A Career in Operations Leads to a Business Opportunity for a Colorado Professional

Wayne Ramey turned a successful career in operation into a business providing contract operations to treatment facilities across Colorado

A Career in Operations Leads to a Business Opportunity for a Colorado Professional

Wayne Ramey

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A major turning point in Wayne Ramey’s career came at his department Christmas party in 1988. His boss, the Public Works director, asked him if he wanted to be superintendent of the 1.9 mgd wastewater treatment plant in Louisville, Colorado.

He was nervous about taking the job. He wasn’t sure his crew would support him because he’d just earned his Class A (highest) wastewater operator license earlier that year. And he’d only started at Louisville in March 1987.

The crew said they’d back him, so he took the job. He had learned computer skills from a teammate, and he had learned to run the lab tests for process control and NPDES permit-required analysis for the state. “I became very proficient in the lab,” Ramey recalls.

Since then, he has become proficient in many things related to the clean-water profession. As owner of Ramey Environmental Compliance, he multiplies his expertise through operations and maintenance contracts with water and wastewater plants all over Colorado. His field crew brings more than 40 years of experience to bear for clients.

Colorado dreaming

Robert Wayne Ramey grew up in Blue Ash, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. He graduated from high school in 1974 and joined his brother in Arizona to work construction on the Central Arizona Project. Hired in October 1976, he got laid off in May 1978. So he put his belongings in his 1967 Chevy Impala SS and headed for Denver.

He got a job at a Denver chemical plant in 1979, where he was exposed to his first laboratory work. He heard about the new water and wastewater school that had started at nearby Red Rocks Community College and signed up for night classes. In October 1983, he earned both his Colorado Water Works operator and wastewater operator D licenses. He applied at plants all around Denver, but nobody was hiring D operators without experience.

“I figured I would have to go to a smaller town to get experience,” he says. In the meantime, he had made it to Colorado, which had been his goal when he left Ohio: “I wanted to be in Colorado because I wanted to fish and hike.”

He and his wife, Linda, moved to Cedaredge in the western part of the state in 1985. “The mayor interviewed me at our home in Denver and hired me,” he says. He worked at the water treatment plant and the wastewater plant (a lagoon system) and as an emergency medical technician for the town.

More experience

The water treatment plant introduced Ramey to water as a career. He spent a lot of time repairing the pipes that brought source water to the plant and doing other maintenance and repairs. While he liked that work, he wanted to do more with wastewater, and he realized he would have to move again to get more experience.

He earned his wastewater C license in Cedaredge. In March 1987, Louisville hired him as an operator trainee at the wastewater treatment plant. Soon after he became superintendent in 1988, his boss, Tom Phare, Public Works director, walked in one afternoon holding a power bill for $8,000. Ramey reminded him that the plant had undergone a recent upgrade and had added new 200 hp (nonturbo) blowers that used substantially more power than the old 50 hp blowers.

“Those new blowers drove the power bill from $2,000 a month up to the $8,000 a month; he was unhappy about,” Ramey says. His boss said power costs had to come down. Ramey thought a minute, then walked over and turned the blowers off. Two hours later, he turned them back on. Walking around the plant, he saw no damage or upset conditions.

He began experimenting with blower cycling: two hours on, two hours off. He continued that routine for about two months and then tried a four-hour shutdown interval, keeping performance data and charting the results. “That worked fine, too,” he says. “I was still getting Nocardia, but my clarifier was clearer. I was also wasting less sludge.” Still, the power demand charge was higher than he wanted.

“If you use a lot of juice at once, you get nailed,” he says. Eventually, though, the power bill came down as he learned how often to run the blowers and not to energize any other equipment while starting them. He talked to the blower manufacturer and found he could stop and restart the blowers up to six times a day without damaging them. That’s when he and the crew designed their first homemade SCADA system.

He had an electrician wire in timers to shut the blowers down and restart them automatically on a schedule. If the blowers failed to restart, he got an alarm. He lived close enough to the plant to come in and manually restart them. They also installed dissolved oxygen and ORP meters and tracked the process through R:BASE data management software.

After a year of monitoring manually, they installed soft starts on the blowers and used the data to turn the blowers on and off based on the meter inputs. “The plant ran well, and we got good permit compliance numbers,” Ramey says.

Getting connected

As he grew in the profession, Ramey became more involved with professional wastewater organizations including what is now the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association. He attended classes offered through the Professional Wastewater Operators Division and presented papers on his blower cycling experiment at the association’s annual conference.

Regulators and fellow operators showed great interest. He assumed leadership of the Professional Wastewater Operators Division in 1992 and became a member of the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association executive committee. He was president of the association for 2000-01. Along the way, he received the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers award and the Water Environment Federation’s William D. Hatfield and Arthur Sidney Bedell awards.

In 1991, a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment field engineer asked him to submit an application for his plant to U.S. EPA Region 8 nominating it for the Outstanding Operations and Maintenance Award. “We didn’t win, but we got noticed,” Ramey says. “I was determined we’d win the next year.”

In 1992, the Louisville plant won the Region 8 Excellence Award and the national EPA Outstanding Operations and Maintenance Award for a small, advanced facility. Through the years, Ramey built a team of dedicated operators and reduced operating costs. The results showed.

Onward and upward

By 1994, it was time to move again, and his next stop was a few miles away in Broomfield, as Wastewater Treatment Division superintendent. He began by getting the staff to do things they hadn’t done before. “I pointed to an aeration basin and asked how long since it had been cleaned,” he says. “Nobody knew. So I told them to take it out of service and clean it.” His point was to get team members to stretch themselves. The aeration basin had accumulated a 4-foot depth of shells from dead snails that had sloughed off the trickling filter.

In 1998, the city’s industrial pretreatment program won first place in the EPA national competition. In 1999 Ramey was promoted to deputy Public Works director.

While superintendent at Broomfield, Ramey met Bob Alberts, who then operated the wastewater treatment plant in Fort Lupton and held operations contracts with several other small Colorado facilities. The chance meeting began a partnership in which the two did contract water and wastewater operations in Colorado.

Ramey formed Ramey Environmental Compliance in 1997 while still working for Broomfield. In August 2001, he resigned to run his company full time. He had to borrow from his sons’ college fund to get his business going. They said that was OK, as long as he spent more time with them.

Stress on training

In the early days of operating his business, he says, “Fear of failure was a huge motivator.” He plowed profits back into the business and hired qualified people to keep moving the company forward. An important part of having qualified people is training staff. What would normally be a one-day training event is held on two days. Half the field staff comes the first day and the other half come the second, so there’s always coverage for clients.

The training covers much more than just what one might expect to see on an operator’s exam. Ramey will hire an electrical contractor, for example, to provide electrical training so field staff can safely perform basic tasks involving electricity. The company might provide confined-space-entry training.

The emphasis on training is more than just words. The company pays field staff based on qualifications: An operator with a Class A water and a Class A wastewater license earns more than one with Class A and Class B licenses. “We award two scholarships each year to help operators advance their skills and qualifications,” Ramey notes. The scholarships can be used to attend a water or wastewater fundamentals school or an advanced school, depending on the employee’s current license level.

Going to market

Ramey tracks operations and maintenance work by computer so he can show his clients who did what work when and what services they’re getting for their money. His trucks all have a GPS so he can use the data to track costs, price service proposals and schedule maintenance. “Nothing in Colorado is next door to anything else,” he says.

He has adapted his marketing to his working conditions. The firm exhibits at events such as annual meetings of the Colorado Rural Water Association, the Special Districts Association of Colorado, the Colorado Municipal League, the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association and the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association.

“The little chocolate toilets we give out there are a big hit,” Ramey says. “They help get people to stop and talk with us.” He chats with attendees, gives them his business card and a chocolate toilet, and maybe he’ll get a call six months later. He also advertises in association magazines, but his most effective marketing is when someone calls and asks what he thinks about a certain problem.

“I’ll go see them, see what their problem is, and I usually don’t charge them,” he says. Sometimes he can fix the problem on the spot; other times it takes more time, effort and money. He has even made free “house calls” with a piece of major equipment like a vacuum truck. Because he puts effort into establishing trust and understanding clients’ issues, a contract often results later on.

“Sometimes they just need advice or reassurance, sometimes they need us to train their people to do something, and sometimes they need us to come in and take control of a situation they can’t handle themselves,” Ramey says.

With 13 double A operators and 45 employees, Ramey Environmental Compliance is large enough to take on most challenges, although Ramey says, “It’s not how big you are but how good you are that counts.” The company has won numerous awards for the facilities it operates. In 2018, Ramey was named a Water Environment Federation Fellow: “It feels great to be counted among our profession’s giants.”

Always learning

Ramey believes in constantly learning new things, and he gets his hands dirty while doing it. When something goes wrong at a client’s facility, Ramey grabs a less experienced operator and says, “Come on, let’s go learn something.” Sometimes he may bring two people when only one is needed so both can be exposed to something less-experienced employees haven’t seen. He believes these are good ways for less-experienced people to learn something new, get the job done and grow their confidence and abilities.

“I didn’t pick a trout to be in my company’s logo by accident,” Ramey says. “The trout is there because trout are pollutant sensitive, and we have to work hard to keep their environment healthy. The trout represents what we have to strive for in our job of producing good drinking water, cleaning wastewater and running effective collections and distribution systems. My whole thing is water and wastewater. I’m a get-it-done kind of guy.”

Lucky boy

If you talk with Wayne Ramey for more than 15 or 20 minutes, you’ll likely hear a fishing story. “We were so lucky growing up,” Ramey says. “My uncle Joe taught my brother and me how to fish.”

He recalls one day at school when he and his brother Buck heard their names called on the loudspeaker. He thought, “Oh, gosh, what did I do now?” He and Buck went to the office and there stood Joe, who told the principal he was there to take them to a dental appointment their mother had forgotten about.

They followed him out to the car, and when they saw their bedrolls and fishing gear in the back, they knew they were in for fun. Uncle Joe taught them what fish were running and where and at what times of the year. “We’d build a fishing camp up on the riverbank,” Ramey says. “We’d fish all day and eat bologna sandwiches for dinner.”

His love of the outdoors eventually brought him to Colorado: He wanted to be outdoors to hike and fish. He and his wife, Linda, have hiked all over Colorado and other places in the West. “This is what I wanted. I’ve taught my sons, Tony and Joe, to love it, too.”


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