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Businessman reflects on decades in septic work

Larry Niece - Courtesy Photo
Larry Niece
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

By NATALIE MARTIN

His business has taken him to thousands of homes on the island and dubbed him Vashon’s number one exporter. It has been difficult, smelly and sometimes messy, but Larry Niece still calls pumping septic systems his “true calling.”

“I loved being in business for myself,” said Niece, 75, in a recent interview. “And I was doing something people needed to have done.”

Niece recently retired after 40 years in the septic business. And earlier this year he sold Niece Pumping, a septic pumping service he built from the ground up and the only business on Vashon that currently offers such service.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Niece said of handing over his longtime business. “I’m less comfortable with leaving the island. … It’s been a great place to live.”

Niece, a bespectacled man with a full head of silvery gray hair and a short gray beard, moved from Chicago to Vashon in 1977 with his family, leaving behind a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. With a master’s degree in business and a PhD in chemistry, Niece set to work designing septic systems for island homes, running the new business with his wife. Niece Design Group, as the small company was called, did well on Vashon, a place where many more homes had septic systems than were connected to the sewer system. After a few years the company began installing and repairing island septic systems as well.

By the 1990s, however, new construction had slowed. At the same time, the demand for pumping existing septic systems was high. Niece, who is now divorced, invested in some new equipment and shifted his focus to pumping.

decided to make the business as simple as I could,” he said. “I didn’t want to be preoccupied every night. We pumped septic tanks and that was about it.”

With the help of a couple local employees, Niece Pumping has performed the smelly but oh-so-necessary job of pumping out septic tanks at more than 4,000 homes on Vashon. On average he or his crew visited four homes a day.

“I know a lot of people on the island,” Niece said with a chuckle.

Niece said he enjoyed the pumping work, which got him out of the office, working outdoors, and presented constant challenges. He also said most people don’t realize how difficult septic pumping actually is.

The pumping jobs are very physical, Niece said, and sometimes performed in bad weather. Sometimes homeowners don’t know where their tanks are or haven’t taken care of their systems, leading to other problems. And now and then objects must be retrieved. Makeup, tools, small toys, even dentures, Niece said he has seen it all.

Waste from the septics is trucked to a wastewater treatment facility off-island. Niece Pumping, which transports the waste via the ferry about twice a week, was eventually dubbed “Vashon’s number one exporter,” a joke that’s now painted onto the side of its trucks as well.

“There are some unpleasant things,” Niece admitted about the line of work. But what one might assume is the most unpleasant — the smell — he actually got used to.

“After a while, you don’t even notice the smell unless you stop and think about it,” he said. “Your mind has it filtered out.”

Well spoken but unassuming, Niece is humble about his business venture, saying he found success simply by offering a needed service on Vashon. Pumping a septic tank can’t be avoided, he noted, and the reminder cards helped him bring business back during times he had on-island competitors.

“I was accused of having a monopoly,” he said. “I just stayed here and did my business. Everyone else left for one reason or another.”

But Jim Freeland, Niece’s employee of more than a dozen years, paints the business in a different light. Freeland says he believes Niece did well because “basically he treats everybody how he would expect to be treated.”

Paramount to Niece Pumping’s success, Freeland says, is the fact that the company refused to pump a septic tank that didn’t need it.

Every homeowner uses their septic system differently, Freeland explained, so some tanks need pumping before they are due, while others can go longer in between jobs. Niece turned down about a quarter of the pumping jobs he went to, Freeland said, telling customers to call him back in a year or two.

He compared Niece to Andy Griffith, calling him honest and respectful even when it meant losing business.

“He always had that kind of attitude that everything is going to be okay,” he said. “And things always worked out at the end of the show.”

The end of the show for Niece came earlier this year when he decided to retire. Since then he has been doing everything but septic and exploring a surprisingly wide variety of interests. The self-described opera and ballet buff is a frequent theater-goer and has season tickets to both the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Opera. He is also an avid reader who has been studying Portuguese since his son moved to Brazil. As Freeland describes it, bookshelves once covered all four walls of Niece’s office, holding an eclectic variety of volumes.

“It would be anything from religion to philosophy to physics. He could talk about it and make it interesting,” Freeland said. “He’s a modern-day Renaissance man.”

Though a portrait of Niece still hangs in his old office, the business and his former home were purchased by newcomers to Vashon.

Mark and Julie Romero had been coming to Vashon for years to visit Julie’s family, and were searching for a way to move permanently to the island from their home in Pueblo, Colo., when they noticed Niece’s business was for sale. With Mark’s background in science and business and Julie’s accounting experience, it seemed like a good fit.

“We’ve been looking for a way to come out here,” she said.

The couple and their two children moved into Niece’s former home, which doubled as his office, and officially took over the business in January, though Niece stayed on for a couple of months to show them the ropes. They are keeping two of Niece’s employees on board and aren’t planning to change prices unless their transportation costs go up in the future, Julie said.

“We’re keeping things as much the same as we can,” she said.

As for Niece, he says he’s planning to eventually move to Georgia to be close to his son and his son’s family, who will soon move there as well. And while he’s retiring, Niece says he’s not the type that can settle down. He plans to travel, and though he insists septic work was his calling, he says he’s now looking for something that will give his life purpose.

“I still need to find that purpose,” he said.

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