Contractor Discovers the Keys to Growing Beyond the Vacuum Hose

Virginia contractor expands into plumbing, and many other services, to become a one-stop shop for his customers.

Contractor Discovers the Keys to Growing Beyond the Vacuum Hose

Miller’s Services’ technicians Kenney Boyette, right, and Pierce Rained, left, replace pipe on the air pump from a septic system in hopes of repairing it. The company not only does plumbing service work, but also handles septic tank installation and pumping.

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Some contractors like to focus on one service and one service only. But Jamie Miller, the co-owner of Miller’s Services, prefers to take a broader approach: Develop an array of services, including plumbing and septic-system maintenance and repairs, and become a one-stop shop for customers.

That emphasis on service diversity is one of the primary reasons the company, based in Saluda, Virginia, has grown dramatically over the years. The company employs about 70 people, says Miller, who co-owns the company with his parents, Jim and Sallie Miller.

“Service diversity — being a one-stop shop for our customers — has been key to our company’s success,” Miller says. “We do more than just one thing because we truly want to service our customers.”

Established in 1972 as a company that pumped septic tanks and performed septic system maintenance, repair and installation, Miller’s Services started doing plumbing work full-time in 2014, in response to customers’ requests.

“Our customers were asking for it,” Miller explains. “We already were doing drain cleaning and one thing led to another. It’s definitely a logical add-on service for septic companies.”

The bottom line: Whether a plumbing company gets into septic system work or a septic-system company gets into plumbing, benefits abound from offering customers these complementary and interrelated services.

“They’re both tied together,” Miller notes. “Everything that feeds into a septic system comes from the plumbing inside a house. So when we’d do septic and drain cleaning work, it often would lead to needing a plumber.

“It got to the point where that was happening every day,” he continues. “We’d try to outsource the plumbing work, but when you need it that often, it just isn’t feasible to keep outsourcing it. So that’s how it evolved.”

“Customers love the idea that we can do everything. When they have a problem, they hate having to figure out who to call,” he adds. “And if we can’t fix their problem, I’ll find them someone reliable who can.”

LEAVING MONEY ON THE TABLE

The problem with constantly trying to hire plumbers as subcontractors underscores two other reasons Miller opted to offer plumbing services: Lost revenue and customer satisfaction.

“We were leaving money on the table,” he points out. “Plus we can’t fully service our customers if we have to wait for a plumber. It’s a revenue thing, but it’s also a customer-service and customer-convenience thing, too.”

The company’s service area also influenced its service-diversity efforts. As Miller points out, it’s easy for a contractor who specializes in one service to succeed in a large metro area. But most of Miller’s Services’ service area is rural, which makes it harder for a single-service company to generate enough business volume to succeed.

The same business evolvement occurred with electrical and HVAC work, the two other services the company now provides. The company entered the electrical-contracting market in 2016 and HVAC three years later.

The company focuses primarily on service and repair plumbing and its business volume is split roughly in half between residential and commercial work. The firm runs eight service vans, either GMC or Chevrolet box vans or Ford Transits.

Technicians generally use RIDGID and Milwaukee Tool power tools and hand tools made by DeWalt, Milwaukee Tool and RIDGID. The company relies mostly on faucets built by Delta Faucet, Moen and Kohler; toilets from Kohler and Toto; water heaters manufactured by Rheem, Bradford White Corp. and State Industries; and tankless water heaters made by Rheem, Navien and Rinnai American Corp.

The company also owns three mini-excavators and two skid-steers made by Kubota and a larger excavator built by John Deere. The machines are used to repair or install water and sewer lines and septic systems.

CONSULTANTS AIDED GROWTH

Help from consultants also keyed the company’s growth, as well as Miller’s professional development from a technician into a businessman, he says.

“We’ve grown so much because I learned how to be a business guy, not just a technician,” he explains. “And I’m still learning.”

Miller hired a consultant in 2014 to straighten out the company’s finances, a move that led to changes in pricing structure and raising accountability standards for employees.

Furthermore, to shore up his business smarts, Miller hired a service-business consultant that he heard speak at a seminar at a Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International (now called the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show).

“It was a total game-changer at the time and it still is today,” Miller says. “The secret is there is no secret. You can pay all the money you want to consultants, but until you take action and make changes, it doesn’t matter.

“You have to get in a mindset that you have no competition — that you are the competition,” he says.

Miller also credits his sister, Ashley, the company’s general manager, for the company’s growth. “She’s been instrumental to our success,” he says, noting that she’ll formally become a co-owner of the company during 2021.

ROOTED IN SEPTIC

The company offered only one service when James Miller Sr. and his wife, Mary, Jamie Miller’s grandparents, established Miller’s Septic Tank Service in 1973. Miller worked there part time while in high school and came on board full time in the fall of 1999 after a route driver quit.

In January 2002, Miller and his parents, Jim and Sallie Miller, bought the company and renamed it Miller’s Septic Service. The company slowly grew by acquiring several other small septic pumping companies and by offering maintenance and repair service. The firm also expanded its drain cleaning services, he says.

Of course, offering so many services requires multiskilled technicians. Miller is working on developing what he calls “super techs,” cross-trained technicians that can do, for example, plumbing, septic and electrical work.

“I would love nothing more than to have my electrical service expert come to a customer’s house to hang two ceiling fans, for example, then while he’s there, offer to check out a toilet issue or an HVAC issue,” he says.

If there’s a wet spot in yard, the technician can check that out, too, and then provide repair options for all the home’s issues, along with a menu with upfront pricing. Depending on the severity of the problem, the repairs could be done during the same visit or scheduled for another time, Miller says.

“It’s not about being able to fix everything right then and there,” he says. “It’s about the ability to recognize what’s going on and eventually get the right guy out there to do what’s needed.”

To motivate technicians to get cross-training, Miller offers pay incentives. For example, electrical technicians earn a raise if they get a commercial driver’s license and gets trained to pump septic tanks. The company offers in-house CDL training, he says.

“Does that mean I want an electrical technician on a pump truck all day? No,” Miller says. “But if someone calls in sick or breaks a leg, I have backups.”

COMPANY-PAID EDUCATIONS

The company currently has 12 employees enrolled in apprenticeship programs across the various trades in which it does business. The company pays for the school fees and books, and the employees sign a contract in which they agree to remain employees for one year for every year of school they complete, Miller says.

“I’m also sending some of my septic experts to HVAC school,” Miller adds. “All of this (developing super techs) isn’t going to happen overnight because they still have to work and generate revenue while attending school at night. But we’re getting there.”

Out of roughly 40 field technicians, about a half-dozen are what Miller would consider super techs. These employees work under the auspices of company-owned licenses for electrical, plumbing and HVAC work.

The more skills the technicians acquire, the more they get paid. This not only provides motivation; Miller says it also works as a retention tool because cross-trained technicians are much less likely to get bored or burned out doing the same thing all the time.

“They’re more loyal when they see a company investing in them,” he explains. “It helps us to both attract and retain employees because we have so much more opportunities to offer them — so many different directions they can go.”

The company also attracts and retains employees by offering benefits such as health insurance, a company-match retirement plan and paid vacations, holidays and training.

INVESTING IN EQUIPMENT

Over the years, Miller’s has invested heavily in new equipment. The company currently owns four vacuum trucks and a combination sewer truck.

All of the vacuum trucks are built on International truck chassis. One truck was built out by Lely Tank & Waste Solutions with a 3,600-gallon steel tank and a blower manufactured by National Vacuum Equipment. Another truck was rigged up by Abernethy Welding & Repair with a 2,500-gallon steel tank and a Masport pump.

The two other trucks were bought used and feature 3,600- and 2,500-gallon steel tanks and Masport pumps. All three trucks also are equipped with jetting units.

The combination vacuum truck was built by Vactor on a Freightliner chassis. It features a 10-cubic-yard debris tank; a 1,200-gallon water tank; a blower made by Roots blowers (a brand owned by Howden); and a water pump made by Vactor. It’s primarily used to remove old peat moss from peat-moss septic systems.

“We sometimes use Ecoflo septic systems made by Premier Tech Water and Environment and Puraflo systems made by Anua International, which both use peat moss as the filtering media,” Miller explains. “The peat moss breaks down in the tank, turning from dry and fibrous into a mud-like consistency.

“When that happens, we have to take out the old peat moss and replace it,” he continues. “It’s really wet and heavy — too heavy for our vacuum trucks. So we use the combo truck.”

The company also owns two trailer-mounted water jetters made by Spartan Tool (4,000 psi at 18 gpm); two JM-1000 toolbox jetters built by General Pipe Cleaners (a division of General Wire Spring Co.); eight RIDGID pipeline-inspection cameras; and a variety of RIDGID, General Pipe and Spartan cable drain machines.

MORE GROWTH ANTICIPATED

In the coming years, Miller’s goal is to keep building his super-tech, cross-trained workforce while becoming a national leader in the home-services industry.

“I definitely want to see even more growth,” he notes. “And it’s not just for me — it’s for our employees, too. The more we grow, the more opportunities we have to offer employees and the more we can offer to our customers.

“I don’t know when and where I’ll stop,” he adds. “All I know is that I’m an entrepreneur — it’s in my blood. I thrive on the growth and helping people out. So I want to keep growing all of our services and maybe even add some more. I want to truly be a one-stop shop for all of our customers.” 



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