Vacuum truck contractor anticipates customers’ needs and grows his business to meet demand.
Some oil industry contractors strive to build a diverse customer base to mitigate the risk of over-reliance on one particular client. At Schlomka’s Vac Truck Service Inc. in Hastings, Minnesota, co-owners Donny and Susan Schlomka take a different tack on diversity: The company offers a small core group of clients — two oil refineries and two pipeline companies — a wide array of different services.
As such, Schlomka’s does work ranging from hazardous and nonhazardous waste hauling, industrial vacuuming and hydroexcavating, to pressure washing, drainline cleaning and stormwater pumping. In short, the Schlomkas do pretty much everything but turn out the lights and lock the doors for the long-standing customers — but if asked, they’d probably agree to do that, too.
“I really care what people think about me and our company,” says Donny Schlomka. “I want to give them the best service possible.”
Schlomka has good reason to be unusually passionate in his commitment to customer service: He and his family have been serving the refinery and pipeline companies for more than 40 years. Schlomka worked for his recently retired father, Hank, who ran a septic tank pumping and industrial vacuuming firm and started doing business with the refinery and pipeline operators in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Schlomka worked for his father for years, and he and Susan bought the industrial cleaning arm of the company from him in 2000.
“I worked for my mom and dad ever since I was 14 years old,” Schlomka says, explaining his decision to buy the outfit from his father. “It’s what I know. I figured I better jump in with both feet and do it.”
The business remains every bit a family affair, too. The Schlomkas’ oldest son, Justin, is a mechanic at the company; another son, Danny, runs a portable restroom business that spun off the septic pumping division; daughter Amber is the office manager; and her husband, Randy, works as a vacuum truck operator.
The refineries generate about 75 percent of the company’s business. The work includes cleaning tanks and vessels and above-ground piping and sewer lines, as well as hydroexcavating to locate underground piping or fiber optics. Providing vacuum truck support services for the pipeline operations accounts for the remaining 25 percent of the company’s revenue.
Schlomka concedes that having all his proverbial eggs in one business basket carries a certain degree of risk. “I’ve been concerned about trying to diversify, but every time I try to branch out, there’s a chance my work at the refineries suffers. It’s always in the back of your mind. … What if the refineries don’t like me anymore?
“On the other hand, every time I think I can’t do anything more, they throw more work at me. … They like me and my equipment,” he adds. “They appreciate my knowledge — I’ve been working at one of the refineries since 1969 — and my experience.”
Large equipment fleet
So far, the reverse-diversification strategy is working. Schlomka estimates his revenue has at least quadrupled since he bought the company in 2000. The company fleet has grown too, with around $5 million worth of equipment, including six hydroexcavating trucks: three from Guzzler Manufacturing and two HXX units, all made by Vactor Manufacturing Inc., and one King Vac model made by Keith Huber Corp.
The company also relies on 21 wet-vacuum trucks made by Keith Huber, Presvac Systems Ltd. and IBEX Inc. Tank sizes range from 2,000 to 3,000 gallons and the trucks use pumps made by Demag Wittig (Gardner Denver), Pearson Industries (now LMT Inc.) and National Vacuum Equipment Inc.
“We buy at least one new vacuum truck every year,” Schlomka says. “This year we hired six new guys, so we had to buy six trucks. We’ve been buying used trucks because we can’t afford to wait nine months for new trucks.
“We also pay cash for just about everything,” he adds. “I don’t like to stick my neck out on anything, so I don’t buy something until I know I can afford it. The only time I ever borrowed money was for the last vacuum truck purchases. Our accountant said the company needed to establish some credit, so we paid cash for half of the six trucks and took a loan out for the other three. But I plan to pay them off quickly.”
In addition, the company owns: 16 portable diesel pumps made by Godwin Pumps, a Xylem brand; three truck-mounted water jetters (60 gpm at 2,000 psi); a Hitachi mini-excavator; a Case IH tracked skid-steer; a Chevrolet dump truck with a 12-cubic-yard dump body; a 60-foot boom crane made by National Crane, mounted on a Ford truck; a Chevrolet flatbed truck; and four tanker trailers from IBEX and Polar Corp, ranging in size from 5,500 to 8,000 gallons. Two of the trailers feature stainless steel tanks and are used as temporary holding tanks; one hauls water for the company’s hydroexcavators and one is used to transfer acids, Schlomka says.
Focused on customer needs
At times, Schlomka will buy or build equipment dedicated specifically to fulfilling a customer demand, like the vacuum truck he had his father build just for carbon injection in a bio-basin in one of the refineries. In the basin, microorganisms “eat” oil in dirty water discharged from refinery processes. The unit features a 3,000-gallon stainless steel tank made by IBEX and a Hibon (Ingersoll Rand) 1,400 cfm blower.
“That truck works four hours a day at this refinery, seven days a week,” Schlomka notes.
Schlomka also tries to anticipate customer needs, like the time he bought a vacuum truck with a stainless steel tank in 2005 after he heard that one of the refineries was closing down an acid plant across the street. “I figured they’d bring (the acid plant) into the refinery. At that time, no one out here had stainless steel trucks that could carry acid,” he recalls. “I saw there’d be a need. I know the refinery and how it works. … It was a gamble on my part, but I knew what they were going to need before they knew what they were going to need.
“It’s critical that we have the right equipment to do the job,” Schlomka adds. “We do a lot of scheduled maintenance work during facility shutdowns, so we need equipment that’s reliable and will work when you need it. We work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I can’t remember a day when we haven’t been out there working.”
Rapid growth created demand for more than just a lot of equipment. The company recently built a new 12,500-square-foot shop that features two offices, a break room, a locker room, a shower room, two 10,000-pound hoists, a pit for changing oil and under-truck service, four drive-in maintenance bays, a fabrication bay, a wash bay and two drive-through maintenance bays for semi-tankers.
“We employ two full-time mechanics,” Schlomka points out. “Something breaks down every day, and it’s more cost-effective and efficient for us to do the work ourselves.”
Tracking new technology
Refineries and pipelines are high-risk work areas, so Schlomka says he’s always scrutinizing new technology that keeps his employees safer and increases efficiency for customers. As such, he attends the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show annually to check out the latest advancements.
“I like to see what the industry has to offer … who can build and customize trucks to the specs we need,” he says. “It’s important to invest in new technology because a good safety record equals getting more work.”
A good example is the King Vac hydroexcavator Schlomka bought from Keith Huber in 2003. Instead of a vane pump, it utilizes water-ring technology, which creates vacuum power by swirling water at high speed. Schlomka says it’s similar to swirling cream into a cup of coffee with a spoon.
“We bought the unit to clean contaminated soil, which gives off flammable vapors,” he explains. “We couldn’t dig the soil with a regular hydroexcavator because a vane pump might create a spark. That was my first big purchase. It cost $265,000 and that was a lot of money then for a greenhorn like me.”
Finding a happy medium
Like many contractors, Schlomka struggles with the issue of how big is too big for his company. When he started out with six vacuum trucks and four employees, he never imagined the company would grow so large — and so quickly. Hiring more employees equates to more pressure to sustain enough work to keep them employed.
“I don’t always like having so many people relying on me. If I do something wrong, it affects everyone’s livelihoods,” Schlomka says. “But I’ve learned not to think about it too much. We’ve gotten to the point where we have a lot of good employees, which helps a lot.”
On the other hand, Schlomka is always reluctant to turn down work. “Out here if you don’t get bigger, you step aside because they’ll find someone else to do the work. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you never say no. Why give that work and profit to somebody else? I always say, ‘Yes,’ then figure out how we’ll do it later.”
Staying active keeps family patriarch young
A wise man once noted that people don't quite playing because they get old; they grow old because they quit playing. That bodes well for Hank Schlomka, who finds plenty of time for hobbies as the retired 74-year-old patriarch of a family of septic pumping, portable restroom and industrial cleaning businesses he helped establish decades ago in Hastings, Minnesota.
Schlomka still occasionally works with "the boys," as he calls his son, Donny, who runs Schlomka's Vac Truck Service Inc; nephew, Larry, who operates Schlomka Services LLC; and grandson, Danny, who owns Schlomka's Portable Restrooms & Mobile Pressure Washing LLC. But he's even busier restoring the more than 100 vintage cars, trucks and tractors he owns, as well as fashioning wooden bowls that he often hands out randomly "to whoever looks like they need one" at the annual Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show.
"I still do a little advising here and there, but I'm not in the trucks anymore," he says of his involvement in the family businesses. "Been there, done that."
Instead, the good-humored and energetic Schlomka — a self-described jack-of-all-trades and master of some — says he's always busy with something, especially with the wooden bowls and vehicles. "My dad and mom were the same way — always go, go, go," Schlomka says, explaining the source of his boundless energy.
Schlomka started turning bowls on a lathe in 1990, when he made about 25 for Christmas presents. To date, he's made more than 3,000, using everything from aromatic cedar to oak, maple and birch.
"Everyone liked them so much that I just kept on making them," he says. "Last year I made more than 300, now that I have more time. If I spend more than two hours making one, that's a long time. It usually takes longer to stain and varnish them than it does to actually make them."
Schlomka is just as passionate about his vehicles, stored in several buildings. One of his favorites is the 1931 Ford he bought when he and his wife, Carol, got married in 1957. "I still have the same car and the same wife, and they both still run," he quips.
Most of the cars and trucks are still drivable. Schlomka says he's traveled as far as North Dakota, Missouri and Georgia to buy the vehicles, which he finds through tips from friends and family. "Once you go take a look at one, you end up with it," he notes.
Schlomka says it's hard to pick a favorite, but he really enjoys driving his 1957 Chevrolet 210 hardtop. He also just bought two rarities: a 1929 Whippet and a 1925 Star.
"I spend a lot of time restoring vehicles in winter," he says. "I try to restore one car a year, but I did three last winter."
So when does Schlomka plan to stop? Not any time soon, by the sound of it. "I got more projects going than I got years left," he says. "I hate to even buy green bananas at my age. But I plan to keep going and give 'er hell every day."