A small-town precaster has big plans for his company – and his community as well.
Story and photos by Ron Hyink
Tucked away in a corner of eastern Illinois thrives the town of Newton, population 3,100. It is one of the thousands of rural areas that make up the capillaries that feed the roots of life for the rest of us. And like the other thousands, Newton finds itself in a constant struggle for its very survival as businesses and people alike are drawn away to the bigger cities. If it weren’t for people like Mark Bolander, much of small-town America would likely wither away, even to extinction.
Rex Vault Service Inc., a manufacturer of precast wastewater management systems, burial vaults, storm shelters, steps and other products, has provided employment to a handful of Newtonians for more than 50 years. But to owner Mark, there is much more to be done as far as giving back to the community besides just being a reliable business owner. So he gets involved: In addition to raising money for worthy causes around town, he happens to be the town’s mayor. And his ultimate goals – as business owner, fundraiser and mayor – are all intertwined: to give people and businesses some good reasons to stay.
Just last year, Rex Vault celebrated its 50 th anniversary, and 50 years in any business is a remarkable feat, says Mark. It all started in 1956 in the back part of an old cold-storage facility, churning out burial vaults and individual mausoleums with a half-bag mixer. A gentleman by the name of Roland Clark founded Rex Vault & Mausoleum Service, named after a vault brand in existence at the time called Rex Protex. Joe Bolander, Mark’s father, managed the company.
Although they renovated the building for vault manufacturing, it wasn’t really suitable for proper precast manufacturing, so a couple of years later they moved into the company’s current location on the eastern edge of town. In 1964, Joe Bolander bought the company from Roland Clark.
“Back then it was back-breaking work,” said Mark. “Everything was manual labor, very little equipment.” Everything for the mix was measured with shovels and buckets. From the mixer, the concrete was dumped into a wheelbarrow, and once again the shovels were employed to fill the forms.
Although they used vibration, it wasn’t very efficient, and so they had to improvise. “You used saw blades and rubber mallets and 2 by 4s and just whatever you could get your hands on at the time to get a little turbulence and shake those air bubbles out,” said Mark.
Getting the finished product to its destination was also labor-intensive. “We moved them around with these four-wheel dollies,” said Mark. “They had pneumatic tires on them.” The task required two men, and sometimes four, to get the vault where it needed to go in the cemetery. “If you were going up a hill or in the mud or snow or ice, it was quite the chore.”
After Joe Bolander bought the company, he added septic tanks to the production lineup. “A lot of them were off the same mold as the vault,” said Mark, who started with the company in 1980. “They would just stack them. If you wanted a 300-gallon, it was one unit; if you wanted a 600-gallon, it was two units; if you wanted 900 gallons, it was three units. We finally bought a regular septic tank mold and started doing it in a two-piece, mid-seam – and we’re still using a lot of that today with tongue-and-groove mid-seam.”
In 1971, Rex Vault joined Doric as a licensed vault dealer, and then joined Norweco in 1982 as a licensed distributor of aeration products for the tanks. In 1983, the company was incorporated, and in 1995 Mark took over as sole owner. Last year, Rex Vault marked its 50 th anniversary and celebrated by installing a new $400,000 batch plant, an indicator of its continued success.
Rex Vault’s success with wastewater treatment systems is due at least in part to geography. The soil is a type of clay, and the water table is extremely high in this part of the country. In many areas, a backhoe will hit water at 3 or 4 feet, and that’s a miserable prospect for materials that don’t have the heft of concrete to keep it securely planted in the earth.
And then there is the manner in which the septic systems operate. “It’s tough to just subsurface your effluent out of the septic tank like you might in northern Illinois where the soils are better – they perk better, and the water table isn’t as high,” said Mark. That’s where the aeration systems come into play and why they have been such a big hit for the company.
Add to that the deep burials required in the area, such as across the state line into Indiana. There, in the tiny town of Sandborn, every one of the 225 residences gets a Rex Vault septic system, a commitment by the town’s elected officials to put a stop once and for all to the town’s nagging problems with the high water table that causes frequent backflow of wastewater into shower drains and the like (see the sidebar “Project Sandborn – Above and Beyond”). “In a lot of those, there’s a 4-foot cover over the tops of those tanks.” The depth of the burials makes plastic and fiberglass tanks an unattractive option. Mark has only to beef up the design of his tanks when necessary to add more strength, and that’s something plastic or fiberglass producers are loath to do due to the resulting exorbitant price.
Rex Vault’s real competition comes not from fiberglass or plastic tanks but from the aeration systems inside the tanks. “When we first started in ’82, there were only three brands (of aeration systems) in Illinois, and now there are 26,” said Mark. “So yeah, aeration is pretty fierce, especially in this part of the state with the soil types and water table.”
As far as the burial vault business, Rex Vault faces plenty of competition here too, but the customers tend to be more of a loyal group. “Funeral directors primarily are our customers, and as long as you take care of them with your product and your service, they’re going to be loyal to you,” said Mark.
Newton may be a small town, but it has more than its share of traffic. More than 25,000 vehicles a day pass through here, but a good share of that comes from the trucking industry. Most of them are making their way to and from the Interstate as they deliver goods for a Wal-Mart distribution center to the south, a Marathon refinery to the east and a power plant to the west.
These industries, in addition to farming, help to employ the population surrounding Newton, but other large employers have since packed their bags and moved on. “We lost some industry,” said Mark. “We lost United Technologies, who had employed 1,200 people here in town at one time. So our community was reeling.”
Another trend sniping away at the community is the loss of future generations. “Our high school enrollment is getting less and less,” added Mark. “Part of it is fewer kids in the family. Back when we were young, there might have been four, five or six kids in a family. Now you’ve got maybe two or three in a family. So there are probably the same numbers of families, just a lot fewer kids.”
After high school comes college, and a lot of those kids go away for their education but don’t return to Newton. “Now when they graduate, they get that college degree and go to the city,” said Mark.
The diminishing population and job opportunities were a frustrating predicament for the people of Newton, and Mark wanted to do something about it – so he ran for office. Now with two years under his belt as mayor, he has worked diligently to bring new industries back into his municipality. “We landed a business right next door here,” he said, referring to the building next to Rex Vault. It employed 150 at one time, and had since dwindled to 12. “We found a new owner for it, and they’re going to be coming in this fall. So we’re getting there. We’ve got some other businesses that are going to be coming into our community soon too, but it just takes so long to get those wheels to turn.”
Turning his attention to the community’s younger generation, Mark got together with a couple of his friends to set up a bottled water enterprise. They acquired an old building in town and are now selling bottled water to subsidize youth activities, which will be held in the same building. Coming soon for the youth center are a laser tag game room, a mini-café and a movie theater, all of which will employ another 10 or 12 people. “We’ll have a place for kids to hang out,” said Mark. “That’s something else that turns my crank right now.”
Whether he’s running a business or running a town, Mark wants to do more than simply survive – he seeks constant improvement to make Newton a more attractive place for people and businesses. “We want to give them a reason to come back here. So I’d have to say that’s my goal at the city level and here at Rex Vault as well.