systems with sand mounds because the soil includes a lot of clay and water tables are high, due to the area’s proximity to the British Columbia coast.

“We just put in a system where the water table was only six inches below grade,” he says. “It was nasty. Tanks can be a real challenge here.

“The worst day of my professional career was when we showed up and found about a 24,594-pound concrete tank had floated on us overnight,” he adds. “We didn’t fill the tank up the day before and to make matters worse, we also hadn’t put any backfill on top of the tank because we hadn’t yet installed the risers.

“We ended up pulling out the tank with a crane truck, re-excavating, bedding the hole with more gravel and resetting the tank.”

Stiksma uses a variety of treatment systems, including products made by BioMicrobics (MicroFAST), Fuji Clean USA (Ce and CEN Series), Infiltrator Water Technologies (Advanced Enviro-Septic), Eljen Corp. (A42 modules) and Canadian Wastewater Solutions (Moving Bed Bioreactor package treatment plants).


Stiksma says his biggest business challenge is figuring out how much more he wants the company to grow and if it does so, how to grow without running the risk of employee layoffs. While he wants to provide employees with family-sustaining wages, plus a career track, he also knows that winter rains make year-long installations impossible.

“I do struggle with committing to employing someone full-time, but knowing I might have to put them on unemployment for a while during the winter,” he says. “It’s a bit of a mental hurdle because I feel a great responsibility for everyone on our team and their families.

“At the same time, we turn away repair, maintenance and inspection work on a daily basis,” Stiksma says. “Those services are incredibly underserved in our area, but they also require certification and years of hands-on experience.”

But no matter what direction the company takes going forward, business opportunities abound. And with a solid business model and systems in place, the company is well-positioned to capitalize on them, he says.

As Stiksma looks back on the last five years, he has no regrets about making the dramatic career switch.

“I’ve enjoyed creating relationships with customers and seeing some very spectacular homes along the way,” Stiksma says. “It’s a very cool industry. It may not have been something I ever thought about doing while I was growing up, but it’s been great for my family and I think more people should consider it. It’s definitely a great career option.” 


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