Starting Young

Jason Walter gets an early and fast start as a progressive installer and a source of onsite advice for his customers
Starting Young

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Two weeks after graduating from high school, while his friends were enjoying the beach, Jason Walter had started learning onsite systems as he prepared to build an installation business on the Long Island Sound in coastal Connecticut.

At age 17, Walter started out in the field pumping treatment tanks for his father’s business. Two years later he launched his own business, Bill Walter & Sons Septic Installation.

“I chose the name not because dad has a role in the business, but because his pumping business is so well known in the community,” Walter says. “Working with dad, I learned about taking care of systems. What to do, how to do it, the purposes of the components, how they work, and the relationships between soil, air, effluent, vessels, filters, bacteria and more. Dad was a heck of a teacher.”

Walter received his subsurface system installer’s license from the state of Connecticut when he was 19. During his time with his dad, he realized several important facts. “The typical installer in this area will retire in the next 10 years or so,” he says. “There is not a rush of new installers preparing to fill this void. The work is hard, and it’s dirty, but it pays well. I also learned I have a lot to learn.”

Grasping opportunity

From all he learned about the onsite industry, Walter reached a one-word conclusion: Opportunity. Working in two counties within a 25-mile radius from his home base in Clinton, about 25 miles east of New Haven, he finds a wide range of soil conditions, from coastal sands to upland rock ledges with shallow soil cover. This diversity brings challenges and forces Walter to become versatile in site considerations and technologies.

Part of the learning process was understanding his own needs for equipment. He flew to Michigan to pick up his first machine when he was 19. “I did my homework to determine which device would best meet my initial needs and enable me to work smarter and more efficiently,” he says. Five years after buying that machine, his equipment resource pool has grown to include:

  • A 2001 Komatsu PC78 compact excavator.
  • A 2008 Cat 303.5 mini-excavator.
  • A 2004 Cat 277B tracked skid-steer.
  • A 2006 Kubota B21 mini-backhoe.
  • A 1996 Ford L8000 six-wheel dump truck.

Before every purchase, Walter tried to answer one critical question: Would the new piece allow him to earn more money?

Keeping his equipment clean shows off his attention to detail. Less easy to spot is his attention to preventive maintenance. “It is the maintenance that lets me stay on a job until it is done,” he says. Walter believes detailing the equipment sends customers two messages: “I care about my equipment, and I care about the job I will do for you.”

Efficiency drives his equipment and technology purchases. There is a big learning curve in this industry, and Walter knows he must learn quickly. He also knows that learning will make him more productive, although the time spent in training will not by itself generate income.

Walter doesn’t let his equipment define him. He is a skillful and seasoned equipment operator, but his first focus is on his role as an installer.

Customer connection

That includes being highly responsive to customers. “I am customer-connected,” he says. “I answer my own phone, I always return calls promptly, and while I am learning every day, at the same time I am my customers’ onsite system resource.

“I’m not old school. I am not married to ‘box and rocks’ systems. When a conventional system will work, I’m there; when it is inadequate, I’m looking for the best alternatives to present to my customer.” He plans to be around for a long time and does not want to disappoint any customer with a system that won’t make it through the long run.

Walter has identified a family of customers who display a common trait. He calls them Mr. or Mrs. Couldyou Just — customers who have been pleased with his pricing and work, but want a little something more. As a job approaches conclusion, they may open a conversation with, “While you’re here, could you just ...” It doesn’t matter what the extra work entails — he has learned the importance of responding, “Yes, however ...”

Add-on work can be less expensive than remobilizing for a small task, but the work has value, and as such he believes he is entitled to payment. In response, he has created a minimum four-hour charge for “could you just” work, plus the cost of any materials. “When I explain the costs, most folks understand and pay willingly,” he says. “Some go the DIY route.”

No-surprise pricing

Walter sells a quality job for a fair price. The price he quotes includes everything he can anticipate needing to complete the job to his own and his customers’ satisfaction. “My price is a complete price; there are no add-ons for grass seed, or fertilizer, or anything,” he says. “People are price-driven. I tell customers, ‘If you hire someone who will work for peanuts, you get someone who will monkey around with your job.’”

Walter notes that some area installers will quote an onsite system at a given price, then add on mobilization costs and other charges later. Customers then feel they have been abused. During the proposal stage, Walter explains not only the project, but his pricing methods, so customers can make informed comparisons if they are shopping around.

Basic Yellow Pages ads are his only formal self-promotion. Walter knows satisfied customers become his company spokespersons. “If a customer knows I did a quality job for a fair price and cannot see any change in the appearance of the site when I am done, they will sing my praises,” he says.

Careful growth

With just his mom as a support person and office manager, Walter’s personnel costs are minimal, but he sees that changing. There are opportunities in system management, but so far he has not installed many advanced treatment units. More are going in steadily around the area, and he could service them whether they are his own installations or not.

“I’ll know when I am ready to hire an employee when I have sufficient work to keep two machines or one service technician busy,” he says. He previously had an employee, and from that experience he learned that his next hire must be someone with experience in the onsite industry and a commercial driver’s license. Training will be a priority for anyone he hires, as it is for himself. “We can never stop learning; too much is happening in this industry,” he says.

Walter’s dad remains in the pumping business, and when one of Jason’s customers needs a tank pumped, dad gets the call.

Banking on diversity

As he waits for the maintenance market to develop, Walter focuses on installations and repairs, which sometimes involve complete replacements. His area is diverse, and the sites demand creative thinking.

US Route 1, the Maine-to-Florida highway, follows the physiographic line of demarcation between coastal sands and upland soils, and conditions change markedly along the divide. Walter likes the Mantis GSF system from Eljen Corporation because under Connecticut regulations, it can be installed with a smaller footprint than a conventional system. It is also a passive system that yields a more highly treated effluent.

These systems fit on both sides of the highway because they can effectively address diverse natural conditions, including seasonal high water tables and clayey soils that perc slowly. “In the environment of small lots and restricted access routes, the smaller footprint helps the installer and the property owner,” Walter says. “I bought a mini-excavator just for these sites.”

For about 90 percent of his repair work Walter is allowed under state regulations to prepare his own designs, and he does so. “When dealing with complex site conditions, I always bring an engineer into the process,” he says. “For systems serving a daily flow over 2,000 gpd, an engineer must be involved.” Regardless of the site’s limitations, Walter works hard to find the right solution for all parties concerned.

The right feel

As a rule, Walter seeks out problems other installers have walked away from, but sometimes things just don’t make sense. “After reviewing the site’s conditions, a proposed design, and the designer’s selection of a particular technology or system type, if I’m not convinced the system will have a long, successful life, I’ll walk away from the job,” he says. “If it doesn’t feel right, I won’t do it.”

For customers who have seen him apply his knowledge and diligence in the field, selecting Walter to do their job just feels right.


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