Begun as a side hustle by Southeastern rock climbers to earn their daily bread, the Higher Ground rainwater management company has taken a prosaic chore — gutter cleaning — and elevated it into a highly-evolved business through professional management and meticulous customer service.
The company, which employs up to 16 people during seasonal peaks, grew 32 percent last year and had revenues of more than $620,000. Typically, higher ground has five trucks on the road with about a dozen laborers along with an office manager and a building manager, a company leader says.
The operation here is run by Knoxville native Beckett Honicker, 32, who partnered with a climbing buddy, Walt Dickinson, before purchasing the Chattanooga half of a business that also included a similar operation in Asheville, North Carolina. Meanwhile, Dickinson went on to start a successful craft brewing brand in Asheville called Wicked Weed.
About 90 percent of Higher Ground's employees are serious climbing enthusiasts, so emptying second-story gutters is a snap for them. Many are highly-educated former professionals who have decided to live the rock climbing lifestyle, and enjoy simple outdoor work to finance their hobby, Honicker says.
"The employees are happy, and they refer their friends," Honicker says. "We try to create a good culture. A lot of these climbers have college degrees — former engineers and bankers — and they want to work outside."
While gutter cleaning is often the gateway for new customers, Honicker says his hope is that Higher Ground is able to build trust with customers so they will take advantage of the company's other rainwater management services, including seamless gutters, French drains, water gardens, rain barrels and landscaping to improve drainage.
Justin Eiseman, a Red Bank homeowner, said the yard around his 100-year-old house used to flood regularly before Higher Ground identified and solved his drainage problem through modifications to his gutters and changing the pitch of his yard. He says he was impressed by Honicker's willingness to visit his home on a rainy day to diagnose his problem.
"Their (Higher Ground's) communication with me on when the work would be done, how long it would take and the cost was fantastic," he said. "He built a drain in my yard that takes the water off the property. I'm as happy as a lark."
And that high-level service is key. Overlaying professional customer service on an underserved segment of the service economy has turned out to be an effective business model. Higher Ground now has about 1,500 customers who are willing to pay a little more for gutter-cleaning that's prompt, efficient and clean. Office workers call to schedule appointments in advance and then follow up to make sure customers are satisfied with the work.
"Professionals cost more that some Joe knocking on your door offering to clean your gutter for $50," Honiker explains. All of his workers are bonded and insured, he says.
Honicker spent much of his young adulthood as a mountain guide and ardent rock climbing enthusiast who traveled around the world. He began working for Higher Ground in 2010 and purchased rights to the Chattanooga branch of he business in 2015.
Honicker says Higher Ground has a good cross-section of customers, because "everybody needs rainwater management."
"We may work on a $6 million home on the brow, and then come down the hill to serve some middle-class customers in St. Elmo, and then service a customer making $30,000 a year in Flintstone (Georgia)," he said.
Aside from gutter work, Honicker says Higher Ground has become a "holistic rainwater management" company.
"We are a gutter cleaning company," he says. "It's a way to (introduce) our clients into our ecosystem. It (gutter cleaning) is a low-commitment job to see how our company performs on something you need anyway."
The company also does roof repairs and basic carpentry to reverse water damage. In company parlance it's called "rot restoration."
Honicker says he has no plans to expand the business beyond Chattanooga, but he doesn't rule it out, either. The higher ground business model has proved durable in two markets, he says, so there it reason to believe it could be successfully elsewhere.