By Carol Brzozowski
In 1898, Frank Doetsch Sr. cleaned sewers with a bucket and shovel. Today Doetsch Environmental Services, based in Warren, Mich., continues to provide industrial cleaning services, but with high-pressure water and vacuum equipment and underground cameras.
Diann Regelbrugge, 68, is the fourth-generation owner; sons Sean, 37, and Joe Schotthoefer, 42, are vice presidents of finance and operations, respectively.
"Every city has sewers that need to be cleaned," says Regelbrugge. "Our employees are very dedicated. My dad instilled in my sons and me that no matter how dirty the job is, it's a worthwhile job."
Industrial cleaning helps eliminate sewage overflows and keeps wastewater treatment plants functioning properly, notes Joe Schotthoefer. Much of Doetsch's business comes from sewer pipes that haven't been cleaned since they were installed.
The late third-generation owner Frank Doetsch, Diann Regelbrugge's father, would say: "When you put your family name on the line every day for 100 years, there's no other way to do a job than the right way."
Doetsch focuses on quality and welcomes client input. Joe Schotthoefer says Doetch doesn't turn down requests for the "odd and impossible," such as cleaning of large-diameter or difficult-to access sewers.
Michigan's economy—which worsened years before the Great Recession—forced the company in 2007 to take jobs outside the state. Out-of-state jobs now represent 40% of Doetsch's business.
In the past, "opportunities would find us," notes Joe Schotthoefer. Now, he says, "we are working hard to make opportunities."
In Detroit, the company has long-established supply chains and a loyal customer base. Working outside the region requires more marketing, establishing new supply chains and hiring employees willing to work away from home. Recent investments in Michigan are starting to bring some work back to the state, family members say.
Differences of opinion are resolved by focusing on the company's long-standing core business values and respect for the previous generations who sustained the business, says Regelbrugge.
"When you're a family, you all have the same goal: to make it work," she says. "You give more than 110 percent. You do not do it grudgingly."
Regelbrugge says the company's 25 employees have helped to sustain the company. "We need our employees to keep this going," she says. "It's not just about us."
Innovation is a company tradition. In the late 1920s, Doetsch introduced the electric sewer machine to Michigan, making work more efficient and safer.
The next generation has brought new thinking to the company. "My dad was willing to listen to Joe's ideas," says Regelbrugge. "I listen to my sons. Things change rapidly. They are right on top of everything."
Joe Schotthoefer designs and fabricates novel equipment, such as a device that makes it possible to continuously clean sewers up to 6,000 feet long and to recycle sewer water.
"Sometimes you have to improvise on making something rather than buying it," says Regelbrugge. "That came from the Depression, when you used what you had."
A sixth generation is on the horizon; Sean Schotthoefer is starting his own family.
"The company has a storied history and has remained viable through wars, depressions, recessions, changing generations and competition," Joe Schotthoefer comments. "We remain easily adaptable, with a very dedicated and experienced workforce, allowing us to quickly develop a solution for a need."
Carol Brzozowski is a writer based in Coral Springs, Fla.
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