Childhood Truck Rides Lead to a Career in Wastewater

Sara Coleman grew up making service calls with her dad. Now her kids are being immersed in the family business and three generations are having a blast at Hilton Plumbing.
Childhood Truck Rides Lead to a Career in Wastewater
The Hilton Plumbing crew includes, from left, Sara Coleman, Greg Hilton, Marty Horton, Wes Horton, Heath Simpson and Jarrad Bennett. (Photos by Brad Reynolds)

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As a child, Sara Coleman remembers hopping on the vacuum truck to go along on septic service calls. The time spent with Dad on the road at a young age was early preparation for her job today as office manager for her family’s company, Hilton Plumbing, in Pana, Illinois.

“I remember riding with (my dad), fixing water leaks … going and cleaning septic tanks,” Coleman recalls. And while she may not have enjoyed the smell of the job at times, she admits, “It never really bothered me much; it was something you got used to really quick.”

Coleman, 32, has fond childhood memories at her father Greg Hilton’s side. He is co-founder of the family business, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. And while she does have degrees in accounting and marketing, it was likely her experiences as a child that led to her joining the company full time in 2003.

“I’ve always kind of wanted to be in the family business,” says Coleman, one of three sisters who used to ride along with their dad. “And there wasn’t a boy who was going to take (the company) over.”

The pattern may be repeating itself today, as Coleman brings her daughter Ayda, 9, and son Sawyer, 5, to the office every day. Coleman’s sister, Rebekah Simpson, is a preschool teacher now, but her husband works for the company. So their children; son, Connor, 8; and Gracie, 4; are fixtures on the lot and in the office as well.

“They’re up here a lot more than I was, but they would rather be here with me than at a day care,” Coleman says.

ON THE GROW

Back when Hilton Plumbing was founded in 1975, it was just Coleman’s father and grandfather Jim Hilton running two pickup trucks and a backhoe.

“I loved digging in dirt,” recalls Greg Hilton. “I could sit there and not be bored.

“These days, in the business we’re in, nobody wants to get dirty or do manual labor. My mom used to tell me, ‘You don’t want to grow up to be a ditch digger,’ but that’s all I wanted to be,” he adds.

Initially, the company, in a city of 5,000 located south of state capital Springfield, focused on all kinds of plumbing and sewer/septic repair and installation. Today, with six employees, Hilton Plumbing serves a 30- to 40-mile radius and in addition to plumbing and pumping work, it also offers 220 portable restrooms (including units from T.S.F. Company, PolyJohn Enterprises and Armal).

Hilton Plumbing has a fleet of 10 Ford pickups — F-250 and F-350 Super Duty models — for service and delivery. In addition, the vacuum fleet includes two Ford F-550s with 700-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater tanks carrying Masport pumps and built out by Abernethy Welding and LMT; an F-550 with a 400-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and Conde (Westmoor) pump from Best Enterprises; a 1984 International 4700 with 1,250-gallon carbon steel tank and Moro pump; a 1995 International 4900 with 2,500-gallon LMT steel tank with Moro pump; a 1995 International 8100 with 3,500-gallon steel Specialty B tank with Masport pump; and a 1994 Isuzu with a 700-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater LMT steel tank and Hertell pump.  

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Even though her title is office manager, Coleman, who has a plumber’s apprentice license, is hands-on wherever she is needed. “Once in a while I think it’s nice (to go in the field). I go out and help with stuff, I do like that; it’s a change from being in the office.”

She also dons her marketing hat often. Networking is done through being visible at her kids’ schools and sponsoring local athletic teams. And since most of the company’s new business is word-of-mouth, Coleman is working to expand their online presence by developing a Facebook page and website.

Wearing many hats and having job flexibility not only allows Coleman to pick her kids up from school and attend their field trips, she also brings them to work on days off and after school all the time.

In fact, Coleman was back on the job just two days after having both her children. “That’s how much I love being here,” she says.

Hilton, too, believes he’s fortunate to have his kids and grandkids around. “These kids have been here basically since they were in diapers, in a truck.”

Some might question having small children at the yard, around trucks and potentially dangerous equipment, but Hilton says, “We’ve taught them safety issues. And they’re good kids; not once did I ever have a worry, they have common sense.”

“My kids know what to do and what not to do,” says Coleman. “Since they were two or three days old, they’ve been here. They kind of mock play what the guys do.”

While Sawyer likes to help in the workroom and learn to use wrenches and backhoes, “Ayda’s really outgoing,” says Coleman. “All the customers talk to them; they get a lot of that being here … learning to be personable.”

A NEW GENERATION?

Hilton adds that in an era of technology, having the kids on site is a great “learning experience for this generation,” noting that even his youngest grandkids are still interested in equipment, trucks and dirt. “They don’t come up here and sit on their iPads and phone; they’d rather dig ditches with play backhoes. It’s almost like a different world to them.

“Most kids don’t have the opportunity that these kids do.”

Hilton didn’t have that opportunity. When he was growing up, his father worked three jobs at one time. “I had no idea what my dad did for work … but he worked his fingers to the bone,” recalls Hilton. “He wanted to be a plumber his whole life.”

Coleman does know her kids love being around the business, but it’s too early to tell if they’re thinking about their future careers just yet. She also knows that her plan is to someday take over her father’s business and then hopefully hand it down to her kids.

“I never want to see a different name on the building.”



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