How to Live Up to a Strong Family Business Legacy

The family of Canada’s Jim Aitkin are caretakers of a long tradition of community involvement, pumping industry professionalism and helping customers get the most out of their septic systems.
How to Live Up to a Strong Family Business Legacy
The team at Rankin’s Septic Tank Pumping is shown with their fleet of vehicles, from left, Chris Aitken, Joyce Aitken and Paul Aitken. Septic service trucks are from Vacutrux and carry Wallenstein pumps. (Photos by Bruce Bell)

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Providing consistent service and being able to adjust to technology advances are two keys to the long-term survival of a small, family septic pumping business. Without appropriate customer care and constantly taking the pulse of the wastewater industry, a family business may go the way of the dinosaur.

The Aitkin family and their company, Rankin’s Septic Tank Pumping Ltd., have avoided extinction for 40 years, partly because of their involvement in professional trade groups and remembering that customers come first.

The Waterdown, Ontario, Canada, company had been in operation for about 10 years when Jim Aitkin bought it from his uncle, Stewart Rankin, in 1977. That explains why the Aitkin’s don’t have the same name as their family-owned business. Owner Joyce Aitkin continues to operate the office while sons Chris and Paul now run the two trucks since their father died in 2012.

“Everything has to be done instantly,” says Joyce of the biggest change through her years in the septic service business. “Instead of phoning you to make an appointment, people will email you at 11 o’clock at night. People expect you to be able to look up anything, like when they last had their tank pumped, and you can with all the computer records. If we’re doing inspections, they expect their report that day. And you have the ability to email them anything they want, like receipts, instantly. You have to have a website and Facebook page because that’s where people look.”

Being in a tourist area, she says she never knows where business may come from because so many homes are rental units. There are people in Egypt who own residential units who pay through e-transfers. “The world is just a different place, as far as business,” she says. “You have to be ready to accept that.”


Since the communities where they work require septage to be disposed of in the city where it is pumped, Rankin’s has two pump trucks on the road, with Paul and Chris dividing the work to keep one truck in each area as much as possible. That helps to cut down on travel between disposal sites.

Their septic trucks are Freightliners built out by Vacutrux, located about an hour away in Elmira, Ontario, and utilizing Wallenstein vacuum pumps. They are 1999 and 2003 dual-axle models with 3,500-gallon steel tanks. A 1993 Ford F-350 carries a Vacutrux 350-gallon waste/150-gallon freshwater steel tank that Paul uses for servicing a small inventory of 25 portable restrooms that date to 1995. Paul uses deodorant products from PolyJohn Canada.

“The portables are just a very small sideline,” says Joyce. They mainly serve landscaping companies and farm customers who need temporary sanitation for pick-your-own operations or in the orchards that are common to the area. They also provide service for large portable restroom companies in the region.

Residential pumping is the company’s main interest and makes up the bulk of the business. The company also does a lot of drainfield line flushing to try to breath life into aging septic systems.

“Over time, a septic system will get solids out into the tile lines,” explains Paul. “In our area, systems were getting to be up to 30-plus years old. We found a lot of people were using the only option of replacing them with a new system, which can be up to $30,000.”


To flush a system, they excavate to expose a 2-foot section of each tile line at about the halfway point. Paul used to do the digging by hand, but they bought a small New Holland excavator in 2009 to make it easier. Using a jetter they built themselves, they flush the entire system and then collect all the waste with a pump truck. The company does about 20 such jobs every summer.

All customers receive education about extending the life of their system.

“One of our biggest things is wipes,” adds Chris. “They cause more problems with septic systems. They foul systems, block our hoses, trucks and sewage treatment plants. We try to convince people that they are septic-friendly in that the chemical composition won’t affect the bacteria inside the tank, but they’re no good for your tank and they’re never going to break down.”

A lot of time is spent advising customers as problems arise. “Ninety percent of the people who phone in a panic don’t need their tank pumped, they just have a blocked line,” says Chris. “We can walk them through the process of clearing it out themselves on a Saturday afternoon as opposed to calling a plumber and paying $500.”

Step one is to open the tank lid closest to the house and poke a stick into the line to see if that clears it. If not, they advise running a garden hose up the line toward the house until they reach the clog and clear it.


Both men also do system inspections. There is no legal requirement or demand for periodic system inspections, so they’re typically done on request for real estate transactions. “Real estate inspections are becoming more and more prevalent all the time,” says Joyce. “You never would do them years ago, but now it’s almost every sale.” There are no time-of-transfer regulations in the province, but banks, real estate agents and buyers are requiring them more often. “There’s rarely a week (in the summer) that we don’t do one or two.”

While they always look for problems on service calls and report them to the homeowner, their real estate inspection involves providing a detailed report to the buyer of the property. “We look at inlet/outlet baffles, the integrity of the tank and any degradation of the tile bed area,” says Chris. “We conduct a flow test to ensure the bed will take extra water in a short period of time to assure functionality, and look for any concerns with the system.”

Systems do fail inspections sometimes, which can cause heartache to the homeowner. But in most cases, failure doesn’t result in a need for system replacement. “Most of the failures aren’t things that would cause an environmental concern, they’re more structural, such as baffles, lids and risers.”


Once winter arrives, residential work is limited to mainly emergency calls, with enough commercial jobs to get through until spring. Winter pumping was the topic of a story in Pumper in 1997 when the company was first featured in the magazine. “Generally, we only have enough work for one of the trucks,” adds Chris, who runs the truck during those months. “It’s mostly commercial holding tanks and the odd emergency call.”

Paul stays busy by plowing snow around the area and running his own power-sports company, Sleds R Us, which sells and services used snowmobiles, ATVs and personal watercraft from two locations. It’s enough to keep them busy, which requires effort to, as Chris puts it, “stay small enough to still be a family business and not getting too big that you aren’t anymore.”

Paul, now 41, started working in the business in 1994 and Chris, age 43, joined in 2007 after several years as a fleet manager and long-haul trucker for a local company. “There’s nothing better than working together with your family and in this industry,” says Chris. “You get to meet a lot of different people. We’re quite well-known in our area.”

While every day might seem the same, Chris says it’s also different every day. “There’s always something, we’re talking to somebody or doing something for them. It’s very satisfying work.”

The family has continued a long-standing tradition of supporting community events, whether it’s sponsoring a chili cook-off or the Christmas parade, donating portable restrooms to community events or helping with school projects. “We’re always donating to keep the community in mind and let them know we’re there working for them.”


Chris followed in his father’s footsteps with the Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services (OASIS). Both served on the board of directors, with Chris replacing his dad in 2012.

Just like his father did, Chris is currently serving as the group’s president.

“They had a lot of guidance from their dad, and they certainly know what they’re talking about,” Joyce says about her sons. “They’ve kept up their education and increased their knowledge by going to conventions and working with government officials.

“Government is doing its best to have an efficient way of disposing of sewage, and we are trying to work with them to see that it stays that way. If government is going to be able to function, you have to be a cooperative member and be willing to offer suggestions and help out when they need input,’’ she continues. “We’ve always found them to be most cooperative. That’s how you find out what’s going on in your industry, by being where it’s happening.”

They called him ‘Mr. Waterdown’

Chris and Paul Aitkin were just 5 and 3 years old, respectively, when their father, Jim, acquired Rankin’s Septic Tank Pumping Ltd. in 1977. Over the next 35 years, he built a big legacy in Waterdown, Ontario, Canada, and the surrounding community that has helped the company thrive since he died in 2012.

“There were 500 people at his funeral, and they put up a memorial to him in the park,” says wife Joyce, who still runs the office for the family business now operated by her sons.

“People like to know who they’re dealing with, they know we can be trusted,” says Joyce. “My husband and sons have been active in the community — it’s a big thing. It’s like seeing the librarian and you remember you have a book you haven’t taken back. People see us, they remember they need their septic tank pumped. They know they can trust us, and we trust them.”

Chris has stepchildren, ages 11 and 5, who show an interest in coming along on the truck a few times a week, and there’s a nephew that has helped out. “We’re educating the younger crowd so there’s somebody to do this job when we’re done, want to retire and sit back and relax. We’ll have to see what happens. If they want to, we’ll have something here for them to work at.”

That’s the way Paul started. Being a small town, he says his dad knew everybody, had been at most homes many times over the years and knew the systems. “I was fortunate enough to ride in the truck with him for many years and pick up on a lot of that.”

Jim was a charter member and longtime board member of the local chamber of commerce and the group presented a lifetime achievement award to him posthumously. He was also very active in environmental and conservation issues such as walking paths and trails and wetland conservation. One local paper, in an article about his passing, called him “Mr. Waterdown.” Another headlined its story with the words, “Aitkin’s influence will continue.”

That influence extends well beyond the Waterdown area, including many years on the board of the Ontario Association of Sewage Industry Services along with terms as vice president and president. “He set benchmarks with the Canadian Standards Association regarding septic tanks and onsite systems,” adds Chris, who is currently the president of OASIS.

“His bar was always just that much higher,” says Chris, who notes that his dad even met the Queen of England as a Queen’s Scout when he was a teenager. “It’s very hard to fill those shoes, so big that I don’t think my brother and I together can fill them.”


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