This Pennsylvania Pumper and Installer Is Still in His Work Boots at Age 72

Charlie Kristman has owned his installing and pumping company for more than 40 years. He succeeds with a strong work ethic and a love of his profession.

This Pennsylvania Pumper and Installer Is Still in His Work Boots at Age 72

  The C. M. Kristman Septic Services team includes, from left, Kelly Sepela, Sherry Robinson, Charlie Kristman, Joe Mowday, Scott Mason, Alexis Romero, Jeramy Good, Ferdinand Williams, Jesus Romero. (Photos by Kirk Zutell)

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Charlie Kristman has a simple belief about work: “You’ve got to like what you do. If you like your job, you’re going to do it well. It comes to you very easy, and the money rolls right in.”

Kristman has lived out that belief as owner of C.M. Kristman Septic Services in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. At age 72, Kristman still shows up early for work, leading a team of eight employees in a business that installs some 150 septic systems per year.

Simply stated, he loves working with machinery, whether that’s digging a hole for a septic tank or moving earth to complete all the site work for a new home.

“I don’t want to play golf every day,” says Kristman, who founded the business in 1979. “I would get bored with that. Playing two or three days a week is fine, and I can still come into the office, work on the equipment and maybe take on a digging job. I like to get up at the crack of dawn, get it done and then ease off in the afternoon. That’s the way I’ve always been.”

A NATURAL OPERATOR

Born in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, Kristman grew up in nearby West Chester. After high school he worked in logging for a few years and then joined a company that installed fencing. As a side job to feed his wife and two children, he cut and split firewood. For that endeavor the owner of a housing development company allowed him to use one of his bulldozers.

“He saw me running it and noticed I could run them really good. He offered me a job at $4 an hour, which was a lot of money back then (late 1960s). I worked with him for about a year and got the taste of operating heavy equipment.

His next job was with a different company operating a backhoe for several years. “I got real good at it,” he recalls. “A lot of people wanted me to do work for them because I could get work done quick.” In 1979, after his employer declined to add health insurance to his compensation, he left to go into business for himself. “I vowed that I would always give my employees insurance,” he says. “I still do it to this day.”

Kristman bought his first backhoe with help from an $11,200 bank loan. As his reputation and the company grew he began adding people and bought a loader, a dozer and a trackhoe. “At one time I had 16 employees,” he says. “Then we dropped back down to 11, and now we have nine, which is more manageable.

He credits his office staff of Sherry Robinson and Kelly Sepela for helping to grow and sustain the business. “When customers call here, somebody answers the phone,” he says. “People love that. Nothing is worse than having a robot answer the phone. People want to hear a live person.

“Sherry and Kelly are so experienced that they know exactly what to say to the people. They make them feel comfortable, and they don’t want to go anywhere else. They know everything. They have all the answers, or if they don’t know, they find someone who does. Many customers come up and tell me how wonderful they are, just a pleasure to talk to.”

FOCUS ON INSTALLS

Taking care of business in the field are Ferdinand Williams, project manager, and Joe Mowday, Scott Mason, Jeramy Good and Jesus Romero, installer/operators.

From its beginnings the company focused on installations and kept pumping at arm’s length.

The installation is strong. The company’s office lies about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, and the surrounding Chester County is seeing strong residential growth with homes that typically range from 2,500 to 10,000 square feet.

The terrain is hilly; the soilsare largely well drained sand and schist. “We’re putting a lot of alternate systems in because a lot of the good ground is used up already,” Kristman says. Most of the alternatives are at-grade systems: the surface soil scarified, 10 inches of crushed stone rock laid down, covered by geotextile, and backfilled with soil. These systems use pressure distribution via 2-inch pipe; Kristman favors Goulds pumps.

In poorly drained soils the company often opts for drip irrigation (tubing and componentry from American Manufacturing) and aerobic treatment units from Norweco. For conventional system drainfields Kristman favors crushed stone with 4-inch perforated pipe.

The company’s go-to machines are a 2019 Takeuchi TB280 trackhoe, a 2014 Takeuchi TL230C skid loader, and a 2014 Caterpillar CAT 305 ECR mini-excavator. Helping to move equipment and materials are three dump trucks, a 1988 Peterbilt with a Galion dumpbody, a 2005 International with a Heil dumpbody and a 2011 GMC Sierra with a Reading dumpbody, as well as a 20-ton Trail King trailer, and a 1-ton Kauffman trailer.

BRISK BUSINESS

Last summer, the company had a three-month backlog of installation jobs, even while investing next to nothing in advertising. “We’re one of the oldest installers in this area,” Kristman says. “My name has been around here for a long time. It’s all word of mouth.”

That and excellent workmanship, according to Kristman: “We treat each site like it’s our own place. We want to leave it the way it was when we got there. We’re not landscapers, but we have the machines to do it, and we’ve been doing it for 15 years. We do the raking and seeding. People want the whole job done. They don’t want to have to hire somebody else for the landscaping. So we do it all.”

System repairs and replacements are a substantial part of the business. Pennsylvania requires septic system inspections at the time of property sale, following a state-prescribed protocol. “The inspections find all kinds of things wrong, and when that happens the system has to be repaired or replaced. We get a lot of that work.”

C.M. Kristman performs inspections and is careful to avoid conflict of interest in taking on repairs that may result. “Many people say they want us to do the work,” Kristman says. “We don’t want them to feel they have to hire us. We tell them they’re free to get other prices and go someplace else. But most of the time they want us to do it.”

GROW INTO PUMPING

The pumping side of the business grew naturally from installations. Kristman recalls, “I just enjoyed digging; I didn’t want to pump.” So he subcontracted that work until customers began saying they wanted him to do it. “So I bought a pump truck.”

He started with a small single-axle truck and used that to fill a 9,000-gallon tanker, which then hauled the septage to a local wastewater treatment plant. In 2007 Kristman bought a new Peterbilt with a 4,000-gallon steel tank and Fruitland pump from Transway Systems.

“We still only have one truck, and that’s all we want. If I wanted to go after it I could probably have five or six trucks, but I don’t want to go there. I’m happy just doing what we do.” His son, Charles, does well in the pumping business with his own company, Quantum Environmental; grandsons Cole and Tyler work for their dad.

LOVES THE JOB

Even after more than 40 years owning the company, Kristman enjoys the work and leading a team. Most of his team members are relatively young, have worked with the company since the 2008 recession, and have a strong work ethic: “We start work at 7, but they’re in here 6:15 or 6:30, having coffee and talking.” 

Kristman still enjoys jumping on a machine and tackling an excavating or grading job. In his spare time, besides golf, he enjoys fly fishing for trout on the streams near State College, Pennsylvania, and on the West Branch of the Delaware River in New York. 

For younger people starting in business he advises, “Go slow and easy. Don’t grow too rapidly. Don’t keep borrowing money until you’ve got more going out than coming in. You want to get some capital built up. When I buy equipment now, I write a check and pay for it.

“Try not to get in over your head. Don’t live above your means. When your credit card bill comes in, if you can’t afford to pay it off every month, you shouldn’t have one.”

He recognizes that younger people, like his son and grandsons, have different ways of approaching work: “My grandkids can’t believe I still get up early in the morning and roll past their house while they’re still jumping out of bed.” But at the same time, “It warms my heart when I see younger people in the business working hard and really trying.”



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