After spending five years in the U.S. Army as a Combat Engineer Officer and serving a 15-month tour in Iraq, Justen Garrity, president and founder of Veteran Compost, came home to Maryland to serve in the National Guard and fight a new fight: reducing organic waste and repairing soil.
Garrity founded Veteran Compost in July 2010 with two goals: hiring veterans and making compost. Since then, he has expanded his business from a single compost pile to one that includes compost production facilities in both Maryland and Virginia.
"Justen can work at all levels and has succeeded for over five years," says Frederick Gottschalk, compost facility operator at Veteran Compost. "Justen is equally as comfortable grabbing a shovel and moving food scraps around in the production process. His daily tasks range from coordinating meetings to driving a food scrap collection route to turning a hand behind the tractor and pitchfork."
At WasteExpo 2016, Garrity was presented with a Waste360 40 Under 40 award for his remarkable efforts in the organics industry. Waste360 recently spoke with Garrity about his challenges with founding Veteran Compost, how he expanded the company into a profitable composting business and the future of the organics industry.
Waste360: Tell us how you came up with the concept for Veteran Compost and how you made your dream a reality.
Justen Garrity: After college, I joined the Army and served as a Combat Engineer Officer for five years. I primarily worked in the field of construction and explosives and, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of need for that in the outside world.
When I completed my service, it was really tough for me to find a job. I was attending Penn State for my MBA in business, and I started looking into sustainability and the recycling industry. I found that a lot of people weren’t focusing on organics at the time, and I saw that as a business opportunity.
I spent approximately six months researching compost, food waste collection and technology to put together a viable business plan. After a while, I finally located a property and signed a lease. On paper I had everything figured out, but I didn't have any customers lined up, I had never run a business and I was self-funding everything.
When I began cold calling businesses to speak to them about food waste composting, they were really confused because composting wasn't a common thing in the East Coast five years ago. After about six months, I finally got linked up with two people who were already composting but were having some problems with their service provider. I jumped on that opportunity and slowly began to gain traction.
Shortly after we landed those contracts, we won a big hospital contract that really helped us take off. Once we could name-drop some of our customers, we got credibility.
Food waste composting is more common now, and it's a lot easier to talk to people about the concept of composting.
Waste360: How did you expand your business from a single compost pile to one that includes compost production facilities in both Maryland and Virginia?
Justen Garrity: It has been a grind. I started with the money I had saved up when I was in the Army, and I bought a lot of used equipment and burned a lot of midnight oil to expand the business. As the company started making money, I started reinvesting that money into hiring more people and purchasing more equipment.
During my first two years, I did everything with my personal truck. After about two years, I bought my first commercial truck and within the past six months, we purchased three more trucks. The pace has picked up, and it's been a process to reinvest in the business and get more comfortable with things.
I feel more comfortable taking on more customers and more materials now, but it took a long time for me to get to that point. I was the only employee for almost two years, and I slowly started to add staff after that.
Fortunately for us, revenues are growing and that gives us more opportunities to reinvest and continue to grow the business.
Waste360: How can veterans get involved in your company and what types of job opportunities are offered?
Justen Garrity: We hire both drivers and compost technicians, who work at the facilities, process the material, prepare the product for sale, etc.
We actively communicate with veterans groups, transition programs and job boards when jobs become available. We also network through social media channels to get the word out.
We have been very lucky with our employees so far, and many of them have common backgrounds and common vocabulary. Everyone does a great job of showing up on time and doing quality work.
It's nice that we are helping them, but selfishly I have recruited a workforce that is made up of strong and reliable employees.
Currently, we have 10 full-time employees between our two facilities and six part-time and contract employees that do sales and marketing for us. As we continue to grow, we will bring more people on board as needed.
Waste360: What are Veteran Compost’s goals for 2016?
Justen Garrity: We are committed to opening another facility this year, which I hope will double our capacity. The demand is strong for both inbound waste material and the finished product so we need to keep up with that demand.
This time of year, we are an around-the-clock operation that works hard to deliver the compost to both farmers and gardeners. Right now, we are working on the permits and regulations that go along with that.
Eventually, we may expand out of the Virginia and Maryland area, but right now we are very fortunate to be sitting in a large metropolitan area with everything at our fingertips.
Waste360: Highlight a moment in your career that you are most proud of.
Justen Garrity: The finished product is truly the magical part of it. Food waste is not appetizing to look at but through the process of composting, we end up with a nice, earthy soil.
I love taking the time to visit with the customers that are using our compost to grow items because they are always so proud. For example, we were at a farmer's market a few years ago selling compost and a couple weeks later someone came running up to us to show us a picture of a radish that they grew. That was the first vegetable that had ever grown, and they grew it with our compost. It's great to see that people are proud of their work.
We cater to both farmers who have large farms and people who are creating their first garden. There is a lot of stress and pride that goes along with that.
Waste360: What's in store for the future of the organics industry?
Justen Garrity: I think eventually there will be a bin for organics that's similar to the blue single stream bin for recycling. With the economics of trash and the constant cultural change, I think the industry is heading that way.
Things move slower in the organics industry, but it’s only going to go up. People will eventually find ways to do it properly and profitably without getting in trouble with local neighbors and regulators. There are definitely some fortunes to be made, and that's what we are banking on.