In the Spotlight
Waste Connections: Staying on the Pulse of the Waste Industry
Through training, research, surveys, community involvement and customer service, California-based Waste Connections stays ahead of standards and regulations and linked to their customers coast to coast.
Founded in 1997 by a group of industry professionals with more than 50 years of industry experience, Waste Connections (Folsom, CA) is an integrated solid waste services company that collects, processes, recycles and disposes all types of solid waste. After rapidly expanding into the California market in early 1998, Waste Connections went public the same year and is now traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol WCN. “Taking the company public at an early age and smaller size—about 40 to 50 million dollars of revenue—really allowed us to create a public stock to use a capital structure in order to grow the company,” explains co-founder, Chairman and CEO, Ron Mittelstaedt.
As a result, the company is coast to coast, focusing primarily on the western U.S., the upper midwest and the southeast. In a little over 10 years, Waste Connections has grown to 6,000 employees serving specific markets within 26 States, 1,500 cities and counties, and 2,000,000 customers, ranging from individual residential subscribers to county contracts, including industrial and commercial accounts, contracts with homeowners associations, apartment owners and mobile home operators. Waste Connections also provides intermodal services for the movement of containers in the Pacific Northwest.
All of Waste Connections’ operations are linked with one another as well as the corporate offices through a wide area network that allows real-time communication for exchanging financial, customer service and internal data. The company employs a customer service, dispatch and routing platform that is Windows-based and is both comprehensive and user friendly, allowing for rapid changes to accommodate changing customer needs. “It is our objective to move from a highly paper intensive business towards a more automated environment for internal and external transactions and in the process improve overall efficiency,” says Mittelstaedt. The company also seeks to implement automated equipment when appropriate and cost-effective for their customers.
Waste Connections also has a market-based strategy for serving customers in order to provide the most cost-effective solution depending on local regulations and solid waste management practices. Where collection services are governed by exclusive franchise agreements—which are the predominate cases in the western U.S.—the company focuses on quality collection, transfer and recycling services, and internalizing disposal volumes where possible. In competitive markets not governed by these types of agreements, Waste Connections primarily goes into suburban and rural markets where they can get a high collection market share and generally own the only landfill in the market. In these areas customers are provided the most cost-effective solution through having an integrated company with collection, transfer and disposal.
Ahead of Industry Trends
According to Mittelstaedt, the economy has affected everyone’s business in the industry. Because the economy downturn affected the consumer and the construction industry, waste markets were down about 5 to 8 percent in 2009 as compared to 2008 due to less construction and people throwing out less while conserving more. However, in 2010 things are looking more stable. He believes that although they are not seeing any real improvements in the economy at this point, waste volumes are about flat rather than decreasing.
One of the core ways that Waste Connections stays ahead of these market trends and keep ahead of constant changes is training, which is a huge focus for all levels of the company and its employees. “In today’s economy employees expect training of all types—technical, academic, as well as leadership and management development—so we’ve spent a lot of time in those areas, not just in 2009 but over the last decade,” Mittelstaedt explains. The company does this by sending their employees to trade shows, conferences, local colleges and universities, and allowing onsite and online classes. Not only is there a substantial internal training and development group, external sources are used for specific academic skills training (schools), and industry seminars and exhibits are used for industry-specific training—safety, maintenance, etc. Trainers from specific training and leadership and development companies also visit the onsite facility onsite and hold courses for employees.
Waste Connections is also very involved in all of their communities served. “A huge part of our strategy is that we believe to be successful and the premiere company in each market that we operate in that you’ve got to be a thread in the local community in every area,” stresses Mittelstaedt. “You’ve got to be heavily involved in not-for-profits and philanthropic groups that help the less fortunate. We are involved in hundreds, if not thousands of these endeavors on an annual basis—community based activities such as youth sports, youth arts and education assistance, business associations on a local level, rotary clubs, elks clubs, etc.” They are even involved each community’s local politics. Although they take an apolitical position, they are part of the local processes. “Because waste service affects every home and business in one way or another, it’s not something that you can say ‘Well, we just pick up the garbage,’ you’ve really got to be intricately involved in the community of you want to be a long-term successful company in a local market.”
Not only does Waste Connections participate in community events across all of their markets, they are involved in a number of other local and charitable things where they have taken the lead. For example, they hold a nationwide annual Christmas bike drive for children that began eight years ago. Employees donate money and the company matches it dollar for dollar, finally purchasing bikes of all sizes. In turn, the employees build them and they are donated to local charities within each of their markets. The bikes are also donated to military families that may have a mother or father overseas during Christmas. In 2009, Waste Connections built and donated about 3,000 bikes in their 26 states. Since the inception of the program, they have donated almost 20,000 bikes.
Going forward, the challenges of the waste industry is that waste has moved from being a byproduct of consumption, manufacturing and construction that was looked at as a negative by society to now being looked at as a potential source of energy where it can be of value rather than a negative, points out Mittelstaedt. It can be harvested and turned into alternative fuels or energy sources—whether it’s converting landfill methane gas into electricity and selling it back to municipalities in a power grid, or developing different technologies to convert waste with heat into ethanol or another type of liquid fuel. Mittelstaedt stresses that the waste stream and the industry is going from having been one of a discard of society (“get it out of our face/mind”) to one of “oh, does it have value?” and that is one of the challenges of the next decade.
Because of this constant evolution within the industry, Waste Connections is heavily involved in looking ahead at different technologies and how the industry is going to accomplish these things. They have created joint ventures with companies that are developing technologies, made investments in others and built partnership agreements where they deliver waste with companies that are going through beta or pilot test programs to see if their technologies will work on a small scale and if these technologies can be scalable economically in the future. In addition to the many different structures the company deals with and participating in different startups with cleantech companies, Waste Connections has started to convert certain vehicles in their fleet to alternative fuels, such as CNG or LNG (compressed natural gas or liquid natural gas), especially on the west coast. “It is really not an issue in the Midwest, southwest or the southeast,” says Mittelstaedt. “Those markets are decades behind in terms of environmental regulation, but the west coast tends to be about 20 years ahead of the rest of the country regarding environmental regulations, particularly Washington, California and Oregon. They are really the leaders in terms of environmental regulations regarding diversion of waste for landfills, recycling requirements, conversion of waste to energy, use of alternative fuels in vehicles, methane gas collection in landfills, etc.—things that are starting to be talked about as new ideas were being done in the late 1980s in the west.”
Despite the differences in regulations from the west, the Midwest and the southeast, Waste Connections is committed to stay very current with state and local standards in all the markets in which they operate while trying to stay ahead of what regulations are to come. In this aspect, by operating in the west, they have a “glimpse into the future” because the regulations are so advanced when compared to the rest of their markets. Says Mittelstaedt, “We constantly talk to other states, municipalities and customers about what is likely to happen as their states develop more progressive legislation and what are the pros and cons of that legislation.” He stresses that until the whole market is required to go to compressed natural gas no one is going to do it; however, in the west, it is required of the industry in certain markets so the playing field is even. “Increases and changes in environmental regulations tends to level the playing field for everyone on a market by market basis.”
Keeping a Balance
“Our main goal is to be the premiere solid waste and recycling company in every market that we do business in, keeping in mind the constituency—our customers, employees, the communities and our stockholders. We are constantly trying to keep a balance of each entity while improving things for each of them,” says Mittelstaedt. As part of the strategy to keep this balance, Waste Connections provides an annual, anonymous in-depth survey to each employee, allowing them to give feedback on their job, individual supervisors, direction of the company and how operations are performing locally. With a great response rate of 40 percent, it allows the company to build a culture around transparency and feedback. Mittelstaedt says, although it has taken them years to do, it has been well worth it. They also constantly speak with employees face-to-face on a local level. In addition, every new customer is given a service satisfaction survey at 90 days that covers billing, route information, container satisfaction, driver introductions, local office customer service and general comments. Waste Connections also has a similar survey for long-term customers. The “Pulse Program” randomly surveys customers on the anniversary dates of their time with the company.
Waste Connections has grown through a combination of both organic growth in existing markets and acquisitions of selected companies in high growth markets. According to Mittelstaedt, if the company can continue to maintain acquisition growth like they’ve had over the last decade, business will most likely double over the next seven to 10 years in terms of size, employees, number of markets, etc. Operations of acquired companies are typically enhanced through the introduction of modernized fleets, technology, management support and the capital that comes from being part of a publicly traded company. “We look to grow rapidly within a market through expanding the range of services we offer and by helping our local managers to continue the success they have built locally by expanding into adjacent markets,” says Mittelstaedt. As the company grows, whether by acquisition or by internal growth, they are constantly seeking to upgrade their level of customer service, and at the same time looking to retain the local name and goodwill associated with the companies and the entrepreneurs who helped to build them.
Mittelstaedt believes that the solid waste service business is a local business managed by professionals living and working in the communities served. Striving to provide excellent service for those communities that place their trust in Waste Connections, they are always dedicated to putting customers first. “We look to technology and growth to help our customers, employees and shareholders ‘Connect with the Future.’ As a public company we have the resources to meet every customer’s needs in a cost effective and environmentally compatible manner. We understand the markets, the philosophy and the unique needs of the customers we serve whether they be industry, commercial accounts, municipal jurisdictions or individual homeowners.”
For more information about Waste Connections, call (916) 608-8200 or visit www.wasteconnections.com.