The difference-maker? In short, business diversity — along with persistence and an influx of ideas from owner Terry Jeske’s twin sons, Braydon and Bryce. In the span of just a couple years, the brothers reinvigorated the struggling company by shifting its business base away from reliance on Alberta’s oilfields and investing in equipment that opened up new markets.
The story behind the company, which now provides hydroexcavating, vacuuming and steam-cleaning services, testifies to the power of business diversification. It also speaks to the value of family ties in the face of adversity, as well as the power of plain old determination and resilience.
When Jeske established the business in 2005, just as the oilfield boom was starting to heat up, the future looked promising. Buoyed by assurances from oilfield companies that there’d be work available if he invested in a vacuum truck, Jeske took the plunge — and then quickly found himself in a fight to stay afloat.
The first bad-luck break: The vac truck was delivered months later than promised. “Any work we had lined up just vaporized,” Jeske recalls. “We made a financial commitment to buy the equipment and were left standing there with our hands in our pockets.”
When the truck finally arrived, problem No. 2 emerged: lack of quality employees. “Things were busy in the oil patch and there just weren’t many good drivers available,” he says. “We definitely were not getting the cream of the crop.”
The end result was, as Jeske puts it, a lot of sleepless nights. “It was a really shaky, tumultuous time. … I had all those payments to make and little revenue coming in,” he says. “Eventually, I had to refinance the truck.”
Jeske could have just sold the truck, cut his losses and moved on, but he saw a future in it. “I had so much invested in the business, and I thought if the boys took over, they’d turn it around,” he explains.
At the time, Braydon and Bryce, now 27 years old, had recently graduated from high school. While Bryce was gaining valuable experience working for a company that replaced water and sewer lines, Braydon was busy taking business administration courses at a local technical institute. “I asked them to come on board, but they declined,” Jeske says. “But I kept pecking away and pecking away … and they finally agreed to do it.”
Diversify or die
Hiring the boys resolved one of the company’s biggest problems: finding qualified workers. They brought in friends as well as other workers they found through word-of-mouth referrals from friends.
“Good drivers and operators are the key to the whole thing,” Jeske says. “Equipment is just a pile of metal if you don’t have employees with the proper skill set or an interest in the business and solving problems.”
But the hardest part was convincing Jeske to diversify, says Bryce. “Diversifying the business was crucial,” he says. “Deciding to get into industrial cleaning opened up all kinds of opportunities.”
Jeske says he finally realized new services could bring stability to the business. “That way, if the oil patch goes sideways, we still have enough business to keep us alive.” The diversification effort worked; currently, industrial and municipal work generates roughly 60 percent of the company’s gross revenue, while oilfield-related business produces the balance.
Breaking into new markets required different equipment, and a hot/cold pressure washing unit with steam cleaning capability, made by Hot and Mighty (a division of T. George Podell & Co. Inc.), proved to be a difference-maker. The company uses it for a variety of applications, including everything from thawing out frozen valves and pipelines to washing down rigs and equipment, even cleaning grease-clogged kitchen lines.
“There were lots of nights where we sat down and had some heated discussions about what the future held for the company and what we needed to do to move forward,” Bryce recalls. “The first thing we pushed for was the steam unit. It diversified us big-time because we could use it not only to work with the vac truck, but also as a stand-alone unit for flushing lines, cleaning equipment and so on.
“Then we started branching into other markets, doing more underground work,” he continues. “If someone was digging up a sewer line, we’d be there to suck out the sewage. Or we’d clean lift stations. But it was tough to get work because we didn’t have as much equipment as we do now.”
Today, Supreme Vac faces no such problem. It owns two tandem-axle vacuum trucks outfitted by Advance Engineered Products. Each one is built on a Kenworth T800 chassis and features a 3,434-gallon carbon steel tank and a 1,400 cfm Hibon blower. Cusco built out the third vacuum truck on a 2014 Freightliner Coronado SD chassis with a 4,226-gallon carbon steel tank and a 1,600 cfm Hibon blower.
The fleet also features a hydroexcavating truck built by Foremost on a 2015 Freightliner 122 SD chassis with a 13-cubic-yard debris tank, a 2,000-gallon water tank and a 4,000 cfm blower made by ROBUSCHI USA. Other equipment includes two enclosed trailer-mounted hot/cold/steam pressure washing units manufactured by Hot and Mighty, a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera system and one RIDGID SeekTech SR-20 pipeline locator.
“We just got into hydrovacs last year,” says Braydon. “We were working on a pipeline construction project and we agreed that it would be a good idea to buy a hydrovac not only for that project, but to diversify our services, too.” The company uses the unit for daylighting, trenching or potholing, mostly in the oil, gas and construction industries. But it’s also used to flush drainage lines. “It’s great for emergency sewer or waterline breaks because it doesn’t damage other existing underground infrastructure,” Braydon adds.
Breaking into new markets was not easy. “It’s highly competitive,” Jeske says. “It seems like everyone has a vac truck and a steamer — a lot of people service (oilfield) rigs part time. And it’s tough to compete with guys like that because sometimes they have marginal or substandard equipment and don’t charge what they need to because they tend to view and treat it as a job, not a business.”
But the twins brought a powerful new ally into play: the Internet. In 2011, Braydon created a website that gave the company widespread exposure and still consistently generates business leads. “The website is a huge asset to the company,” Bryce points out. “It gives us a ton of exposure. A lot of new customers that call us find us on the Internet. And if people call you for one service, then you can promote your other services, too.”
But while marketing and new, technologically advanced equipment will nudge open the doors to new business, providing excellent customer service keeps those doors open wide, the Jeskes emphasize. “You have to do the job right,” Braydon notes. “You can’t do half a job and expect customers to be happy. When I go out and do a job, I do it as if I was doing it for myself.”
To keep customers happy, the Jeskes also rely on a very simple and basic principle: Always answer the phone. “We pick up our phones all the time — even on long weekends and holidays,” Jeske says. “I’ve actually had customers tell us that they called 10 or 15 vac companies before they called us, and we were the first ones to pick up the phone.”
“It’s a huge differentiator,” adds Braydon. “We always answer our phones, regardless of how busy we are or how late it is — even 3 a.m. And we’ll find another contractor for a customer if we’re too busy to do the work.”
Jeske says another significant asset — his sons’ ability to solve problems — always keeps customers coming back. “That’s another key to our success,” he says. As an example, he cites an instance where a contractor hit a pressurized sewer line near a lift station while doing some excavation work with a track hoe. The line kept filling the trench with sewer water every 20 minutes or so, making repairs virtually impossible. “We came in with a vac truck and some pipe wrenches,” Bryce explains. “We kept sucking out the sewer water, then digging around the pipe with shovels until we eventually were able to get a fitting on the pipe and tighten it down. The owner of the large construction company was so happy that he actually came out and shook our hands.”
Another less obvious but equally important factor in customer service revolves around keeping abreast of new technology. A good example is Root Rat nozzles, made by Chempure Products, which feature small chains that cut away debris.
“We used standard penetrating nozzles before, which would break through obstructions such as tree roots,” Bryce explains. “But sometimes the clogs would reoccur. With the Root Rat nozzles, though, we have less callbacks and fewer backups, which saves our customers money because emergency work is more expensive.”
Slow, controlled growth
The Jeskes see more growth ahead, even as the market for industrial and municipal cleaning becomes increasingly competitive.
“With oil prices dropping, more and more guys are coming in from other provinces to service and put pressure on the oilfield and construction markets, or they’re trying to get more work by branching into things we already do,” Braydon points out.
Many companies might see that as a bad thing, but Braydon disagrees. “It’s good for the industry because it will weed out guys who undercut on price and don’t provide good-quality service,” he says. “And when oil prices go back up, those companies will go back to serving the oil industry.”
During the next three to five years, the Jeskes envision slow, evenly paced growth. They’re also considering buying land and building a shop in or near Edmonton. “Right now we rent two different buildings a few blocks apart,” Braydon explains. “But we need time to evaluate and better assess the state of the economy going forward before expanding further into land and equipment.”
Jeske plans to sell the company to the twins in the next five to eight years, bringing to fruition what he first envisioned back in 2005. “I was hanging in there for my boys,” he says of the company’s turmoil-filled early years. “I knew that if I had a family-run business, I could eliminate all the babysitting and headaches I was dealing with.
“They turned the company around. … I take no credit at all for it. They had all the good ideas.”