Waste Pro USA Inc. is one of the largest privately-owned players in the solid waste industry and a dominant player in the Southeast.
The firm ranked 13th on the Waste360 Top 100 in 2016 based on $536 million in revenues in 2015. It grew that figure to $594 million in 2016. With 3,200 employees, the firm’s service offerings include collections, landfills, recycling and transfer stations. It also serves customers on both the residential and commercial sides. It has more than 75 operating facilities and has locations in 61 of Florida’s 67 counties.
Chairman and CEO John Jennings and his son Sean Jennings, a division manager at the firm, take pride in the work they do and for the people they work with. They say that’s at the heart of the company’s success.
The Jennings say Waste Pro employees know they are part of a team and know their worth because it’s part of the daily drive of the company to attract and keep the best talent. The Jennings tell stories of employees who work hard, learn new skills, connect with customers and the greater community and even moments of heroism.
John Jennings’ father, an Irish immigrant, was a residential garbage man who believed in the American dream. As a first-generation American and a second-generation garbage man, John Jennings strives to build on the family legacy.
Sean Jennings, joined the family business in 2014 and oversees the Sarasota/Bradenton, Fla., region for the firm. He too has pride in growing up in the business and has a commitment to making sure the company will persist for generations to come.
Since the Longwood, Fla.-based company was founded in 2001, Waste Pro has been on a growth trajectory.
The past year was a particularly busy one for the firm. From December 2015 to December 2016, Waste Pro closed 11 acquisitions across Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee, increasing its service footprint by 31,000 residential customers and 2,200 commercial customers.
Overall, it serves more than 2 million residential customers and 40,000 commercial customers in more than 500 cities with more than 235 exclusive municipal franchises. It maintains a fleet of more than 2,400 trucks valued at more than $380 million.
John and Sean Jennings sat down with Waste360 to discuss the firm’s next steps.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Waste360: It seems things are going well at Waste Pro these days. To what do you attribute that?
John Jennings: We have a young leaders group of people who are about 24 to 32 years old and most all of them are from colleges in the area of our footprint. And they really have just coalesced together so well. They’re really starting to lead the company. You know our mantra is that we’re a 100-year company. We started planning on this a couple years ago to really turn this over to the millennials and really see where they can go. I’m very excited about the results so far.
Waste360: When you say a 100-year company? What do you mean?
John Jennings: You know when I go on speaking engagements, I always say I’m a first generation American, but I’m a second generation garbage man. My father was a residential garbage man his whole life. He came from Ireland, and really loved this country so much that he ingrained in me that you can do anything you want.
Over the years I have sold my previous companies a couple of times and like a lot of people always thought when you get the money that’s the happiness. But rapidly I learned in both cases that it was really the ability to associate with the people that you work with, where we spend our waking hours.
So … we got together with our other shareholders that work here and said, “What is it that we most want to accomplish?” And we said, “Let’s accomplish something that outlives ourselves.” A company that is—perhaps this is funny—an old fashioned company.
Some of the millennials said, “That needs to be described to us because we’re looking at different definitions than you guys look at, but I want a company that people can be proud of. I want a company that’s going to be a career, not just for the people that are here now but for their sons and daughters.”
So we said then our goal is never to sell. It’s to be a 100-year company—to leave this company behind when we’re no longer here.
Waste360: Sean, from a millennial point of view, how do you see the 100-year company?
Sean Jennings: That 100-year company goal is good … because we can trust that the company is going to be here, it’s steady and we know that we can all keep our mindsets on the long-term viewpoint. I think it’s comforting for a lot of people.
Waste360: And Sean, what about being a third generation in the business?
Sean Jennings: I’ve had a chance to say, at a different speaking engagement, that I’m a second generation American, a first generation Floridian, but a third generation garbage man.
Waste360: Sean, how has growing up around it make a difference for you?
Sean Jennings: I think that for a while the industry was all that I knew, but as time has gone by, I’ve gotten a glimpse of how other industries are and compare it to this one. I have more of an appreciation for this one.… I’m just grateful to have been in the industry from such a young age.
John Jennings: You know Sean also not only has seen other companies—he had a double major in finance and economics and interned on Wall Street—but one of the presents I gave him was the week after he graduated from Alabama, I said, “Hey Sean, I have a ticket to Costa Rica for you.” He said, “Great! Alright!” And I said, “And I’ve gotten you a job in Costa Rica.”
The job was on the back of a garbage truck and for six months, Sean worked on the back of a garbage truck, lived in the bayou and then worked six months on a Costa Rican landfill. I wanted him to see what the differences were and what the similarities were.
Sean Jennings: That was an incredible experience. I remember the first week that I was there, the first day I actually went out on a route, I realized I didn’t know what I was getting into. And by the time that first day finished—and looking back, I realize they were probably testing me and put me on the heaviest route and added a route or something—but at the end of the day we had four loads—four 15-ton loads—and that’s more than twice as much as most the routes have in the U.S.
When I got back, I called home and I said, “Listen what just happened today? This is ridiculous.”
I thought it was going to be a vacation sort of, but it really was an awesome experience. I picked up a little bit of Spanish but working with people I really couldn’t communicate by speaking with, I got to understand that respect is a language that transcends any spoken language. So that was the biggest thing I took from that trip.
Waste360: There’s a quote on the Waste Pro website that says, “At Waste Pro, there’s an unspoken philosophy inscribed in our hearts and minds that define the culture of our company: People make the difference and caring never goes to waste.” What does that mean to you?
John Jennings: Well, when I formed Waste Pro, I said, let’s just keep it simple. We’re going to be a business of equipment and people. We’re going to stay abreast of the latest technology and make sure that we purchase the right equipment, but we really need to really look for and recruit the best people.
[W]hat I want our managers to learn [is] how fortunate we are to be able to work with some fantastic people.
You know today, with the communication that’s so instant, we get texts. We get emails. We get calls. We get tweets. We get everything about situations that our guys on the trucks are involved in that just impress people. But I got a certified letter from a sheriff in Florida. As I’m opening it up I’m thinking, “Oh, great, what is this now?”
And he sent a two-page, handwritten letter saying that our guys absolutely saved his father’s life. His father suffered a stroke and fell into a retention ditch and was trying to get out. As he was trying to pull himself up out of the ditch, cars went by but nobody stopped. He saw the garbage truck at the end of the street. They saw him raising his hands, and they backed up and they drove down the street and both of them jumped out. One called the paramedics and one placed a towel on his cut forehead and cradled him and talked and reassured him until the paramedics came.
And the sheriff said it touched him like nothing else in many years. We get so many things about how our drivers go out of the way.
Sean Jennings: Last summer here we had a team—an uncle and his nephew—and they were driving down the street. And this team has a great relationship with the people on their route. They know just about half the neighborhood by name. They were going down the street and saw smoke coming from the side of the house.
And the report we got from all the neighbors afterwards, they hopped out of the truck and grabbed a garden house and the pool heater was on fire underneath the roof and had begun to catch the roof on fire. The house would have definitely burned down. So they ran up and put the fire out and saved the house from burning down.
Waste360: What else sets you apart from other waste companies?
John Jennings: We’re very well financed and a successful company, but we don’t have the EBITDAs (Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) that the public companies do because we really put a lot more into our facilities. I’m sitting here in Sarasota, and our facility is situated between a convention center and a golf course. It’s a very unusual place to have a facility. We have a 60,000-sq.-ft.-recycling facility sitting here on the property that is all solar-powered and we probably have about a half a million dollars in landscaping in our facility. It’s kind of funny, the county administrator calls it our campus, because it looks so beautiful.
We have a lot of local facilities. We don’t have regional facilities, because we want to hire locally. We answer every phone live and over 50 percent of the customers know the person on the phone. The person on the phone knows the voice of the person calling. I call it the old fashioned way of American companies.
Our new millennials call it the success principal. We are different. We dare to be different and we strive to be different. We’re part of our community. We’ve been so fortunate that 90 percent of our contracts are extended without going out to bid, simply because our clients can see that we make a difference in the industry.
Waste360: You’ve made 11 acquisitions in the 12 months from December 2015 and December 2016. What have those acquisitions meant for Waste Pro?
John Jennings: What we look for are companies that have been in the business, and have a good reputation and we feel some of them are getting to the point where the owners feel they need to start looking at retirement.
People are concerned about what happens when [they] sell. What happens to [their] employees? Will they be taking care of? We’re actually finding that more and more companies actually call us up and say, “In two years I’m thinking about selling my business, and I want to know more about your company. I’ve heard some good things.”
So we go ahead, and the companies we feel will work with us culturally, then we go ahead and make those acquisitions. In some cases they’ve been offered more money by public companies and they are good people so they say no, so their employees will be taken care of when they’re no longer around here. So we’re not actually an acquisition company, but this has come to us in probably the last four years and we’re making those acquisitions.
Waste360: It’s still a challenge in and out of the industry to find and keep qualified drivers. How is Waste Pro competing for good candidates to fill those positions?
John Jennings: One of the things we have done is we have our in-house CDL licensed instructors. We work with a lot of the people we call helpers—the guys on the truck who do not have CDL licenses—and find out why they don’t have a CDL license. We work with them. Some of them feel that they wouldn’t be able to pass the test. They feel like it wouldn’t be something that they could achieve, so we work with very good, experienced, long-term people to get CDL licenses, so as they get older they can transition into a driving position rather than manual labor.
So far, that is really working out very well. It’s given us experienced people – good people who know what the industry is and know what it takes to perform the route and now they’re becoming licensed drivers.
Waste360: Finally, you’ve said Waste Pro is poised for future growth. What are you seeing that makes you say so?
John Jennings: The growth that’s coming to Florida is really amazing. We had a stockpile of 2,500-plus roll-off containers, and we’re down to less than 200 now because of all the new growth—all the new housing sub-divisions that are being built and all the condos, the high-rises, entire villages and market places that are being built.
So organically, we’ve seen the opportunity for a tremendous amount of growth in the state of Florida, in the Alabama coast, the Mississippi coast, in the Memphis area. In the Atlanta to Athens area it’s becoming like a Los Angeles—it’s starting to connect. So we really see a lot of growth in our footprint that we feel we can take advantage of with the type of service and reputation that we have built. So we’re looking for a lot of growth.