Planning Is Key To Small Hauler Success

Editor's Note: Carl M. Hornberger, vice president of sales and marketing for National Serv-All, Fort Wayne, Ind., a landfill owner/hauling company, has been elected chairman of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, D.C.

WW: How is the NSWMA facing its major challenges?

CH: In terms of public policy challenges facing the industry, such as flow control, interstate restrictions and other legislative and regulatory issues, we are meeting those challenges by bringing together our members' resources to develop consensus positions, to educate the people who make the laws and regulations, and to participate in the policy-making process. Participation in the process may mean bringing court cases, circulating fact sheets, federal lobbying or conducting state grassroots efforts.

Then there are the challenges that NSWMA faces as an organization. It is no secret that the industry is merging and consolidating. This process is reducing the number of company members in the association as well as the number of member representatives who are active in the programs and chapters. So, one major issue is developing new leadership. We are dealing with these challenges in a number of ways: We have staff who aggressively recruit new members all the time. There are still thousands of small companies out there, and we want as many as we can get in the association. We also look hard at ways to maximize resources. We pick our issues carefully, and we fund our state lobbying efforts off-budget. If need be, we will consolidate state chapters as we did with Maryland and Delaware.

WW: Considering an emerging trend in regional consolidations, what can small haulers expect in the future?

CH: It means tougher competition for small haulers, and I don't see it going away. Consolidations are how many companies grow. The big and mid-size companies will continue to search for acquisitions. What can small haulers do? Well, small haulers do have some advantages: They are less bureaucratic. They can often beat the big guys on service and on turnaround and can find niche markets. For instance, small, rural areas are going to continue to be good markets for small haulers but not for big companies. The big guys will skip these areas in favor of competing for big contracts.

Small haulers also have opportunities to work with larger companies as sub-contractors. If you are small but own a transfer station or MRF, a big company may want to use your facility rather than spend capital building its own.

WW: How is the recent reduction of landfills in our industry affecting haulers that don't own a site?

CH: In some parts of the country, the landfill market is highly competitive, even a buyer's market. But, no one should fool themselves into thinking it's always going to be that way. All haulers have to make sure they have access to disposal on a cost-effective basis. If you don't own a landfill, pay attention to your local market. If there's a public or private landfill that you use and it's filling up, make plans. Maybe find alternative sites. If it looks like your costs are going to rise, consider buying capacity, either alone or as part of a group. Maybe you should upgrade the size of your trucks to be more efficient in collection.

WW: If you were a small, independent hauler, what steps would you be taking to insure your growth and success?

CH: I would be thinking ahead; educating myself on my local market and on industry trends and technology; talking to my customers and thinking as creatively as I can about the services I offer. In addition, I would try to develop a five-year plan, just like the big companies do.

Small haulers need to become more integrated if they want to be more than niche players. Owning a transfer station or a MRF could be key to long-term growth and survival. Small haulers should stay in touch with their local governments or solid waste districts. You can talk to them. Get involved in their plans and help educate them to do the right thing.

WW: What trends/issues do you expect to emerge in the next few years?

CH: New and changing technologies for waste collection and sorting will emerge, creating their own issues. Computers and radios are already important, and they are definitely part of the future. Technologies will help us lower costs or at least keep them in line significantly. The accredited standards committee Z245, which is sponsored by the Waste Equipment Technology Association is planning to issue for comment a comprehensive safety standard for commingled MRFS and to draft a major revision of safety standards for mobile equipment.

I will boldly predict that recycling is here to stay. Customers demand it even though it is tough to make it profitable. Markets are volatile, and from what I see, they will continue to be. How to structure contracts for recycling so as to assign risk and rewards will remain an important question.

New players are entering the waste services market. We are seeing companies set up as brokers. They have no equipment, but they do have connections with commercial generators such as retail chains. They offer to contract with these generators on a company-wide basis. When I met my first waste broker, I thought he was my competition. After talking a while, I realized that he could be my partner. He can bring business to me that I, as an independent, would not normally have the chance to get for myself.

WW: In what ways has the industry changed since you started?

CH: It has changed in too many ways to count since I started in 1972. We've had the rise of public awareness of waste. The recycling explosion. A huge growth in regulation covering everything from commercial driver's licenses to landfill design and operation. The business is much more complex and challenging than it used to be. At the same time, the fundamentals remain the same. You have to be service-oriented, you have to know what your customer wants and needs and provide it reliably and cost-effectively. You just have to be more on your toes than you used to be.

WW: How do you see privatization of solid waste services evolving?

CH: I think it's going to continue to grow. It just seems obvious to me that government budgets will continue to be tight and that privatization will continue to be a way to do more with less. Solid waste services are already highly privatized, but there are still opportunities. However, a chunk of the public-sector collection and disposal business is in large cities with unions who oppose privatization, even though the unions would probably remain in effect with a private employer. In these areas, privatization will be difficult to implement.