Last fall, Rantoul resident Chris Kaler became the executive director of the Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce. Recently, News-Gazette staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with Kaler at his office to talk about his career and the future of the chamber.
Q: Did you grow up here in Rantoul?
A: Yes, just about every longtime resident knows my family. My grandfather, Sig Kaler, was the postmaster here in Rantoul, and my dad, Jack Kaler, was a rural mail carrier in the Gifford area for 40 years. He used to love Christmas because all the farmers would give him homemade bread and rolls. My mom grew up in Thomasboro, and she worked the Mid-Continent telephone company in the dispatch area.
Q: As a student at Rantoul Township High School, you won the district wrestling championship at 132 pounds. What lessons did you learn from wrestling that can be applied to the business world?
A: When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to all the high school wrestling meets, so I naturally became a wrestler myself when I was old enough. Wrestling is a one-on-one sport, so anything that you accomplish, you do it yourself. A young person can gain a lot of satisfaction and self-confidence from wrestling. In both wrestling and business, you only get out of it what you put into it. The only way that Rantoul businesses can succeed is if we put out the effort ourselves.
Q: What kind of jobs did you have as a young man?
A: I have worked at just about any job you can possibly imagine. As a teen, I washed dishes at Ott's Drive In. As I washed dishes, I would listen to the diners talking about what was going on in town. Then I got hired by the Roessler Construction Company as a laborer. I helped to build houses, including several homes here in town. I worked for the village electric department as a lineman in training, but I decided electric work wasn't for me. It is so darn dangerous. Then the recreation department hired me to mow the grass, prepare the ball diamonds for games and get the parks ready for the winter months.
Q: How did you meet your wife, former WDWS news reporter, former Rantoul Village Board member and current UI Associate Chancellor Robin Neal Kaler?
A: I was out working on a baseball diamond at Wabash Park with Ron Luna from the recreation department in 1979. I saw this breathtakingly beautiful woman walking through the park with some of her friends, and Ron told me that he knew her. I asked Ron to introduce me to her. For our first date, I took Robin to a White Sox baseball game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. We got married in 1985. I was sad when they tore down Comiskey Park because it brought back such great memories for Robin and me.
Q: What other jobs have you had as an adult?
A: I went to work for a fertilizer company in Gifford, filling the tanks with anhydrous ammonia and taking the spreaders and potash to the farmers. It was an opportunity to meet many area farmers, most of whom knew my dad because he delivered mail to them. Then Mid-Continent Telephone hired me to install and maintain business telephone systems. I installed telephone systems to just about all the businesses here in Rantoul and sold telephones in a three-state area. But when the company was bought out by Alltel, my position in Rantoul was eliminated. It was a difficult time for me because my father had passed away and my first daughter had just been born. That very day I got a call from Denny Long at the Bank of Rantoul. I had sold, maintained and installed his phone system, and Denny realized I knew just about everybody in town from my various jobs. So Denny hired me to do marketing work with the business community. Then I wanted to do something on my own, so I opened an Edward Jones office in downtown to provide investment planning for individuals and businesses.
Q: How did your business career help get you ready to serve as the chamber's executive director?
A: My career gave me a good sense of what is happening in the many different facets of Rantoul's business community. I know what it takes to operate my own business, so I can relate to the other business owners.
Q: What led you to leave Edward Jones in 2001?
A: I came down with a liver virus, and I needed to spend a lot more time at home to heal. I had to give myself an injection in the stomach every week for 48 weeks to try to knock out the virus. I wasn't in a position I could think straight. It was difficult for me to concentrate. I never totally knocked out the virus. Since that time I have been working buying houses in Paxton, Rantoul, Gifford, Champaign and Urbana; refurbishing them and putting them back up for sale.
Q: What attracted you to your current job as chamber executive director?
A: The local economy, especially the real estate market, is flat. I thought there had to be a way I could help make a difference to turn things around. This is the town where I grew up. If I can help the businesses become more enthusiastic about our future, we can help the community to grow.
Q: What do you see as some of the challenges facing the chamber in your first year as executive director?
A: We have to overcome a general lack of enthusiasm. Since Chanute Air Force Base closed in 1993, we've been on a general downward slide. It is hard for small businesses to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Q: What are your goals for the chamber?
A: We want to do things to make a real positive difference on the business community. We just put on a seminar on OSHA regulations. We put on a program to help businesses find ways to reduce their energy costs. We want to work with the village's economic development team to establish a small business incubator. We have space here in Rantoul. We can offer very attractive rates for new businesses to come in. We're 15 miles away from one of the great research universities in the world. We want to get the word out throughout the state that Rantoul has a lot to offer.
Getting to know Chris Kaler
Job: Executive director, Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce
Wife: Robin Neal Kaler
Children: Zoe, 15, a freshman at the High School of St. Thomas More; and Emily, 12, a seventh-grader at St. Malachy School
Education: Graduated from Rantoul Township High School and attended Parkland College
Favorite food: Pork burrito
Favorite book: "Jim Cramer's Real Money" by Jim Cramer
Favorite music: Marshall Tucker Band
Favorite movie: "Patriot Games"
Hobbies: Gardening and doing landscaping
Something nobody knows about him: Kaler is a motorcycle enthusiast. He once rode his BMW motorcycle for an entire year, including in the snow and ice, because motorcycle insurance premiums were lower than auto premiums.