Business Explosion

Big-time opportunity knocked, and a Minnesota company answered with a major investment in new equipment and technicians
Business Explosion
Professional Drain team members gather at the company shop before heading out to their job sites.

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When the chance came to expand and grow their 16-year-old company even in a tight economy, owners Steve and Brenda Lee of Professional Drain Services answered, “You betcha!”

The result has been an impressive increase in business and a staff grown to 35 from just six in less than a year. Despite a few growing pains, their future looks rosy, and early retirement is not in their plans. Indeed, they are expanding their services beyond their home base in the Twin Cities, and even into adjoining states. Steve says they would like to go nationwide.

The growth spurt came when Professional Drain, based in the St. Paul suburb of Lake Elmo, won part of a major contract with a local utility to inspect sewer lines for crossbores – gas lines installed by directional drilling that are accidentally cut through sewer laterals.

Bottom line, Professional Drain became one of several contractors performing the inspections on a total project expected to last at least three years. The contract set off “a rush to get things done,” Lee says. “Our company grew dramatically in a few months – 500 percent. We actually found a niche with the technology of lateral launch cameras. We were able to expand from a very small company to a mid-sized one. We are moving forward.”

With its new equipment and capability, Professional Drain has grown its business through work for other municipalities and power companies and through subcontracting for other plumbing companies.

 

The big bang

Lee opened Professional Drain strictly as a sewer and drain business. Typically the firm had six employees and six service vehicles, and its offerings included basic cleaning, CCTV inspection and waterjetting for commercial and residential customers.

Circumstances and new technology, plus the right timing, enabled Professional Drain to expand rapidly at a time when the economy was in disarray and most competitors were cutting back, barely hanging in with current staff.

In early February 2010 in St. Paul, a contractor was called in to clear a stoppage in a lateral cut into a natural gas line that had been bored through the pipe. The break sent gas rushing into the home, causing an explosion that destroyed the structure. By good luck, no one was killed.

The fallout was that Xcel Energy, a major gas and electric utility serving Minnesota, began a lengthy process of inspecting sewers to make sure nothing of the kind would happen again.

Two weeks after the event, the Lees attended the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo in Louisville, Ky., where they checked out inspection equipment and made the contacts to ensure that their company would be positioned to bid successfully for the inspection work Xcel needed.

It meant a heavy investment, but also a chance to expand services and staff and substantially increase their business footprint. The Lees weren’t about to miss the window of opportunity.

 

Gearing up

After winning the contract with Xcel, Professional Drain had to gear up quickly, buying equipment, hiring and training technicians, setting up a corporate structure, and securing a proper garage, all while promoting the new capabilities to existing and new clients. The buildup took about five months. The biggest challenge was securing financing, and here the company’s reputation and financial history cleared the way, Lee says.

The company’s 2.5-acre home office property in the St. Paul suburb of Lake Elmo could not accommodate the new equipment fleet, so the Lees rented an 8,000-square-foot heated facility in nearby Oakdale. Recruiting new technicians wasn’t difficult because unemployment in the area was high; traditional help-wanted ads did the trick. Lee wasn’t necessarily looking for experienced hands, as he prefers to train to his own standards.

The management responsibility for the expanded company did not frighten Lee, since he had served for years as operations manager for his father’s drain-cleaning business, A-1 Root Master, based in St. Paul, and recently sold to a franchise.

 

Critical cameras

The work for the Xcel Energy project uses lateral launch camera systems that enable inspection of laterals from the main. This enables lateral inspections that do not inconvenience homeowners.

For lateral launch cameras, Lee looked to Aries Industries and CUES. From Aries distributor Flexible Pipe Tool, he secured two almost-new inspection vans, a 2009 Ford and a 2010 Chevrolet both equipped with Lateral Evaluation Televising System (LETS) cameras, which can inspect as far as 120 feet up a lateral.

Through ABM Equipment & Supply, Inc., a CUES dealer, Lee purchased three 2010 Lateral and Mainline Probe (LAMP I) camera systems. Two were installed on trailers and delivered quickly to give the company a head start on the Xcel project. The third camera system went into a 1999 Ford van.

The company also added a 2004 Vac-Con combination truck on a Sterling Chassis with a 3,000 psi/50 gpm pump, 1,300-gallon water tank, and 12-cubic-yard debris tank; and a 1994 Vactor combination unit on a Ford chassis with a 2,000 psi/80 gpm water system, 1,300-gallon water tank, and a 15-cubic-yard debris tank. The firm now has a total of 20 service vans, including Ford, Chevrolet and Mercedes models from 2004 to 2009.

The vacuum trucks have recirculating water systems to keep the water from freezing in winter. The fleet also includes a 2,000 psi/25 gpm jetter and various equipment from Spartan Tool and MyTana Mfg. Co.

 

Single focus

The inspection project for the power company is strictly to determine whether any gas lines are intruding on laterals. Professional Drain submits findings by DVD and on hard drive along with any corresponding documentation to the client. If an inspection finds any intrusion, the power company notifies the proper authorities.

“We are not hired to check for anything else,” Lee says. “In the process, we have to take care of roots that obstruct the inspection. For this, we use Spartan 1065 and 300 cable machines.”

The new corporate structure has Steve and Brenda Lee at the head with an operations manager overseeing all projects and personnel. Frontline employees include project managers and technicians. Lee handles most training in-house. In hiring, he looks for the right personality, which includes a strong work ethic, and common sense.

“These are qualities we need,” he says. “We can train on the equipment. You can’t train personality and how to be good with customers. I want all service technicians to see that they represent our company. It’s not me out there. It’s their attitude and skill we depend on, and we want them to be the best. We even remind our technicians to knock politely on the front door of a home. Even that courtesy is important.”

 

Cross-training

Aries and CUES handled training on the camera equipment, each sending instructors to Professional Drain and providing some training at their own headquarters. The training is ongoing, and the technicians have learned how to rebuild the cameras and handle repairs. Also on the agenda is cross-training so that all technicians can adequately handle any equipment.

“When we started this project, we were run ragged, and now we are getting people moved around doing different kinds of camera work, plus the jetting and all facets of drain cleaning and of course CCTV,” Lee says. “It’s a matter of keeping everyone trained and up to speed. We want anyone at any time to be able to do a job and not rely just on certain people.”

The rush of business did not end with the power company contract. The Lees have concentrated on promoting the company and gaining new customers, by methods they prefer not to specify for competitive reasons. He and Brenda and some of the staff members spend at least half their time in business-building endeavors.

Lee says that in current economic times, it’s important to have work lined up before signing on the dotted line to purchase equipment. “You don’t want to tie yourself up financially unless you are confident in your future dealings,” he says.

Lee appreciated being able to check out the lateral and mainline inspection technology and to televise the lateral lines without disturbing homeowners. “We realized that this was something the municipalities, sewer contractors, plumbing companies, power companies and our other clients would find advantageous,” he says.

His greatest reward was the opportunity to provide jobs for people at a time when so many were looking for work, while steering his small company into a broader base with more services. He continues to consider new technology and opportunities for expansion: The firm is looking into grouting, lining, and manhole rehabilitation.

“These are opportunities for us,” Lee says. “The goal for our company is to always be upgrading and moving with the times. Something exciting is always coming out.”



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