Taylor White welcomes James Stiksma, the Founder of Canadian Septic, to the podcast today for an in-depth look at his unique journey from corporate sales to the world of septic installations. James’ dedication to excellence and his strategic approach to positioning within the market are discussed as are the evolution from subcontracting to equipment ownership, and the careful balance maintained between specialization and diversification in the septic industry. Additionally, the episode touches upon the integration of family dynamics into business and James' future aspirations.
Together, Taylor and James review the intricacies of septic system installations, covering the challenges, successes, and effective strategies within this specialized field. As you listen in, you will gain an exclusive understanding of the operational aspects of running a septic business as well as the paramount importance of professionalism and high-quality work. Valuable insights into the septic industry and the significance of maintaining industry standards, certifications, and the commitment to delivering exceptional service to clients are highlighted throughout. Join Taylor and James today for this fascinating tale of one man’s significant career transition and gain a rare behind the scenes glimpse into a top-of-the-line, full-service septic company along the way.
- James’ unconventional path from corporate sales to septic installations
- Shaping Canadian Septic's growth trajectory
- Balancing specialization and diversification in the septic industry
- The integration of family members in the business
- James's visionary perspective
- Exploring streamlining operations and growth challenges
- Emphasizing high standards, certifications, and professionalism
- Addressing labor shortages and the complexities of finding skilled personnel
- Professionalism and quality workmanship
- A unique installation challenge
- Valuing integrity and accountability
- Future aspirations for Canadian Septic
James Stiksma: I'm not going to be the guy running around with a clapped-out pickup truck doing 160 km an hour down the highway to get to the next job because if I don't get there and get that one done in time, someone's not eating.
Taylor White: Welcome back, everybody, to the CONEXPO-CON/AGG Podcast. I am your host, as always, Taylor White. And a big part of my business has always been the septic world. And over the course of the last few years, I've seen this guy online. Canadian Septic people sending me his stuff saying, "Hey, I think this guy's better than you at septics. I think he does more septics than you in a year." And I go, "No, there is no other septic god other than I." But today, I am here to bring with you the one, the only James from Canadian Septic. James, welcome aboard, bud.
James Stiksma: Thanks, Taylor. Appreciate you having me on. I think that was actually one of our first interactions on Instagram there. You had posted something about being the king of septic in Canada and I was willing to concede the east side of Canada, but I wanted to keep the west.
Taylor White: Yeah. Hey, man, you can have it. You know what, I got to say it is more beautiful out there though.
James Stiksma: Have you been out to Vancouver or Whistler yet?
Taylor White: Yeah, I have. Well, I used to live in Alberta. I used to live in a town called–
James Stiksma: You're in the oil fields, right?
Taylor White: Yeah, exactly. So we used to drive out to Banff and then took a family trip with the in-laws up to Whistler and stuff one time. It's super, super beautiful. Everywhere you look is just an awesome view. But this podcast isn't about me and my family's trips, dude. I want to know who's James, who are you? Who's Canadian Septic? Where did this love for septic systems come from? If you could start by kind of sharing, how did Canadian Septic come to be? I'm really curious about that.
James Stiksma: Sure. Yeah. It’s a little unconventional. Actually, it’s really unconventional.
Taylor White: Unconventional?
James Stiksma: Unconventional, yeah. So coming out of high school, I started working at a couple of different places, mostly in sales. Ended up going to work for a company called Syntas, a big Fortune 500 company doing sales and service off the back of the trucks that we’re driving around. I was working out of an industrial park every day, then went over into mobility sales. So I was doing business to business, working with business owners on how to improve their workflows, how to get more out of their employees, and stuff like that. And eventually, that whole industry is a bit of a race to zero. It has been for years now. And I was trying to get into something that was a little bit different, that I sort of controlled my own destiny a little bit more. So I started looking for different businesses to buy and can honestly tell you, I did not expect to end up where I did when I started that process. So in January 2017, we took over all the assets from another gentleman that was doing it out here and yeah, so January will be seven years total in the industry.
Taylor White: Seven years. Okay, so you didn't buy the business, but you bought assets from another guy.
James Stiksma: Correct. So it was one of the things I did to protect myself. So one thing was the guy was a sole proprietor and was running everything through his own name, but not having a ton of background in the industry and not having a full grasp of what he had all done previous to it. I mean, we went through a fairly extensive process vetting his books and everything else that go along with that.
Taylor White: Well, you have to.
James Stiksma: Yeah, exactly. And so went through all of that and bought his assets and in the process said, "I'm not taking any responsibility for any of the stuff that you did before." And he was happy to do that and to his credit, he's stood up and answered the bell a couple of times when some of his previous customers came back and said they had some issues and it's just how it worked out for us. And I'm quite happy that it turned out the way it did because we did end up, shortly after purchasing the business, rebranding to Canadian Septic just because there was a bit of a negative connotation in the marketplace amongst a lot of the builders and other professionals in the industry.
Taylor White: For me, I want to know because you have such a passion, man. You have more of a passion for me. So backstory, so little behind-the-scenes conversations. Yesterday, I'm on the job site talking like an idiot and I'm talking about this Waterloo biofilter system we have. And I say anaerobic and like water or whatever. And then James was like, "Hey man, it's aerobic." And I was, "Oh yeah. You're right.” You know so much about septic systems and what you were doing before, where did that come from? Because it's a niche, man.
James Stiksma: Yeah, 1000%. I don't know. I mean it's one of those things where if you're going to do something, get into it. It is very niche. Our business model is set up that septic is all we do. I don't do drain tile, I don't do foundation.
Taylor White: You don't dig a basement or anything.
James Stiksma: No, all we do is septic. Septic installs, septic repairs, septic inspections.
Taylor White: That is wild.
James Stiksma: And so we're not the cheapest guys out there either. And I'm quite proud to say that.
Taylor White: And amen to that.
James Stiksma: So in order to help a customer appreciate or understand, I'm there answering questions that they have, whereas some other folks may not be willing to take the time or have the answers that the customer is looking for. So when I go to a customer and say, "Hey, I'm going to be 10%, 15%more than the next guy," they're happy to pay it because they know that we stand behind our work. They know we know what we're talking about. And yeah, that's one of the ways we justify our costs.
Taylor White: Do you do any courses or education or how did you learn all of this?
James Stiksma: Yeah, so I've gone through a couple of courses. When I first started, I took some training through the local association, through the province. I'm one of the board members now for the British Columbia Wastewater Onsite Management Association.
Taylor White: Good for you.
James Stiksma: So I've been doing that for about three years now. But when I first started, the big thing for me was I still feel like a bit of an imposter in the sense that– I'm not from the dirt world, man. I came from a desk with a suit and a tie. That's what I was doing. And so for the first two or three years in the business, I just sat down, I shut my mouth, and I just listened. Listened, learn, learn, learn as much as I can before deciding to okay, I'm going to try and be a little bit more visible online. I'm going to make more of an effort. And we've attended multiple conventions out in Indianapolis at the WWETTShow. We spent the money to go out to the CONEXPO, which is where we had the pleasure of first meeting in person.
And one of the main reasons was, yeah, shiny equipment is nice, but I want to go to the educational opportunities that are there so I can learn more. And it ended up being an expensive show because we ended up buying some Topcon Gear after we left just because of some of the stuff that they were coming out with. And being able to get our hands on it and see how it works, ee had actually, without really realizing it, looked at and saw that exact same product at a presentation in the Washington State Convention that they do every year, SEPTIC-CON. And they had someone from down there go do a presentation on it. Didn't really understand it until we were at the show, got hands-on, and were able to really understand what it would be able to do for us.
Taylor White: So that makes me really interested because we always debate in here with some of our larger commercial projects we have on the go right now, GPS. We're Trimble out here, we're just big Trimble fans here anyways. Regardless, GPS, because we always have conversations internally of GPS may not be the best fit just for doing septics. It's more for big swale and grading work and this and that is where septics is grading work but it's on a smaller scale. If you were trying to sell me that GPS in septic because I generally want to know, and I'm hoping people from my team are listening to this podcast, how would you go about that?
James Stiksma: Yeah. So the biggest thing for us now, the way that we've got it set up, their MC mobile product, it's not full GPS, I believe you can add it on later if you want to, but it's basically a layout product.
Taylor White: So do you have a base station and then a rod?
James Stiksma: Yeah, they're LN-150 base station, we've got a prism, the data collector with the tablet. That tablet comes off the pole and goes into the machine.
Taylor White: Cool.
James Stiksma: Yeah. And then we can read the prism on the machine is feeding the information down to the tablet. So we're basically able to show up on a site and looking at our design because the design is never exact. It's not going to go in the exact same spot that maybe the engineer had decided if they wanted it to go. So we can basically lay it out, walk it with the stick, put our grades in for what we want on our drain lines, what we want for our tanks, where they're going, and then plug it into the machine, and off you go. And you don't need somebody sitting in the trench with a grade stick to make sure that you're getting it the whole way. You can tell from inside the cab that, “Hey, this is moving in the right direction.” And yeah, what it does for us is it frees up a guy on an install. Do I need to have two guys on site for every install every day now? No, there's going to be a day or two per install where my other guy can now take the service van and go take care of some of the other stuff that we haven't been able to do in the past because we needed everybody on site all the time.
Taylor White: It frees up having people on site is what it does, right?
James Stiksma: Correct. I know there's a big shortage on employees and getting guys in, so it's not necessarily about replacing a guy that you have, but maybe you're able to get more done because you can't find the right guy or there's just not enough guys out there. So it's definitely a great product for the cost for what it is relative to having a guy on staff.
Taylor White: Yeah, 100%, dude. I'm happy to hear that because when we talk internally about it– I'm an advocate for it. I think that it would be great. Obviously, we're all big fans of technology and we see it in the commercial stuff and larger projects that we're on now. But as far as going forward, I think even on the smaller projects, there is value to it. And that's what I'm kind of hearing you say, is that, hey, it is valued because we're still retaining that guy that we have onsite, but he's able to free up and do something else. So we're actually able to turn more revenue over because we're not all just on one job site.
James Stiksma: 100%. I get a phone call from somebody saying that they have an issue with their septic system and I can't get to it. Well, maybe that turns into an install, but I'm never going to find out because I can't get my guy out there to go look at it. So it's one of those things where being able to have more flexibility, especially for the size of business that we are, we're not huge. It's just the three of us running around and yeah, the flexibility is huge.
Taylor White: Okay, so you just mentioned there are only three of you. So tell me, I want to know your dynamic of business. So there are three of you guys. What's each of your roles? There are three of you, what do each of your do? And then you mentioned your brother-in-law, too. And where does he kind of come into play in all this?
James Stiksma: Yeah, so when I started the business or bought the business, it was just me at the start. So wearing just all the hats. And we actually didn't have equipment of our own until about a little over a year ago. We were subbing out all the earthworks? No, we'd sub out to other contractors.
Taylor White: And you would install.
James Stiksma: Correct.
Taylor White: Smart.
James Stiksma: Yeah. And so we didn't have the big machine payments to worry about during the winter. We would just sub it out. You're getting a machine and you're getting an employee essentially when you do that. So we did that for years until recently when we're like, “Okay, we're finally at that point.” And that's when we took on our third employee. So to answer your question, I mean, Arians, my brother-in-law, he's been working for me for over six years now. He came on right around the one-year mark, and he can do everything. He'll go out there, he'll dig test pits, he does the installs, he can do the repairs. He's probably, at this point, more knowledgeable when it comes to the hands-on stuff than I am, but he's awesome. And Tom, we took him on just a little over a year ago after we bought the equipment because we knew that–
Essentially when I'm hiring out contractors all the time, I have an extra employee. So one of my personal challenges that I need to get over is whenever I hire someone, I'm committing to that person. I want them to stay on, I want to keep them busy. And I have a hard time taking someone on and then saying, “Hey, I'm going to have to lay off for three or four months.” If the winter is out in your neck of the woods where it's like fairly predictable, this is when it's going to be when we stop. This is when we stop. It's a little bit easier to predict, but the way we do our business, we're not always doing one install to the next to the next to the next because we'll have some flexibility to go do some other things in between as well. So that's one thing I think I've got to get over in my head is just sometimes I'm going to have to try and find somebody that maybe they're going to get laid off for a little bit, or maybe I just got to limp this along until my kids are old enough that they actually want to get into it. I mean, they already want to, but they're too young for that, so yeah, it's one of the challenges that we deal with it over here.
Taylor White: Yeah, I like that. You just said maybe your kids, maybe they would want to get into it someday. How do you maintain? I want to go back and talk about– I really found the subbing out installing interesting, but you just kind of talked about your family, and I'm interested in that, too, because I'm in a family business, third generation. What are your hopes for the business going further? Do you hope that it carries down to another generation because you have two kids?
James Stiksma: I got four.
Taylor White: Four kids? Four daughters?
James Stiksma: No. Goodness, no. One is enough. No, I've got one girl that gives me all the grief in the world. She's my oldest, and I've got three younger boys.
Taylor White: Three boys, one girl.
James Stiksma: 16, 14, 12, and 8.
Taylor White: Wow. 16, 14, 12, and 8.
James Stiksma: Yes.
Taylor White: Holy jumpings, man. Good for you, though. That's huge. Listen, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old and a seven week old and I find it hard now balancing, trying to maintain family, but also trying to run a business. And not only trying to run a business but wanting to be here as well, too, but wanting to be at home and present as well too. How do you manage kind of that balance between the family dynamic and your professional relationship within the company?
James Stiksma: Yeah, I would say I probably don't do the best job of it all the time, but I think most business owners are going to say that. I think you're in a little bit of a different position than I was because when I bought the business, my youngest had just turned one or somewhere around there. So I already had a five-year-old and up. And so we had spent some time back then. But it's one of those things when Dad's got to work or I'll be in the office late at night– We've recently moved the office into the basement here, so I'm around, but it's hard if you don't have the support system behind you. I'll tell you right now, if I didn't have my wife, there's no way. It would be next to impossible to do it. She does everything for the kids, and I'm the fun dad at times. I get to go take them to all their sporting events. I get to go be coached. They're like, “Hey, Dad, you want to coach?” “You want me to yell at you? Because I can do that.” It's not frowned upon nearly as much when I'm on the bench versus the other side of the field with all the other parents, so sure, yeah. Welcome, coach. Sure.
Taylor White: Exactly.
James Stiksma: Yeah. I mean, just trying to carve out some time, it may not be as much, but it's what I sort of learned growing up as well from my dad. He was a white-collar guy, too, but he was working on a business, working on growing it. And he wasn't always home early or on time for dinner or he would just go back to work afterwards. We do what we know, I guess.
Taylor White: No, 100%. I like staying on the family thing, but I quickly want to talk about– You mentioned the subbing and install, and I know there are people listening to this right now saying, “Hey, I want to get into doing septics, I want to get into doing even just construction work in general.”
James Stiksma: Sure.
Taylor White: Well, I guess it would be more niche to septics because you were installing. But explain that when you got started and you were kind of like you were subbing out the earthwork, so you were subbing out the trucking, the trenching, all that stuff, and all you were doing was laying pipe, right?
James Stiksma: Yeah, doing assembly. There was some design. Yeah, 100%. Everything float. Yeah, there is, but you're not wrong. And I mean, we still sub out all our trucking. We don't bring in any of our own. We don't have trucks that we got to worry about. So, yeah, I'm doing the customer-facing, getting the jobs lined up, getting them sold, doing some work with the design, consulting with the engineers when we're not the ones doing the design. But yeah, now we've got our own machines. And my one word of caution is if you're going to try something like this, you got to make sure you're in the right market for it because not every market is going to be able to bear me or you going out there and tacking on extra onto whatever the cost of the excavator is to do it. We're in a bit of a unique situation. Well, it's not that unique, but we have some certifications that you're supposed to get for septic or you can get it. It doesn't mean you can't do an install if you don't have them, but it certainly helps.
And so there's a bit of a barrier of entry into the market when it comes to septic. So that helps us keep our prices high so that we're not doing that big old race to zero like we were talking about earlier because we're not looking to gouge anyone. But we want to make a fair price so that I can make sure that my employees have health benefits, that they've got a good working wage, that they can afford to take their family out on vacation or do whatever it is they want to do. But that costs some money. I'm not going to be the guy running around with a clapped-out pickup truck doing 160 km an hour down the highway to get to the next job because if I don't get there and get that one done in time, someone's not eating. We all see those guys.
So yeah, it was a good business model that worked for us. And I would say the one thing I do miss about it is that when you have your own equipment, you try to fit your equipment into a job where maybe a bigger machine would get a job done a little bit quicker or you're not as flexible as you used to be, which was great with it before. We would just call our excavator contract and say, I need this size machine, and he'd show up. We did the work and off we went.
Taylor White: Yeah, that drive and that struggle is just pretty insane. Going from subbing out, like buying your first piece of machinery. It's Kubota?
James Stiksma: Yeah, we've got a couple of Kubotas. We got a KX057-5 and we've got a 972.
Taylor White: Yeah, that's awesome, dude.
James Stiksma: Yeah, they've worked well for us. No complaints at all. They've been fantastic. We don't put a ton of hours into them either, so that's part of it as well. Because going back to what I had mentioned earlier, we're not turning equipment every day. We're not doing installs every single day. We'll mix it in with some other stuff. So I've had both these machines for over a year now and I just did my 500 hours of service on the excavator.
Taylor White: Yeah, well, that's septics too, though. The hours stay low on the machines during septics because a lot of the time we're waiting on trucks and the machines are off or you're installing, so the machines aren't doing anything when you're installing and then you're backfilling and then you're out of there. But your business model, your business plan though, so your brother-in-law is involved, you have four kids. Do the kids come into play as far as like, okay, I'm setting this business up that somewhere down the line it's going to remain a family business? I want it to remain a family business. Are you setting anything up for a succession plan for the business?
James Stiksma: Honestly, do I want it to? I think it would be great. Have I done anything or built anything to that? No. The interesting thing about the septic industry is there are so many different arms of the industry that you could turn into its own business or its own division. If I want to have strictly installs, I could do that. If I want to do strictly design, say, “Hey, my daughter wants to go to engineering school and become an engineer.”So she can do just strictly designs. Could do that. Pumping. If I wanted to start a pumping division and someone wanted to man that, yeah, we could 100% do that. And it's all something that if they're interested in it, I'm more than happy to help them out. And same goes for Arians’ kids as well. If they express some interest as they're getting older and they want to be a part of the business, then absolutely, let's figure a way out to make sure that everybody can be involved and make a good living doing it.
Taylor White: During the months of– We just went through, I don't know if you saw it as well too, but well, obviously I believe you did in 2017, you started your business, but then the last three, four years of construction has been insane. Okay, we need this work done. Get it done. I mean, you're specifically just doing septics, but again, there's been so much work out there for us, at least in Ontario. Has it been the case out in BC as well with you guys? Has it been a struggle finding the work? Or have you been finding it kind of like, “Okay, it's obviously nothing's easy or everyone would do it”? But what are you putting most of your efforts into to make your business succeed? I think that's a better way to question that.
James Stiksma: Yeah, so we're trying to find more ways to streamline, and we're kind of at that point where we're so busy, I really need to have somebody in the office a little more in a full-time capacity. My dad comes in and helps out with our books. He's got an accounting background, so he helps out with a lot of that. But yeah, we're struggling to keep our head above water when it comes to staying on top of everything, really, when it comes to invoicing and getting back to people on requests and stuff like that, which is not where I want to be. I want to be able to get back to people a little bit quicker with some answers, get some quotes out. So we're going to probably have somebody coming out that can do a review on our– There's a program in Canada here called the Digital Adoption Program where they'll give you $15,000 to have somebody come to audit your business. And see if there are some technologies essentially similar to what I was doing before, but if there are some technologies that can help streamline some of it and run your business a little bit better. So when it's all said and done, you'll have a bit of a roadmap to run your business a little bit more smoothly.
Taylor White: So streamlining stuff is kind of how you're trying to really hone in on the business, making it more efficient, profitable.
James Stiksma: Yeah, exactly. And trying to figure out where the best place to invest those dollars. Is it to have somebody come in three days a week? Can I find someone that's qualified and can do the things that I need them to do for three days a week? And yeah, it's one of those things that's up in the air and we're still working our way through it to try and figure out what the best next steps are for us.
Taylor White: Yeah. So you mentioned hopefully finding somebody to do that. Obviously, labor shortage issues have been across the board. Even though I know that you keep a bit of a smaller team, has this kind of presented any issues? Because you're subbing out stuff sometimes, like the trucking or anything. At least here, for instance, an example. So tomorrow I need three trucks on rental and we just heard that two of those trucks are going to be on for repairs. So now I'm struggling to find two more triaxles to come on rental because now one of my jobs is going to be shorthanded 40 tons every 45 minutes of material and it's a huge struggle finding that. Do you come into that issue?
James Stiksma: I've been very fortunate with the folks that I work with and I think it helps in part that we're fairly organized on our end to give lead time and everything else. But we've worked with one trucking outfit primarily since I started and they've got a good book of guys to get you covered if something needs happening. I can probably count on one hand how many times I've been let down. And it's equipment issues, I can't do anything about that. Or maybe I left it a little too late. So we haven't had those types of struggles ourselves at this point but could happen in the future.
Taylor White: So the issues with finding people and everything like that, the team that you have, I know that your brother-in-law is involved in, like, do you guys run into trying to find people to do that work that you need to do?
James Stiksma: Yeah. So it took a while for us to get to Tom to add him to the team. The year before that we had somebody come in in a part-time, full-time capacity. It was seasonal. We're like, “Okay, we can guarantee you that you'll have work until at least let's call it August or September, and then we'll see where we go from there.” And so we had someone on for a bit and for what we were willing to pay at the time, it wasn't where we wanted to go. We probably could know if we had seen a little bit more out of the guy, we probably could have kept them busy and done the role that Tom was doing now. Yeah, I mean, with wages being what they are and all the job opportunities that are out there, it's a tough one. And learning the septic industry, at least for us out here, we've got a lot of fairly complex systems. Was talking again with Arian, the other day, it took about three years. We both sort of agreed three years before you're comfortable walking onto a property without any background, feeling confident that, “Okay, I can figure out what's going on here.” It doesn't happen quickly. And that's all we're doing is septic. Think about the guys that are doing two or three systems a year. How are they going to figure it out? They're never going to figure it out. It's going to take a lot longer.
Taylor White: It's true. So are you guys doing mainly replacements or new installs?
James Stiksma: I'd say it's probably a good mix. Probably 70% new, 30% redoes.
Taylor White: What do you like better, replacement or new?
James Stiksma: New.
Taylor White: Really?
James Stiksma: Oh yeah, I'd prefer new because I don't have to worry as much about what the finished product looks like because there's usually a landscaper coming in behind me. I actually put that right in all of my quotes. We're not landscapers, so if you're looking for like a golf green at the end of the day, it ain't going to be me.
Taylor White: The amount of emails we get back. Because, in order to get final inspection here in Ontario, you need to topsoil it. If there's no topsoil, you don't get final inspection. Is that the same out in BC?
James Stiksma: We are a little bit different in the sense that we don't have inspections. It's a self-regulated industry.
Taylor White: No way.
James Stiksma: So if it's done by an engineer, the engineer is the one doing the inspection.
Taylor White: So you can inspect your own system?
James Stiksma: If I do a design, if I've done the design, I can do the inspection. Correct.
Taylor White: No way. Now, what courses or education do you need in order to be able to do that? Just have a business?
James Stiksma: Well, no, it's not that simple. If it were, we would be in a race to zero. No, it's a matter of going through some training and then proving to the regulating body out here that you're competent and you know what you're doing. So, for example, when I took the training, I went through a two-week course and to think that somebody knows what the heck they're doing after two weeks is crazy. But that's sort of how it works out in Alberta. And I actually had to go get my stamp initially through Alberta and then transfer it over to BC because, unfortunately, the way things are done out here, it's a lot of paperwork, it's a lot of time, and it can be a bit of a bear to get through.
Taylor White: So out here, the septic business, we have three inspections. So we have a sub base for your septic field and then we have one after everything's installed and all the pipes are exposed. And then we have a final. And to be honest with you, I like that because it keeps contractors honest. Because it makes it so that the contractors are like, “Well, I'm going to cheat a little bit on this sand and go a little bit lighter because I priced it lighter, “in order to get the job. It keeps people honest, and that's what I like about inspections. Do you run into that in BC or the way that you guys are governing it, it works as well too. Because there are always multiple right ways to go about it. But when I hear that, I'm thinking, “Okay, there could be some guy that's just getting his license and then just going to be like, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
James Stiksma: I mean, I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of having inspections done on our systems. Just from the standpoint, it keeps everybody honest. I've got a system that we just did a restoration on where the valve boxes that were overtopped of the cleanouts and the valves themselves, they're eight inches tall, and a bunch of them were just sitting on top of the ground.
Taylor White: Wow.
James Stiksma: So we had to bring out six inches worth of sand just to bring it up. And then another four inches of turf mix because that's always going to compress down and get that thing all done. But if I look at what the costs on the aggregates or the materials were on that job, it was probably another $6000 to $7000, $8000. It was a bigger project, but that was the cost. And whoever bid it before, I don't know if they were competing, we weren't competing on that one at the time, but if they were competing, that's a big dollar value to try and cheap out on. So it would be nice from the standpoint of keeping everybody honest, especially because we’re one of the guys that are more expensive. And we make sure that we have everything that we need because we offer a warranty all over to our customers saying, “Hey if something fails because of the way we installed it, we’re going to come and fix it and we’re not going to charge you for it.” So I’m not going to cut corners because I don’t want to be back here. Not unless I’m doing a regular service. It costs money.
Taylor White: Exactly. Your business, do you want to continue to grow it then? And do you see yourself ever with 20,30, 40, 50 employees branching out into digging basements? I know, you've been established 2016 behind you on the sign. You're 2017. You started your business, you're perfecting your craft at septics. At what point are you like, Okay– So for us recently, we ventured out into commercial projects, right? We're like, “Okay, we've mastered residential. We've been doing it for 55 years. Let's try to make some good connections, get some bigger iron, and expand out into the commercial.” Do you see yourself being “Okay, we want to be the full, complete package residential. We want to dig your basement, backfill it, put your septic in, do your laneway, your culvert, and then come back, and final grade it.”
James Stiksma: It's funny, I was actually having that conversation after dinner last night with Arian about, how do we get to the next step. And that's one of those things like, “Well, a bigger machine would be nice because jobs get done fast.” I said, “Yeah, but if you get the bigger machine now, you're going to be getting asked about the excavations. Now you're going to get asked about all that other stuff that comes along with it, which a lot of guys do, and I don't necessarily have an issue with. But we got to figure out if that makes sense for us. Because once I start doing that, if I'm already busy doing my septic at a higher markup or a higher rate than what a typical excavator operator is working at, well, now I'm losing some of that time that I could be doing more septic installs, doing some, I'm not going to call it menial, it's not menial, but there's no specialization necessarily required to do those jobs. So it's a matter of keeping our guys busy, doing things that make the most amount of money. Yeah, it's been rolling around. We've been talking about it back and forth, trying to figure out what the next step is. And I can't tell you what it is at this point. I know everybody likes to have a five-year plan. I'm five-day plan. What are we going to be doing in five days? Where are we going to be in five weeks? But five years, that's a long time into the future having only been at this for seven, I like that.
Taylor White: The only thing that I would have to say to that is I feel like there's a lot of projects that we get on the residential side that the customers are like, “Okay, I want to deal with one person on the outside and then the inside trades the inside trades, but I don't want to deal–” Do you ever find that you would lose a septic because they're like, “We were really hoping that you were somebody who could dig the basement, backfill, grade, and do the septic for us. We don't want to necessarily get someone else in to do the septic as well, too.” We run into that here.
James Stiksma: I think only one time I really had somebody say that, and I would say honestly, we're dealing mostly with homeowners directly. We're not so much dealing with builders. We've only got two or three builders or higher-end guys that like using us because we can talk to their customers and make them feel comfortable about what's going on. Whereas usually, I'm one-to-one with the homeowners who are working on doing their own build and just trying to find somebody that they can trust to do the work that needs to get done.
Taylor White: Yeah, no, I would totally agree. It sounds like then that is not an issue with you.
James Stiksma: Not yet.
Taylor White: What challenges do you think arise in your business that you're in right now? What would you say are the biggest thing in the septic industry that are stopping you guys from going to that next step? Or you think could be really perfected and fixed in order to go to the next step.
James Stiksma: I think one of the biggest challenges that we have from a business side, but also from an industry side out in British Columbia, is that we are still allowing folks who don't have any kind of certification to do installs. And Washington State was just down the highway from us here. I'm going down this weekend with my youngest boy to a football game. But you have to be certified to do an install. And we've got engineers that are doing designs and we've got some good ones and we've got some bad ones, and we've got some good blokes registered onsite wastewater practitioners and we have some bad ones. But when you've got some guys that have zero training or have no reason to know better, we come across some pretty nasty situations.
A home that's two years old that whoever designed it said, “Well, these people are only going to take showers 50% of the day, so this is how much water–” And so we run into that all the time. And so we're trying to work together as part of my role with the association is to communicate some of this stuff with the province and the governing bodies. Just to say, like, “Here are some of our biggest challenges right now, and here's what we'd like to see to try and address that so that I'm not competing against some guy who just got his excavator last week and doesn't really know.” And I talked to a builder yesterday where he said, “Yeah, I know you didn't get that job, but at the end of the day, the customer wanted to go with the other guy.” But he says, “Just so you know when all was said and done, it was about the same price as yours.” Well, I know because I know what needs to go into a project and I'm not going to come back and ask for more afterwards.
Taylor White: Extras. That's actually funny you say that. I have the exact same issue. So we price a lot. I have a full-time estimate that just prices work. And it's wild the relation that I have to what you just said because we price projects and commercial is different on residential to business to homeowner, business to consumer. I would say in the past 10 years, we have had two times where we have ever charged an extra to a residential client. Because when we price a job, we price it so that, hey, at the end of the project, your invoice is exactly what we quoted you because we allow for it. And we run into the same thing that you're saying of Joe Blow with his backhoe. He's going to go there and do it, and he was $10,000 less. But at the end of it, your bill is the exact same as each other's because he just charged you more in extras or unforeseen costs.
James Stiksma: I can't tell you how many contractors I've talked to who go into a job to win the job, and the profit is going to be the extras at the end of the day. And it's just such a backward way of thinking, and I hope that someday the industry as a whole changes so that that's not what it is. But too often there are guys that's how they run their business. And if they don't get the extras, well, what are you going to do?
Taylor White: You know what's really nice and what really stops that ill is and I love this topic because we run into that all the time too. Same issue, same problem. And that's more for the okay, someone's installing a conventional bed system or something like that, or someone could go get Elgin certified, but it's like the more higher end systems that do stuff like such as a Waterloo or EcoFlow where you have to have an accreditation within Waterloo or EcoFlow. I'm not sure about EcoFlow, but I know about Waterloo, and you have to have that accreditation with them in order for an engineering firm that designed the system to be like, “Okay, choose amongst these people.” And you know that at least amongst those people, they're high quality, they’re going to be good people. You're not fighting the cheapest guy ever. So maybe it's a balance of finding something like that, right?
James Stiksma: Yeah. 100% My solution out here is just to say it's only septic professionals that can do installs. And a number of engineers I've talked to have said, “Hey, we'd love to do that.” I don't want to be the one that's telling the homeowner, no, they can't use so and so. But if the province tells me that only certified guys could do it, well, now I can say, “No, he can't do it. You need somebody who's certified, go get him to do it.”
Taylor White: Yeah. 100%. Competition keeps it healthy. I really strongly believe in that. But I feel like you're right, there is a way that we could govern it to make it. And that's interesting that you're on the board as well, too, but I think that there's a way that we can do it so that everybody kind of makes it so that it's more fair for everybody and more fair for the business, the homeowner at the consumer, at the end of the day.
James Stiksma: 100%. I mean, I'm not trying to keep people out. I just want everybody to be playing on the same field because I'm spending probably upwards of $8000 to $10,000 per year just to keep my certification. I need to do continuing education points and I have to pay for AutoCAD and all these other things, all these expenses that I have to have because I'm certified. But no wonder I'm more expensive than the guy down the street because he doesn't have insurance for design. He doesn't have insurance for whatever. He doesn't have his annual fees that he has to pay to the governing body and everything else. So, yeah, of course, he's cheaper.
Taylor White: Exactly. I want to hear one last thing about something that your business is proud of. I want to hear about something that what makes Canadian Septic stand out or something that you could look back on and go, “We are damn proud of this and what we did.” And I want to say that the one thing is when you use that slinger, you use the stacker to bring the material to the top of the mountain. That's just mine on your part, and everybody can go and see him on Canadian Septic on Instagram, what I'm talking about, because that project was super cool. But what's one thing that you can look back on with your business and know, “That's Canadian Septic. That's what I'm proud of Yes.”
James Stiksma: I mean, you're probably pointing at the project, right? I mean the one where it's like, I've got to get what up, where and how am I going to do this?
Taylor White: Dude, that was wild.
James Stiksma: It was quite the trip, man. I mean, trying to get all those aggregates, like 80 ft in the air just to get it and then put a couple of hoses up top just to move it around up there, drop a bunch of trees. That was the biggest project for us to date. Hopefully, we've got a bunch more coming down the line here, but that's probably, at this point, our hallmark system install. So far, we've done a different one for a 50,000 sq ft house out on the river out here. We like the challenging ones. We've done a lot of tight ones right along the water in between Whistler and Vancouver out in Lions Bay, some beautiful spots. We've done some work with the provincial parks. We went out to Mount Robson to do a bunch of inspection stuff. But honestly, just at the end of the day, being able to stand there and stand behind our work, and it sucks when you do something wrong and you've got to go fix it, but we do it. We had a system we didn't put in quite deep enough, and it's my fault. I'm responsible for it. And we went back out, and this is when we didn't even have our own equipment. So it hurt even more because I'm paying the contractor to come to dig out another septic field, do everything, but it's my responsibility. I told you that I'd do it, so I'm going to do it. So that's probably the most proud I am of one was when things got hard, we stood up and we took care of it.
Taylor White: Yeah, I totally agree. Totally, from the vibe of your Instagram and just you as a person, I think that you guys definitely found your niche within. This is a complicated project, complicated install, complicated system, and Canadian Septic is here to hammer it out.
James Stiksma: Yeah, no, I appreciate it, man. That's what we're trying to convey to people out there, let them know who we are, what we're about. And it's pretty amazing what we're able to accomplish through there, whether it's someone calling me out of the blue that I've never met that says they talk to me like they know me. So a lot of cold calls turn into warm calls just when you show up. So pretty cool.
Taylor White: Well, listen, dude, I obviously want to thank you for coming on the podcast today. It was long overdue having a conversation with you. I know that we've talked for a while on Instagram as well, too, which, by the way, if anybody wants to go and find you, can you quickly remind them where, at all, can they find you guys? Online website, Instagram, wherever.
James Stiksma: Yeah, so, I mean, the main handle on Instagram, it's where I post most of our stuff, is CanadianSeptic. And our website, canadianseptic.com, shouldn't be too hard to find us. Punch us into the Google machine, you'll find us.
Taylor White: Awesome, dude. James, thank you for being on today. Awesome conversation and I can't wait to see what crazy projects you get on to next.
James Stiksma: Thanks, Taylor.
Taylor White: Thanks, buddy.