Episode 76: How the Waste Industry Saved My Life (Transcript)

October 6, 2020

40 Min Read

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.


[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell with Waste360 with Michael O'connor from Premier Waste. Welcome, Michael, and thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:34] Michael O'connor: Thanks, Liz. I appreciate you having me.

[00:00:36] Liz: We normally start in the beginning. I'd love to hear about your background and how you found yourself in the waste and recycling industry.

[00:00:43] Michael: It's an interesting story. Before I tell it, it's weird. I used to be ashamed of it and I'm not actually sure why. Many years ago, after I told it a few times, just started to embrace it and really haven't looked back. In order to tell you how I got into the waste business, I got to tell you a little bit before that. In 1993, I was 16 years old and pretty misled, getting in and out of trouble. I sold 10 pounds of marijuana for an undercover agent and I was given four years in state prison. Definitely didn't know where I was going with my life at that time, but I met a guy in there, and his sister was the office manager for an independent trash company in the Phoenix area.

When he got out, he got him a job, and him and I would write. I would tease him as well, "Haha, you're a garbage man." When I got out on parole, obviously I needed to get a job and reached out to him and said, "Can you help me?" I was hired in as a welder, with zero welding experience. This company was called Best Disposal. It was owned by Jim and Keith [unintelligible 00:02:05] in Phoenix and I was there for about 90 days. We were acquired by this little tiny company called Allied Waste and from there, things just took off. General manager at the time, that they brought in from Chicago, was a gentleman named Rick Wojahn. Rick just took a liking to my work ethic.

It was at a time where my dad was trying to influence me, that the more you do know, the more you're worth.

I was very young, impressionable, and felt like I just couldn't learn enough, and Rick was willing to let me learn as much as I wanted. Back then, we didn't necessarily exercise the 60-hour rule either, so there were many 70, and maybe even, a few 80-hour weeks. At that young age, no children, it was just a hundred miles and running. I look back at those years, and we had so much fun. I met a gentleman by the name of Greg [unintelligible 00:03:11], who was my Direct Supervisor. Greg is married to Denise Slager, Don Slager's sister. He had come in from Iowa from Waste Management.

They brought him out to the Phoenix area for the Allied Waste Company and Greg took a liking to me, just taught me a lot of great things. Not just in professional, but in personal. That's when I met Don Slager. He was our District Manager at the time. Probably, I'm going to say late 96 early 97-ish. I learned, obviously, welding on the dumpsters, refurbishing them. It's funny, I tell you that my attention to detail was so good, Wojahn would tell me, "Michael, they're not a fine German automobile. It's a dumpster." Just from how meticulous I wanted that thing to look. Just a sense of pride. Ours had to look better than everybody else's.

A lot of that was instilled too with Greg [unintelligible 00:04:18]. They encouraged me to go to this compactor school marathon. Then- what was it? I know I flew into Columbus, Mississippi, but I believe it was just across the line. I can't remember. Anyhow, I did a four or five-day compactor school. Did that, and then encouraged me to get my commercial driver's license. Did that, went through, front load, side load, roll-off, just learning every aspect there was along the way. That's the introduction. That was my beginning.

[00:05:02] Liz: What a story. I'm so happy you shared that because, as you do know now, looking at it from the lens of where you are in life, there's nothing to be ashamed of. It really helped sculpt who you are today. What an amazing story of overcoming that, and we all make dumb mistakes when we're young. You just happen to get caught, you certainly made the best of it, and created quite a business. Good for you, Michael.

[00:05:30] Michael: I'm very happy that I went through it. A lot of learning, but more so than that, I don't know that you and I'd be having this conversation today if I didn't.

[00:05:40] Liz: Right. This put you on this path.

[00:05:44] Michael: Exactly. Yes, so absolutely no regrets from there. I've met some of the most wonderful people on this journey and learned so much from all of them. It's been pretty remarkable to look back, where I've been, where I'm at, what I've done, the folks along the way, it's been quite the journey.

[00:06:10] Liz: Good for you. That's awesome. To your credit, you went into this, it sounds like, with your life too. You're curious, you have a growth mindset, and you had mentors who helped. You definitely had to be open to that in order to take advantage of it and be as meticulous as you were for it to get noticed the way it did too.

[00:06:32] Michael: Absolutely. One of the things I've always said is the waste industry saved my life. I really believe that. I had no direction, I had no idea what I was going to do. They welcomed me, on parole no less, open arms, and said, "Come on over here. We'll teach you everything you want." Just absolutely changed my life. Earlier, we mentioned Ron McCracken. I met Ron-- it's got to have been 1998, I think. He was the exact same guy today. Ron is just the gentlest giant. He couldn't have been any nicer and he's so great, "Here, I want to introduce you to somebody. Hey, there's somebody you got to meet." There's no way I could say enough nice things about Ron. He has just been a mentor, a good, good friend. Taught me a lot both professionally and personally.

[00:07:34] Liz: He definitely has and he's an open-hearted guy like that. So knowledgeable and he's a connector. He has helped so many of us. That's fantastic. I'm so happy he's enjoying his retirement now.

[00:07:48] Michael: Between the time I started to get to 2002, obviously just trying to learn everything about the industry, and I don't just mean from the field, even inside. When I got out of prison, I had quite a few tattoos that were pretty noticeable. The side of my neck, back of my neck, my face, both of my hands were pretty covered. You got to remember, this was the mid-'90s there. It really wasn't acceptable. I think you go to a Subway sandwich shop now, and the guy could be sleeved out and it's pretty acceptable. Back then, it was looked at a lot different, even in the trash business. Rick Wojahn had found this X tattoo program with the city of Phoenix. Allied asked me to go for an orientation on a Saturday.

I went and it was hard for me to wrap my head around because I never asked to take the tattoos off. I was taking them off because people were looking at me in a way that wasn't good. My problem was I never put them on for them to look at me that way. There was never that intention. If they were intimidated, I never put them on for them to be intimidated, so I was having a hard time taking them off. I felt like I was taking them off for somebody else. I go to this orientation- I'm sorry I said 2002, this was early 97. They say the waiting list is like a year, so I think, "Okay, I got a lot of time here to stretch my legs." I go back to work on Monday and I tell them. Allied has their corporate people get involved, I'm at the top of the list, and I start next Saturday.


[00:10:05] Michael: Yes. I go there next Saturday and they've got the Channel 3 or Channel 5 news, the local station there in Phoenix to do a cover story on me. To set the stage for the removal, they go over everything at once in a session, and there's no anesthesia. The trade-off was, I would do a session once every nine weeks which it took two and a half years to do this and I would go once every nine weeks. In between those nine weeks, I would do 25 hours of community service. That's how I paid for this. There was no financial obligation to it.

The news lady's there, I've got no anesthesia, this thing hurts like hell, and I'm trying not to show that it hurts. But, man, getting them off is probably similar to getting run over by a truck. It's just a lot of pain, but I did everything. Did the two and a half years, so I get all the tattoos removed. Which, obviously, looking back on, there'd be no way I could ever thank Rick for the nudge to go through it because it really would be different now. Especially where I'm at in my career. Having the stuff on my face that I did and I can just imagine sitting down with Chase Bank and having them look across the table like, "What are we getting into?"

Fast forward to 2002, working at another independent company called Arizona Waste. Arizona Waste was owned by Don's brother, Dave Slager. If anybody knows Dave, Dave is a wild man. We call him Teflon Dave. What am I, 22 at the time? 23? Somewhere in there. Met a salesperson that was working there and we figured out we had a lot of the same likes, similarities, and everything, and ended up dating. To this day, we've been engaged now, 18 years [laughs]. Her name is Cheryl Caponigro, and she is also my business partner along with Larry Hank at Premier Waste.

[00:12:47] Liz: That's awesome. You found such a world within waste and recycling. A partner in every sense of the word, a great business. That's awesome, Michael.

[00:13:01] Michael: Yes, it is a lot of fun. It's a lot of work. We'll get calls at two in the morning because we never turn the phones off and they'll say, "I didn't think you were going to answer", and I'd be like," It's okay. I didn't think you were going to call." Like anything else, there's a lot of work involved. We're actually in Sedona taking a little break right now and Premier Waste comes with us. We've got our laptop set up here in the little living room, and Cheryl's fielding different calls and RFPs. Premier comes wherever we go, and the folks in the industry that have traveled with us, DCA and the different industry events, they've always seen Premier come with us. It's nothing to step away from dinner because the customer's calling and it needs our attention right now.

[00:13:55] Liz: Definitely. I know the pandemic has had its share of challenges for everyone, how have you guys fared? Where you are, both of you, the business, everything?

[00:14:08] Michael: Like anyone else, when everything happened we were confused. A lot of uncertainties, "Is this going to last a month? What's going on here? How do we manage something that we don't know that's in front of us?" The other thing was also trying to keep everybody, our drivers and our office employees, in a comfortable manner where they felt safe, trying to reassure them that we're doing everything possible for their best interests as well. We, like anything else, took one day at a time. We had some-- we'll call them perm accounts. Basically, place their service on pause. They didn't go out of business. They just were closing down until they could see what's going on and regroup. That probably accounted for maybe about 25 or 30% of our business, so that was a little scary to see it happen.

Now, right away, I think people were at home and said, "If I'm going to be here, I'm going to do this clean up in my backyard", or, "I've been wanting to remodel the bathroom." We saw an uptick in temp dumpsters going out. Which is, generally, a higher margin line for us than the perm business is. It definitely didn't wash us balanced, but it helped for sure. That's mellowed out, obviously. It's March, they've rebuilt and done all the side jobs they can do. Since then, we've had the stuff that did go on pause, reopen and they're at a slow crawl. I'll say it's definitely not February, but we've got to have some type of a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel and it's definitely working us towards that.

[00:16:17] Liz: That's good. How do you think the challenges differ where you are in Arizona compared to, say, the whole in the Northeast or the South?

[00:16:26] Michael: In the Northeast, obviously, they were just rocked with the amount of folks that did get it. Obviously even so the amount of deaths and trying to navigate through that. My heart goes out to them. I can't imagine what that was like and then, in the interim trying to keep your business afloat and not have everything go down the drain. For Arizona, I guess the major difference would be that we're such a growing state. Maricopa County, where we live, is the fastest-growing county in the US and has been for several years. I think that we were very blessed, and that construction did not slow down. It continued to thrive and that is, for sure, the front line of our business. The dumpsters were still getting filled up and they were still calling for service. We were able to keep the wheels on the bus going.

There's been some folks that closed down. It's not all rainbows and unicorns. There's some hardship out here. A lot of local stuff, small business, that just wasn't able to make make it through for whatever reasons, and that's tough, to see them shut their doors. We didn't want anybody to have to do anything like that. But I would say, for the most part, in our service area, everybody has been very strong. It may not be, like I say, February-type business, but it's something. Everybody's continuing to just pick up where we're at, make the best of the day, and we'll see what tomorrow brings.

[00:18:26] Liz: Yes. That's all you can do, right?

[00:18:28] Michael: Yes. I wanted to tell you, so a little bit about starting Premier Waste. In 2006, Cheryl and I going back and forth, we've helped a few people build their business. They've obviously sold it, moved on, and did very well. There's no reason that we can't do this for ourselves. I would tease her, "No one's ever going to knock on the door and say, 'Hey, would you like to start a garbage company?' If we want to do this, we're going to have to do some heavy lifting and get this off the ground." We were in talks with her father about starting a trash company here in the Phoenix area. He was going to put up the money, but we knew that it was going to grow to a spot where we were going to need another capital investment.

He had outlined that, "Hey, this is it." Cheryl was approached by Larry Hank at the time, who had said, "Hey, I heard that you guys are looking to start something. Why don't we put that way to bed? We'll go and I'll fund it."

We won't need another capital investment, so we started those talks and conversations.

A little background on Larry. Larry was the president and Chief Operating Officer at Allied Waste, so it really brings my story full circle with partnering with him and doing this company. We get all the logistics done, and contracts, and stuff like that. I look back at everything. This was October of 2006, and we bought three trucks. We went down and bought them out of Tucson because we didn't want anybody to see Larry and myself walking into Peterbilt dealership there and Rush Truck Center in Phoenix, and calling people saying what we're doing. Everything had to be top secret.

We get these trucks, we buy a few hundred dumpsters and just never look back. Obviously, this was the fourth quarter of 2006. I don't want to say it was slow, but we're just getting our feet wet getting the company off the ground. 2007 took off like a rocket ship. We put eight trucks on the road in 12 months. I barely remember 2007 because it was going to bed at 11:00 at night and getting up at 2:00 in the morning to start getting things done.

There were so many different things to do at the time, every dumpster that came brand new still had to be decal, trying to find drivers. Arizona was known as this build to sell location. If I had to give a reason with Allied's Corporate Office being there at the time, that a lot of people would build this company and then dangle the carrot for Allied to acquire it. Getting folks to believe that, "Hey, this isn't the bill to sell."

Larry taught us that you build the company as if you're going to own it for the rest of your life. That was a new concept to Cheryl and I because we had only seen people really build it up for a few years and sell it. He instilled this financial discipline in us that we didn't really understand at the time. I'll tell you, in December of 2013, when we were debt-free, we understood [laughs], we more than understood.

There's so many great things that we've learned from him along the lines, we all had the same input that the company with the name Premier. It really represented who we all were, we wanted to be the best. I don't mean standing on a chair and saying, "I'm the best." Nobody is going to out-service us. Nobody. They can out-price us, sure, that's fine, but I won't be out-serviced, no one's going to do the job better. We still stand by that, that's one of the things that's really been the driving force for Premier Waste, is how great the service is.

People know that they can count on us and they don't have to call and double check, or worry, "Are they going to do what they said they're going to do?" That's really the secret to what we've done, is keeping our promises. It's been such an amazing journey to watch the company go. We are going to be 14 years old on October 16th coming up. We have 17 trucks now, we run 12 full-time routes. It's been such an incredible journey. When we started we had a little shy of an acre of land. Now, we've bought a couple of the neighbors around us, so we're probably right at about five acres of land there in Central Phoenix.

Just to watch this thing grow from the one truck that we went, and bought 14 years ago to where we've brought it today. We've got over a thousand dumpsters, and the accounts. Some of the best folks ever. These aren't just customers, these are friendships that we've made for over the 14 years. A lot of times we'll go to dinner with these folks. We don't talk business, it's a friendship, a genuine friendship. We've got so many of them, they've been very special to build along the way. The bonus, if you will.

[00:24:49] Liz: I love that. Just genuine friendships that were born out of that. It's amazing. The attitude that you two went into the business with and your partner as well, that's awesome. Good for you, I'd love to hear that.

[00:25:05] Michael: Yes. It's been great. I have a son from a previous marriage, he is 20, he'll be 21 in March. He has gotten into the industry. Right now, he has his CDL permit. It's so neat to watch him. Same thing, want to learn, want to know how to do this. It brings back memories. It's special, it's really special to watch. Maybe that's a little what Rick and Greg were watching 20 plus years ago.

[00:25:46] Liz: I'm sure it was. That's great about your son too, keep us posted on him and his journey. That's fantastic that he has this opportunity to learn from you and such a hard worker. That's amazing.

[00:26:02] Michael: Yes. I look forward to watching his journey, it's going to be big. I've always told him he can do whatever he wants, I just want him to wake up and be happy.

[00:26:14] Liz: That's all we all hope for our kids. If you can do it in the industry that you love, even more power to him. That's great.

[00:26:22] Michael: Yes.

[00:26:23] Liz: I saw you on the Investors Summit safety panel recently. I loved all the direct advice that you had for people. Can you tell our listeners some of the advice that you have for them around safety?

[00:26:38] Michael: Absolutely. Going back to the beginning, nothing bad to Allied, but we really didn't have any safety training. They hand you the route sheet, pat you on the back, and they will see you when it's done. To be honest with you, we weren't even given hard hats. Company shirts, I remember it was a big deal when we got our first company shirts.  Safety, coming up on 25 years, obviously becomes everybody's first priority. It's no different from if you've got one truck to the big guys that got the tens of thousands of trucks. You have to take the same approach, you have to put it first.

We got to get the trash off the ground. If you're safely doing your job, you'll get the trash picked up, I promise. It all comes together. It just wasn't always that way, it wasn't always looked at as everybody's first priority. For Premier, being a small company, we don't have the resources that a lot of these larger [unintelligible 00:27:58] have. Through the National Waste & Recycling Association, especially the Safety Committee itself in general, I was able to tap into a lot of their resources that I could then use for our company. It's been such a fantastic tool.

The guys that were on the panel, if you remember I mentioned, I could pick up the phone and call them at any time about anything to do with safety, there's nothing that they're going to say, "Hey, that's proprietary", or, "We're not going to share that, Michael. That's our stuff." Safety, in its own category, it's open arms. Everybody will share, do, help, mentor in any way, shape, or form. It was really neat, I was at a Safety Committee meeting and it was actually a Republic's Corporate Office. I cannot remember the gentleman's name, but he was the Chief Operator Officer at the time. I believe he had come from the airline industry. He said in that meeting that Republic was going to share anything to do with safety, help in any way. Since that moment, everybody has really done the same. It's just been such a fantastic tool.

For some of these smaller companies that struggle with putting together a safety program, I would encourage them to get involved because there's just so many different resources, it doesn't matter where they're located or, again, how many trucks they have, how many employees they have, there's something for everyone. It's never something that's just going to fix itself, it's got to be your first and top priority, it's got to be something that you continuously put first. You don't say, "We're going to be really safe today, but tomorrow we might have to put it aside." It's always got to be the top priority.

[00:30:04] Liz: Definitely. It sounds like you've built quite a safety culture at Premier.

[00:30:08] Michael: We try. I'd love to tell you it's perfect. It's definitely anything else a work in progress, but we continue to put it at the very top. It was a challenge when we did go to the driver cameras getting everybody to buy in. At the time, the national companies were really using the technology in a way that scared our drivers, it made them fear that they were going to potentially lose their jobs over maybe a certain situation, and we took them from a different approach and use it more as a coaching tool to, "Here's the behavior that was unacceptable and here's what we want to change".

It's so awesome to see somebody when they watch it because, even though they're the ones that were in the seat, they know what happened. Sometimes it plays differently in your head, but when you're able to physically watch the instance, go back and see it, it really does help change that behavior. We have great drivers, if we didn't want them to be part of the team we wouldn't need a camera to find a reason to do that. It's about helping them be better drivers themselves and continue to grow in their careers. Just because you got 25 years, 35 years driving a truck, there's never a day that comes when you know everything.

There's always pencil sharpening the needs to get done, polishing. It's great to go back and talk about things that maybe you hadn't talked about in a while just to keep it refreshed in your head and current.  That's what we do with our Safety Monday talks, is talk about things that we saw the week prior that were unsafe. Talk about things moving forward with the week in front of us. In Arizona, obviously, January is always a very busy month. We have the marathon that people come from all over for, we have the Barrett-Jackson Auction and Waste Management Phoenix open. We'll discuss how many people are going to be in town and how we need to be more aware of our surroundings.

Obviously, in our marches we have spring training, which floods our streets with new folks coming into town. It's the same thing, when it's back to school time, we'll get it fresh in everybody's head so that it's current, it's something they're thinking about instead of just hoping for the best. That's a terrible safety program just hoping that everything works out. Because you can have a string of luck, but eventually it runs its course.

Like Sean said on our session, the last thing you ever want to have to do is go to somebody and say that their loved one is no longer with us, especially when it could have been avoided. Maybe about 10 years ago, we had a driver in a roll off truck not put the hook on securely. The hook that's attached to the cable that then hooks to the roll off box. He had it just enough to where once he put tension on it, it jumped out of the hook on the box and it swung the cable from the back of the truck all the way around to the front of the truck, and through the windshield. Just missed him by inches.

Obviously, I was upset. He's got wife, he had four or five kids. How would I go to them and say that you're no longer here because we didn't put this on securely? It's just not acceptable. There's never going to be a time that we're in such a hurry that we shouldn't make sure that thing is securely hooked. Thank God nothing happened. It was a learning experience for not just that driver, but for our entire team. We got to sharpen our pencil, we've got to be better. This isn't the Premier way.

[00:34:34] Liz: Absolutely. To your point, safety over everything, those extra minutes or seconds that he saved, they just don't matter at the end of the day. He getting home to his family is what's important to you and everyone else.

[00:34:50] Michael: Absolutely. I really thank Michael Hoffman for allowing us to have a piece of his Investors Summit for a session. It goes to show you how in the last 25 years safety has really become top priority. They never had safety 25 years ago. Obviously, we didn't have the Investor Summit, but it just wasn't anything that was talked about like company financials, where the numbers at. That was always a top priority for sure, especially when they publicly traded. He really stepped up allowing us to have a session and really put it out there. Even if we reached one company through it and they're able to make the right changes, then it was all worth it.

[00:35:46] Liz: Definitely. I think seeing all of you and putting it out there that you are all open to helping as well, just knowing that the safety community comes first over anything else, competition, anything else, is what matters. You definitely reached more than one company, Michael, for sure [laughs].

[00:36:06] Michael: Yes. I sure hope so. Like [unintelligible 00:36:09] said, if anybody out there needs anything, definitely pick up the phone. We're so accessible and want to help. Definitely, don't waste it.

[00:36:23] Liz: That's great. Also, you talked a little bit about technology. I know that you've embraced it whole heartedly, whether it's to enhance safety or efficiencies. Can you talk a little bit about how technology has helped your company and how you think it's moving the industry forward overall?

[00:36:41] Michael: Sure. Like I said, it was very difficult not just to get the drivers to buy in. My partners at the time, Larry is, I'll say, old school. His concern was from a liability standpoint of the technology and how we could be backed into a situation where it hurts us. My conversation to him was, if we're in a situation like that, then we didn't do our jobs in teaching and coaching the employee to do the right thing. I'm confident in our ability to teach them, coach them, that we're not going to be backed into a corner as such.

Once we were able to move past that, we were able to embrace the technology. It's not just from a coaching MBA driver behavior standpoint, obviously helps us with routing. In a situation if you're live dispatching, knowing exactly where that driver is at that very minute. Because obviously the one we use not only tells me where he's at, if he's driving, it tells me how fast he's going. Let's say that we get a phone call and customer has a 911, they need a delivery or switch out, it's got to be right now. We're able to make decisions [unintelligible 00:38:04] and spoke from inside the office without calling the driver, obviously distracting him from doing his job being a phone ringing, or answering the phone if he was stopped. Make decisions based on knowing exactly where he's at and how fast we could get it there.

It's helped, like I said, in other ways, not just from a coaching driver behavior standpoint. I think that it also helps us be more efficient, which obviously drives better bottom line in routing. Efficiencies can make or break your route, and if you're able to get a couple more stops done in a day, that's fantastic. It's a lot better.

What is going to happen with the future stuff there's so many different things out there, that's one of the reasons that I love going to WasteExpo, it's not even just reading about the new technology and one of our waste publications, but getting to see it hands on, getting to talk to the people who built it and all the things. We'll call it gadgets and whistles that it can do. It's always been so awesome to deal with it firsthand. It's one of my favorite things about WasteExpo, "What's new?" and, "Let's check it out, let's see how it works".

[00:39:38] Liz: Definitely, ours too. We will definitely be going strong in 21 that you can actually touch and feel it [laughs] as well. 

[00:39:48] Michael: I think the industry is ready. I think 21 we are ready to put 2020 behind us. WasteExpo I think is going to be special for everybody next year. I really do.

[00:40:04] Liz: I think so too. We can't wait [laughs]. How's the driver shortage situation? Is it as prevalent as it has been in the last few years? How is it looking now in the midst of COVID?

[00:40:23] Michael: Well, funny you should ask. We hired a driver on Friday, he started on Monday and hired another guy in June. That tells you that we were still growing through the pandemic because those were additions, those weren't replacements or anything. It's one of those things that is very right in the moment.

I've seen times where you couldn't find a qualified driver to save your life, you have to be very creative in what it is you're offering. For us, we want people to want to work here because this is where they want to be, not just that we're providing a job for them, but they don't want to be anywhere else, they want to work at Premier.

We provide top-notch benefits, we have a 90-10 split that it's very costly, but again, attracting the best talent you're going to have to compensate them as best. Competitive wages to national companies bonuses. Which we don't do based on productivity because we don't want to encourage anybody to drive unsafely to get a few more stops done rather they got them done in the manner that was safe and then still had a bonus that they were proud of as well.

For us we've also done a pretty expensive Christmas party every year that has become the big event, I'll call it. We've gone all out at some of the best houses in town and we'll pay for everybody's Uber service or whatever. They're able to come with their spouses and just really enjoy each other's company, enjoy our success for that year and have a really nice timeout, a safe time as well, that way they're able to get home safely. We also, to break it up, we started figuring, in the beginning, we're just getting together once a year, so we do what we call Christmas in July. I would say we try to tone it down a little bit, but it ends up being just as big as the Christmas party.

It's awesome it's great to see the driver's spouses and sharing some of the stories that we had from the last time we saw them, maybe something funny that their spouse did that is a funny story or just talking about work in general. It's great seeing them, it's great enjoying time with them. That's really been one of the things that we've done to try to find-- I'll call them the better talent that's out there is just providing a place that they want to be. They want to work in a healthy environment, in a positive environment, from not just the compensation that they receive but even from the trucks.

We buy all new trucks. Ours are Peterbilts that we buy through Rush Truck Center and we take care of them meticulously, there's nothing we skimp on if that truck needs it it's getting it done, and the drivers know that. Every everybody that sees our fleet can't believe how well maintained it is. I've actually had conversations with Don Slager at WasteExpo where he's complimented and said, "Michael, you guys look awesome." That's great for a guy like him to take two seconds out and say that he saw one of our trucks there locally and was impressed. That meant the world.

We continue to make it a top priority, we don't deliver any kind of cans with graffiti or anything like that. It gets brought in and repainted, refurbished, and got back out looking new, looking Premier. To your question, "How do we find the drivers?" Or, "How do we get the pick of the litter?" It's really just providing a place that they want to be. They could get a job offer somewhere else but they love where they're at and they want to be there, and that's also a productive driver, that's somebody that's going to go out and they're going to work 10-12 hours in a day and they're going to do a good job for you.

[00:45:00] Liz: They definitely are. I love how you're doing the Christmas in July too, it's so festive and the camaraderie, you've created a second home for them. That pays off, I think, in retention. That's awesome to hear.

[00:45:14] Michael: It has, we have great employee retention, there's very minimal turnover, most of the folks have been with us since the beginning. Like I said, we put the eight trucks on the road in 12 months in the very beginning and just about everybody's been there since. They take a lot of pride in the fact that they want to be there because, obviously, we want them there. They're not employees, they're family, we get involved in things that they've got going on, whether it be supporting their kids in baseball or softball. We consider them family members.

[00:45:59] Liz: That's great, what a nice environment. You seem to be a natural with teaching and mentoring, is that something that you enjoy as much as it seems like you do?

[00:46:10] Michael: Yes, I guess a work in progress. I enjoy still learning, I have my eyes open. I've told this story many times, when we started Premier Waste I believe that I knew more of what not to do than I did know of what to do, and that was strictly by watching. I watched a lot of people make a lot of bad mistakes and I was able to capture watching that and remember, "Don't do that, that didn't work out too well".

There's always something to be learned every day whether, again, it'd be something to do or to not. I definitely still enjoy learning, I never feel like I've made it to this point where I've got it all figured out. There are days when I'm going, "You got to be kidding me, this is what's going on?" Definitely, I don't feel like it's all figured out. But as far as teaching and mentoring, absolutely, I think that I do love seeing people grow, whether it'd be personally, whether it'd be professionally. I don't know, I think that helping somebody makes you obviously feel good, and then watching them do good with it is icing on a cake.

[00:47:28] Liz: Definitely. To that end, any advice for young professionals who want to enter the waste and recycling industry?

[00:47:37] Michael: Dive right in. I never imagined that this is what I would do in my life. To be honest, I had no idea what I was going to do, didn't have any direction of what I wanted to be, didn't have any, "Hey, maybe if that doesn't work I'll try this." The industry is so open-armed, there's just so many different lines of business. Driving a truck just isn't your thing? There is just so many other things, from the finance side or mechanics, the landfill, transfer stations. There are so many different things and you can be a little bit of everything, like I chose in my path, or maybe one of those just stands out and that's your thing that you love the most and you just want to do that.

It's so open-armed and you can really do and be whatever you want to be. There's just so many great folks. That's that. I have met just the best people in my 25 years and just enjoyed them so much. I would tell folks if they are looking for a place to call home for a lifetime, for a career, that the waste industry is absolutely open-armed.

[00:49:02] Liz: You're absolutely right. I love this podcast because I've spoken to so many different people like you who have just found their home, stuck with it, and grow every day, learn every day. Just keep pushing to do better and do more, and it's fabulous.

[00:49:22] Michael: Well, some of our competitors are some of my best friends. We go to lunch and we go to dinners together, and have drinks together, and talk weekly a lot. Not even about Premier Waste [chuckles] or garbage in general, we're genuinely friends. When my dad passed away in 2013 and I lost my brother just in 2019 a lot of them came, and that was really special. A lot of them came. That was neat, that was really special.

[00:50:04] Liz: That is special. I'm sorry about your loss, that's hard.

[00:50:08] Michael: It just shows the friendship that we have. We compete, we have a ton of fun doing it, but outside of that, we've really created just lifelong friendships.

[00:50:21] Liz: That's the most beautiful thing, it goes beyond work and that's really special.

[00:50:26] Michael: It does.

[00:50:27] Liz: Before I let you go, what else is on the minds of independent haulers these days?

[00:50:34] Michael: I guess the biggest thing is how do you differentiate yourself from everyone else. If you're going to have those customers that say, "Hey, look, I'm calling three people and I'm going with the cheapest bid." That's fine, there's always going to be a cheapest bid out there, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be the best. You have to figure out in your marketplace what makes you different.

For us, I can tell you that we sat down in the beginning and said what was going to make us different was service. We obviously can't compete with the larger companies on a pricing scale, they have a lot of things over you, but from a service standpoint you have a choice. What type of service you're going to provide? Good, bad or indifferent? I would say that if someone was getting into the business and wanted to start, that's a great place to start looking at, what type of service are you going to provide? How good is it going to be?

There's lots of different pieces inside of that because what type of equipment are you going to buy? Are you going to buy used equipment? Which is fine, I'm not knocking used equipment, but there's different levels, there's, " This is good, we can definitely use this", and there's, "This really isn't that good, how good is my service going to be with this?" There's all types of things you've got to really figure out. What your company stands for? Who you want to be? Because people have choices every day. When they call, in our market feels like 30 choices, and we have to stand out above the other 29. As I want to do business with this company, these are people that I trust, these are people that I know are honest.

For us it's great we don't have all these layers. If a customer has an issue I don't have to call somewhere in Texas to get approval for something and we're able to just make the change and implement it right there and then. Obviously, to be able to have that quickness to be able to react to something is an upper hand versus a lot of the other companies, they have many layers and they have to work through those layers to get to the end decision.

[00:53:11] Liz: So true. I think a lot of people are feeling the same way, and until you can figure out what makes you unique you will not stand out, you're absolutely right. Service is always an advantage, right?

[00:53:29] Michael: It really is. Pricing it's kind of like pizzas, pretty much they're all going to be in a range of the same price, the different delivery pizza companies around the US. Garbage, in your market area the pricing is going to be pretty close, I don't think anybody is hundreds of dollars apart, I think that what's really going to boil down to is relationships and service, keeping your work.

If we tell somebody we're going to do something, there is no, "Well, this happened", we get it done, they don't want to hear about the truck broke down, or the tire blew, or so-and-so called off. We have to adapt to those changes so that we can still keep our word and get done the stuff that we promised to do, whether that means myself jumping in a truck. Still have my Class A CDL and I still love to fire up the truck and get out there. Some of the best times in my life have been out there in the truck. When it's the early hours of the morning and you got the window down, and that breeze is blowing. Just sense of pride getting the trash picked up. I've always loved it.

[00:54:46] Liz: That's great, I love to hear that. You can tell, it's part of what drives you, I think. Anything else I didn't ask, Michael, that you want to share?

[00:55:00] Michael: No, I feel we covered everything. Like I said, everybody's got a story, and I think they're all interesting for sure. Mine's a little different in that it starts off a little rocky and then ends up pretty awesome.

[00:55:18] Liz: It's beyond awesome, kudos to you for creating a life that is so amazing and that has helped so many others, just so many great years ahead of you. Congrats to you in being such a wonderful success story for the industry and humanity in general. Congratulations, Michael.

[00:55:41] Michael: Thank you very much.

[00:55:43] Liz: Well, it's been so good talking with you, good luck with everything moving forward, we can't wait to see what happens with your son and see what else goes forward with you guys at Premier. We're so happy to follow you, guys.

[00:55:58] Michael: I feel like I've got another 20 years left in me. God [inaudible 00:56:03] and I look forward. I look at it like, "Wow, the last 25 have been this awesome, I can't wait to make the next 20 and see what happens, what's in store, what we build, and how great it is." I really do, when I think about the next 20 years, I smile. I'm excited to go through it.

[00:56:28] Liz: Good, that's great. It will be awesome. I look forward to meeting you at WasteExpo in Vegas in 21, it's going to be amazing.

[00:56:37] Michael: I look forward to it as well, I could not agree more, we are going to make it a special WasteExpo for sure. Big stuff.

[00:56:48] Liz: Definitely. Well, thank you so much for spending time with us today, I've loved this conversation and I know our listeners will as well. Thank you, Michael.

[00:56:56] Michael: Thank you, I appreciate it. We'll talk soon.

[00:56:59] Liz: Okay, take care. Bye.


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