A Ragin' Success

April 1, 2000

12 Min Read
A Ragin' Success

June D. Bell

Like many proud parents, Donna Duet displays a picture of her daughter in her office - but this photo's a little different than most. While it may seem strange, Duet, vice president of administration of Larose, La.-based Solid Waste Disposal Inc. (SWDI), sees nothing wrong with having her daughter, Kayla, posed in a shiny trash can. It's proof of her devotion to the company she's been with for 22 years.

This same dedication company wide has helped SWDI realize phenomenal growth. Dubbed "SWeeDIee" by workers and locals in southern Louisiana, the company collects trash from about 1,100 commercial accounts and 68,000 residences. From fewer than 30 employees in 1998, SWDI has grown to 155 in 1999, and about 165 to date. Revenues, which were $11.9 million last year - up from $7.2 million in 1998 - are projected to be $16 million this year and $22 million in 2001.

Based in bayou country a 75-minute drive southwest of New Orleans, SWDI owes its recent, rapid-fire growth to reliable service, new equipment, competitive rates and employees like Duet, says Peter Callais, the company's president. Additionally, the company is focused on customer service. "That is where we've always prided ourselves," he says.

Last year, the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, Baton Rouge, in conjunction with the U.S. Small Business Administration, Washington, D.C., honored SWDI with one of its eight small business awards for growth, increased sales, innovations and commitment to community-oriented projects.

"Two years ago, if you'd asked [if anyone knew SWDI], no one would have known," Callais says. "Now our name is well-known."

Getting Started With 22 years in solid waste, you might never guess that SWDI's roots were in the cable business. In fact, SWDI's founder Harold Callais, the son of a shrimper, actually began his career using his sea-faring skills by fixing boat radios and radars. When Harold read that an innovation called cable television would improve reception and bring stations to rural areas, he was intrigued. So, in 1967, Harold secured a franchise to provide cable service. His grandfather put up his shrimp boat for collateral.

It took a decade for cable service to catch on, but when it did, Harold was well-positioned to take advantage of the boom and to expand his business. Because he was known to so many people as a skilled businessman, Harold was a logical choice when trash hauling was privatized, his son, Callais, says.

In 1978, Lafourche parish, which always had handled its own waste disposal, privatized its residential and commercial collections. Officials divided the long, skinny county into sections and made franchises available. Harold, who until then had focused his business energies on cable, secured the franchise for Lafourche parish "down the bayou."

Expanding from cable television to trash collection may seem like a major career change, but it wasn't such a stretch. "I guess it sounded like a good idea, and he was already in the cable business, so it was somewhat similar," Callais says. "[Both are] quasi-utilities."

So with three 16-yard trucks, a pick-up and 11 employees to serve about 6,000 residential customers in Lafourche, SWDI began its hauling operations. At one time, the parish had 12 trash-collection companies. Harold slowly began buying out smaller companies and moving into adjacent Terrebonne parish. Through the 1980s, SWDI thrived, but the late '80s and early '90s were "our years in the woods," Callais says. Hampered by lawsuits and politics, by the end of the decade, SWDI had lost its residential contracts. Consequently, Harold concentrated on commercial business.

At that time, the company didn't even have a salesman on the road. (The first sales rep was hired last year, and Callais is hiring more.) "We were hanging on, picking up a [commercial] customer here and there," he says.

By 1994, after a stint with the cable business, Callais took over SWDI and Abdon Callais Offshore, the family's ailing boat business. "I just kind of had enough of the cable thing," Callais says, noting that he'd dug ditches for the lines as a 14-year-old and had guided the business since graduating from Tulane University in 1986 with a degree in management.

At the same time, the cable industry was changing. Ownership of cable franchises had consolidated, and there no longer was a territory available for expansion. The solid-waste industry, however, seemed to offer limitless opportunities. "I felt there was more room for growth in this industry," Callais says.

This is because the five-year contracts for residential trash collection in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, which were held by Waste Management Inc., Houston, were up for renewal. And because the renewals were up for bid, Callais thought SWDI might have a shot.

This proved to be true - SWDI won five-year contracts worth a total of $7.5 million. In 1998, SWDI began serving Terrebonne parish's 38,000 residents and small businesses, and Lafourche parish's 21,000 homes.

"We had a good price and our service reputation," Callais says, noting that the contract fit nicely into his business plan for reviving the company. "We had been looking forward for many years to getting back into residential collection."

Indeed, the contracts helped dramatically expand SWDI's business, and that success launched the company's rebirth. It also gave Callais the revenue to upgrade equipment.

Unique Challenges Today, the business continues to grow, with residential service accounting for 70 percent of SWDI's business. Since February, SWDI has been collecting residential waste in the town of Thibodaux, the capital of Terrebonne parish. SWDI won the five year, $4 million contract, which makes it responsible for about 5,000 homes and small businesses. Households pay $13.40 per month for four-day-a-week collection.

The company also serves the parishes of Lafourche, which is about 100 miles long; Terrebonne, St. Mary, Assumption, St. Charles and Jefferson, south of New Orleans.

SWDI stays out of recycling since Callais doesn't think there's much growth there. So although SWDI collects newsprint, magazines, cardboard, cans and plastic recyclables on its customers' routes, the recyclables are given free to Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) in New Orleans.

Despite SWDI's recent success, collecting garbage in rural Louisiana does not occur without some challenges. For example, trucks must carry waste from Lafourche to the River Birch landfill, which in some cases becomes an 80-mile trip as trucks are forced to follow roundabout routes around the bayou and marshes. Such long trips on rural roads put a lot of wear on trucks, Callais says.

Thus, experience has shown him that it's a better investment to spend a little more money on new trucks and maintain them than to use older trucks, which require more repairs. Callais also notes Terrebonne Parish's trash is consolidated at a city transfer station before it's taken to the landfill to somewhat limit the long trips.

Another unusual aspect of SWDI's residential collection is the hazard of navigating narrow streets. For example, in towns such as Golden Meadow, a community of approximately 2,200 residents, Cajun settlers originally built homes on tracts of land that were divided into smaller and smaller plots as the families grew.

"We can't even fit down some streets" in a standard trash collection truck, Callais says. In these cases, SWDI uses smaller satellite trucks (Isuzus with Tomcat bodies).

Currently, SWDI's fleet includes 30 rear-loaders (mostly Mack and International trucks with bodies by McNeilus, Heil and Dempster); four front-loaders, all Macks with McNeilus bodies; three trash trucks (a Mack and two Internationals with Apprentice bodies); two recycling trucks (a Mitsubishi with a Rogers Man body and a Mack with a Century II body); and nine roll-off trucks (mostly Macks with Accurate bodies). All trucks are white and painted with the company's red logo on the side.

"We have to keep them clean or you'll notice it," Callais says, explaining why he opted for white trucks.

Routes are serviced manually -Callais says he isn't interested in automated trucks. A hydraulic arm won't pick up bits of litter scattered around a trash can, he says, but employees will. "We feel the old-fashioned way is the best way."

Business Plans Old-fashioned yet focused, Callais says his business strategy is to expand through south-central Louisiana so that SWDI's service area stretches between Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans.

Specifically, Callais says he's eyeing St. Mary and New Iberia, southeast of Lafayette. Iberia is appealing because it has a port that is a commercial hub, Callais says. Nearby Assumption parish also houses prospective customers.

Callais is not interested in the New Orleans market - despite the fact that New Orleans is the state's largest city and is likely to be a lucrative contract.

"It's not our people; it's not our environment," he says. "We prefer to focus on suburbs and rural areas. There's less competition and less politics."

On the map, New Orleans is just 35 miles from Larose, but there's a world of difference between the Big Easy's bustle of revelers and the peacefulness of Larose. With shrimp boats bobbing on the bayou and fields of sugar cane, nourished by the delta, Larose and nearby towns such as Houma and Thibodaux - where SWDI has offices - are populated primarily by natives.

Many, like Duet, speak Cajun French or speak with a faint twang identifying them as descendants of the French-speaking settlers who made the area their home in the late 1700s. And because most families are related through marriage, Duet jokes that the familiarity means SWDI customers know exactly who to call when they have a complaint.

Perhaps no one is as well known as the company's general manager, Linton "Ticki" Melancon. Callais's key troubleshooter, Melancon has invested 12 years and traveled as many as 9,000 miles each month in his Dodge pickup traversing southern Louisiana's two-lane roads to answer collection calls and special requests from customers.

Melancon, who raises cattle on his off hours, has an astounding network of friends, relatives and acquaintances who were instrumental in helping SWDI secure the Terrebonne contract, Callais says. When the contract was before the council for a vote, only one council member knew Peter Callais - but several knew Melancon and were confident that any company that employed him could deliver.

"Ticki covers about 80 percent of [the business]," Callais says with a laugh. Obtaining the Terrebonne contract, which contributed to SWDI's fivefold growth in 1999, has helped ensure that hiring challenges are met.

Growth is definitely in the cards, Callais says.

"We just don't intend to stand still because we have some contracts," Melancon adds. "We intend to keep growing."

Louisiana is unique in many ways, but the location poses one problem: "We had a difficult time finding people," says Peter Callais, president of Solid Waste Disposal Inc. (SWDI), Larose, La.

The company's general manager, Linton "Ticki" Melancon tackled the task by hiring former Waste Management (WMI) workers. He also "talked up" SWDI jobs to long-haul truckers, who spend a lot of time away from their homes and families, and oil workers, who live four days each week on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a trash collection worker, "you might not make the good money," Callais says. "But you're home every night," his vice president of administration, Donna Duet says, finishing the sentence.

SWDI currently pays between $6.50 per hour and $7 per hour, plus benefits to "hoppers" - workers who ride the trucks in residential neighborhoods and hop on and off to empty the containers. Drivers make between $7.50 and $9.50 an hour. All get benefits.

SWDI's package has appealed to women, too. As many as 10 women work as hoppers or truck drivers, jobs that start at 4 a.m.

Joy Ledet, a former WMI worker, is one of two SWDI route supervisors. "It's a good company to work for," Ledet says. "They believe in customer service, and I like to be satisfied when I'm the customer."

Most employees work 55 to 60 hours a week, and many opt for longer hours to collect overtime pay. Callais says some workers make more than $3,000 a month. For a high-school educated worker in rural Louisiana, that's a good wage, he says.

Still, finding employees can be difficult. For many years, the oil industry offered better wages than SWDI could. But many southern Louisiana drilling companies went bust in the early '80s due to a worldwide oil glut. As prices plummeted, drilling halted, and unemployment hovered at 30 percent.

Many residents left the area, but SWDI was kept several long-term employees, such as brothers Roddie and Rodney Matherne, who, combined have a total of 37 years with SWDI and work as route supervisors.

Last year, SWDI also began participating in a program to hire nonviolent offenders who have served all but six months to a year of their sentences in state and parish jails and prisons. There are six similar work-release programs in Louisiana. Inmates "have been approved by every board there is," says Charlotte Randolph, a SWDI spokeswoman.

These workers receive the same wages as SWDI employees, but they keep just $20 a day. The remaining salary is used to run the program. SWDI has 19 inmate-workers who are never late because they're brought to the job by law-enforcement officers.

According to Callais, the program has been a success on several fronts: Prisoners have a constructive way to spend their time and a job possibility upon release; SWDI's chronic labor shortage is reduced - especially as the company expands.

President: Peter Callais

Age: 35

Family: Wife, Monica, and son, Justin, 4

Education: Tulane University, 1986, BS in management

Other Businesses: President, Abdon Callais Offshore, an offshore transportation company in Cut Off, La., that earned a spot on Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing companies in 1999 because it had a 610 percent increase in sales from 1994 to 1998.

Solid Waste Disposal Inc. (SWDI)

Headquarters: Larose, La.

Employees: 165

1999 Revenue: $11.9 million

Service Area: southern Louisiana's bayou country

Commercial Accounts: 1,400

Residential Collections: 64,000

Number and Types of Refuse Trucks:

* 30 rear loaders, including 16 Macks with McNeilus bodies; 2 Macks with Heil bodies; 1 Mack with Dempster body; 1 Ford with McNeilus body; 10 Internationals with McNeilus bodies.

* 4 Mack front loaders with McNeilus bodies.

* 3 trash trucks, including 1 Mack with Apprentice body; 2 Internationals with Apprentice bodies.

* 2 Recycling trucks, including 1 Mitsubishi with Rogers Man body and 1 Mack with Century II body.

* 3 Satellite Isuzu trucks with TomCat bodies.

Types of Containers: 20-yard High Profile; 20-yard Low Profile; 30-yard Wastequip MayFab 100-gallon, fully automated carts manufactured by El Monte Plastics.

Number and Types of Customers: Residential customers total 67,868 - 25,412 in Lafayette, 37,456 in Terrebonne and 5,000 in Thibodaux. 1,088 commercial customers.

Number of Employees: 165

Service Area: Suburban and rural areas between New Orleans and Lafayette, La.

Services Provided: Residential and commercial collection, recycling, and construction and demolition debris removal.

Local Tipping Fees: $21.98 per ton to $29 per ton.

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