ENTREPRENEUR’S CREATIVITY OPENING UP CLOGGED OPPORTUNITY ALL OVER SOUTHERN MINNESOTA AND BEYOND
Photo by Jeff Silker
Kris and Lee Bohrer were celebrating.
It was their wedding day—May 15, 1993—and everyone was at their home in Mankato having a good time. Then the phone rang and interrupted their party.
“It was the American Legion,” Lee Bohrer remembers. “They had a wedding of their own going on there, but they were having some problems with their drains. I looked at Kris, and she said, ‘You gotta go.’”
Such is the life of a professional drain cleaner. Even on the first day of the rest of their lives, Kris Bohrer knew that. She and Lee had been dating only for a matter of months when his father, a longtime plumber in North Mankato, died suddenly. Lee purchased the assets of his dad’s drain cleaning business and together they started a company of their own. From the very beginning, the business was a joint effort—Kris, in fact, had to accompany Lee on most calls to help operate the equipment.
That was back when the equipment was a “trailer jetter,” a high-powered drain cleaner that eliminated the need for messy cables and augers. At the time, it was cutting-edge technology, destined to change the drain cleaning industry for the better, but it was still cumbersome: The trailer, which had to be towed to each job site, needed its own diesel engine to power the machinery. And it needed someone to stand at the ready, waiting for a signal from inside that it was time to turn it on.
Flipping the high-pressure lever was Kris’s job. While Lee went inside to investigate the pipes and get the hoses and nozzles in place, she waited outside. “I know the backs of a lot of garages,” she laughs. “I just stood back there and waited for Lee to tell me to flip the switch.”
They both knew there had to be a better way. And before three years had passed, they would find it. By the turn of the millennium, they would perfect it and take it to other towns in southern Minnesota as well. But on May 15, 1993, just two months after they had started Jetter Clean, they were still doing it the hard way—Lee inside with the hose, Kris outside, waiting for him to radio an okay to flip the switch.
But not on her wedding night. When Lee left the party that night, Kris stayed behind. “I had someone else go with me,” Lee remembers. “And I did make it home that night.”
Lee Bohrer’s grandfather Joe Bohrer was the first plumber in North Mankato, helping usher the city into the era of indoor plumbing. His son Hal followed in his footsteps, bringing the RotoRooter franchise to Mankato in the ‘50s and operating it for several years before selling it off. Later, when able, he opened his own business: Superior Sewer Service. Hal Bohrer had two sons, Joe and Lee, who grew up helping their dad when duty called. “When Dad needed help, he didn’t ask,” Lee remembers. “He told. And we went.”
But when it came time to choose his own career, Lee Bohrer followed in the footsteps of his mother’s five brothers, who were masons, instead of his father’s. “The old way of drain cleaning was so dirty and messy,” he says. “So I went into bricklaying.”
It was a good career. Bohrer still carries his union card and still occasionally plies his trade. He built the stone home he and Kris share near Terrace View Golf Course and recruited his bricklaying buddies to help build the Jetter Clean shop on Ninth Avenue in Mankato. But when his dad died just six months after investing almost $30,000 into a new trailer jetter for his drain cleaning business, Bohrer decided to give plumbing another chance.
It was the new jetter equipment that persuaded him to give it a try. Instead of dealing with a series of messy cables and augers, he could now rely on the specially designed nozzles and hoses attached to both a water tank and a diesel engine. The technology, which uses high-pressure water to clean lines, was new, especially to Minnesota, where freezing winter temperatures made working with water a problem. But Bohrer believed that it was the future of drain cleaning and that he and Kris could make it work as a business.
From the very beginning, however, Bohrer also believed there must be a better way to get it done. Although the process worked like a dream on clogged drains, manning the equipment was more like a nightmare. Someone always had to stay with the trailer and that someone was often Kris Bohrer. “I remember one night when we had to go up to Immanuel-St. Joseph’s Hospital,” she says. “It was just horrible—blowing snow and freezing cold. I had two pair of snow pants on and a big coat. I looked like an Eskimo. And I was dancing around out there to stay warm.”
She can laugh about it now, but at the time the worries about Kris’s comfort and the threat of the water tank freezing were more troublesome then humorous. “It was such a problem,” Lee adds, “that we knew there had to be a better way.”
He knew that if he found a way to enclose the jetter equipment and eliminate the need for a second person, they’d be way ahead of the competition. But he wanted to go a step further as well. He wanted to eliminate the need for a second diesel engine and make the jetter work off the vehicle’s engine. So Bohrer spent his evenings trying to come up with a solution. “The idea made both common sense and economic sense,” he says. “But how did we get there? It was a long process of trial and error.”
Although he had tinkered on cars with friends from time to time, Bohrer admits that his mechanical skills weren’t well developed. So he was delighted that Gary Hodapp, an engineer who had designed and patented a product called Sea Legs, was willing to advise him. “He was instrumental in the process,” Bohrer says. “He knew of a lot of parts that would work. He was a big help.”
The process was fraught with roadblocks. People told Bohrer that what he was attempting was impossible, that he ought to just stop trying to make it. But he believed. “I’m pretty good at problem solving,” he says. “Probably because I just stick with it until I figure it out.”
By 1996, Bohrer had figured it out: He had enclosed the jetter equipment in a one-ton van, made it work on the vehicle’s engine and created an extension cord switch system that allowed it to be operated by one person—a system he patented in 1997 under the name “vehicle mounted high-pressure cleaning apparatus.” Over the next four years, however, he continued to improve on his invention until in 2000 he considered it perfected.
“We finally had it done,” he says. “Four years and four trucks later, it was done. They all worked, but they were constantly getting better; each one improved upon the other.”
With his patented van perfected, Bohrer had a new mission: to expand Jetter Clean’s market beyond Mankato. So in 2000, he and Kris launched a second business in Fairmont. By 2003, that business was turning enough of a profit that they felt it was time to expand again. In 2004, they partnered with a plumbing company in Owatonna, which leased a Jetter Clean truck as part of its business. “That helped out a lot,” Bohrer says. “There were no start-up losses, so we made a profit right away.”
So successful was that relationship that later that same year, they partnered yet again with a plumber in Spirit Lake. (This relationship ended when that proprietor had health problems and in June 2006 chose not to continue). And in 2005, Bohrer started another office in Rochester, where he stayed for almost 14 months while the business got off the ground.
With nine vans and one 4×4 vehicle in their fleet now, the Bohrers are carefully considering where to go—and what to do—next. They’ve thought about a handful of options, from franchising their concept to leasing the patented vehicles to manufacturing and selling the vans themselves. “We haven’t decided where we want to go yet,” Lee Bohrer reports. “We definitely want it to grow. We want it to be a nationally recognized company. We just haven’t decided how we want to do that yet.”
For now, however, they’re already ahead most of the rest of the industry. At a national drain cleaning convention in Nashville last year, Lee took pictures of his vans to show to colleagues. “One guy looked at them and said he couldn’t believe we had a truck set up like that,” Lee remembers. “He told us that we’re at least five years ahead of the rest of the industry. No one is even going in that direction yet.”
Lee and Kris are committed to continuing in this direction together. Now that the couple’s youngest son is in school (Lee’s son Hal is 18 and going to Bethany Lutheran College; Mitchell, 7, and Dane, 6, attend grade school in Mankato), Kris goes to the office most days to do the bookwork and payroll for the company’s eight employees. Lee, meanwhile, has taken over operation of the Fairmont business, which had partnered with another company for a short time. Again, he’s still out cleaning drains on a daily basis. “I’m the owner and the developer and I’m also right out there cleaning lines,” he says.
Lee laughs about the time he started talking about his system to a customer while he was cleaning the drains. “I was bragging about the truck and showing him the wireless remote,” he says. “And this guy, he says, ‘Boy, I bet you wish you were the guy who invented this.’ That’s when I realized that it‘s time to take this to a new level.”
That he’s gotten this far, Lee says, is in many ways a credit to his father. “My father is the one who planted the seed in me,” he says. “He always wanted someone to follow in his footsteps, but that wasn’t really my desired path at first. But now, I think he’d be quite proud of me.”
How does it feel to own a patent? Just ask Lee Bohrer, a Mankato-based businessman and inventor.
“Broke,” Bohrer laughs. “It feels broke. It took more than a $50,000 investment over the years. It’s definitely not cheap.”
But really, Bohrer is bursting with pride. The patent, which he received for what is officially known as a “vehicle mounted high pressure cleaning apparatus,” is the result of years of hard work and dedication. He took an idea about how to improve the operations of his drain cleaning equipment and brought it to fruition. And now, his invention—a self-contained jetter power drain cleaner that runs on a van’s engine and can be operated by a wireless remote—has made his business stand out among the competition.
“It does feel nice,” Bohrer says. “When I tell people that we build these trucks up here in Mankato, I definitely feel pride. And it all works perfectly. That’s the best part.”.
Moving To Mankato
Lee Bohrer grew up in North Mankato. His father had owned a business there, just as his father before him. It was always Bohrer’s intention to build his business there as well.
“We really wanted to build in lower North,” Bohrer says. “It’s really the ideal spot for our business, since we’re going to all points in the area, and it’s right on the highway there. Plus, it would have been so nice to keep it here, since my father and my grandfather both had businesses there.”
But in 2001, when Lee and his wife Kris built a new shop for Jetter Clean, it was on Ninth Avenue in Mankato that they found a spot.
Although they’re both delighted with the new building—it includes both office space and four garage stalls—they both wish they had been able to make their original plans to set up shop in North Mankato work out. But just as they were beginning the process there, the North Mankato Port Authority condemned the building they had remodeled for their operations. “We got caught in the whole Ray’s Market issue,” Bohrer says. “They wanted our space so they could redo the grocery store. And I guess that’s how we came to build in Mankato.”
Bohrer built the stone building himself, with the help of buddies from his bricklaying days. He even incorporated corner caps of Kasota stone, which was left over from the house he built for his family near Terrace View. It’s a beautiful, well-planned facility for the four Jetter Clean vans that work out of Mankato.
“It’s a great building and a great location,” he says. “But it added a lot of expense and took a lot of time. And any business owner knows that’s not good.”
Former Jetter Clean customers tell Lee Bohrer that their pipes stayed clean for years after being opened up with Jetter Clean technology. And Bohrer believes them, because he believes in the process.
Although each call is different, the process remains mostly the same each time: First, a hose is inserted into the blocked line to open it up so it can be flushed out with water. Then, the jetter operates just like a jet airplane engine, getting to work; five water jets shoot backwards to propel the lead nozzle forward, while a lead jet sprays forward. “It blasts through the blockage,” Bohrer explains. He always runs the jetter five or six times to make sure the pipe is sprayed clean. “You can tell when you pull out the hose,” he says. “It comes out clean.”
But sometimes, that isn’t enough. “Sometimes we detect bigger problems while jetting,” Bohrer says, “and sometimes we realize it’s a bigger problem when we’re called back.” To help diagnose the source of more stubborn clogs, he’ll send a video camera about the size of a quarter down into the pipe. “It was Kris’s idea,” Bohrer says. “It was a big expense and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. But it worked out really well.”
Once getting everything cleared out, they always clean up after themselves—even when they didn’t make the mess to begin with. They spray down the flooring with a cleaner that cuts grease and then with a deodorizer. “That was kind of a policy we made when we started,” Kris Bohrer explains. “Even if it’s not the mess we made, we can clean it up for you.”
© 2006 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.