BERN TOWNSHIP, PA — July 11, 2018
Rich Stump has always been in the family business.
When he was 7, he capped bottles at Suburban Testing Labs, then run by his father Rick. Then he became a janitor, and worked his way up to buying Suburban in 2014, making him the sole owner of the company, which tests local water samples for lead, bacteria and carcinogens.
“Like all kids, I had a few moments where I didn’t want to,” Stump, 40, said about following in his dad’s footsteps, “but I thought it was the right opportunity for me. I always loved the science behind the business.”
Stump says he’s proud that the labs have lasted 55 years, through two generations.
In his tenure he has moved the labs from Temple to Bern Township and increased automation. That much is clear, as Suburban’s labs are filled with elaborate machines that handle test tubes of all shapes and sizes.
Will robots replace Suburban’s 78 employees someday?
“I don’t see that in this industry’s future,” Stump said, “again because of the complexity and number of steps. You still need a scientist to interpret the data.”
Stump laments that the average person thinks his job is like an episode of “CSI,” where investigators can know everything about a sample in one test. Each lab is responsible for a different test, after one of hundreds of water samples is removed from its refrigerator in the giant storage room.
“We’re almost like manufacturing, where we’re coming out with results for different tests.” he said. “We have about a hundred different testing lines going on at once.”
First, the water is tested for pesticides. The materials are separated from the water using funnels and hot baths. Then the samples are taken to analysis machines and the data becomes lines on a computerized graph. Then the samples are taken to a room where plasma is heated to 5,432 degrees Fahrenheit to detect metals such as lead. The smell in these labs ranges from disinfectant to chlorine to roasted cocoa.
Someday, a new generation will take over for Stump. He wants to get his two children interested in science (his dog’s name is Einstein) and for 7-year-old Madison, it’s working.
“As long as they go on to become productive members of society and have a job that makes them happy,” Stump said about the possibility of them leaving the family business, “I would be fine with that.”
Companies such as Suburban provide a critical service, says the director of one Berks County water authority.
“I think that water testing is critical to public health and safety.” said Matt Wolborn, the director of operations of the Western Berks Water Authority. “Water testing is a barometer that shows us how we’re doing.”
Municipal water needs to be clean not just for consumers, but so it doesn’t enter streams as dangerous runoff. Wolborn, a third-generation water treater, said that the industry has a steady demand for jobs.
To Stump, a cancer survivor, the most important part of his job is giving people an opportunity to protect the water and soil from pollution.
“I lived through the ozone layer hole,” he said, “and we took small steps that were difficult, and now 20-some years later, the ozone layer has started to repair itself. So I don’t plan to move to Mars.”
Contact Wes Cipolla: 610-371-5066 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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