Would you like to meet some successful business people who happen to be sewer cleaners? Then spend a while with Jack Doheny at the annual Water & Wastewater, Treatment & Transport Show. “If you go to that show and stand with me for an hour, I’ll introduce you to 25 guys who with a little help from me became millionaires,” says Doheny, founder and CEO of Jack Doheny Companies. He says that with pride, but not boastfulness. He built his business on a belief that success is a two-way street: The dealer succeeds only when customers do.
Today, Jack Doheny Companies is the world’s largest sewer cleaning and maintenance equipment dealer organization in North American and has roughly $250 million in annual sales, operates twenty three locations in the United States and Canada and operates the largest rental fleet of vacuum and inspection trucks in North America. “Every one of these branches is very successful, financially and from a customer satisfaction standpoint,” says Kay Doheny, President of Jack Doheny Companies.” “Jack has surrounded himself with extremely competent people who are compensated accordingly.
Logging the Miles
It has been a long road, literally and figuratively, for Doheny, now 85 years old. He got his start in the sewer cleaning business in 1948, demonstrating coiled rodders and sectional rodding machines for O’Brien Manufacturing with his father, Earl J. Doheny.
Jack Doheny joined O’Brien Manufacturing in 1953 after a hitch in the U.S. Air Force. O’Brien had introduced a coiled rodding machine with a one-inch cable and a power feed for cleaning larger pipes. Doheny hit the road to sell that product. “I used to leave on six-week trips,” he recalls. “I’d drive out to the West Coast and come back, demonstrating in cities all along the way.
“In the years after World War II, sewers were being put in the ground at rapid pace, but the cities didn’t have funds to maintain them. We were one of the first companies that allowed cities to purchase sewer machines using installment payments. We would sell on a three-year basis with monthly or annual payments. It was like an insurance policy for the city, because they got a machine that enabled them to take care of emergencies. I always said that if Mrs. Jones has four feet of water in her basement or her house is on fire, something’s got to happen immediately. It was a pretty easy sale.”
The contacts made on those trips helped Jack when he started his own business, Jack Doheny Supplies in 1973. “By that time I had a young family and was looking to trade in the Cadillac Jack nickname that came from driving 250,000 miles a year.”
Good Credit Risks
Jack Doheny Supplies immediately started selling Vactor combination sewer cleaners, distinguishing itself by selling on credit and offering guaranteed buy-backs. “Both of those were things we initiated that are pretty common practices now,” Doheny says. “When I started in this business, nobody would finance a sewer machine. I did. Unlike people in some other professions, people in the sewer cleaning business have made a commitment that they don’t mind getting their hands dirty. They are workers, and they do pay their bills. I know of no occupation that has a better credit rating than sewer cleaning people. A huge percentage of the equipment we sold was financed. I can literally count on one hand the people that have let me down.”
Kay observes “Jack makes daily judgments on character and gave those who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to get into the business an opportunity to do so. We help launch those contractors. They build their credit rating and mature into a relationship with a bank, and we hand them off. In the end, their success is our success.
Service All the Time
Once contractors are in business, the Doheny’s philosophy is keep them operating with little downtime. “Our long suit has always been service and equipment availability,” Doheny says. “If you have one piece of equipment and it’s committed for the next six weeks, and it gets hit by a train, and you need another machine, we’ve got it. We have in excess of 900 machines available. We also receive great technical and product support from the manufacturers we represent.”
As for repairs: “We go out of our way to make sure their equipment is running. If we can’t repair a piece of equipment in a timely manner, we’ll give the owner the use of a machine at no charge. Sewer cleaning is an emergency business. A contractor can’t call the bank and say, ‘My machine’s broken, stop the payments.’
“We have well in excess of $6 million of parts in stock, so if someone calls here before 4 o’clock in the afternoon we can have it to them the next morning. Ninety percent of the people who walk in for parts don’t even call to ask if we have it. If a man needs a part that we don’t have in stock, we’ll pull a $5 part off a $300,000 machine to get him back in operation. That’s not talk. We’ve done it.”
Built Around People
Jack Doheny Companies also offers comprehensive, formalized training and certification programs for customers in operations, maintenance and safety. Participants get continuing education credits. The key to it all, Doheny points out, is quality people. “I’m fortunate to have an awful lot of very qualified people who are just as dedicated as I am to making sure that customers can get in and get out,” Doheny said. “A lot of our people have been here for more than 20 years. When I have an opportunity to hire someone, I say, ‘If you don’t truly love it, if this is work to you, do us both a favor and don’t show up.
Gina Garcia-Moir, owner of Advanced Underground Inspection in Detroit, calls Doheny “a man of his word” and someone who has helped many people in her state get established. “I think a lot of people wouldn’t be where they are without his backing and his guidance,” she says. “I don’t think I could have taken off without his support. He gave us help with financing and worked with us on terms. A standard bank, you go in and you’re nobody to them. Jack extends his hand. You meet him and he’s very personable, very hands-on. And that shows throughout his staff.”