Business Owners Diversify Services to Succeed in Lightly Populated Region

Minnesota’s Enviro Pump-Plus chose a model of growth through diversification that puts the company in a strong position to serve a lightly populated region.
Business Owners Diversify Services to Succeed in Lightly Populated Region
The Enviro Pump-Plus crew includes, left to right, Gerald Holmes, Glenn Larson, Karen Larson, Elizabeth Hoff, Todd VanderWal, Jay Fricke (in truck) and Dylan Fricke. (Photos by Todd Kent)

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Glenn Larson is living in his dream. It’s the dream home he has been working on for five years, and where he and his wife, Karen, live while he completes the handcrafting details of timber frame construction. Instead of waiting to enjoy their home when it’s finished, the Balaton, Minn., couple relishes the journey building it.

They did the same thing with their diversified wastewater business, Enviro Pump-Plus Inc., which they expanded after purchasing it from Glenn’s father in 1989. As the name implies, they do much more than pump septic tanks. To succeed as a business in their rural area, the Larsons knew they needed to offer services for a variety of customers.

“It takes time to do things right,” Glenn says. “The business didn’t grow overnight. It didn’t change overnight. It’s been a steady progress of evolving and growing. The house is the same way. You get something started on a good foundation – that’s the key.”

SOLID FOUNDATION

Glenn credits his father, Floyd, for building the solid foundation.

“Dad is very creative,” Glenn says. “He taught me how to take things others had thrown away and recycle them. That’s the way I grew up.”

Floyd had a small farm and worked as a door-to-door salesman. One of his best-selling products was a septic enzyme treatment, and he recognized there was a need to maintain septic tanks. No one locally offered septic pumping in the sparsely populated southwest corner of Minnesota. Fly-by-night operations came through occasionally, charged a big fee and usually did a poor job.

Floyd looked around the farm for parts and purchased others. With the help of a cousin he put together a pumping rig combining a tandem axle trailer and a 350-gallon tank with a trash pump and started Floyd Larson Septic Service in 1963. He built a business pumping tanks on the small and large farms in the area. In 1970 he added portable restrooms.

Growing up, Glenn worked for his father, but had dreams of running his own business. After high school he attended vocational school and became a licensed plumber. He moved away and owned two shops for a time. In the early 1980s, he moved back to Balaton and opened Glenn Larson Plumbing and Repair and worked with his father.

The shift into pumping was a natural one, except that the entrepreneur in Glenn had ideas for expansion. When he’d press his father about buying equipment or adding services, Floyd responded that Glenn could do that – when he owned the business.

GLENN’S TURN

Glenn and Karen did just that when they bought the business in 1989. A few years later they changed the name to Enviro Pump-Plus to open up to more opportunities and reflect their purpose.

“Our mission statement is: To professionally provide an essential service with respect to our customers and the environment,” Karen says.

Besides residential pumping, there are plenty of opportunities to grow the business, with ethanol plants and industrial customers that have their own pretreatment plants because small municipal facilities can’t handle the additional waste.

“We pump the sludge and land-apply it under industrial regulations,” Glenn explains. “We also do some environmental clean up as subcontractors. Business was very good with Superfund cleanup work in the past.”

As they recognized needs, Enviro Pump-Plus added services: hot- and cold-water jetting, televised line inspection, industrial vacuum loading and hydroexcavation, for example.

“We enlarged our service area when we went into jetting and inspection cameras,” Glenn notes.

BUILDING A FLEET ON A BUDGET

New services mean new equipment – or at least “new” to the Larsons.

“The first thing we did was buy a new vacuum truck and more portable restrooms,” Karen says.

They ordered restrooms from Satellite Industries and added more over the years. Most of their current 150 restrooms are rented for construction for projects including wind turbines, ethanol plants and electrical grid infrastructure. Glenn likes the Tufway models.

They also purchased a new truck – a 1989 International with 2,500-gallon tank and equipped with a pump from National Vacuum Equipment. Later, they purchased another new truck, a 2008 International with a 1,100-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater stainless steel Best Enterprises Inc. tank and Masport pump for servicing restrooms.

For septic line inspection they invested in ProCam equipment by UEMSI.

The rest of the fleet is used equipment that has been refurbished and reconfigured. Glenn notes his talented crew has the same repurposing and DIY talents he and his father have. “We do a lot of stuff in-house,” he says. “Two of them were diesel mechanics and another did auto body work.”

Last winter they put together odds and ends from old equipment to build a 60-gallon vac tank to fit through 36-inch doors to clean restaurant grease traps. For an even bigger project, they built a custom restroom service truck starting with the well-worn components from an old Isuzu Work Mate rig. After much refurbishing and fabrication, they installed the vacuum unit on a 2002 Ford F-550 truck.

“We not only diversify in our services, we also have diverse equipment,” Karen says. The company strives to outfit trucks for multiple purposes.

For example, the 2004 Kenworth and 2006 Peterbilt trucks (both with 3,800-gallon stainless steel tanks from Advance Pump & Equipment) are used to pump septic tanks, but they are also equipped with National Vacuum Equipment blowers for commercial pumping, such as carwash pits.

The crew uses a 1989 Ford combination jet/vacuum that is also set up to do hydroexcavation when working with utility clients. Because it is equipped with a jetter vac and modified pump by Flexible Pipe and Tool (St. Joseph, Minn.), it also works to pump municipal lift stations, plugged pipes in manure handling systems on local dairies and clean up slurry at ethanol plants.

The Larsons’ fleet also includes a 1995 International with a 3,400-gallon aluminum tank and a 1989 International with a 2,500-gallon aluminum tank, both carrying National Vacuum Equipment pumps, a SRECO-Flexible trailer jetter and a 1997 Peterbilt with a Cusco vacuum loader. The Cusco unit’s ability to handle dry material opened up a variety of services the business now offers, including cleaning flour bins, coal dust, sand and gravel, and silos.

CREATIVE TOUCH

The Larsons encourage and appreciate their crew’s creativity, which is balanced by common sense since they also use the equipment and know what they need. A few years ago, they fabricated a drop deck trailer to transport portable restrooms that is built low to make loading and unloading easier.

Fellow employees call Todd VanderWal “Trinket Man” because of his knack for building things for better efficiency. For example, he builds brackets and compartments in toolboxes and on trucks so everything stays in place. He customized spreader bars for each truck for land-applying septage.

Last winter the crew worked with a graphic designer from Sybesma Graphics of Sanborn, Iowa, to include gold flake in new truck signage announcing the business’s 50th anniversary. The painter, who also works on racecars, created the design earning the 2010 Pumper Classy Truck of the Year award.

“All of our trucks are like big billboards, so we use that,” Glenn says.

People comment that they see the name Enviro Pump-Plus all over, so it is as good as advertising in local papers, on the radio and in the phone book. The Larsons also have a website, but admit it needs “new blood” to be developed effectively.

Other than GPS in some of the trucks, Karen notes that routes are set up old school with basic software they’ve had for years. The crew knows the area and puts in enough windshield time to follow routes she sets up for them – or they modify to be more efficient.

NEXT BIG THING

The Larsons and their employees brainstorm regularly at meetings about potential new services they can provide. There is more competition in the area than when Floyd started the business, and it’s important to have a mix of residential, commercial and industrial work to keep the crew busy all year. Safety training is maintained with videos and programs through the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association. Annually employees attend safety courses conducted by ethanol plants so they can continue working there.

Under a new law in Minnesota, pumpers are now allowed to have their own on-site storage to hold waste until conditions are right for land application. Enviro Pump-Plus built a concrete in-ground tank right away and will save themselves and customers money. Prior to the law, when weather and ground conditions weren’t right for land application, they had to take septage to municipal plants and pay dumping fees.

Hardworking employees staying on top of regulations and watching for service opportunities keep the business competitive and successful, Glenn says. By taking time and small steps to grow and diversify, Larsons’ business has developed a unique personality.

So has their home in progress with its blend of new lumber with wood, doors, chalkboard and windows from an old grade school and other old buildings. With a good foundation and patience to build it over time, the Larsons aren’t sure what they will end up with. That’s OK. Staying open to design opportunities while appreciating the journey is just as important.



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