Military vet King puts employees' needs first

BY Sean Teehan
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

Photo | Sean Teehan
Photo | Sean Teehan
After serving two tours in Iraq, Army veteran James King got his MBA at UConn then joined East Hartford-based wastewater management firm Eljen Corp., which recently named him president.

James M. King

President, Eljen Corp.

Highest education: MBA, University of Connecticut, 2008.

Executive insights: "We do something that’s very positive for the environment, and I think our culture here is very positive for the people who work here."

When he daydreamed about the future as a teen, the idea of building septic systems never crossed James M. King's mind.

But eight years after he joined Eljen Corp., an East Hartford-based wastewater management firm, the recently-promoted president says enthusiasm for his company's mission has been a driving factor in doubling its annual revenues to $10 million since his first day.

His first major initiative as Eljen's top executive includes expanding the company's footprint to the West Coast.

"It's not just flushing toilets, this is about doing something good at the end of the day," said King, who replaced James Donlin as president in April. "We do something that's very positive for the environment, and I think our culture here is very positive for the people who work here."

Eljen's workers are his most prized commodities, King said. The staff of about 50 consists mostly of U.S. military veterans and refugees of conflicts in countries including Bosnia and Myanmar.

King, an Army veteran himself, said it's his duty to make sure his employees are succeeding in their personal lives.

He went into the Army as a commissioned officer in 2001, after receiving a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of Connecticut, he said. After serving two tours in Iraq, and rising to the rank of captain, King left the Army in 2006 and enrolled in UConn's MBA program a few months later.

After toiling in a few jobs, he met Donlin in 2010. The duo instantly struck a bond after realizing they had served at the same Army base in Kuwait in 2003, King said.

"Next thing he's asking about my background, he goes, 'Are you looking for a job,' and I go, 'I didn't think I was, but yeah, I am!' " King said. "That was the first day I showed up at Eljen."

But it was also Eljen's mission in the decidedly unromantic industry of wastewater treatment that hooked King, he said.

The company manufactures passive wastewater treatment systems, meaning their products require no electricity or other power to clean water after it is used in toilets, sinks or other water-using appliances. Instead, their products are engineered in a way that allows bacteria to do the work.

A large portion of Eljen's customers own houses built on small lots, lake lots or areas with poor soil, King said. His company builds systems for houses and buildings that are not on municipal wastewater systems. The Eljen systems clean the soil and recharge the local aquifer by releasing the treated water back into the soil.

King's sharp interest in ensuring Eljen's systems work as well as possible shows through his attentiveness to customers and other stakeholders, said Mark Prevost, fluid handling manager at Wisconsin-based First Supply LLC, a wholesaler of septic systems, among other products.

"When I'm out in the field and I see something that could be improved, if I call another manufacturer, it could take two or three months to see something," Prevost said. "With Jim, it's later that day. … Jim says, 'You need help, we'll fly a guy out there.' "

In addition, King said, Eljen has taken an interest in improving the lives of its staff.

Like its founder, Joseph Glasser, its former president Donlin and King, most of Eljen's technical department is staffed with military veterans. Transitioning from military life to civilian life can be overwhelming because vets suddenly have to make arrangements the military previously made for them.

"It's 'Hey you're leaving the military next week, you need to figure out who your dentist is, you need to figure out who your doctor is, where you're living, how you're going to get transportation, and oh, by the way, you don't have a finance officer anymore making sure your paycheck is right," King said.

King and others on staff offer advice for best practices in making that transition, King said. Management also provides support to the large portion of its manufacturing staff currently applying for U.S. citizenship after fleeing violence in their home countries.

Meantime, as Eljen moves forward, King said his focus is making sure the company stays on top of maintaining the systems they've installed for customers in more than 30 states, and internationally. He's also focused on further expansion.

"The Pacific states are probably the most attractive … not only due to the fact that there are not a lot of systems that are doing treatment upstream, but because there is also a reduced amount of groundwater," King said. "So I believe that Pacific area, those Pacific states will probably be most important for us in the next five years."