Visual Assist

Perry Fish of Electric Eel Sewer & Drain Specialists outs a new twist on cleaning as part of an effort to thrive in a challenging boom-and-bust market area

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The economy in Alberta rises and falls with the energy sector. After almost 30 years in business, Perry Fish, owner of Electric Eel Sewer & Drain Specialists in Calgary, has developed a winning formula to survive and thrive in rough-and-tumble times.

By respecting his client base, developing policies that encourage staff retention, and taking a measured approach to growth and new technology, Fish has managed to straddle the boom-and-bust cycles that can distort both the price of service and the cost of doing business.

Electric Eel is a traditional drain-cleaning enterprise, serving commercial, industrial and residential clients, while carving out a specialty niche in servicing high-rise office buildings and condominiums.

The company’s diverse services include sewer and drain cleaning; maintenance and repair; vacuuming; hot and cold power washing; and jetting and flushing. A renewed emphasis on video inspection is helping the business to put a high-tech face on its service offerings. Fish calls his approach camera-assisted cleaning, and it’s helping him to stand out from competitors and win over customers.

It’s a family enterprise: Fish’s wife, June, takes care of accounts, while daughter Nicole, is the operations manager and dispatcher. Son Jay is increasingly the company’s front man, given a free hand in running vacuum and jetting operations.

Overheated economy

Like his son, Perry Fish worked for his father’s drain-cleaning business through the 1970s in Windsor, Ont., across the river from Detroit. Established in 1956, the business once included the province’s distributorship for sewer and drain equipment from Electric Eel Manufacturing Inc. “Those Electric Eel machines were the closest thing I ever had to a brother,” says Fish. “My father ultimately chose sewer and drain cleaning, but he kept the business name.”

A depressed economy led Fish to strike out on his own in 1978. “The Detroit recession hit Windsor,” says Fish. “The market wanted Corollas, not Cordobas, so I headed west to start a drain-contracting business in Calgary.”

Taking nothing but a variation of the Electric Eel name, Fish faced a one-year lag before his ad could appear in the Yellow Pages, so he got his feet wet working for other drain contractors. By 1980, he was on his own, subcontracting to larger mechanical contractors who didn’t want to deal with drain work. But expanding the business proved problematic: An overheated economy made it difficult to hire new workers.

“There was a labor crunch,” says Fish. “We would recruit for new hires, but weren’t getting anyone. Things were still slow in Windsor, so I asked my dad to come out to Calgary as a subcontractor to help me.”

With three Windsor trucks at his disposal, Fish developed enough of a reputation to take a healthy share of business. But then the province was hit hard in the years after the establishment of the National Energy Program by the Canadian government. The move to create a made-in-Canada oil price and change revenue-sharing agreements between federal and provincial governments cost the Alberta economy billions of dollars and brought businesses to a standstill.

“I bought my house for $75,000, and almost overnight it lost $30,000 in value,” says Fish. “For awhile, it was just me and the dog, treading water.”

Decisions distorted

While real estate is sensitive to the energy economy, routine business decisions are, too. “Every time it looks like there’s a spike, you have to guess whether it’s going to last,” says Fish. “When labor prices skyrocket, you need to ask yourself whether you want to hire someone right now or six months from now.

“You might delay a decision on buying equipment when prices are inflated. But if you think the economy is heading south, you might wait and see how far prices fall before buying – everybody’s looking for the best deal. It’s difficult to plan growth.”

A hot economy also affects service prices. Some competitors take advantage of demand to charge what the market will bear. “They have no fixed price,” he says. “If it’s a busy day, their prices are up, and if it’s dead, the price goes down. Demand can dictate the price. A few years ago, we were seeing people with flooded sewers on a waiting list of two to three weeks. It ends up being a recipe for gouging.”

While that may net short-term revenue, Fish tries to charge a realistic advertised price for his services, a policy that helps him to retain customers during the inevitable bust that follows a decline in energy prices.

Fair treatment

“I have a 30-year-old customer base,” he says. “Just because we happen to be going through a spike in the economy, doesn’t give me the right to rob them. When the economy settles down and we’re in more of a competitive situation, customers will remember who treated them fairly.”

The late 1990s saw another major boom in the province’s energy, construction and high-tech sectors, and it made hiring new workers even more problematic. That sustained boom only began showing signs of weakening in 2006.

“Burger King restaurants closed down, not because they couldn’t sell hamburgers, but because they couldn’t find anyone to work behind the counters at $15 per hour,” he says. “By the early 2000s we didn’t have anybody coming up in the trades because the younger people were either being snapped up to work in the oil sector or going into computer technology.

“Drain cleaning was at the bottom of the labor market totem pole. Sometimes the only question I had about taking on more jobs was whether I had the manpower to do it. I could keep 10 guys busy, but I couldn’t find 10 guys, and if the oil sector is offering $60 per hour, I’m not offering $25.”

Fish reasoned that by adding high-tech equipment, he could intrigue workers who might otherwise be attracted to the computer sector.

Investing in cameras

Electric Eel began by investing in video-inspection cameras a little over two years ago. “We were always the cabling company that handled tough jobs that nobody else could do,” says Fish. “But it seemed that everyone else was taking the easy ones. We wanted to get away from being a cabling company and show the world our high-tech face, and the camera was the fastest way to get us there.”

One of the company’s competitors also makes cameras. “We’d sort of given the market to them, but they were running a three-week waiting list whenever we needed their services,” says Fish. “It was costing us business.” Therefore, Electric Eel purchased a Gatorcam Pipe Inspection Camera System (WCT Products Inc.) and “promoted the heck out of it” by placing the tagline, Get the Picture, on all service trucks.

“Ten years ago, if we ran an auger down a drain line and it came out full of clay, it wouldn’t be worth it to send a camera down there for a high price to find out what was happening,” says Fish. “The line has collapsed and I’m digging into the clay. At today’s lower cost, it’s a better option to give the client the real picture.”

Selling the service is often a matter of positioning the deal to clients. For example, Fish might offer a certain price to clean 100 feet of drain line, but also offer to include two hours of camera-assisted drain cleaning and inspection, with an ironclad guarantee, at a higher price.

“Guarantees are meaningless without visual confirmation,” says Fish. “The client can only take your word for it that the job was done right, and it means nothing if the client comes back in six months and says, ‘You know, the drain was never really right after you cleaned it, and now it’s plugged again.’ With a video inspection, we both have a benchmark to make sure that the warranty means something.”

The company next equipped its service vans with sewer cameras manufactured by South Coast Equipment. Fish also recently picked up a Jet Eye combination camera and cleaning system by PipeHunter Inc. He believes it will help open the municipal cleaning market. “After seeing that model, it became obvious that the camera is the way to separate yourself from the pack,” he says.

“When the market is price sensitive, you can’t always justify adding a high-end camera to the inventory, but with camera prices coming down, it’s an option that customers will consider. We’re used to seeing cleaning and inspecting as two separate services, but with the Jet Eye system, we can do both in one run. We’re the first in this market with it, but that advantage won’t last too long.”

New corporate image

While purchasing cameras turned out to be a sound business decision, it failed to attract new employees. “About two years ago, we realized that we needed to get out there with a larger corporate identity, not to generate more work, but to increase our ability to get people to work for us,” Fish says. “If I’m looking to hire younger people, a good-looking T-shirt with a cool logo and a great looking company truck, as opposed to some plain-Jane vehicle, really makes a difference.”

Fish updated the company’s trademark eel, dropping its cartoon characteristics – a hat and comical eyes. “The logo is integrated with the letter L in ‘electric,’ and its long, black tail underlines the word,” says Fish. The new Chevy Savannah vans are all white, with a black ribbon running from front to back. Black company T-shirts and ball caps feature the eel character.

“Jay wanted the slogan to be ‘Serious Snake for Serious Pipe,’ but I think we’ve gone far enough with the makeover,” says Fish. “Our new image gives the company a different feel and makes new recruits feel like they’re joining a team instead of just taking a job.”

The new image helped the company get more drain work in the heavy commercial sector and the burgeoning condominium market. “But while we were holding onto our old residential customers, we weren’t getting as many new ones, perhaps because the new identity doesn’t look as friendly or inviting in the Yellow Pages,” says Fish.

“The bigger contracts are more stable, but the they also require a lot of up-front work in bids and tenders and take from 30 to 120 days to pay. The little old lady with a plugged up kitchen sink pays cash on the barrel head.”

A new strategy may help the company hold onto the best of both worlds. “We acquired a smaller neighborhood plumber with a folksy identity, so we could maintain that market without giving up the new image,” Fish says. The company now also operates under the name Kiwi Plumbing and Heating, a business with a 25-year history.

Downsized trucks

Electric Eel is also experimenting with downsized versions of its service trucks to help prosper in the city’s busy core. “We do a lot of high-rise service work, so we’re just finishing up a low-clearance truck unit – a 2006 Ford F-450 flat deck with integrated boxes for vacuuming and jetting, that will hit the streets and get into the tight corners of parkades that often have a clearance of six and a half feet and under,” Fish says.

The unit has a 50-gallon water supply, a Wallenstein, a division of EMB MFG. Inc., vac pump with 500-gallon tank, two 13 hp pumps by American Honda Motor Co. Inc., and a range of hoses, jetting nozzles and lances. A tandem vacuum trailer, powered by a diesel pump from Isuzu Motors America LLC, is accompanied by a 2007 Caterpillar Inc. 232B skid-steer loader to assist the trailer to access the parkade if the turning radius is too tight for the truck.

A 2004 Toyota Matrix is designed to service downtown office high-rises where parking is at a premium. It’s loaded with the Gatorcam camera and a Gatorcam locator, a Model S Sani-Rod (Electric Eel Mfg. Inc.) and a rigid closet auger.

“The truck is a small enough fit in the courier parking spot, rather than the loading dock,” Fish says. “It also carries the usual stuff like urinal-to-wall seals and toilet seals – the brass-tacks stuff to deal with plugged urinals, hand basins and coffee sinks. It’s a first-response unit for smaller drain jobs that require immediate attention. If they need bigger guns, our technicians can call for backup.”

Some competitors have begun offering pipe lining and pipe bursting, but Electric Eel so far has chosen not to compete there. “The infrastructure here is very young, most of it less than 25 years old,” says Fish. “It hasn’t deteriorated significantly. I love new technology, but I don’t necessarily want to be the first guy in, either.”

The economy has slowed in Alberta with the decline in oil prices. “We’re starting to hear words like ‘unemployment’ again,” says Fish. He can’t roll back the wages he was paying during the boom, but pay raises aren’t on the books either.

“In a few years, we’ll be back up to the point where we’re hungry for people again, and we’re always hungry for customers,” he says. “You need to treat both your customers and your employees fairly, no matter what type of economic climate you find yourself in.”



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