Straddling Borders

Florian & Sons works on an evolving business model that accounts for regulatory and other differences between Minnesota and North Dakota
Straddling Borders
Storey and lead onsite technician Deleski rake the rock over the pipes in a mound system.

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Glen Gonsorowski, second-generation owner of Florian & Sons Excavating, grew up watching his dad periodically refocus the business to succeed in a complex marketplace.

Working in a growing border area covering parts of North Dakota and Minnesota, and with a service territory extending to a 50-mile radius around Grand Forks, N.D., the company has always been ready and able to go where the work led. As the focus changed, the business added or changed services.

When Florian Gonsorowski opened the doors in 1953, septic tank pumping and line cleaning were the key services. Later, he added onsite system installation, service and repairs and dropped pumping. When the company expanded into general excavating, installation work continued, but with less emphasis.

The business traditionally served both states, but recent events have forced Gonsorowski to refocus again. Today, claiming a specialty in “construction from the ground down,” the company combines onsite system work with specialties in site development, utility infrastructure, paving and general excavating.

To remain competitive, the company has charted somewhat different courses in each state capitalizing on experience and well-honed skills to stay ahead of the industry’s and government’s wconstant evolution.


Familiar with change

Gonsorowski learned from his father to keep an eye on the future and constantly anticipate business opportunities. In 1970, the firm offered rental trackhoe service with two machines – new technology that very few other contractors had. Opportunities were abundant, and Gonsorowski often was gone for a week at a time, moving from job to job.

“The trackhoes made work so much faster that other contractors with backhoes would hire us to do their digging,” he says. “Even after paying us, they could still make money.”

Then things changed. Today, there are more than 100 trackhoes within 50 miles. “It makes no sense to incur the costs of hauling a machine 50 miles, then fight a bidding war that just drives your income down,” Gonsorowski says.

The onsite business developed with a change in the local culture. For years, the typical single-family home was served by a cistern. “A cistern is a concrete tank used to supply all of the family’s water needs,” he says. “It also limits the family’s use of water and reduces demand on their onsite system.

“When abundant water became available, cisterns were quickly abandoned, and almost as quickly we would get calls to look at septic systems that were now having problems. This quickly led us to conclude that there was a connection between increased water use and system failure.” At the time, system sizing was not regulated, and installers were free to size systems according to their best judgment.

Under that method, installers could scale down tank capacity or absorption area square footage to get a price advantage. Consumers who thought they were getting a price break soon found out they had bought far less system than they needed.

“I can’t count the number of people who bought a system on price alone and then called us to enlarge it after they connected to public water,” Gonsorowski says. “We were glad to see statewide regulations come into play. With every home required to install the same-capacity tank and absorption area size based on bedrooms, it put installers on an even playing field.”


Sewer school

Another thing that changed was the training and education available to installers. Growing up, Gonsorowski watched his father learn by observing, then doing, mostly on his own.

He is quick to credit the Minnesota onsite program with many positive concepts and influences that crossed the border into North Dakota.

“Over the years, our company sent many employees to Minnesota for onsite training,” he says. “They present great training sessions, and the concepts they brought to the industry are beneficial regardless where they are put to use.”

Gonsorowski found he could rely on the Minnesota “sewer school,” as he calls it, for focused training on that state’s approach to onsite systems and technologies. “North Dakota does not have a similar educational resource,” he notes.

Advances he sees include site evaluations using soil profiles and percolation tests, and the roles of the regulator as site evaluator, approver of design proposals, permit issuing agent and construction inspector. “All of these things bring consistency and keep installers on an equal footing,” he says. “In the long run, the consumer is the winner.”

He also sees a downside: The absence of regulatory consistency across state lines can be challenging and limiting. Gonsorowski has watched the states move toward program consistency within their borders, while the states themselves moved farther apart in how they licensed businesses and how they treated credentialed practitioners.


What’s on the menu?

Each year, Minnesota requires installers to perform a minimum number of installations to keep their installer credential. At the same time, Minnesota does not recognize the work done by a Minnesota-licensed installer in any other state. As a result, Gonsorowski’s company was not able to maintain its Minnesota license. North Dakota has no similar restrictions.

As a consequence, Gonsorowski developed two service menus, one for each state.

To provide accurate information to potential customers, each caller must answer two questions: “Is the work in North Dakota or in Minnesota?” and “What is the nature of the work?” He does excavation in both states, but he installs and repairs onsite systems only in North Dakota.

State onsite regulations also influence the demand for services. Minnesota allows advanced treatment units and requires operation and maintenance service agreements for them. North Dakota does not allow them, and so there is no service demand there. In both states, there is demand for periodic septic tank pumping, but that is a service he no longer offers.

Gonsorowski avoids real estate transfer inspections out of concern over liability: He has not found an inspection protocol he feels he can trust. But diagnosing and restoring problem systems is well within his comfort zone, and he finds ample demand. Because of the license situation, he only takes these jobs in North Dakota.


Educating the market

“Each business finds and then works in a comfort zone that must fit with local customer demands and government regulation,” says Gonsorowski, who has found a way to make the best of the challenge of his location.

A big part of his work in the onsite sector is customer education. “The average person has no idea what happens when the flush handle is pushed,” he says. “As long as the bowl empties, all is well. This lack of understanding is a problem for every professional in this business.” He tackles it one customer at a time.

Cameron Deleski, lead onsite system technician, works with landowners, helping them understand the “why” behind the regulations and the “how” behind each component’s operation.

Using the county health department’s site assessment and mandatory sizing criteria, and taking cues from informed and involved customers, Deleski prepares a design for Gonsorowski to review. When both are satisfied, the project moves forward for permitting.

When installation time is at hand, Randy Storey and Bruce Otteson, onsite technicians, work with Deleski in the field. “I have confidence in my crew members, their skills, capabilities and their training,” Gonsorowski says. “Giving each person responsibilities helps them grow individually and as a team.”

The company’s primary earth-moving equipment for onsite work includes a John Deere 120D tracked excavator and a Bobcat T300 tracked skid-steer. A construction low-boy trailer moves those machines around. Because he buys fine and coarse aggregate delivered to the job site, Gonsorowski does not own a dump truck. “With the nearest aggregate suppliers about 50 miles distant, I find it more economical to buy the materials delivered,” he says. “I also avoid the cost of maintaining a stockpile.”


Life changes

The business mix has steadily changed, to the point where Florian & Sons has evolved from a complete focus on septic system installation to a much more diverse business.

“This in no way lessens the intensity of our onsite focus, the quality of our work or the long-term customer relationships that we build in this arena,” Gonsorowski says. The change is largely due to competition from small operators. North Dakota’s general business licensing requirements have no subject-specific training or licensure, making it easier for competitors to hang out an “installer” shingle.

Onsite systems will always be part of the company’s service menu and most likely, the offerings will change on a state-by-state basis. As growth moves beyond the reach of sewer lines, and as regulations change, so will the opportunities for Florian & Sons.

The most consistent aspect of the business has been its leaders’ ability to recognize and profit from change. Reflecting on his dad’s outlook, Gonsorowski sees opportunity in every change that lies ahead, regardless of the state to which the opportunity leads him.


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