78 and Counting

“Alligator Annie” Alma Tippins hopes someone will show up to buy her installing business. Until then, she’ll keep bossing around her crew.

78 and Counting

 After 27 years in the industry, Alma Tippins does most of her work from a lawn chair, supervising her team of contractors. (Photos courtesy of Alma Tippins)

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Every once in a while I get a reminder about a big challenge to the onsite industry — the aging of our workforce. It happened again recently when the phone rang and Alligator Annie was on the other end of the line, talking a blue streak about big plans to sell her business installing mostly aerobic systems across East Texas. 

I recalled how Annie — her real name is Alma Tippins — had been profiled in the April 2006 issue of Onsite Installer. And those 17 years ago, when she was age 62, she was already talking about selling Alligator Annie’s in Nacogdoches, Texas. Turning 78 this month, Alma is still waiting for a buyer to show up at her doorstep and take over.

“Alma,” I said, “how do you keep on doing it? Why haven’t you been able to retire?”

Her initial answer was fascinating. She went to her local university business school and told a professor she wanted to take a class to learn how to sell a small business. There was no such class in the curriculum. “Well, they teach plenty of classes on how to start a business. Why don’t you teach anyone how to sell their business?” was her response. 

Good question. It seems logical that once students get out in the real world and start the wheels of commerce moving, they should also learn how to plan on hitting the brakes on these businesses one day. Well, Alma and many other older installers never planned for business succession or an orderly retirement, so they keep on working.


“Who’s going to take over? I have no idea. You have to be willing to put in more than eight hours a day. If they think they can do it working 8-5, they are sadly mistaken,” Alma says. “There’s job security for us. The younger generation doesn’t seem to want to work anyways.”

Well, Alma, I’ll argue with you on that point. I’ve met plenty of hardworking young installers with a great work ethic who are running successful businesses. The younger installers give me some hope for the future of the industry. And I think there are plenty more where they came from. 

But it’s been really challenging getting the word out about the huge potential of the onsite industry. We know the opportunities are endless with so much new development on the horizon and so much work to do to rebuild a stronger wastewater treatment infrastructure. And Alma recognizes how much additional maintenance work is out to care for the aerobic systems built by her business. 

“Nobody is going to quit pooping. It’s just not going to happen,” she jokes. 

Alma went into the installing business 27 years ago. In that 2006 profile story in Installer, she explained that she had raised a family, then obtained college degrees in forestry and environmental science and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Laid off from that job and with no success finding a contractor to service her own aerobic system, she quickly decided she could build and maintain wastewater systems. 


Many years later, she’s up to 1,005 system installations and has averaged one installation per week for many years covering a wide area of Texas’ Piney Woods region. Soils in the area are sand over heavy clay, which has necessitated her to install advanced treatment systems 90% of the time. When she’s not supervising an installation, she’s providing continuing service for those 1,000 systems. 

How does she do it at an age when many contractors have been sipping cocktails on the back porch in retirement for many years?

Delegation is the key. Alma utilizes contract labor. She continually hires a loyal backhoe operator who is an independent contractor. The same goes for electrical work, drainfield installation, etc. She also earns a living furnishing a pumping contractor with steady leads for routine service of her customers’ tanks. You won’t find her behind the controls of a big excavator or at the working end of a shovel in a trench. 

“I boss people around and write checks. I sit under a tree in a chair and talk to customers. It’s a woman’s dream job; somebody pays me for talking,” says the feisty entrepreneur. “When you get old, you work smart; you don’t work hard. I don’t know how much longer I can keep on working, but as long as I have fun I’m going to keep on.”

If the average age of installing contractors is in the 50s and 60s, many who are reading this can relate to the physical challenges Alma faces, even though she’s mostly sitting in a chair and bossing people around. She suffers from Type 2 diabetes, which is unfortunately striking a growing number of older people. And her legs are growing weaker, she says. 

This is the plight of so many installers who are yearning for a practical retirement plan. If there is not a next generation waiting to take over — which is the case for Alma, whose children aren’t interested — the need for an exit strategy becomes more pressing with every turn of the calendar. How do you advertise your business for sale? What are the steps to place a value on the company you’ve built over a lifetime? What are the ways you can make that business more attractive for a buyer?


These are all issues we have addressed in one way or another over the years in this magazine. Alma’s question to the business professor was a simple one — why don’t they teach small business owners how to sell out and retire? I’m sure the appropriate consultants exist to pass on these valuable lessons; but it’s also true that too many contractors likely put off addressing these questions soon enough to allow a smooth transition to retirement.

This leads to situations like Alma’s, where she’s working well into her years of collecting Social Security checks. But deep down, that seems OK to her. 

“I’ve got my funeral planned; you can’t live forever. But if you have a job you really enjoy, it doesn’t feel like work,” she says. “What I do is the most fun I have ever had in my whole, entire life. How many people can say that about their jobs? I really want to sell my business, but if nobody wants to give me anything for it, I can work till I drop.”

Personally, I hope that day is a long, long time from now. And I hope we’ll hear from Alma about her progress in another 16 years.


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