When John Gunnello's grandfather started collecting used cinders and ash cans from public schools in Newark, N.J., in 1955, he wasn't planning to launch a multi-generational, multi-million dollar business. He was just trying to support his family. Cinders and ash cans were used only in winter, so it was a seasonal business. Mr. Farese, Gunnello's maternal grandfather, supplemented his family's income by pouring concrete driveways and completing handyman jobs during the warmer months.
But when he realized people needed someone with a truck to pick up metal, cardboard and other waste year-round, Farese launched T. Farese & Sons Inc. in 1958. His two sons, Gunnello's uncles, went into business with him. "They quickly made a name for themselves in New Jersey," says Gunnello, now the third-generation owner of the company.
More than a half-century after the company began and after widespread changes have turned the waste industry largely into a collection of conglomerates, the family business is still small but thriving. Still located in its original hometown of Newark, T. Farese & Sons and its sister company, Direct Recycling, now employ 47 workers and own 37 collection trucks. The combined operations brought in $9.3 million in revenue in 2009, which placed them at No. 77 in the most recent Waste Age 100 ranking of the largest waste management companies (the ranking appeared in Waste Age's June 2010 issue).
"Over the years, the big names bought a lot of companies out, but T. Farese remained," Gunnello says. "It's been an interesting ride going from a mom-and-pop to a company that services Fortune 500 companies. But our motto has always been 'take care of the customers.'"
Today, T. Farese & Sons and Direct Recycling combine to offer clients solid waste removal, source-separated recycling and single-stream recycling to both residents and businesses. Gunnello is president and owner of both companies, and the company's customers span an array of industries including sports arenas, manufacturing facilities, colleges and universities, and major retail stores. Gunnello is currently in negotiations to begin handling waste services for a major airline, he says.
Growing Up in the Business
Like many owners of multi-generational businesses, Gunnello has spent most of his life learning his industry. Gunnello started working with his grandfather when he was nine years old. "I was sitting in school drawing garbage trucks, making my mother cry," he says.
Rather than staying with T. Farese & Sons for his whole career, Gunnello wanted to prove himself to his grandfather and uncles. He launched his own solid waste business at age 18, and sold it to Republic at age 35. While he stayed on after the acquisition, "corporate America was not what I wanted," Gunnello says, and when his last remaining uncle asked if he'd like to take over the family business, he jumped at the chance. When Gunnello took over seven years ago, T. Farese was collecting about $20,000 a month in revenue. In its Waste Age 100 entry, the firm projects a 2010 revenue figure of $14 million.
The solid waste business has changed significantly since T. Farese & Sons began operations. One of the biggest changes has been the advent of recycling, which "has become a huge part of the business," Gunnello says.
Even the methods of collecting and disposing of waste have changed. For instance, "when I was a kid, Grandpa used to tell me to fill the hopper with water, and it would make the trash pack better," Gunnello says. "Now, if we had water in the hopper, we'd go broke."
Competing with the Big Boys
Why do customers eschew the larger corporate waste companies to do business with T. Farese? "People don't want to be a number," Gunnello says. "They don't want to talk to a computer. For years, that has been our sales pitch: When you call us, you get to talk to a real person."
Gunnello says his firm takes time to learn the needs of each customer and to develop workable solutions to their needs. The company surveys each customer twice per year and performs regular route audits to ensure that it is charging customers the right rates for the services they are using.
"There are so few of the mom and pops left," Gunnello says. "Public companies have set parameters of what they have to make; they already know what the profits are supposed to be before the quarter begins. [In contrast,] we bend with the customer. We don't fluctuate prices constantly because of fuel price changes."
Recently, Gunnello actually reduced the monthly charge for a longtime client, who "looked at me like I was crazy," he says. "But I was able to get a better deal so I wanted to pass the savings along to him. A bigger company wouldn't do that."
For Gunnello, being able to provide personal service like that is what he loves about carrying on his grandfather's business. "One reason we have all these economic problems is because people lost sight of ethics and morals in business," he says. "I want to be different. We take pride in treating our customers right. I hope to teach my son the values my grandpa and uncles taught me."
Looking to the Future
As it has done for the past 50-plus years, T. Farese is determined to continue evolving and reinventing itself to compete effectively for the next 50 years. Recognizing the importance of environmentally friendly business practices, the company is "fully green," Gunnello says, and holds proper certification from the U.S Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program to service facilities and construction projects that are LEED-certified. "My vision is simply to keep this company moving forward," Gunnello says.
Currently, plans are in the works for T. Farese and Direct Recycling to purchase its own recycling center. "We're negotiating with a few different people to purchase or merge with a recycling center and transfer station," Gunnello says. "[Having our own center] will let me give customers more of an edge [on pricing]."
As for customer service, Gunnello plans to "keep customers first and continue to let people know there are other options [besides the bigger companies]," he says. "I want people to know there is a benefit to working with a company that cares. Things can turn quickly in this business, with the rules always changing. We always refer back to Grandpa and try to just keep doing business the way he did."
Nancy Mann Jackson is a contributing writer based in Florence, Ala.