Heading South

After nearly 10 years in the Northern Virginia market, American Disposal Services has expanded into Georgia.

“They say the best time to start a new business is the last day of a recession, and we're right there,” says Brad Gardner, the head of Manassas, Va.-based American Disposal Services Inc.'s new Atlanta office.

A 34-year veteran of the waste industry, Gardner opened the office on Feb. 1. The new unit operates from a four-acre facility in Norcross, Ga., about 12 miles northeast of Atlanta's downtown. Gardner is currently running two front loaders and two roll-off trucks, and has plans to build a subscription residential business by going door-to-door across the region and pitching homeowners associations.

“We're going to be aggressive about acquisition [in Atlanta], too,” says Paul Coury, vice president of American Disposal. “We're looking for small to medium independents in commercial, residential and rollout businesses.”

Coury and American Disposal President Larry Edwards know how to be aggressive. Edwards started the company in 2001, and Coury joined him three years later. Since then, the duo has built the company into a regional powerhouse with 225,000 customers, 325 employees and 150 Mack trucks with Heil residential, commercial and roll-off bodies. Residential work accounts for 70 percent of the company's business, with commercial and roll-off splitting the rest.

Coury runs the sales and marketing side of the company, and Edwards handles operations. “Larry is the best person I know for operations, and I'm the best person I know for sales,” Coury says. Combined, the two have nearly 70 years of experience in the waste business.

“We call them ‘the bookends,’” chuckles Bryan Coury, executive vice president of sales and Paul's son. On the operations side, Kevin Edwards, Larry's son, serves as the company's general manager.

Rivals, Then Partners

Paul Coury went into the waste hauling business in 1979 when he founded Rainbow Waste Disposal in Northern Virginia. At the same time and in the same market, Larry Edwards was building Triple A Waste Disposal, and the two companies competed with each other throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1996, Republic Services came to Northern Virginia and started buying tuck-in operations. Among the acquisitions were Rainbow and Triple A, and Republic named both Coury and Edwards co-presidents of the firm's regional operation. Their boss was Brad Gardner.

Edwards worked within the Republic operation for several years before deciding that he preferred working for a smaller, more entrepreneurial company. So he resigned and started American Disposal.

“Just like Rainbow, Larry started American Disposal with one truck,” Coury says. “In three years time, he built it up to 20 trucks.

Coury also missed the excitement of building a smaller hauling firm, battling large and small competitors for accounts and the satisfaction of working closely with drivers and customers. Three years after American Disposal's founding, he resigned from Republic Services and joined American Disposal.

“It felt strange at first,” Coury recalls. “We started out years before as competitors, and now we were partners.”

Next, something happened that would put a smile on anyone's face. Employees from the old Rainbow Disposal and Triple A, then employed by Republic Services, started asking for work at American Disposal. “A lot of our old employees came back to work for us,” Paul says. “Lots of old customers came back, too.”

“That's why our company is succeeding,” says Larry Edwards. “You are only as good as your employees, and I think we have better personal relationships with our employees than larger companies where the bosses don't understand what their employees go through to get a job done.”

The Atlanta Market

With the opening of the new Atlanta office, American Disposal intends to set off a wave of growth. “We picked Atlanta because it mirrors Northern Virginia,” Coury says. “Atlanta's population numbers, types of properties, kinds of commercial business, large apartment complexes and much more all parallel what we have here. On a practical level, densely populated areas mean efficient collection routes.”

And when it came time to pick someone to head up the Atlanta office, Edwards and Coury thought of their old boss and his wealth of industry experience.

“Brad was with BFI, Republic Services and Waste Management,” Edwards says. “He was our regional boss at Republic. That's where the relationship started. We were business associates, and we became friends. When we started thinking about expanding, we asked if he would consider Atlanta.”

Gardner was all for it. “Atlanta is the eighth largest MSA [metropolitan statistical Area] in the U.S.,” he says. “For the 10 years before the recession, it was one of the fastest-growing MSAs in the country. Even though growth has slowed, its population is above 5 million and still growing. Once the economy recovers, you can expect a return to rapid growth.”

Generally, American Disposal's Atlanta unit will pursue a strategy similar to that followed in Northern Virginia. The company is focused primarily on attracting residential, commercial and roll-off collection customers.

Edwards and Coury take a hands-on view of service. In Northern Virginia, for instance, the company still runs semi-automated trucks. “Full automation doesn't work well in this area,” Edwards says. “We service customers four times a week, twice for trash, once for recycling and once for green [yard waste]. Automated doesn't work for green waste. We also service a lot of townhouses, and automated doesn't work for townhouses either.”

They still route trucks by hand, too. “We have a mapping software, but we don't use it for routing. There are too many variables that computers don't pick up,” Edwards says. “Good service means knowing the job in detail, and manual routing is how you make use of the details you understand about the job.”

American Disposal supervisors use the mapping software to manage drivers out on the routes, communicating with drivers as necessary over a Nextel radio network.

None of the principals seem excited about acquiring facilities such as landfills and transfer stations. “There are plenty of landfills and transfer stations,” says Larry Edwards. “And the business is moving more towards recycling anyway.”

While the Atlanta metro area is considered a good market, it isn't without its problems, and Gardner is working out strategies to overcome them. “The biggest challenge we have now is that we're an unknown entity, and we have to build up our brand awareness by pitching customers, doing a good job and getting more customers,” he says

Gardner also notes that Atlanta's traffic congestion poses both challenges and opportunities. “The core of the city is changing,” he says. “People are moving closer in to the core as it is redeveloped with more high density housing such as townhomes and condos. That makes traffic worse and waste collection more difficult.”

Still, establishing a presence in the Atlanta region is a challenge that the American Disposal crew is excited about tackling.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.