The executive team at Denali Water Solutions has goals as elevated as the Alaska mountain that serves as its namesake. Those ambitions are not a distant aspiration, however, as Denali already has built a landfill diversion services firm for biosolids and other recurring organic waste streams at a national scale.
Although modest in its comments and demeanor, Denali and its team, led by CEO Andy McNeill, now conduct business in every region of the United States and offer an impressive portfolio of services for organic waste sectors unmatched by most other firms.
McNeill and Denali Chief Growth Officer Jeffrey LeBlanc have built the company on an aggressive timetable. Yet, by their own description, that approach involves a consistent focus on managing changes to how people and processes optimally serve customers and employees.
Climbing the mountain
Denali Water Solutions, based in Russellville, Arkansas, was formed in 2014. However, McNeill notes that it was formed from predecessor companies with roots that trace back to the 1990s. The “water solutions” portion of its name points to its origin in providing services to wastewater facilities and biosolids treatment.
The company has grown in part by pursuing locations throughout the United States, organically replicating its business model. McNeill says acquisitions also have been an important part of its growth strategy because they often are more efficient when “hard-to-get permits are involved.” Frequently, small companies that have a valuable permit, plant or location are deemed a logical fit for Denali.
McNeill says one of the firm’s earliest and most important acquisitions was of New York-based WeCare Organics. That purchase provided not only vital composting capacity but also LeBlanc and others who McNeill says “helped form the leadership backbone” of Denali.
The company’s activities over the past seven years have helped Denali build a business that can provide services to organic waste generators in several sectors, including municipal wastewater, food processing, pulp and paper, grocery stores and restaurants, lawn and garden services and retail providers and the industrial and utility sectors (such as papermaking and mining companies).
McNeill says the common threads among Denali’s customers are recurring wastes that often are not suitable or desirable for landfills. Such wastes can include liquids or sludges, or they can consist of organic materials, such as food waste, that customers or legislators want to divert from landfills. “We offer [customers] creative and sustainable solutions to repurpose waste,” McNeill says.
Those solutions can vary by state or region, he adds. “Urban areas and rural areas are different in the types of services and solutions we provide,” McNeill says.
In terms of the resulting products, LeBlanc says Denali sells bagged and bulk soil products under different brand names throughout the United States, including the WeCare Compost brand along the East Coast.
The company’s food scrap diversion business has grown consistently, with LeBlanc estimating that Denali serve approximately 11,000 grocery and commercial locations.
McNeill says acquisition remains a key tactic, with about a half-dozen company purchases made in 2021.
Denali currently divides its business into four geographic sectors or regions. McNeill says that division also reflects the way it has decentralized its management and operations so decisions can be made in locations well-beyond Arkansas.
The company’s willingness to trust its employees—and customers—to act with integrity and cooperatively appears to be the hallmark of the Denali philosophy.
Trust as a tactic
When asked specifically about Denali’s company philosophy, McNeill and LeBlanc point to contributing to a healthier planet as being at the core.
“We believe waste should not be wasted,” LeBlanc says. The firm positions itself as providing a landfill alternative, and he says that matches the tenor of the times. “If materials can be repurposed in a proper way, our customers are demanding that.”
McNeill, likewise, says, “[O]ur purpose is to replenish the Earth by repurposing waste. The reality is that society will continue to produce certain recurring waste streams, and there is a growing consensus that we should look for ways to recycle waste. There is nothing in that idea that isn’t good.”
The specific motives of customers can vary, though McNeill says corporate edicts, government legislation and climate change all play a role.
With Denali having evolved over just seven years to operate in all 50 states, McNeill opted for a decentralized personnel model well before COVID-19-related circumstances made remote work common.
Starting with his earliest acquisitions, McNeill says he realized he would greatly limit his talent pool by insisting key people move to rural Arkansas. His solution: “To create a culture of purpose where people rally around shared values, which creates connective tissue to allow us to be a very decentralized company.” He adds, “That’s not always easy, but is the direction many companies are headed.”
While perhaps not easy, McNeill says the effort has helped contribute to the creation of many leaders within the Denali organization who act entrepreneurially and are empowered. “We’ve always emphasized creating more and more leaders from [within] our employee base and getting them not just to believe in the culture but also to grow and improve as leaders—that’s an exciting aspect of our company right now.”
McNeill cites training as a key factor in managing, motivating and equipping a decentralized workforce effectively. “This is training beyond improving your Excel skills online,” he says. “It’s the sort of training that requires interaction between people, and we bring broad groups of people with different functions together and discuss things like communication and listening and time management and planning in an integral way. That means we’re bringing in best practices from the outside but also saying, ‘This isn’t the capital T truth; this is just one way that people approach leadership, and you can apply it to your own life in the way that you think fits best for you.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided its share of safety and logistical challenges for Denali, but the firm was ahead of the curve in terms of remote work practices heading into 2020 and 2021. However other firms react to the lifting of pandemic-related workplace restrictions, McNeill says he will keep Denali on its decentralized path.
“The truth is, people in the United States, especially young people, are migrating to cities like Nashville, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Denver and Charlotte,” he comments. “So, we find ourselves in a reality where if we wanted to build an old, traditional structure where all the executives had offices next to each other, [that] either I was going to have to find people that love Arkansas, like I do, and are willing to live there, or we had to come up with a different, [more flexible] way to set up the business.”
McNeill adds, “We really [decentralized] because we’re trying to do nothing other than pick the best people. And it’s really iterated from that. So, if you’re in a job in Denali that does not require you to be physically someplace, say to run a plant, but if you’re working on, say, acquisitions, or certain environmental things, we’re able to hire really, really good talent, because we say to them, ‘You can live anywhere you want to.’”
An engaged and motivated workforce seems increasingly necessary for a company that has plans to continue to help America find landfill alternatives for its waste streams.
Diversity by necessity
With its careful but steady stream of acquisitions, McNeill says of Denali, “We continue to build out the teams and the internal infrastructure to integrate other companies faster and faster.”
In addition to a geographically dispersed workforce, he says, “We also have to be pretty sophisticated in terms of how we deal with capital markets and how we deal with investors and just how we set up our capital structure that allows us to continue to do that.”
When it comes to repurposing solutions, treatments and technologies, McNeill says Denali seeks customer-specific innovative approaches, but it relies on and works with other technology providers to design and provide the approach to best serve the customer and community.
“What you don’t see Denali doing is deploying or providing the yet-to-be-proven solution in the market,” he comments. “Rather, we work with proven solutions from a range of product and technology companies. We’re different in the sense that we’re going to work with many of those companies and act as the connective tissue between these solution providers to figure out where they fit with our customers and locations.”
Exploring and assessing those technologies is crucial, Denali says, because its own customer base is so diverse. “We’re bringing these different waste streams together, and these different solutions, which really separates us from some of our competitors,” McNeill says.
“Most of the competitors in these different spaces stay right within their niche,” he continues. “So, most of the biosolids companies we compete with just do biosolids, most of the people who handle food scraps or grease at restaurants, they just do restaurants. These firms typically have a single solution that they’re offering, or maybe it’s two solutions, but it’s not the full suite of services we’re providing.”
The result, McNeill says, is that Denali cultivates institutional knowledge about what can be processed in a wastewater treatment plant, what is suitable for agricultural land application, what can be composted or what is suitable for a waste-to-energy system. “We have a depth of knowledge about these techniques and services, and we can match the waste of multiple industries with this roster of solutions,” he says.
More than seven years into the Denali journey, McNeill portrays a future that still offers plenty of opportunities. “We’re not creating the waste,” he comments, “but, we love doing something good by optimizing how it is handled.”
Corporations and governments are poised to seek these optimal outcomes, which he says matches Denali’s “values of being compliant and trying to be a leader in how that happens. Our goal really is to be the North Star in the United States in managing organic wastes. We’re going to retain a culture of innovation—not to be afraid of trying things—and a culture where people feel genuine purpose.”