Robert Alan Wilson, founder and president of Thomson, Ga.-based Precision Waste Services and Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, left the private equity world to launch his own waste and recycling company in 2010. Using technology and strategic initiatives, Wilson and his dedicated team have since grown the company by more than 500 percent.
Wilson and his wife Virginia run Precision Waste, which currently serves more than 25,000 residential customers and holds exclusive waste contracts with the cities of Warrenton, Lincolnton, Wrens, Dearing, Sandersville, Stapleton and Harlem.
“When starting a new business, it's easy to let those around you dictate your decisions. Robert did his research, developed a plan and executed it. When those around him tried to change his mind, he remained focused,” says Ryan Mahoney, a friend of Wilson’s. “Years later, it's clear that his commitment to doing things differently has paid huge dividends. At 32, Robert has created an exceptional business with thousands of satisfied customers. He made his dreams a reality and with the same type of focus, others can, too.”
Waste360 recently spoke with Wilson about how Precision Waste competes with other haulers, the strides he has taken to grow the company by more than 500 percent in five years and what advice he would give to someone thinking about starting a waste hauling company.
Waste360: How did you get your start in the waste and recycling industry?
Robert Alan Wilson: After graduating from Emory University's Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, I started working for the private equity firm Roark Capital Group. A couple years later, the firm decided to invest in the environmental services sector. Our first investment was an equity investment in Waste Pro, and I worked alongside the company’s founder John Jennings and his team members during the due diligence process. At the time, I was really a financially minded person but once I got out in the field with WastePro, I got the itch to get into the business myself.
Shortly after that, I met my wife and I told her that I wanted to leave my job at Roark to start my own garbage company. She backed the idea, and we moved to our hometown of Thomson, Ga. to start Precision Waste Services.
When I first started the company, I thought I knew everything. In reality, I really only knew how to look at the financials and make the numbers work. I didn’t know anything about heavy equipment or human resources, and neither did my wife. But we worked together to figure things out along the way, and eventually attracted a team of talented, committed and loyal people.
We began our company with two trucks and a small customer list. Six years later, we have completed four acquisitions, won nine municipal contracts and grown our fleet to include 26 collection vehicles and nine delivery and support vehicles. It has been a rewarding process, and it’s exciting to see our garbage containers and trucks everywhere, especially since our market was once dominated by national companies.
Waste360: How do you compete with other haulers in the industry?
Robert Alan Wilson: We focus a lot on the quality of our service. I find that it’s very hard to attract drivers to our industry, especially if you are trying to put them in a 13-year-old truck. We operate a new fleet, and we work hard to keep it fresh. Additionally, we keep our pricing transparent and let our customers know what we need to charge to make ends meet. Safety and service verification are also our priorities.
With our fleet, every truck is equipped with camera systems and tablets. We are a technology-driven company so we want to make sure that if we have an accident or an incident with property damage that we have it on video to see the cause and effect. We have been able to coach our drivers to drive safer. The video systems have proven crucial this year in accident mitigation and investigation.
As a smaller company, we can be a lot more nimble about putting those systems into place. It’s not just about being focused on safety; it’s about being able to verify that we have compliance behavior in the field.
Waste360: Tell us about your role as founder and president and some of your responsibilities.
Robert Alan Wilson: When we first started, I would wake up at 4 a.m. to make sure the trucks hit the streets on time. Now that we have the infrastructure and a management team in place, my role has transitioned. I now focus on making sure that all of our team members are happy and that we have the right people in the right spots. I spend a lot of time working to make our team better and figuring out where our pressure points are. I also spend quality time with our excellent maintenance staff. Downtime can sink a company in our industry, and I am proud that we have a second-to-none staff working late every day to ensure our trucks are maintained and in prime condition for the next working day. Lastly, I try to stay connected to our customers, whether it’s attending council meetings or dropping into city halls to check on service satisfaction with key decision makers in our commercial and industrial client base.
Waste360: What strides have you taken to grow your company by more than 500 percent in five years?
Robert Alan Wilson: A lot of people focus on top line and while we have always been focused on revenue, we also focus on what moves we can make in a marketplace, what contracts we can win and what strong acquisitions we can make to increase our route density and generate additional positive cash flow.
Repeatedly, I’ve seen companies take a slash-and-burn strategy to earn share in the market. With this strategy, companies will sell their services at a 50 percent discount to the marketplace and hope that everything will work out. But maintenance costs can arise at any time and if you aren’t profiting, you can’t pay for what you need to and you are forced to either fold or sell. We don’t follow that strategy. We come up with profitable strategic plans so that we can earn revenue from every business or home we come across and target.
We haven’t done a lot of geographic creep because we are a capital-constrained business with good banking and vendor relationships. We have done exactly what we said we were going to do and by doing that, we have a lot of cheerleaders on the sidelines and a lot of people who want to see us succeed.
Even though we are doing well, it hasn’t always been a straight line. There was a time where I didn’t think things were going to work out because we couldn’t build the route density fast enough to achieve sufficient operating leverage to cope with the changing costs, but then spiking fuel prices subsided as we hit an inflection point in our route density.
On the acquisition side of things, we have been able to complete four acquisitions over our national competitors. It wasn’t because we paid the highest price; it was because we vowed to give every employee a shot, and we kept the employees who performed and wanted the company to grow. We offer good opportunities for every team member, and we don’t believe in the trend of firing 30 percent of the acquired company’s labor force to achieve savings.
Waste360: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own hauling company?
Robert Alan Wilson: Save your money and make sure you have somewhat of a rainy day fund because the industry is capital intensive. The industry is very rewarding, but if you opt for the cheaper, older truck over the more expensive, newer truck, you will end up paying for that used truck through maintenance services. Take the time to do some financial planning, and make sure you have a good banking relationship and enough money between you, friends and family to put into the business so that you can actually run it, buy the right equipment, take care of your customers and operate on a consistent schedule.
Waste360: What do you think the future has in store for the waste and recycling industry?
Robert Alan Wilson: I think that technology is going to be the biggest theme in our industry. You see key players like Republic Services, Waste Management and Waste Connections talking about automation on the residential side, and I think that will continue to grow. In residential, we run a mixture of Curotto Can automated routes and rear-load routes. But, our back office system is crucial to what we do every day. Whether it’s a roll-off work order, FEL route sheet, cart delivery list or 1,200-stop residential route, it’s all logged in our system and supported with video playback if we need it.
In the future, there will probably be more autonomous driving because we are seeing that in the long-haul trucking industry and other industries. I think some of that technology will come over to the waste and recycling industry and those who are geocoding their container and customer locations, placing tablets in their trucks with electronic real-time route sheets and integrating strong back office systems will be lightyears ahead of those who are still on the pen-and-paper systems.
When it comes to the municipal side of things, productivity wins the game. If you cannot quantify how many stops you can safely achieve every day, you won’t win municipal bids going forward. The market is getting tight on pricing, and the only way to make it work is through productivity and investment in technology.
Finally, there is a big potential for garbage trucks equipped with electric powertrains. I drive an electric car for my personal vehicle, and the benefits over a traditional internal combustion engine powertrain are quite remarkable, particularly considering the intense stop-and-go nature of our vehicle use. Wrightspeed and The Ratto Group just launched the first commercial application of a range-extended electric refuse truck, and I think what they are doing is very cutting edge. Additionally, this technology holds a lot of potential to help our industry reduce the carbon emissions that we produce.