September 28, 2012

3 Min Read
NIMBY Notes: The Power of the Personal

Usually when a city council hearing is dominated by two hours of public comment about a waste company, it’s not a good sign. People don’t line up in droves to talk about how happy they are with their garbage collection service, or to stick up for it when its business is threatened. The most a solid waste company can hope for from its customers, the thinking goes, is a sort of benign indifference.

But a recent episode in Vacaville, Calif., is turning that conventional wisdom on its head. There, San Francisco-based Recology, a solid waste firm that encompasses collection, sorting, transfer and landfill management, was coming up against a June 2013 expiration date for its contract to collect trash for Vacaville. Earlier in the year, at a May city council meeting, the municipal government decided to open up the city’s collection contract to new bidders over Recology’s objections. As in many cities across the state, it was getting harder and harder for officials to keep the budget in the black.

Opening up the contract to new bids seemed to be the first step on the path to ditching Recology and finding a new, cheaper firm to handle the town’s waste collection. Three new bids came in to the council, and one of them was recommended by municipal staff to be awarded the contract. It wasn’t that Recology was disliked; it was just cold, hard dollars and cents. The staff recommendation noted that its preferred vendor would net the city $1.1 million in savings compared to the status quo.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the landfill. At the City Council meeting to award the contract, a veritable army of citizens spoke up in support of Recology and preserving the city’s contract with them. They ranged from customers, who had grown to appreciate the quality service they received, to Recology employees, who were well known in the community. The Daily Republic, a local newspaper, characterized the display as “an outcry of public support.” The council heard “emotional pleas by employees, residents and folks from other cities speaking on behalf of Recology. Speakers pointed to the sense of community the company has with Vacaville after more than 50 years of service.”

Ultimately, this show of support for Recology carried the day. Councilman Mitch Mashburn declared that “Vacaville has spoken,” and joined his colleagues in voting unanimously to stick with the firm in spite of their own staff’s recommendation. It was a victory for the citizens who turned out to speak, but beyond that, it was a vindication of Recology’s decision to invest time and effort in developing a relationship with their community. And it represents the future of the relationship between the waste industry and its customers.

Recology’s success proves that the future belongs to those companies that choose to develop strong community relations. A positive relationship with neighbors, customers and employees isn’t just a feel-good bit of fluff; it’s a competitive advantage that will become increasingly relevant as technology allows citizens to become more engaged with their government and each other. This personal touch is hard to find, but it’s valuable. For the city of Vacaville, it was worth more than $1.1 million. For Recology, it was worth many more millions in the form of a renewed contract.

We often talk about the threat to the waste industry that NIMBYism represents. However, it’s important to remember that the inverse is also true: good community relations can be an asset to companies that take the time and effort to cultivate them. Customers and clients are people like anyone else: they want to do business with vendors they know and respect. Make it easy for them to get to know and respect your business, and you’ll have an advantage that no competitor can trump.

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