Three Generations And Jean's Septic In Monee, Ill., Is Going Strong

Aware that family companies sometimes stumble in the third generation, granddaughter Angela Chalmers got aggressive with marketing and diversified service to make sure Jean’s Septic Inc. didn’t miss a beat.
Three Generations And Jean's Septic In Monee, Ill., Is Going Strong
It’s a Jean’s Septic reunion, as owner Angela Chalmers with her husband Calab and their children, Calab, Jr., 6, and Teegan, 5, pose with the past owners Jean and Louis Stelter (seated) and Michael and Jan Reading (top right). The company’s new Peterbilt service truck, built out by Imperial Industries Inc., is shown in the background.

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It’s estimated that nearly 90 percent of family-owned businesses fail after a third generation takes the reins. Angela Chalmers, the majority owner of Jean’s Septic Inc., is bound and determined to keep the business – founded 25 years ago by her grandmother, Jean Stelter – counted among the other 10 percent or so that succeed.

“The third generation usually runs a business into the ground,” says Angela, majority owner of the business, based in Monee, Ill.; her father, Michael Reading, owns a 10 percent stake and her husband, Calab Chalmers, serves as a supervisor. “So it’s our goal to make sure the company remains prosperous and keeps growing.”

To accomplish that, Angela and Calab are modernizing and expanding the company, established in 1989. Her mother, Jan, and father acquired the company in 2001 and sold a majority stake to Angela in 2012.

The business makeover includes obtaining state and/or federal certifications as either a small-business enterprise or woman-owned business, which qualifies the company to bid on set-aside jobs without competing against larger firms; deciding to install aerobic septic systems with fiberglass tanks made by Hydro-Action Industries, which provide more flexibility to meet varying customer needs; purchasing new productivity-enhancing equipment; and boosting marketing and branding efforts through the Internet and other avenues.

“We’ve taken advertising and marketing to a whole new level and we’ve seen revenue grow exponentially from that,” Angela says. “In fact, it’s doubled since we took over and our actual net profit has quadrupled. And that occurred without dramatic changes to our pricing structure.”


Angela never intended to run the family business, based about 40 miles south of Chicago. But when her sister-in-law, who was helping out with daily operations, got pregnant in 2005, Angela left college, where she was a pre-med student, and stepped in as office manager.

“It was good experience,” she recalls. “I learned a lot about the company.”

Along the way, she also developed clear ideas of how she’d like to change things – update marketing efforts, brand the company more effectively, invest in newer and more equipment, and hire more employees. She says her parents were more conservative, plus Jean’s Septic was a side business to a larger company they own, M & J Underground Inc., an underground-site-utilities company also located in Monee. But where her parents saw an opportunity to bolster cash flow during winter months, Angela saw great potential as a full-fledged, year-round operation.

“They were happy where things were [with Jean’s],” she says, admitting that she sometimes disagreed with her parents about the company’s direction. “With any family-owned business, there’s usually some friction between family members, but we’ve overcome it.”

Currently, septic pumping, installations and repairs generate about 75 percent of the company’s revenue; around 15 percent comes from sewer-line cleaning; and the remainder stems from grease trap pumping.


To better serve customers whose lots are too small for conventional septic systems with large drainfields, Jean’s started installing Hydro-Action wastewater treatment systems, which generally require about one-third of the space of conventional systems. They’re also a good alternative for lots with poor soil, or for homeowners with large lots that still can’t accommodate a large drainfield because it would interfere with, for instance, a pond or a belowground pool already on the property, Angela says.

“By downsizing the system, homeowners can utilize more of their property,” she says.

Installing Hydro-Action systems also boosts cash flow for Jean’s; homeowners who opt for Hydro-Action systems are required to have a maintenance agreement with a state-licensed onsite installer – and Jean’s Septic is a licensed installer.

“As part of the contract, we have to provide service every six months – basically inspect the unit,’’ Angela says. “But it does not include pumping service. After two years, the homeowner then must enter into another maintenance agreement, and if we’ve provided good service, they’ll hopefully stay with us.”

For installing conventional systems, Jean’s Septic uses plastic tanks and chambers made by Infiltrator Systems Inc.


Getting a crack at bidding on jobs earmarked specifically for small businesses or women-owned businesses enables Jean’s to generate additional revenue. About a year ago, the company obtained certification from the state of Illinois as a Small Business Enterprise (SBE). It is also federally certified as a Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB; to learn more, visit; the company also has an application pending for similar status with the state of Illinois.

Obtaining the certifications involves a lot of paperwork, and Angela says the process is more difficult at the state than the federal level. But once a company obtains a state certification, it makes applying for a federal certification easier, she adds.

“You need to do the research,” she suggests. “And you need to make follow-up phone calls to ensure your application is being reviewed and processed in a timely manner.”

Angela says Jean’s currently has about a dozen SBE contracts from Illinois, including a four-year, $25,000 contract from the state Department of Transportation to service a construction-office trailer with a restroom once a week. The company also won a WOSB contract from the U.S. General Services Administration to clean and inspect sewer lines and catch basins for leaks.

The rewards for going through all the paperwork? Another revenue stream and guaranteed payments. “It might take 60 or 90 days to get paid, but you know the revenue is guaranteed,” she says. “Our main revenue source still is residential work, but these [government] contracts help us.”


A 2013 Peterbilt 382 with a 3,700-gallon aluminum tank, built by Imperial Industries Inc., stands as one of the most visible symbols of the company’s growth and modernization efforts. The heavy-duty truck features a Model 4307 blower (560 cfm) from National Vacuum Equipment, a built-in jetter with a Cat water pump (3,000 psi at 5 gpm), a 300-gallon water tank and 200 feet of 3/8-inch hose from Piranha Hose Products Inc.

“Even though it costs more money, I went with a blower because you don’t have to oil it and it provides more power,” Calab explains. “We also put a water jetter on it because a lot of people only call when their line is backed up. … Before, the technician would have to call back to the shop and ask someone to come out with one of our service vans and a portable jetter.

“Sometimes we might not be able to get back out to that customer until the next day if all our guys are busy, and customers don’t like that,” he continues. “Now we can still charge a customer the same amount of money for jetting as we would had we sent a service van, but we can do the jetting right away, save on expenses like gasoline and vehicle wear-and-tear and also increase customer satisfaction.”

The company also owns a vacuum truck built on a 2001 Mack Vision 427 chassis and outfitted by 27th Trucks Inc. with a 3,600-gallon aluminum tank and a Fruitland Manufacturing pump; an Aquatech B-10 vacuum truck from Hi-Vac Corp., built on a 2005 Sterling chassis and equipped with a 2,000-gallon debris tank, a 1,000-gallon water tank, a Pratissoli water pump (80 gpm at 2,000 psi) from Interpump Group and a Model 624 Roots blower with 2,800 cfm (GE Energy).

In addition, Jean’s relies on two Ford cargo vans, two portable water jetters from General Pipe Cleaners, four portable drain-cleaning machines from Spartan Tool LLC, a pipeline-inspection system from Insight Vision Cameras, and a Terralift soil-restoration machine from Terralift International. They also keep a Takeuchi TB-180 excavator and a John Deere 310 backhoe.


Angela and Calab plan on expanding the company’s territory to the south, farther from Chicago. One of the biggest obstacles is finding qualified and dependable employees.

Another hurdle: Pricing services at rates that are competitive but still profitable – a difficult balancing act, especially since serving more far-flung customers increases operating costs. “We don’t want to low-ball our prices,” she says. “We just want to be competitive … and be open and honest with customers.”

The couple is eyeing land application as a possible solution to reducing disposal costs. In the meantime, the company already lowered its expenses by changing to a private waste-treatment facility, reducing disposal costs by about 50 percent. Jean’s also now uses a second disposal site closer to its targeted area for expansion.

Amid all the changes, however, Angela says it’s gratifying and exciting to be in charge of a business, with the freedom to take it in new directions.

“I’m the baby of the family, so I feel like I have something to prove,” she says. “It’s great to be able to say, ‘Hey, look, we did this all by ourselves.’ Growing up in the family business, I’ve learned a lot over the years. The third-generation thing really keeps us motivated.”


27th Trucks, Inc. - 305/835-9030 -

AerraTech, LLC - 888/298-4272 -

Cat Pumps - 763/780-5440 -

Fruitland Manufacturing - 800/663-9003 -

GE Energy - 773/414-3459 -

General Pipe Cleaners - 800/245-6200 -

Hi-Vac Corporation/Aquatech - 800/800-1016 -

Imperial Industries, Inc. - 800/558-2945 -

Infiltrator Systems, Inc. - 800/221-4436 -

Insight Vision Cameras - 800/488-8177 -

Interpump Group -

National Vacuum Equipment, Inc. - 800/253-5500 -

Piranha Hose Products - 800/250-5132 -

Spartan Tool, LLC - 800/435-3866 -


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