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.”

Growing fast

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.”

Fleet washing

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.”

Tank cleaning

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.”