IT’S ANOTHER frigid sub-zero day in mid-February in southeastern Minnesota, but wash operations are running at a fevered pace at TankerKleen. Business has been like that since the commercial wash rack opened its doors in 2011.
Annual growth has averaged 30% for the Albert Lea, Minnesota, company and just keeps growing. Located just south of the I-90 and I-35 intersection and less than a mile off I-35 (just a quarter mile on Highway 65), the two-bay wash rack is struggling to keep up with demand for foodgrade and limited chemical cleaning.
“We believe we have a great location, and that is one reason why we are bringing in more new business all the time,” says John Schipper, TankerKleen owner and chief executive officer along with his wife, Danielle. “We believe we also provide the best and most efficient tank cleaning services to our customers. In the process, we believe we are building honest and lasting relationships with our customers. Quality of service means paying attention to detail.
“This is a great business, and we are overjoyed at what we have achieved in a relatively short period of time. We learned about tank cleaning from the ground up, and we built our business one step at a time. It took hard work, lots of long hours, and late nights, but it has been very rewarding.”
Today, the company is cleaning 25 to 30 tank trailers a day, and some days much more. Ninety percent of the work is foodgrade cleaning. Edible oils account for most of the products cleaned and include lard, tallow, palm oil, canola oil, soy oil, and white and brown grease.
As the tank cleaning activity has grown, additional services have been added. This includes a complete full-line parts store that sells fittings, gaskets, hoses, and more. An on-site maintenance shop handles truck and trailer repairs of all types.
As an entrepreneur, Schipper is always looking for new and different business opportunities. In fact, that is how he got into tank trailer cleaning in the first place.
His first business effort was a mobile power wash company that he started while working for more than seven years as a salesman at a car dealership in Mason City, Iowa and surrounding areas. “Over the years, I saw that the mobile car wash services always had plenty of business,” Schipper says. “At the same time, I knew I could do the job faster and more efficiently. I also knew all of the car sales lots in the area. It was time to do something.”
A year after Schipper started pressure washing cars, he had enough car lots that it was consuming all of his time. He had been washing cars after work and on weekends, but it was time to make it a full-time business. The business quickly outgrew his home garage, and it began to evolve in a new direction.
“We started a big move into mobile fleet washing, which had a better return on investment,” he says. “My sons were working with me now, and the business—called Schipp’s Pro Power Wash—kept evolving. We decided to move the operation from the garage to our first building.”
That move to a commercial location proved to be a major step forward. Schipper and his sons started out washing primarily trucks and other vehicles belonging to parcel delivery services, energy companies, and municipal fleets.
However, they also did exterior washes for a local tank fleet customer operating in the Albert Lea area. This customer encouraged Schipper to get into tank cleaning. The customer pointed out that there were no commercial tank wash racks in the immediate vicinity.
Convinced that an opportunity did indeed exist, Schipper started looking for a way to make it happen. He moved his mobile wash operation to a larger commercial building and started educating himself on tank cleaning.
“We really didn’t know anything about the business,” he says. “We started from scratch. We learned from every mistake—and we made a lot of them. We started looking for mentors who were willing to teach us—people such as Tim Ryan at Kankakee Tank Wash (Kankakee, Illinois), Miranda McMas (who at the time was with Prime Inc’s Decatur, Indiana wash rack), and Robbie Day with The Peacock Company Inc.
“Tim let us see how his wash rack operates, and he did a lot to help us with advice as we set up our operation. Robbie also was a great consultant on necessary tank cleaning equipment. He introduced us to other people in the industry, and he encouraged us to join National Tank Truck Carriers, which we did in 2014. Miranda was another great mentor. She told us that successful wash rack operators must know how to maintain their own cleaning equipment. If you have to pay someone else for equipment maintenance, you’ll never get ahead. You must be self-reliant
“I’ve always liked tinkering with hardware, and I like to build things. I maintained all of the pressure washers and trucks in our mobile fleet washing operation. There are even more tinkering opportunities with a tank wash rack and the need for plenty of hands-on involvement.”
Schipper was already leasing about 5,000 square feet of a 12,000-sq-ft building for his mobile fleet wash operation. He was able to lease additional space for use as a tank wash bay, and the new business opportunity was up and running by the fall of 2011.
“I started out with my sons Josh and Mike washing foodgrade tanks by hand,” he says. “These were tanks that were hauling lard and palm oil, and we cleaned them out by hand using a mobile pressure washer. We were cleaning five tanks a day and then 10 a day. Soon, we had to downsize the mobile fleet wash operation to concentrate on the tank cleaning.”
Schipper later bought the building, as well as about two acres of adjoining real estate, which made a total of 12 acres. “Our customers are asking for more services, and we need room to grow,” he says. “We especially need more parking.”
With wash demand growing steadily, Schipper hired one of his nephews to help out. This was just the first of many additional family members brought on board to help the company grow. Schipper leaves no doubt that TankerKleen is a family company, and family involvement was critical in building a successful operation.
His wife handles accounting and human relations responsibilities. “She had six years work experience as an accountant and human resources manager, and she gets all the credit for ensuring that we were able to run on cash flow from the very start,” he says.
Danielle is the one who understands what is required on the financial side, and she keeps John focused. “My wife truly is the conservative side of our business, while I like to take the risks,” he says.
Before long, the Schippers realized they needed kosher certification for many foodgrade tank cleanings. TankerKleen also has obtained Juice Processing Association certification and is working on Cargill certification.
The company has embraced the certification process. “We want to provide the best tank cleaning service in the industry,” John says. “Each trailer we clean must pass three quality inspections before the process is complete.”
A second wash bay was added along with a Peacock Model 636 single-pass, high-pressure/low-volume cleaning machine. “We bought the Peacock unit in 2013, and it worked so well that we built a second unit with commercial-grade pressure washer parts,” John says. “I like the Peacock systems approach, and we got good training on the equipment.”
Cleaning demand continues to grow, and the company wants to add a third wash bay, which will be dedicated to limited chemical cleaning. The first two bays will focus on foodgrade cleaning. John says there is enough room in the current facility to add one or two more cleaning bays as needed.
Wastewater handling for the foodgrade side of the operation has been relatively straight forward. Much of the cleaning is done with steam and hot water, and pretreatment consists of an oil separation system that John designed and assembled himself.
Oil separation takes place in a series of tanks. After the oil rises above the wastewater, it is pumped off and sold to a company that makes biodiesel. The remaining water is then ready to be released into the city sewer.
“Initially, we released untreated oily water directly into the city sewer,” John says. “When that caused problems, we decided it was time to implement a pre-treatment process to control the issues with oil setting up in the city sewer. The city officials have been great to work with. They understand that we’re trying to do things the right way.”
Wastewater from the limited chemical tank cleaning operation also is sent to a series of storage tanks. However, there is no chemical pre-treatment at the wash rack. All of the chemical wastewater is hauled away for approved treatment and disposal.
Growing and growing
With the operation busier by the day, TankerKleen now employs 12 people. Two work shifts keep the wash rack running from 6 am to 10 pm Monday through Friday, and open Saturdays from 7 am to noon. Cleaning after hours and on weekends can be scheduled by appointment. In the near future, cleaning operations are scheduled to go to 24 hours a day as growth continues.
TankerKleen encourages drivers to relax in an all-new comfortable drivers’ lounge while trailers are being cleaned. The newest addition to the drivers’ lounge is shower and laundry service. Other features include vending machines, coffee and soft drinks, free wi-fi, and hot food to purchase.
In late 2014, Schipper opened a small truck equipment shop that sells a wide range of tank hardware and parts provided through the Brenner Tank Service organization and LittleJohn Inc. Parts include a variety of tank fittings, dust caps and plugs, gaskets, packing and O-rings, anti-freeze, motor oil, diesel exhaust fluid, product hoses, and much more.
A full-service tractor and trailer maintenance shop was opened earlier this year with a full-time mechanic. Adam Penhollow is a trained and experienced truck and trailer mechanic, as well as being a related family member. Services include oil changes and lube service, truck and trailer repairs, DOT tank trailer inspections, and pump rebuilds and replacement of all types.
Two tractors move trailers around the facility. In addition, they can be used to shuttle tank trailers between the wash rack and customers in the surrounding communities.
“We want to do more with trailer dropping and staging, and we are looking at the possibility of additional spotting services,” John says. “We’re always looking for ways to add more service and value to the operation.” ♦