The road less taken

Features - Cover Profile

Waste Connections takes a different path when it comes to market growth and corporate culture, and it has paid off in many ways.

April 6, 2017
Kristin Smith
Photos: Derrick Bryant

When Waste Connections acquired Progressive Waste Solutions in June 2016, it became the second largest waste firm in North America and the third largest in the U.S., nearly doubling in size.

The transaction was the company’s first public acquisition, but the publicly traded company, with corporate offices in The Woodlands, Texas, has a nearly 20-year history of acquiring private firms that fit into its particular growth strategy. This calculated approach to growth coupled with an emphasis on culture have made the company a true standout in the industry on many fronts.

Ronald Mittelstaedt, chairman and CEO, says, “We are known for being the most profitable company in the industry by far. We’re known for being the fastest-growing company in the industry by far.” By the way, he says, those two usually don’t go hand in hand.

And that’s not all, “We’re known for having the lowest turnover in the industry, and we’re known for having the best safety in the industry.”

Mittelstaedt, founded the company Sept. 30, 1997. “From a one person beginning, we’ve grown over the last 19-plus years to be the second-largest company in North America behind Waste Management (thee third-largest in the U.S.) in terms of revenue and employees,” he says.

The company employs about 15,700 people in the 40 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces it operates in. Mittelstaedt says Waste Connections is poised to do about $4.5 billion in revenue in 2017.

“We have grown through acquisitions, mostly of private companies, over the last 19-plus years,” he says. “We’ve done 450 to 470 private company acquisitions. We’ve only done one public-to-public transaction ever. That was in 2016 when we acquired Progressive Waste Solutions out of Canada.”

CREATING VALUE

Waste Connections went public not long after its founding, trading on the NASDAQ from May 23, 1998, until 2003, when the company moved over to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

With the Progressive acquisition in 2016, it began dual trading on the NYSE and the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Waste Connections has gone through three stock splits with the company trading at nearly $300 per share, and shares adjusted for the splits are now trading at about $87 per share. This is a remarkable feat for a waste company.

“We’ve created substantially more value per share than anyone in the history of this industry,” he says.

One key to the company’s success: Many members of the executive team have been involved with the company since its inception. They include Steve Bouck, president, and Darrell Chambliss, executive vice president and chief operating officer, both of whom founded the company with Mittelstaedt. Worthing Jackman, executive vice president and chief financial officer, has been with the company for more than 15 years.

“Everyone has been around when we were a $50 million company, and now we’re a $4.5 billion company. That is really rare in this business,” says Mittelstaedt.

MARKET FOCUS

Waste Connections’ openly states its corporate strategy, which is to target secondary and suburban markets that have strong demographic growth trends and where competitive barriers to entry can be developed. The company says it wants to be in markets where it can provide either nonintegrated or integrated solid waste services under exclusive arrangements or markets where it can integrate and attain high market share.

“That has been the hallmark of our strategy for 20 years,” says Mittelstaedt. “We are comfortably the largest suburban and rural market company in Canada and the U.S. by far.”

Suburban and rural markets make up about 85 percent of the company’s business. Mittelstaedt says Waste Connections has a presence in some urban markets; but, unlike other large waste companies, urban areas are not its main focus.

Waste Connections owns about 600 facilities across the U.S. and Canada. These sites include nearly 100 landfills, some of which are solely dedicated to oilfield waste disposal. Transfer stations number between 150 and 160. The company also operates 70 material recovery facilities (MRFs) and 350 collection facilities.

Mittelstaedt says the company’s facilities cover most geographies in the U.S., from the West Coast to the Rocky Mountains, the Southeast, the Midwest and the Northeast, as well as all major provinces in Canada.

“We focus exclusively on nonhazardous waste anywhere in the U.S. or Canada,” says Mittelstaedt. This includes residential and commercial municipal solid waste (MSW); construction and demolition (C&D) debris; special waste, which is made up predominantly of contaminated soils; and oilfield drill cuttings and muds.

Roughly 70 percent of the material disposed in Waste Connection’s landfills is MSW. Another 15 percent is C&D debris, and the remaining 15 percent is special and oilfield waste. The company’s customers are split about 50/50 between businesses and households, according to Mittelstaedt.

The company’s contracts are almost as varied as the number of municipalities Waste Connections has a presence in. “There is really no heterogeneous way in which contracts are structured in this business. It is a very local business,” Mittelstaedt says. “We operate in over 4,500 municipalities, and, of that, we have probably 3,000 different structures.”

He says west of Colorado is almost entirely made up of municipal contracts of some form or another. They range from a low end of seven to 10 years to a long end of 40-plus years at a time. “Other markets are 100 percent openly competitive commercially and residentially, where you compete house to house or business to business,” Mittelstaedt says. “There you can have no contract, or in other cases three- to five-year contracts with a business or a household even.”

The situation is similar in Canada where it can sometimes be municipally driven or openly competitive.

“We have more municipal, or what we call exclusive long-term contracts, in the industry by probably two to three times,” notes Mittelstaedt. He says the number of long-term contracts is mostly because of the company’s large footprint in the West, where about 95 percent of the business west of Colorado is structured that way.

MOVING MATERIALS

Waste Connections’ landfills in the U.S. handle about 35 million to 40 million tons per year. It’s U.S. recycling facilities process about 1.5 million to 1.7 million tons per year. Mittelstaedt is quick to point out that many markets in the nation where Waste Connection operates do not have recycling. He calls recycling a “coastal phenomenon.”

“We believe ultimately that culture is the great differentiator amongst companies in all businesses. We have a lot of things we look at as foundational pillars of our culture that we focus on and believe in, and we believe that gives us a common language within the company.” – Ronald Mittelstaedt, Waste Connections

“Eighty percent of all the recycling that happens in the United States happens in six states,” he says—California, Washington, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts and Florida. He is talking predominantly about residential recycling. For example, he says, California might have a 50 to 60 percent recycling rate, but Kansas or Colorado might have a 5 percent recycling rate. Waste Connections provides recycling services in other states but not to the degree it does in those six states.

Mittelstaedt says recycling is driven by two things: state legislation and economic viability. In the Midwest and South, he says, neither exist. “It costs about three times as much to recycle a ton of waste as it does to landfill a ton of waste,” he says.

He says the marketplace has a misconception that it is the other way around, but that is only because waste companies have to inflate the cost of trash pickup to compensate for the lower fees they are required to charge for recycling collection.

Mittelstaedt says residential recycling “is not a good business on its own because it is subsidized by the waste that is picked up at that home. The reality is the recycling is costing four times what it is being charged for.”

He says he supports recycling but adds, “We will get paid a proper return on investment if we are going to do it.”

SERVICING CUSTOMERS

To collect waste and recyclables from its 7 million customers, Waste Connections runs a fleet of just under 10,000 trucks. It has about 9,000 of those trucks on the road each day. About 10 percent of the company’s fleet operates on compressed natural gas (CNG). Mittelstaedt says the areas it operates CNG trucks either require it or have the fueling infrastructure to support it. He notes, on average, a CNG truck can travel only one-third or half the distance of a diesel truck, “so you have to have the infrastructure, or you need twice the amount of trucks.”

Technology also is more advanced in the collection vehicles Waste Connections is using today versus even ten years ago. It has driven up the costs of the vehicles by almost 50 percent, according to Mittelstaedt, but the benefits are worth more. Automated arms, cameras and onboard technology have reduced accidents and injury, elevated the level of customer interaction and reduced labor.

Mittelstaedt says it used to take three employees on a truck to collect trash from 600 residential homes in 10 hours. Today, one truck and one driver can service 1,000 to 1,200 homes in that same time.

He says it is “twice the productivity and one-third the employees.” That translates into improved customer satisfaction, and he says it hasn’t resulted in rate increases for customers because of operational efficiencies and reduced labor. “It really has benefited the customer to be honest with you,” he says.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

If you were to ask Mittelstaedt what really sets Waste Connections apart, he wouldn’t say it was technology. He would likely point out the suburban and rural market focus or the company’s profitability. But he also would say, undeniably, it is the company’s culture. The culture at Waste Connections is what has kept its employees there for so long. That low turnover also has translated into high marks in safety.

“Culturally, we have a number of things that sets us apart,” he says. “We spend an enormous amount of our time focused on culture. We believe ultimately that culture is the great differentiator amongst companies in all businesses. We have a lot of things we look at as foundational pillars of our culture that we focus on and believe in, and we believe that gives us a common language within the company.”

He adds, “I think we are quite different than most companies in our business in that way, and the outgrowth of that cultural focus is far and away the best safety statistics in the business.”

According to Mittelstaedt, the company has the least amount of accidents and injuries per hours worked or miles driven by 40 percent compared with any one in the business of large size. Turnover on the front lines or management is also the best in the industry. “We also believe the lowest turnover is why have we have the lowest incidents and injuries,” he says.

Mittelstaedt says the company focuses heavily on how it treats people professionally at work and personally away from work. The company tries to create an inclusive and familial environment he describes as a “work-hard-play-hard” mentality.

“We believe it helps to improve retention and reduce turnover, and we find that lower turnover leads to much better safety and much better customer satisfaction and, ultimately, much higher profitability,” Mittelstaedt says.

He says nothing but culture can explain the type of success Waste Connections has experienced. “We buy the same trucks as everyone else; we build our landfills the same way; we use the same software and we have the same studies of what to pay people,” Mittelstaedt says.

People are “where we spend 75 to 80 percent of our effort,” he says, “and that is culturally what we are known for.”

Waste Connections has a “Statement of Operating Values” it shares with its employees. It is plastered in every building and is on the back of every business card. The five operating values in order of importance are 1) safety; 2) integrity; 3) customer satisfaction; 4) to be a great place to work; and 5) be the premiere waste services company in North America. (See the sidebar, “Core Values,” at left).

Mittelstaedt explains culture as being what the company does and what the company is about.

This is exemplified in the company’s annual reports. Competitor companies will issue annual reports with pictures of garbage trucks on them. Mittelstaedt says Waste Connections has never done that in 19 years of reports. One year, the company listed its operating values on its cover. Another year, it had a picture of a racehorse on the cover. All 19 covers are displayed at the company’s corporate offices and they send a strong message about the company’s culture.

Mittelstaedt admits company culture has become a bigger challenge for the firm as it continues to grow in size, but he says, “You have to be that much more intentional about it.”

The thousands of Progressive Waste employees that are now on Waste Connections’ payroll are adapting well, according to Mittelstaedt. “The cultural integration and adoption by the former Progressive Waste employees to the Waste Connections leadership and safety-first culture has been well-accepted,” he says.

In just the first seven months, accidents were down 60 percent, turnover was down 39 percent and customers’ annual price invested has improved almost 400 percent. Waste Connections also recently rebranded its Canadian operations from Progressive Waste Solutions to Waste Connections of Canada.

“Those are pretty significant changes on a $2 billion revenue company in a seven-and-a-half month period,” he says.

Financially, Mittelstaedt says the two companies are well-ahead of what they believed they would do together.

If history is any indication, Waste Connections is poised for continued growth. Mittelstaedt says the company grows organically about 4 percent, or $160 million to $180 million per year. It also makes about 20 to 30 small, private acquisitions per year for an additional 3 to 3.5 percent growth.

At that rate, Mittelstaedt says five years from now Waste Connections should be at $6 billion in revenue, have 18,000 to 20,000 employees and be operating in two to four more states and another Canadian province. Another large purchase like Progressive Waste Solutions would be on top of that.

The author is editor of Waste Today and can be reached at ksmith@gie.net.