Mountain Grown

As former Police officers and SWAT team members in El Paso County, Colo. — the heart of Rocky Mountain country — Tommy Coates and Ken Larsen knew the streets like the backs of their hands. They knew where teenagers loitered and criminals lurked. They knew local residents and business owners as neighbors and friends. So, when the two were contemplating second careers, starting a local waste hauling company seemed completely natural.

By 2003, Coates and Larsen each had spent nearly 10 years in law enforcement, and both were ready for a career change that would be challenging, lucrative and rewarding. After numerous discussions on the beat and with their families, the two men founded Rocky Mtn. Disposal, which services Colorado Springs and other parts of El Paso County (and which should not be confused with the waste company of the same name that operates in the Aspen/Glenwood Springs area of Colorado and which spells out “Mountain” in its name). On their first day of operation in January 2004, the owners drove their single truck themselves, collecting waste from their entire roster of a dozen or so customers — all of whom were friends or relatives.

Today, Rocky Mtn. Disposal has 19 full-time employees, 11 rear-loader trash trucks equipped with cart dumpers and just less than 10,000 residential customers. The firm brought in more than $1 million in revenue in 2006. The partners attribute their success to putting customer service first and giving back to their community, as well as working well together. “We had already spent a lot of time together in the sheriff's office,” Coates says. “If you trust someone with your life, you can trust them with your business.”

A Long-Term Business

Before launching their venture, Coates and Larsen faced two challenges right off the bat. Neither one knew the first thing about the waste industry, and the market was already crowded. Like most counties, El Paso County's waste generation had increased in recent years — the county disposed of 2.8 million cubic yards of solid waste in 2005, up from 2.1 million a decade earlier — so the potential business was there. But a half-dozen waste companies, including both local haulers and big-name firms like Houston-based Waste Management, were already servicing customers in the county.

“We did a lot of research and planning and talking before we said, ‘Let's do it,’” Larsen says. “We saw that waste disposal could be a long-term business. There's always going to be crime, and there's always going to be trash.”

As a first step, the partners turned to Rob Robinson and Jay Ringler, two local waste industry veterans. “It was nice to come into a business and to have someone to call to say, ‘This is what we do next,’” Larsen says. “They had done it for many years. Starting the business was a scary decision to make, and we knew a lot of start-ups don't make it. But we thought we had a better shot making it with garbage.”

Robinson and Ringler gave the partners invaluable advice, which Coates summarizes as, “Don't inherit your customers — earn them. Be innovative and willing to think outside the box.” Coates and Larsen applied this rule to their initial ad campaign, a multi-faceted effort involving door-to-door flyers, direct mail, local newspapers and advertising circulars. Most interestingly, the men also began advertising their fledgling company on local rock, country and Christian radio stations, something no other company in town had done.

Research was paramount when the two were starting out. When purchasing equipment, for instance, the company called many distributors to research prices and talked to other local waste companies before buying their first truck through a New York City auction and placing an initial order for 100 carts. “Our intention was never to be a national powerhouse,” Coates says. “There are several outstanding waste companies in our community, and we all strive to be the best at what we do. Our intention was to form a small but sound operation, based solely on the best customer service available, to ensure our employees are taken care of and to never let growth outdistance customer service.”

Better Solutions

Last summer, another startup waste company in El Paso County, Elite Waste & Recycle, succumbed to chronic cash flow problems and abruptly shut down. Unbeknownst to Coates and Larsen, an Elite executive left an outgoing voice mail suggesting that customers contact Rocky Mtn. Disposal to set up new trash contracts. Within 24 hours of that message, Rocky Mtn. took on 200 new customers, and hundreds more followed.

It speaks to the company's reputation that one of its competitors singled it out during a crisis. Larsen and Coates attribute this to their community outreach and customer service approach. Early on, they made several decisions about how they would treat their customers. First, the partners eliminated surcharges to existing customers related to fuel prices or other factors, even if that meant temporarily absorbing cost increases. Customers also can be billed on a three-month, six-month or yearly cycle, adding flexibility. To cement its reputation as a good corporate citizen, the company also makes quarterly charitable donations, to both local organizations and well-known national entities such as the St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis.

Out on the routes, the company takes the extra step of returning all customer containers back up to the house after each service. “In a climate like Colorado where weather and wind are always a factor, we knew by eliminating this small burden for our customers that it could make a difference in their choice of providers,” Coates says. “The guys who run the route know that it doesn't really cost them additional time to take the carts back. We knew that was one thing that no one else does.”

The company has instituted an intensive training program, which is rooted in the strong training ethic that Larsen and Coates endured for the SWAT team. Drivers, for example, must ride with a trainer for two weeks, before they take over the wheel while still under supervision. Trainers offer feedback on driving skills, details of the routes and communication with customers. Drivers also must spend a day with the mechanic learning about the trucks they are driving. “What we try to instill in our employees is to always ask questions if they get in a jam,” Larsen says. “The more people that you can get thinking about the problem, the better solution you're going to find.”

Looking Ahead

Currently, Rocky Mtn. Disposal is strictly a residential hauler, but the company is considering an expansion into commercial collection. Going forward, Coates says the greatest challenge facing the company is to resist the temptation to grow quickly or take shortcuts that would undermine the quality of service. “We're still averaging 50 new customers a week, and we have the equipment and personnel to deal with that,” Coates says. “We never want to grow faster than we can handle. We're already a couple vehicles ahead of where we need to be.”

Serving on the police force taught Larsen and Coates about hard work, building a strong team and serving the local community — values that the partners have channeled into Rocky Mtn. Disposal's success. “Three years ago, it was just me and Tommy sitting at my kitchen table with a pad of paper and pen,” Larsen recalls. “We felt like we really couldn't fail.”

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing writer based in Arlington, Va.

ROCKY MTN. DISPOSAL: BY THE NUMBERS

Founded: December 2003.

Owners: Tommy Coates / Ken Larsen.

Service: Residential waste disposal servicing the Colorado cities of Colorado Springs, Monument, Widefield, Fountain, Falcon and Peyton.

Equipment: 11 rear-loader trash trucks, 2 box trucks, and 1 service truck, manufactured by Freightliner, Portland, Ore.; International Truck and Engine Corp., Warrenville, Ill.; Crane Carrier, Tulsa, Okla.

Employees: 19 full time employees — 15 drivers and loaders, three office workers, one mechanic.

Customers: Just less than 10,000 residential customers.