Redneck Success

Charlie Hall combines a down-home approach with big-company management skills to achieve fast growth in a diversified Mr. Rooter franchise in Colorado

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Charlie Hall may call his sewer and drain-cleaning operation a “redneck enterprise,” but there is no smirking about the way he has grown his business.

In seven years, Mr. Rooter of Southern Colorado has gone from three service vans to seven, five employees to 19, and one camera system to nine. From first-year revenue of $700,000, he has grown to a projected $2 million for 2010. On the way, he has added a variety of services for his primarily residential customers, including line locating and trenchless repair.

Hall, who spent 25 years with Coca-Cola in marketing and sales, bought an existing Mr. Rooter franchise in Colorado Springs in 2003. “My son Nick, who was a technician with the franchise, informed me that the owner was going to sell,” Hall says. “Initially Nick was going to be a partner, but he moved on to other things.” Hall’s wife Delene, has worked in the business, but is now taking some time away.

Before making the purchase, Hall did a lot of “tumbling the numbers” with Mr. Rooter Corp. and decided there was a lot of room for growth and for expansion of the services. “Not actually knowing the industry, I realized I had to specialize in several facets to help generate income,” he says.

“We needed to get our arms around jetting, and we had to get into excavation, which the former owner had not done. We also needed to get into pipe lining and pipe bursting. We needed to grab some tools to do these needed processes.”

Learning the ropes

Hall’s new services required an important first step: locating the sewer line. “We had an old locator and didn’t know how to use it,” he says. “I bought a brand-new piece of equipment from Prototek Corp. and of course no one could run it properly. We were learning as we went along. It would have been comical, if it wasn’t so important.

“Over one holiday period, I called Prototek for some help. It turned out one of their guys was in Colorado Springs on vacation, and this guy, Kent Tarpley, came out to our shop and spent time from his vacation teaching us how to use that locator. It made all the difference in the world, and I bought another one on the spot.

“It took ‘hands on’ to get us started. That equipment is bullet proof. It doesn’t need calibration. You can locate your lines. It is redneck-friendly. We are rednecks. A bunch of hillbillies.”

The three Prototek locators the company now owns are multiple-frequency units. “We are getting 100 calls a week, and in many instances we need to find the sewer lines,” Hall says. “Line locating is an essential part of what we do.”

In marking sewer line locations, Hall has his own system. “Digging without knowing where you are going is like running a business without a plan,” he says. “You can overcome this first with good, solid equipment. We always map the entire line from the house to the main.

“We move the pushrod in the camera and trace it with the locator, and put spots of green paint on the ground using a water-based paint. Or another technique is to use a little green flag on a wire. We’ll put the mark every couple feet. It works. We have to be sure that the camera sends off the signal and that it is picked up with the locator. Get the camera head to the problem area and pick up that signal.”

Technicians use a locator five or six times every day, and Hall is considering adding a second excavation team, a Bobcat mini-excavator, and a fourth locator.

Getting it right

When locating a sewer line, several things come into play. “When we start an excavation, we need all utility lines located,” Hall says. “Colorado Springs Utilities will locate all the other lines, but we locate the sewer lines. If we miss the line, we could conceivably dig up a driveway, a curb, a gutter, that does not need to be dug up. Sprinkler systems – this can be expensive if you miss. You need to have confidence in your equipment. A mistake could cost $10,000.”

Whenever he adds services, Hall chooses equipment with care. For high-pressure line cleaning, he chose two trailer jetters from US Jetting LLC each with pumps delivering 18 gpm/4,000 psi. He chose pipe bursting with Hammerhead, an Earth Tool Company, and CIPP lining equipment from Perma-Liner Industries Inc. The company lines one or two pipes per day and does a couple of pipe bursting jobs per week.

“We just had a job where we did a sewer reline on a house built in 1889,” Hall says. “They originally had an outhouse and then various versions of plumbing. Clay was put in probably in the 1930s. This is a beautiful old house. Just think: They had new lining blown into their old line, and they started out with no indoor plumbing.”

Another tool in the arsenal is a trailer-mounted hydroexcavator from Ring-O-Matic Manufacturing Inc. with a 500-gallon debris tank and a vacuum system that generates 23-inches Hg. Hall says the unit will “suck up baseball-sized rocks from 9 feet down all day long.”

For pipe inspection, he uses nine pushrod systems from Scooter Video Inspection Systems. The service vans are Fords or Chevrolets with bright graphics. Hall promotes the entire service line aggressively.

New structure

Three years ago, Hall restructured his staff, aiming to get better control of time and the care of equipment. Now, instead of one technician handling all aspects of a job, the duties are sectioned off. One specific crew handles all excavation, another all jetting, another liners and pipe bursting. Hall finds that specialization helps crews take more ownership of the equipment.

“If a technician goes out and cables a line and determines the need of a jetting machine, that crew will go in,” Hall says. “Same with an excavation. Same with locating. Certain people are responsible for certain functions.”

“I can get more work done with less by having specialized people. Then if something is not working, I know who to visit with. I find this keeps the equipment in much better shape.”

General manager Dan Burelson, manager of excavation Troy Bunn, and service manager R.J. Johnson carry locators. “These three guys are pretty doggone good with all they do,” Hall says.

Hall is proud of his equipment, which during winter is housed in a 3,000-square-foot facility. The staff takes excellent care of the equipment. For example, when the mini-excavator comes back from a job, it is power-washed, and the bucket and blade are spray painted, so that when it goes out again, it looks brand new.

The right people

If equipment is important to Hall, people are more so. Hall believes in catching people doing things right, instead of finding fault. “Although our process is actually ongoing, we sit down formally once a year with each individual,” he says. “At least twice a month, a manager will ride along on a job with somebody.” The process is geared to pointing out the positives. Supervisors look for good things and offer praise, but don’t dwell on negatives unless they are serious. “This is positive reinforcement,” Hall says.

Bundling of services is a win for the company. The team has produced a DVD showing the various processes. While a technician talks about a technology with a customer, he can pop the DVD into a computer, and the customer can watch a demonstration.

Some big-ticket items, such as jetting, locating, lining or pipe bursting, are bundled into a three-for-one price. “Bundling services for a price is crucial and is cost-effective in all the teams and tools I offer,” Hall says. “We are not selling pop here. We are running a sewer-inspection company. On all sewer jobs we video inspect the mainline. That is part of our service.

“Then we review with the customer. Let them look at the video. They see it while we are doing it, right there with the technician. No hijinks. No bait and switch. They see it. We didn’t cause the roots and we don’t muscle in or sell anything to anybody they don’t need.”

Hall believes that where there is a problem, he might as well be the one to fix it. He owes a lot to Coca-Cola, but he is certainly breaking new ground in quite a different industry.


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