Here’s How a Degree in Anthropology Led to a Successful Career in Decentralized Wastewater

Chicago-area installer Jordan Johnson finds plenty of work in suburban and rural system replacements

Here’s How a Degree in Anthropology Led to a Successful Career in Decentralized Wastewater

 Jordan Johnson  operates the excavator on a residential work site in suburban Chicago. (Photos by Michael McLoone)

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When Jordan Johnson moved back to northeastern Illinois and started a plumbing business, he was told the region needed septic system installers. He gave it a try, and soon his new installation business pushed the plumbing business aside. And he’s happy about that.

Johnson owns Countryside Plumbing Sewer & Septic based in Antioch, Illinois. It’s 60 miles northwest of downtown Chicago and right up against the Wisconsin border, yet Antioch and surrounding Lake County are very much part of the Chicago metro area. Some of the county’s 700,000 residents live in the urban strip and wealthy communities along the Lake Michigan shore, but many are inland where subdivisions are many but municipal sewer systems are few and limited.

INDUSTRY RELATIONSHIPS

“I’m the youngest contractor in Lake County. I’m 41,” Johnson says. When he first received his installing license, he says, he reached out to other contractors and told them he wanted to form relationships. “The reaction I got was, ‘Thank God because we need contractors.’”

“I don’t really personally believe in competition, and I tell my customers that, too,” Johnson says. “They’re making an investment in their property, and they need to make sure that investment is done with somebody who they think will do a good job. Hire me because you want us to do the job, not because we’re going to be cheaper than the next guy.”

Relationships also bring in business. Because Countryside tops Google search results, people often call asking for a pumpout without understanding what the company does. Johnson’s voicemail greeting includes the phone number of a local pumper who is happy to repay the favor by referring repair work to Countryside.

This year Johnson added service from DocuSign, which allows people to electronically sign documents instead of printing out, signing and mailing a PDF. With DocuSign, he says, he typically has a signed contract within 24 hours, and customers have told him the convenience of the electronic contract tipped their choice in his favor.

Countryside has about 50 aerobic systems under maintenance. Income from that is about 5% of total revenue. As time goes on that will increase because it’s common for system installers to receive maintenance contracts, Johnson says.

CAREER MOVE

Johnson grew up in Minnesota and moved to Illinois to attend Lake Forest College, about 25 miles from his current home. There he studied sociology and anthropology. He graduated in 2003, but found a poor job market. “There was nothing unless you had a master’s degree,” he says.

He had worked construction jobs to pay for his college education, and with job prospects dim, he joined AmeriCorps in Lake County where he built 13 homes with Habitat for Humanity. “My boss was a general contractor in the area, so he taught me how to build houses from the ground up because we did everything except plumbing and electrical on the inside, but we did our own sewer work on the outside. It was a fantastic experience, and he was a good mentor.”

Johnson met his wife in Lake Forest, and the pair decided to escape Midwestern winters by moving to California. He started a remodeling business in Redondo Beach, southwest of Los Angeles, on the coast.

California regulates onsite work under its plumbing licenses, so when Johnson trained for that license, he received an automatic introduction to onsite systems. Eight years later, in 2012 and after the birth of their oldest son, they moved back to the Midwest to be close to their families.

LOADS OF WORK

In Lake County, the health and building departments are in the same place, and Johnson heard from county staff about a lack of onsite contractors. “They started telling me, ‘Oh, you’re a plumber. You could pass the septic license exam for Illinois. You should take the exam.”

At first he was apprehensive because of the investment he would have to make in equipment. So he asked about the future of installing in a big suburban county.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to start this business and have you guys extend municipal sewer.’ And they looked me in the eye and said, ‘In unincorporated Lake County, there will never be municipal sewer.’”

He took the license exam. “The first year we did septic work and plumbing, it turned almost immediately into 75% septic work. And a year later it’s like 99% septic work. It absolutely took off. We’ve had 35% annualized growth year in and year out since we started.”

And he bought that equipment, which he and employee Dylan Bishop use regularly on the job:

  • 2004 Caterpillar 304CR mini-excavator
  • 2018 Caterpillar 239E compact track loader
  • 1999 Ford F-350 dually, mainly to haul equipment
  • Ford 2002 E450 KUV service van with toolboxes on the outside and a 7.3L International diesel engine
  • General Pipe Cleaners GenEye camera
  • Two sewer rooters, one a General and the other from RIDGID used to clear septic backups

GLACIAL TILL

As part of the training for his license, Johnson took a course in soils and learned about the land on which his business depends.

“We had two glaciations,” Johnson says. The first one roughly sculpted the Great Lakes. The second, which ended about 11,000 years ago, left widespread deposits of silt, gravel, sand and clay.

“That’s what we’re fighting is very, very dense clay, no infiltration capability at all,” he says.

He learned that hills in his part of the country are not built of soil but are glacial moraines. These form when a glacier stops and melts, dropping the sand, gravel, rocks and other debris it scraped up as it moved.

In western Antioch there’s a massive gravel pit, he says. This leftover from the last glaciation has provided material for Lake County, where he lives, and Cook County, where Chicago is located. “And the reason it’s there is because that’s one of the places the glacier stopped and didn’t make it any farther south.”

MOSTLY REPLACEMENTS

Johnson does plumbing now only when needed to make an onsite system work well. For instance, in one house they relocated a washer, dryer and kitchen drain so discharges flow into the pipe leading to the onsite system.

Almost all of his work is system replacements. Only in the last few months Johnson received his first contract since 2012 for a new construction system.

Replacements have their own challenges because of the lack of record keeping. “Anything pre-1975 or so, there’s no record out there. People just put it in the ground and hoped it worked,” he says.

Immediately to the west of Antioch is a chain of heavily developed large lakes surrounded by houses. “That’s our major challenge because you’ve got floodplain, you’ve got tiny lots, you’ve got houses that were built right next to each other, you’ve got wells that are 15 feet from the septic tank. And then you have all these systems that are failing because they were built for cabins, and then people did an addition, and an addition, and an addition, and now they’re living in them full-time.”

Because of conditions in his area, most of the systems he installs use aerobic products such as those from Clearstream Systems. Johnson says he’s pushing NSF 350 equipment because effluent is cleaner. He uses as many Infiltrator chambers as possible, and he urges customers to add UV equipment (not required by the county) to protect their drinking water and their neighbors’ water.

“People are leaving Chicago in droves, and they’re buying up every piece of property around the chain of lakes,” he says. “Antioch’s a far suburb. I have a farm field at the end of my drive. To people who grew up in Chicago, this feels very out there. It’s not out there, really.”

He’s been invited to do commercial work, but Johnson says he’s reluctant because of the complexity of those systems, reduced lot sizes and the possibility that a property owner will overload the system with some unexpected future use, for example hosting weddings.

GOOGLE RULES

For marketing Johnson depends primarily on Google searches. “I would say 75% of our calls come from our Google standing.”

His website designer promised he could put Countryside at the top of Google search within six months. Try it. Type “septic installers Antioch Illinois” into Google, and Countryside tops the featured results box at the top of the screen. Making use of modern computer technology is important because it’s how people today find the services they need, Johnson says.

“What’s faster? You’re at work, and you get on your phone, and you Google ‘I have a gurgling toilet’ or ‘septic in my yard,’ or are you going to go to church on Sunday and talk to 15 people and say, ‘Hey, can I get a recommendation?’” he says. Many people are new to his growing area and don’t have a circle of friends to ask for recommendations, he adds.

Networking with other pumpers provides some business, as does an agreement with an environmental health practitioner who does real estate transfer inspections. The inspector refers business to Johnson, who returns the favor with his own referral.

GOOD LIFE BALANCE

Johnson says he and Bishop work well together, and they do this with plenty of communication and with the right mindset. For Johnson this process begins well before work.

He wakes about 5:30 a.m. His wife Shannon takes care of the two younger boys — Finn, 2 1/2, and Kai, 9 months (they also have 9-year-old Jax) — while Johnson goes downstairs, works out, and meditates for a half hour. He and Bishop meet at 9.

“The first thing we do is set an intention and a goal,” he says. While loading pipe and equipment, they talk over the day’s jobs and consider what could go wrong and how problems could be addressed with the least stress.

They work from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., later if needed. The later start time works for customers who need to shower before the installers arrive, but the schedule is primarily formed around Johnson’s time for his family and himself.

He and Bishop do the very best they can during the day and handle any emergencies, and they don’t worry about the rest. “The phone’s always ringing, somebody always has an emergency, we’re always going into a situation where the customer’s very stressed out, and if that flows into us, how are we going to effectively do our jobs?”

Bishop, 20, joined Johnson right out of high school. He’s interested in a plumbing apprenticeship, which means he could take over Countryside when Johnson is ready to retire.  With a license, Bishop could also run a crew to help with the company’s growth.

“In the next few years, we’re going to have to grow exponentially and bring on more crews, or stay small, and people are not going to be taken care of,” Johnson says.

SNOWBIRD INSTALLER

Johnson dreams of taking Countryside interstate — sort of. In Florida, he says, onsite work falls under the general plumbing regulations.

“I’m a scuba diver. I love the reef. I was very interested in this issue in Biscayne Bay (near Miami), red tides, all those things. And I thought, if things are frozen and slow here, why not go down there for a few months?”

One county he called said they’re always in need of contractors. The need didn’t sound as great as it is where he lives, but it also didn’t sound as if it would be too difficult to have a wintertime business there, he says. “My main motivation would be to get into design and get involved in whatever to help protect the reef.”

Occasionally people question his career choice given that his degree is in anthropology. He doesn’t see any disconnect.

“That college, it was 100% about how to process information and come up with your own conclusions from research.” Also at Lake Forest College is the Lake Forest School of Business Management, he says, so everything taught is geared toward the professional world and applying the information you find.

Above all else, his career makes him happy. He can watch his business grow and help protect public health.

“The people who are in this industry are a group of the happiest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” Johnson says, “and I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”  



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