Artful Haulers

So, how do you go from delivering fresh produce to operating the largest privately owned waste and recycling collection company in Iowa? Good question.

“I say we always got accused of hauling garbage. Now we just pick it up,” quips Artistic Waste's CEO, Tony Colosimo, who purchased the company in 1993 after building his reputation running a small food brokerage company. Two years later, he hired his brother Bobby, who also worked in the food service industry as sales manager for a division of ConAgra Foods, to serve as president.

“We looked at getting into recycling and found that the best opportunities were going to be through trash haulers,” says Tony, who bought Artistic after the original owners expressed a desire to get out of the hauling business. “We knew the former owners and saw that this would be the best matchup for us. Instead of trying to make a pure recycling company, we could get into the waste industry first and branch out.”

Moving Along the Food Chain

One would assume the transition from one end of the industrial digestive system to the other — from peddling ripe, juicy apples to collecting their rotten brown remains — was a rude awakening for the Colosimos. After all, food was the family business. But the brothers insist the move was actually a welcome change of pace.

“In the food industry, we wanted everything to be fresh,” Tony says. “Whether it was fresh produce or fresh meat, we had a million dollar inventory that would rot in 72 hours. Talk about pressure! You had to perform. Here, on our worst day, a container might rust in about seven years.”

Moreover, the Colosimos discovered that the competition was significantly less cutthroat on the waste side: While 12 to 15 vendors might be competing to supply local restaurants, cafeterias and hospitals with food, only five or six companies were vying to pick up their trash. In fact, the brothers say they often went back to the same customers with whom they had already established a reputation, only now they were asking to take stuff out rather than bring it in.

Fortunately, says Bobby, a lot of experience carried over from one industry to the other. “The similarity is the transportation. We always dealt with trucks, drivers and keeping the product fresh and cold for delivery. In this industry, you have to pick up your product and bring it to the landfill in a safe manner.”

Another aspect of the business that has not changed is their customers' willingness to speak their minds. “Everyone has an opinion on garbage and who picks it up,” Tony says. “By now, we have been fortunate to have worked with a lot of very nice communities here in central Iowa, and they will definitely tell you how and why they don't like it when something's going on. In my next life, I could be a lobbyist.”

Branching Out

Though Artistic Waste has been operating since the 1970s, the Colosimos brought a much larger vision for the company. “When we bought it, Artistic was a one-dimensional company, a mom and pop,” Tony says. “There are many of them out there: the guy who's going to have one or two trucks and just pick up garbage. We realized we wanted to address the total waste stream.”

To do that, Artistic began adding a broad range of services for its customers. Some of these are formally incorporated into Artistic Waste, while others involve subsidiary companies or strategic partnerships. In addition to curbside trash and recycling collection, Artistic offers a number of specialized services to its residential customers. The company collects yard waste, which is taken to a state-run composting facility (Iowa has a state law mandating the diversion of yard waste from landfills) and provides mail-back containers for the disposal of sharps and other medical waste. The company also accepts e-waste at its recycling center (or will collect it for a fee).

A similar suite of services is provided for commercial customers, including comprehensive medical waste collection and disposal through a partnership with Iowa Health Systems and confidential document destruction through Direct Shred, a subsidiary shredding company. On the industrial side, Artistic rents out roll-offs, compactors and other containers. The Colosimos recently added a fiber recovery company to handle commercial paper and cardboard, a construction and demolition debris (C&D) recycling company and a transportation company to haul aggregates.

The brothers say one of the reasons they have diversified is because they're constantly benchmarking themselves against the national players in their market — specifically Waste Management. This, they say, ensures that they can offer their customers the best of both worlds. “What people wanted was a professional service, but they really didn't have it with a local entity,” Tony says. “We filled that void.”

Today, Artistic is the second largest waste company in Iowa after Waste Management, a position that suits the Colosimos just fine. “Do I need to be number one in the market? No. I'd rather be the provider of choice,” Tony says. “That's why we've concentrated on building a stronger bottom line along with the top line. To have 50 more trucks just for the sake of having them is not our business plan.”

In 2000, Artistic made the transition from manual to automated collection, a move that the Colosimos say has been very popular with their customers. Artistic also offers bundled waste services to residential and commercial customers, often at a discount. “Whether you're a building manager or a city manager, you like to have that one person you can call,” Tony says. “It also helps us give them a better price point.”

Artistic Aspirations

“One of the things we decided early on was that we wanted to be an environmental company,” Tony says. “And we're getting closer to that all of the time.” Part of that effort, the brothers say, is ensuring that the recycling segment of their business is both profitable and self-sustaining.

When they entered the market in the early 1990s, the Colosimos observed many of their competitors trying to make a living on the revenue from collecting recyclables for a third party. “You have to have a good business plan,” Bobby warns. “And the business plan in which recyclables always make a given amount of money for pick up isn't always there.”

“It has to be sustainable growth,” adds Tony, who is wary of government subsidies for recycling. “If you want to throw a bunch of money at something, you can get it going. But once you pull the subsidies away, those programs tend to go away. We're developing a sustainable recycling program that we think is going to take us into the next generation of waste management.”

To ensure that Artistic wrings the maximum value out of the commercial recyclables it collects, the Colosimos are in the process of developing a commercial materials recovery facility that will allow the company to process 60 to 70 percent of the waste it handles.

Another sector the brothers have their eyes on is alternative fuels. “Iowa is going to be one of the leading ethanol producing states,” Tony says. “We're going to be one of the ancillary companies that literally helps fuel that industry.”

Given Iowa's prominence as a corn producer, most people in the state are likely looking to corn-generated ethanol as the future. But the Colosimos say the waste stream is every bit as ripe for the picking. “One of the biggest barriers to recycling for generators is the separation,” Tony explains. “We all know that if money was no object, we could separate everything that comes into the waste stream. But you'd be talking about a $120 tipping fee.”

Instead, using technology they say has been available for years, the Colosimos plan to “mine” mature landfills, extracting biomass for ethanol fuel generation. There is a market now for this material, and they plan to capitalize on it while benefiting the environment, they say.

“As soon as what we pick up becomes valuable, I'll market that product,” says Tony, as though invoking a mantra.

In general, the Colosimos say they are proud of what they do, and see themselves in a prime position to help make their community stronger and more sustainable. “We're in the garbage business, and that's fine,” declares Tony. “Garbage is a good thing. People have it. But you have to manage it in a good way.”

Steven Averett is the managing editor of Waste Age.


Company Purchased: Fall 1993

Owners: Tony (CEO) and Bobby (President) Colosimo

Services: Residential, commercial and industrial waste and recycling collection servicing the central Iowa area.

Equipment: Fleet includes more than 70 collection trucks. Equipment manufactured by New Way, Heil, Mack, Toter and Galbreath.

Employees: 150 full time employees, including 90 employees at Artistic Waste and 60 employed with subsidiary companies.

Customers: 75,000 residential and 10,000 commercial