Contractor Finds Way to Grow on Its Primary Service

Ohio-based operation finds way to keep diversifying after years of experience in cleaning industrial facilities

Contractor Finds Way to Grow on Its Primary Service

Odyssey Environmental Services employees, from left, Matthew Raub, Phil Stratus and Chad Johnston, use a GapVax HV-56 on a hydroexcavation job.

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Cleaning the environment has always been a priority for Steve Grueber, ODYSSEY Environmental Services president.

When ODYSSEY first opened for business, they were serving the petroleum and chemical industries, removing dry bulk materials at steel mills, cleaning drains and oil spills around machines, and handling remediation during shutdowns. By 2008, they were serving municipal clients with hydroexcavation services, a technology Grueber had been involved with for many years.

“We started this company initially because of our belief in environmental services and also our past experience in the industry,” Grueber says. “We are not trying to take over the entire environmental service business because there are so many people with knowledge about these things. It would be a shame to limit the possibilities.”

Currently, about 30 percent of the company’s business comes from cleaning, inspection and sewer work for municipal clients. Mill and oil refinery work accounts for 35 percent of the business, with another 20 percent in hydroexcavation and the remainder generated from oil rig cleaning.

“Many of these industrial plants we service are older facilities, but because of the natural gas boom and oil drilling, they have been working toward making environmental improvement,” says Andrew Grueber, general manager. “We have been able to be with them in bringing facilities up to date so they can utilize new technology in keeping the facility clean and in production, thus generating a quality product. There is, however, some new construction in steel mills in the regions we serve. 

“Cleaning projects in these facilities will include environmental cleaning such as removing dry material from the tops of cranes, walls and beams,” he says. “We also clean their drains, lagoons, floors, confined-space tanks and open tanks. This basically entails whatever environmental services they require that can be completed with the equipment we stock. You could say that what we do at ODYSSEY is vacuum anything. If it needs to be removed from a space, we can handle it. In some cases if a truck cannot be used, we will use our labor force to bucket materials from one place to another.”

Remediation, which they do in-house, may call for removing tanks or underground pipelines or rebuilding drainage basins and retaining walls utilizing their own equipment.

“On some sites, we may have to add cables or railing to make the job safer,” Grueber says. “With those type of jobs, we are sometimes up high and this requires a lot of setting up. Safety involves the crew knowing who of the men are involved on site. Our technicians have to know the proper way to safely pick things up. There is a strength factor — getting into a pipe, sending a camera down, jetting the line, operating a backhoe — getting objects out that may be causing a blockage in a pipeline. Performing many functions falls to the expertise and training of the crew.”

Because of the many challenges in these environments, safety, training and the proper equipment have been the keys to sustaining the company’s growth over the past six years.

In addition to serving the tri-state area, ODYSSEY has had jobs in Maine and Montana, as well as other Eastern states.


The corporate structure with ODYSSEY starts with the three owners, who are all thoroughly engaged. There are four supervisors reporting to the owners, who in turn each have a foreman with two or three technicians.       

Finding candidates who fit the profile required to be a good technician can be a challenge. Their hiring process can entail 15 to 30 initial interviews. Following the application and interview process, a candidate who seems qualified will have a 30-day trial period. The training starts with confined-space entry, but that’s just the beginning. OSHA courses can progress from 40 to 120 hours. Initial courses will get a trainee out on a job, but ODYSSEY wants technicians to be aware of all safety issues on any job site. Employees are certified to operate multiple types of equipment, and training includes fall protection and respiratory training, so the technician knows what mask to wear and what cartridges are needed.

OSHA courses are conducted by OSHA at ODYSSEY headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio. Their foremen take outside classes on the safe use of high-pressure water.

“We strive to hire people with high standards for safety and those who aspire to be more proficient at multiple tasks,” Grueber says. “This has been a difficult bar to get over — finding those who have the experience and the ambitions we look for. It’s a substantial investment in employee training.”

The company promotes from within, so there is incentive for those who wish to advance.

READY TO RAMP UP                                         

Grueber says that with any job they tackle, whether an existing customer or a new client, they never know exactly what they’ll find.

“It can end up being something we have not encountered before and can mean problem-solving we have to work through,” Grueber says. “This brings in the partners and again our specialized operators and equipment, including the cameras we rent when we need that technology. This is what we enjoy — problem-solving and helping the environment.”

The majority of new work coming their way involves a bidding process, and Grueber says they find that relationships develop over time and jobs become based on time and material.

“With a newly projected job, we want to look before getting involved,” he says. “We visit the site and do a ‘job walk.’ Make sure we cover every aspect and sometimes have multiple visits and talks with people. We want to know every aspect of the job.”

Grueber says they will have a pretty good benchmark as to the length of time it will take to solve a problem if they have past experience on a site, but there is no average because it is always based on the needs of the customer.

“We do a lot of project management,” Grueber says. “Sometimes we don’t even have our equipment there. We help other companies implement new machinery in older steel mills.”

Projects can be on a week-to-week basis or last three months up to a year. The company will often serve as the prime contractor, but just as often as a subcontractor.

“We are now at a size where we would rather take on the entire contract,” Grueber says. “Our project management skills have positioned us to act in that capacity, and we see things go smoother and we can get things done. Sometimes when we come on a site as a subcontractor, we find we are able to assist the prime contractor in multiple aspects of environmental protection because of the many facets we have dealt with both within our company and in previous situations or experiences.”

Some customers have preventive maintenance contracts, which is very positive for ODYSSEY, but they still get from four to 10 emergency calls a month.

“In the long run, it is more efficient for the company if they are on a preventive maintenance contract. They can provide a better quality product without having the downtime they may have if or when an emergency occurs,” Grueber says.

When it comes to disposal, ODYSSEY often works side by side with and in support of local family-owned companies for proper disposal of both hazardous and nonhazardous materials.       

“We can go either way,” Grueber says. “We have the transportation trucks. With our equipment we have options to consider all possibilities for disposal. We recognize there are many small companies in our service area that are not only in business, but also want to have an impact on the cleanliness of the environment. We value these associations.” 


ODYSSEY is prepared for emergency calls. They maintain a specialized team ready to respond on short notice, 24/7. Trucks are always fueled and properly equipped to contend with any complaint. Additional support vehicles can also be readied to respond quickly, and they can be anywhere within 30 miles of their shop in an hour under most circumstances. They are also capable of responding quickly to emergencies out of their satellite office in State College, Pennsylvania.

“They tell us what the emergency is,” Grueber says. “We can go on what we have experienced before, even though each emergency may likely be unique. We can evaluate based on previous situations we have dealt with.”

ODYSSEY operates in Youngstown out of a 6-acre facility, with an 80,000-square-foot warehouse and 5,000 square feet of office space. The satellite office in State College is on a 1-acre site with a small office, which serves as a staging area for some projects.


ODYSSEY operates with four vac trucks. Their GapVax hydroexcavation unit is built on a Volvo chassis with a 5,000 psi pressure washer pump, a 200-gallon freshwater tank and a 1-inch front reel. Jetting can vary from 3,500 psi/20 gpm to 8,000 psi/50 gpm.

Another GapVax unit on a Volvo chassis features a 5,300 cfm, 28-inch Hg vacuum pump and 17-cubic-yard debris body. Two other Volvo-based GapVax units can pull a pressure washer trailer to assist with cleaning when necessary but do not have an onboard water supply. All these units have carbon-steel debris bodies.

There is also a Guzzler on a 1985 International with a 12-cubic-yard debris bed. That unit was reconditioned in 2009. Two pumper vac units with vane pumps capable of pulling liquids were recently added. One is a reconditioned 1985 Mack and the other is a 1995 Mack primarily used for hauling oil and brine water. Their third pump truck is a 2001 Volvo, also with a vane pump. Each has a carbon-steel bed capable of hauling 4,000 gallons over the road.

Other vehicles include three specialty service trucks used for hauling miscellaneous loads and transporting equipment to and from the job sites. There are three hot pressure washing trailers capable of hot and cold operation. A 1999 Ford L700 serves as a jetting truck with a 2,500-gallon tank, with capability similar to the jet truck.


Larry Frangos Jr., a co-owner since 2009, says that the three partners are very much active in all aspects of the operation, from sales calls to getting down in the pits to work with technicians, all depending on the needs at the moment.

“Steve has been my mentor,” Frangos says. “He has taught me everything I know in this business. That is how I have gotten where I am with ODYSSEY.”

The partners meet monthly to go over customer relations and new contracts. Weekly meetings between the supervisors and foremen keep communication free and open, which is essential in such a highly demanding business.

Frangos adds that communicating with customers through follow-up calls and meetings has been a plus in building relationships.

“Whatever it takes,” he says. “We make it happen.”

Relying on trust and knowledge

Steve Grueber, managing member and president of ODYSSEY Environmental Services, says there were some important considerations in deciding whether to form the company with a partner or go it alone.

“Most important was trust and knowing that my partner would have my back — that I could count on him,” Grueber says. “Larry Frangos was that man when he came on board in 2007. His background included working and coordinating with other companies. His son, Larry Frangos Jr., also joined the firm as a member of the crew at that time.”

When the senior Frangos left the firm in 2009 to pursue other interests, his son filled that important role in the company.

“What you want as a co-owner is trust, as well as knowledge. These are the assets I counted on initially,” Grueber says. “But there should also be complementary skills as well. My son, Andrew, brought business management and IT experience when he joined us as a co-owner in 2011. Both Andrew and Larry Jr. worked their way up starting in 2007 from laborers to become co-owners.

“I realized that a team was a valuable tool because the industry is so vast. No one person has the exact knowledge or time to be able to deal with a multitude of projects.”

He says there is still some trial and error, but they handle matters by working together. “There is nothing available you can pull off a shelf that will always work. You have to deal with issues and develop as you go. What works for one company does not always work for others.

“Another key is to have patience with all members of your crew, including your top team, as well as others within the industry.

“Communication with every individual involved is the best path,” Grueber says. “You can have the best company in the world, but it is only the best because of the people you surround yourself with — your partners and the people who work for you and contribute. This also includes other family members, Aric Grueber and Anne Graff, all who have been a part of our grand experiment.

“ODYSSEY Environmental Services has pooled many years of experience serving our particular market and have steered a young company into a proven asset in dealing with large and complex facilities seeking to comply with the challenges of a changing market and the varied demands of environmental issues.”


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