WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Joan Kalchick: At the “front end” of the excavating business

OMENA – She tried to sell the business once. But the buyers were planning changes she didn’t like. That was in 1990, shortly after her husband, Ronald, passed away.

Today, as head of Kal Excavating Co. of Omena, Joan Kalchik speaks confidently, and proudly, of the business that has grown with her as much as she with it.

Born and raised in Northport, Kalchik was brought into the excavating business by love.

The company was Frank C. Kalchik & Sons then, and Ronald was one of the sons working with his father. The brothers bought the business from their dad in 1964, and Joan began learning about excavating.

Her background was in fashion. Following her high school graduation, Kalchik attended fashion merchandising school in New York City and after returning to Leelanau County and marrying, she worked at a retail shop in Leland for five years.

Until 1985, Kal Excavating was run out of Ron and Joan’s home, with Joan handling the office work while raising three children.

By that time, the other two brothers had sold their portion of the business and the couple shared ownership.

When they built the main office on M-22 just north of Omena, Joan planned to add on a sewing room for the times she wasn’t busy.

That sewing room has yet to be built.

With 32 employees and a fleet of trucks and earth-moving equipment under her charge, Kalchik doesn’t sit still much. In addition to daily operations at the office, she regularly gets out into the field.

Now in its 58th year of operation, Kal Excavating does both residential and commercial work, marine and shoreline projects, and has just recently been approved to bid on Michigan Department of Transportation road work.

“I try to look at all the jobs so when customers call, I’m familiar with the projects,” Kalchik said, with a laugh. “I think they call it ‘micromanaging.'”

And she hasn’t considered selling the business again.

After the initial sale fell through, Kalchik realized how much she wanted to stay in the excavating business.

“I said to myself, ‘I think I can do this,'” she said. “I’ve driven truck. I’ve run loader.”

And in a field where she deals primarily with men, she feels confident and at ease.

“Everybody has been really supportive,” she said of her taking sole ownership following Ron’s death. “The guys who work for me don’t have a problem with it. There were a lot of details I didn’t know about at first and because of this my employees had a lot of freedom. It really developed their self-confidence.”

Of course, there still are the salespeople who call and think Joan is really supposed to be John. But Ronald was always out of the office anyway, so she was the person who handled the business calls.

“Some salesmen do hang up when they find out there is no Mr. Kalchik,” she said.

She did get a kick out of a California salesman who called once.

“He said to me, ‘Who runs the equipment?’ I said, ‘I hire people to do that. Do I have to do everything?'” He hung up.

In addition to being a community business leader, Kalchik is treasurer of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Board, secretary of the Leelanau Memorial Health Center board, and a member of Zonta Club.

Retirement is likely going to be hard for someone who has put so much of herself into her business. From one of her necklaces hangs a dump truck pendant, and from another, a front-end loader.

“About five years down the line, I’ll work out of it,” Kalchik said, although she finds the thought of retirement a little frightening. “I get home at five o’clock and don’t know what to do with myself.”

She expects the business to stay in the family, though, so she shouldn’t have to worry about anyone making changes she doesn’t like.