Whenever Karen Gutzmer and her former husband went shopping, they always drove behind the plaza before they parked to go in. After all, they worked together in the family garbage business, D.W. Gutzmer Rubbish Disposal, and it was important to know the competition. "I'd say, 'I'm here to shop,'" Gutzmer recalls, "and he would say, 'We have to see whose Dumpsters are back here.'"
Today, that family business has long been sold to a national company, and the relationship has ended, too, but Karen Gutzmer has not lost her down-to-earth approach to the garbage industry. She and Kim Hall, formerly an accountant for D.W. Gutzmer, are the co-owners of Lilac Disposal Inc., based in Ontario, N.Y., near Rochester. Lilac is one of the few women-owned and -led waste businesses in the country. Only about six companies on the Waste Age 100 feature women at the helm.
With the distinctive purple flowers on its garbage trucks and bright purple waste and recycling containers, Lilac Disposal has made a name for itself in just more than two years.
Hit the Ground Running
Like many people in this industry, Karen Gutzmer and Hall did not plan to enter the garbage business. Gutzmer had grown up on a farm, studied computers and worked at a car dealership before marrying into her husband's disposal family. Hall had studied business and sign language before moving into accounting. When both women found themselves working for a hauling company, they were intrigued by the fast pace and the fact that no two days were ever the same. Gutzmer also enjoyed working outdoors — to this day, both she and Hall regularly haul the trash.
"I was born and raised on a farm, so I enjoyed the outside of the business," says Gutzmer, the company's president. "Kim worked on the accounting in my husband's business, and she loved it. So she's got the inside experience, whereas I am good at the outside of it."
When the national company acquired D.W. Gutzmer, it was not long before Gutzmer and Hall, who is Lilac's vice president, realized that the community appreciated and rewarded businesses that stayed local. They decided to start a hometown garbage business, naming the company after the official flower of Rochester.
Cobbling together the money through credit cards and home equity loans, the two women purchased a garbage truck and a pickup truck that included a split container for recyclables. They went back to the shopping malls, putting fliers on car windshields. The fliers were printed, of course, on purple paper.
Almost immediately, the calls started coming in. The two had rented a small office in Webster, N.Y., for $150 a month and had hired two drivers, but grew out of that office after four months. In only two years, the company has had to move four times, now operating out of Ontario. The fleet has grown to 11 trucks.
Gutzmer says that the company's quick ascent owes much to the fact that both she and Hall are locals, with no plans of selling out. "A couple years ago, back in '98, the national companies came into town and bought up a lot of local companies [waste and otherwise]," Gutzmer says. "A lot of customers say to us, 'You're not going to sell out, are you?'"
Lilac services the east side of Monroe County, including seven towns. The company dumps its waste at the Seneca Meadows landfill, 1.5 hours away, because it is cheaper than closer private and county landfills. Recyclables are taken to the local county facility. Gutzmer admits Lilac's fees are the highest in the county, but their customer base is growing so fast that they have stopped advertising beyond a phone book listing.
"The national companies' fees are quite a bit lower, but it comes down to service," Gutzmer says. Employees are trained to pick up every bit of trash that might fly onto a lawn, a detail that customers appreciate. Some might attribute that commitment to a woman's fussiness, but Gutzmer says it's just good service.
"We like to get out and talk to the customers, and then if someone has a problem, they know they can call us and they know who we are," she says. "I've sat down at their kitchen tables. That's what people like."
Answering the Skeptics
Lilac Disposal has faced challenges. Even in the 21st century, some people still have difficulty accepting a women-run garbage company.
"The hardest thing, to this day, is we have mainly men trying to knock us down — we're women in a man's world," Gutzmer says. "When we first started, one older gentleman asked us if we had a real garbage truck. I offered to drive it to his house to show him." Today, Lilac Disposal's nine full-time employees include two other women who drive the recycling truck.
In other ways, the"woman's touch" has been an advantage. "People see the purple carts and want them," Gutzmer says. "They look pretty as opposed to the green or brown carts."
But the company gets its share of complaints, too. For example, recently a resident said that the Lilac truck came down the street too early in the morning. So Gutzmer shifted the routes around so that the pickup was later in the morning. "We don't want to lose the customers," she says, "and then it shows the neighbors what we're willing to do."
Yet Gutzmer and Hall have realized the difficulty in accommodating all customer requests. "You have to balance the new customers, the vendors, and it gets to be quite a bit of juggling," Hall says.
Gutzmer adds that the economic downturn has affected Lilac's operations, just as it did so many others. "In February, our truck insurance doubled, and in March, workers' compensation tripled," Gutzmer says. As a result, Gutzmer and Hall let two employees go and work longer hours to pick up the slack.
"Everyone is trying to make up for the losses of 9-11," she adds. "Every day we're learning."
"We Can Do It"
The learning curve, at times, has been steep. Hall admits that it was difficult at first to understand the more technical aspects of the job, such as how the trucks worked and which parts were needed for repairs. But Hall has worked at it, even earning her commercial driver's license. Now, if a driver calls in sick, she can jump in the cab. "As women, we're used to wearing quite a few different hats, and we're able to handle it," Hall says.
The corporate culture at Lilac also is very family oriented. "If [employees have] a problem, they know they can take the day off. Or if we're having a problem, then they offer to help out," Gutzmer says. "We're all very close, we help each other out, and we're a team."
Gutzmer adds that she would love to see more women join the industry but cautions that it is as tough as it is rewarding. "We've had to work harder to make people know that 'yes, we can do it,'" she says. "I have three children, and I have to make sure there's dinner, and the laundry's done ... It's tiring, but we're determined to make it work."
Hall encourages women to not be afraid to try a new field, even if it is one usually ascribed to men. "When I was a little girl, if someone said I was going to be working in trash, I would have run and cried to my mother," Hall says. "But if you're interested in the field, get a job doing it and see if you like it. It takes a lot of hard work, but if you put everything into it, you'll make it."
Kim A. O'Connell is a Waste Age contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.
LILAC DISPOSAL AT-A-GLANCE
No. & Types of Trucks: 10 total (3 Freightliners - 2 are recycling trucks and 1 is a 25-yard rear loader with a Leach body; 3 GMCs - 1 hook trucks, 1 split truck and 1 20-yard rear loader with a Leach body; 2 Crane Carriers for backup; and 2 pickups).
Types of Containers: 65- and 95-gallon Rehrig Pacific carts; 10-, 12- and 15-yard hook boxes; and 2-, 3-, 4-, 6- and 8-yard rear load dumpsters manufactured by Consolidated Fabricators.
No. of Employees: 9, including the owners.
Service Area: Residential, commercial and roll-off services for the east side of Monroe County, N.Y.
Most Interesting: People want to know if we actually drive the trucks and pickup the trash, and if we really know what we are doing.