From Rubble Comes Reward

An entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to customer service have breathed new life into Artistic Waste, a 30-year-old Des Moines, Iowa-based collection company once considered a one-dimensional staple in a local market of some half a million residents and several large waste conglomerates.

Capitalizing on innovative niches, such as its construction and demolition (C&D) recycling programs, Artistic Waste is charting new waters where others never dared to brave and, in the process, forging lasting business relationships that transcend demographic lines.

As the president of Artistic Waste, Tony Colismo manages the company's corporate development efforts while his brother, Bobby, handles the daily nuts-and-bolts issues integral to keeping trucks on the road and waste on the move. Recalling his company's humble beginnings, Colismo says he built the solid waste collection business not because he was bored, but simply because he wanted to expand his family's food service trucking experience and dabble in recycling, which, at the time, hinted of untapped potential.

"I always got accused of hauling garbage," Colismo recalls about his days peddling fresh fruit and vegetables. "Now, I pick it up." He and his brother acquired Artistic Waste in 1993 and have since grown the company from its mom-and-pop roots into a multi-faceted provider of solid waste services. Artistic was listed as No. 93 on the 1999 Waste Age 100 report.

Based in central Iowa within a 30-mile radius of the Des Moines marketplace, Artistic Waste collects and processes some 2,500 tons of weekly waste from its 75,000 residential and 5,000 commercial accounts.

The company's three-truck stable has grown into a fleet of 40, and the seven original employees have multiplied tenfold. Additionally, a number of resourceful waste reduction programs complement Artistic Waste's collection efforts and provide avenues for the company to penetrate often neglected market shares without taxing its employees or equipment.

"When we bought the business in 1993, our competitors said we would not last six months," Colismo says. "They said we were just some young guys who didn't know what we were doing. But, they aren't around any more and, guess what? We are."

Bring On the Building Debris One of Artistic's biggest building blocks was its decision to delve into the C&D market, which was a natural progression to becoming a full-service company and represents approximately 20 percent of the company's total waste stream, the 38-year-old entrepreneur explains.

Beginning in 1996 as a demonstration project funded by grant money from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Artistic Waste found Des Moines' construction boom as a great revenue source. The state was offering grant money for innovative waste reduction programs, and builders needed their debris hauled away.

"The Des Moines area has better [profit] margins for C&D waste because of a tremendous amount of residential construction," Colismo says. So as an incentive to home builders and other construction contractors to sign collection agreements, Artistic began offering a C&D recycling program with cost based on the residential dwellings' total square footage.

"This is a really unique program, especially for home builders that are constructing multi-family units or track housing where entire neighborhoods of 500 homes are being developed during a two- to three-year period," Colismo says. "We evaluate the type of homes [builders] are building, including the amenities. From there, we use a formula to determine how much waste we'll take from the house."

During construction of a typical home, Colismo estimates half of the waste stream can be recycled. Instead of placing a roll-off container for the contractor and his subs to discard of their waste, Artistic provides smaller bins for segregating different materials. Grant money from the state was used to purchase a specially designed truck equipped with a crane to load material.

Once segregated, Artistic's collection personnel transport separate loads of wood, metal, concrete and cardboard to Central Recycling, a privately owned recycling and landfill facility in Des Moines. "Between what we do and what Central does, we can get close to 70 percent waste diversion from home builders," Colismo says.

Debris is generated throughout construction, which keeps Artistic busy. "Home-building occurs in phases," he explains. "During the framing stage, for example, there's a lot of wood waste. Toward the end of construction, when most of the amenities are being installed, there's a lot of cardboard. Good builders understand the idea of stockpiling and sorting waste streams because there's an economic incentive to recycle." Carelessness resulting in contaminated loads comes at a price - with Artistic assessing an extra handling fee.

Obviously, construction is a seasonal business, which in Iowa typically begins in April and continues until the first freeze. However, Colismo notes that when the building stops, "C&D goes away, which warrants higher margins. While nothing is recession-proof, residential construction always will continue. It's just a matter of how much and how often."

Today, the program is totally self-sufficient and is being duplicated in other Iowa communities as a model program. And, while profitable, the advantages of the C&D niche create new business opportunities for Artistic without employing additional personnel.

"I can do a lot more with fewer people," Colismo explains. "One man can turn more containers and generate more revenue compared to the same man on a residential route. I'm not going to say it doesn't put more pressure on my people during peak seasons, especially when the season is nine months long, not 12. It's a lot of long days, but [C&D collection] definitely is better revenue per person."

Innovation Spawns Opportunity Gaining confidence and credibility with his company's C&D waste collection efforts, Colismo says Artistic continues to look for additional landfill diversion opportunities, which bring with it the advantage of state grant money to offset startup costs.

For example, working in conjunction with the Des Moines Metro Waste Authority (DMMWA), a quasi-governmental agency representing 21 communities in the central Iowa region, Artistic ventured into a food waste composting program for large food waste generators in the city. Establishing special collection routes, Artistic provides schools, hospitals and restaurants with specially marked containers and biodegradable bags for food waste, which targets almost 70 percent of the facilities' waste streams. The waste is transported to DMMWA's compost facility where it's processed into a lawn and garden product, and marketed to the public.

Direct Shred is another Artistic offshoot that provides confidential document destruction to some 200 local banks, law offices and hospitals. Through this division, customers store their documents in lockable containers with multiple internal levels to protect against pillaging.

A shred truck makes regular rounds, shredding documents onsite before delivering them to a local paper recycling facility.

To fulfill his pledge to be totally full -service, Colismo christened Artistic Medical Waste Services two and a half years ago. Partnering with Iowa Health Systems (IHS), which has additional disposal capacity at its local treatment facility, Artistic caters to the needs of medical and dental practitioners, health facilities and funeral homes. Supplying a variety of different sized bottles and bags, Artistic's trained medical waste personnel collect and transport the waste to IHS' chemical shredding plant.

Until Artistic entered the medical waste market, only one dominant player existed. Now, a viable alternative exists, and Artistic, once again, has capitalized on a new market segment.

Colismo says Artistic Medical Waste Services, Direct Shred and the other non-traditional collection services are the results of listening to his customers while keeping inline with the company's mission statement: "Innovation and integrity in waste services."

"I think it's [given us] an edge," he says. "You can't survive in this industry without being innovative. When we bought Artistic we didn't have any preconceived notion on how things are done ... You can't take a cookie cutter approach with your customers.

"Our philosophy is an educated company is the best company," he continues. "We keep our employees informed about the industry and we tell our customers what we're doing with their material. You've got to listen, make suggestions and fit yourself around the customer - not them around you."

Despite its attention to the niche markets Artistic has created for itself, the typical day-to-day solid waste services of collection and disposal remain the company's bedrock.

The recent extension of Artistic's five-year curbside recycling contract with DMMWA was sweetened with the addition of 37,000 new homes. DMMWA solicited bids from local companies; Artistic was the contractor of choice.

Taking pride in being an independent that competes against its conglomerate counterparts and wins, Colismo says the deciding factors for the agency were price and service.

"A lot of companies just concentrate on putting waste in the landfill," he says. "But, you have to push the envelope. I ask myself, 'Are all [these programs] going to work?' Sometimes, I honestly don't know the answers, but someone's got to try something different."

True to His Roots From Artistic's corporate telephone message that changes quarterly to the new roll-off containers he offers to customers, Colismo says his goal is to keep Artistic innovative. Pointing to the reduction in the number of independent companies during recent years, he says: "There are two types of independents in the waste industry today. One is in business to be out of business. They're building routes and are ready to sell at any moment. They have a readily available exit strategy."

Artistic is a prime example of the other business type. "Our company is built for the long-run," he says. "We've made a huge investment in facilities and equipment, and as long as the local community sees the value in a locally owned business, I'll be here."

So while some questioned Colismo's background and judgment to enter the solid waste industry in the early 1990s, a time of flux and uncertainty, he says there's nothing that could have prepared him better than his years of experience in the food distribution business. A waste company is basically a transportation company, Colismo says. "Whether its fruits and vegetables or trash, we know trucking. The only difference was the food truck left full in the morning and returned empty as opposed to a garbage truck leaving empty and returning full. I was calling on accounts delivering food. I knew my customers, and they knew me. So, when we bought Artistic, they already had a familiarity with the way we conducted business. They liked that we brought that with us to a different industry."

If Artistic continues to be as resourceful as the Colismo's family food distribution service, the future looks very bright.

"Tomatoes would come in 25-pound cases," Colismo recalls. "Not everyone could use that many. So, we would break them down into 10-pound bags and make more money, plus please the customer.

"The same thing's happened in the roll-off business," Colismo continues. "Instead of the traditional 20-, 30- and 40-yard boxes that are too much box for some people, we started offering little 10-yard boxes, which no one else had. I can't keep them in stock. The next thing I know, I see my competitor's bringing [10-yard boxes] into the marketplace. I've always heard that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I guess they were right."

* 10 International/Galbreath Inc. roll-off trucks;

* 20 Kann/Navistar recycling trucks;

* 10 Freightliner/McNeilus rear-end loaders with Navistar chassis;

* 5 Peterbilt cab-over front end loaders with Heil and EZ Pack bodies;

* 5 International/Mack front-end loaders;

* 2 International/Volvo front-end loaders;

* 100 Galbreath roll-off containers;

* 30 10-yard Nedland Industries ROL boxes;

* 10,000 Toter Universal carts; and

* BioCorp compost bags.