Before he founded Dublin, Georgia-based Ryland Environmental, Todd Yates was a contractor charged with helping Veterans Affairs hospitals in the state dispose of their waste. The issue, according to Yates, was that he couldn’t find anyone able to supply the dumpsters needed to transport things like office furniture, bedding, medical equipment and other bulk waste to the landfill.
“I was trying to utilize some local haulers and even some national haulers, and I kept getting the same runaround where we couldn’t get roll-off dumpsters brought to us,” Yates says. “So, I decided to buy a truck and roll-off dumpsters on my own, basically just to handle my own stuff to begin with, and then it began to grow because people wanted service.”
Founded in January 2014, Ryland Environmental quickly filled a service gap in the area where the company’s commercial clients no longer had to wait several days for roll-off pickup. As companies continued to seek out Ryland’s services in its initial year of operation, Yates soon added a second roll-off truck and also began offering supplementary front-load service.
At the end of its first two years in business, Ryland was growing to the extent that Yates wanted to bring in an industry veteran who would be able to help run the day-to-day operations. By circumstance, a chance meeting at a Friday night high school football game ended up bringing just the person he was looking for.
James Lanier began his career in waste in the mid-1990s after a stint selling insurance into the waste sector. Over a 20-year span, he would serve as an operations manager for Republic Services and, later, as a regional safety manager for Waste Pro.
Lanier says that while he and Yates had a shared background due to family connections in insurance that led to them originally meeting, it was their mutual desire to offer a more personal approach to waste that brought them together as business partners.
“He and I had the same vision, the same ideas and the same philosophy—we wanted to have a great company that was based on customer service—because that’s basically what Ryland was born out of—the need for customer service,” Lanier says.
From those early days operating with one truck, the company’s emphasis on prompt and attentive collection has helped it expand to more than 100 collection vehicles and over 120 employees charged with servicing its markets in Middle and South Georgia. In 2020, the company reported revenues of $10,620,000 for Waste Today’s Largest Haulers in North America List.
The company also boasts a subsidiary, Ryland Oil, that specializes in industrial, commercial and agricultural fuel delivery.
Establishing a foundation
Lanier says that one of the philosophies he brought to Ryland from his years of experience was the importance of maintaining diversified service offerings.
“One thing I’ve determined in my 25-plus years in this business is in order to have a good company, it has to sort of be like a three-legged table where to make the table strong, those legs have to be close to the same height,” Lanier says. “So, we’ve divided our revenue up pretty close to one-third each within our three lines of business—roll-off, commercial front-load and residential.”
Although uniformity is the aim, Lanier notes that due to a recent uptick in the municipal accounts the company has been awarded, its residential work currently represents roughly 40 percent of the business.
Epitomizing the approach to service that has been responsible for the company’s increase in residential work, Lanier points to its contract with the city of Centerville, Georgia, that it was awarded following its acquisition of a mom-and-pop hauler in August 2017.
“Centerville Sanitation was a company that had been in business since 1958 serving one municipality. It’s a family-owned business, and we purchased them, which gave us the contract with the city of Centerville,” Lanier explains. “The city really wasn’t keen on the fact that we were going to take over the contract because they didn’t know us. We had to prove ourselves. The city agreed to allow the contract to be conveyed to us, but to say we won them over would be an understatement because when we went back in to redo the contract last year, they gave us a 20-year contract and wrote us a glowing letter of recommendation. So, we worked to pick up right where their old company left off, and we’ve expanded on it.”
Lanier says that type of reception is made possible by Ryland’s approach of overdelivering on its promise for timely collection, recruiting quality people and investing in the business in a way that more than just the bottom line matters.
Specific to its approach to hiring, Lanier says the company has made a couple of acquisitions “where it wasn’t really about gaining the business as much as it was to gain the expertise [and market intelligence] of the people who ran that business.”
Additionally, Lanier says the company has been successful in recruiting talented industry veterans away from some of the larger national companies who may be fed up with the profit-at-all-cost ethos.
“Everybody who we bring in [from the larger companies] has that background of, ‘Hey, I’ve seen how the other side lives; let’s see if we can do it differently,’” Lanier says. “That’s the way we’ve been able to build our business model, and it results in people who are committed to their job and committed to the customer. We center everything on our customer service, and that’s why we’ve been able to grow as exponentially as we have—we actually have municipalities now calling us asking us to come give them a price to pick up their garbage. We just can’t get to everyone who wants service from us right now because we believe in controlled growth and we want to make sure we’re doing it right.”
Beyond Ryland’s reputation that has been responsible for helping the company grow, Lanier says that its current customers are some of its best marketers.
“We have one municipality in Baxley, Georgia, that we picked up when a national hauler threatened them because they wanted a price increase and an extension mid-term and the city couldn’t do it because they hadn’t budgeted for it,” he says. “Well, they told them that if they didn’t give them a price increase, that they were going to quit picking up trash. We walked in on a Friday afternoon and picked up an agreement that day to assume the balance of the contract, which was for six months. Then we got a 10-year renewal based on our work. Tim Varnadore, the mayor of Baxley, if he finds out that we’re bidding on a municipality right now, he doesn’t wait for them to call him. He calls them and says, ‘Hey, let me tell you the Ryland story.’ He’s been one of our biggest advocates.”
Lanier is quick to note that this type of advocacy isn’t just an isolated incident. He says Ryland will often exhibit at local municipal association events at which customers find themselves sitting in the company’s booth just shooting the breeze.
“A potential client will see the Ryland logo at our booth and maybe they’ve seen our trucks out on the road but want to learn a little more. When they walk over, it’s not unusual for one of our existing customers sitting at the booth to pull them aside and say, ‘Hey, come here. Let me tell you about these guys.’ So, when you win them over with customer service, the loyalty is wonderful. And that’s what we bank on,” Lanier says.
Keeping people together
Thanks to Ryland’s smaller size, Lanier says it is easier to create meaningful relationships within the company.
“It’s a family-run organization,” he says. “We all feel like we’re family—we socialize together, we go to ballgames together, we cook together, and that’s just the way it’s always been. … In today’s climate, with the larger companies, the quality of life that a lot of the managers are having is not very good. So, having the opportunity to come on with us to have a little bit better quality of life and not be so beat down on EBITDA percentages and margins and budgets and all that sort of stuff [has been big]. All those are important, but I’ve seen good people ruined because of always wanting that little bit extra [from them] all the time. When we offer them a different way and a different philosophy of doing things, we’re able to attract good talent.”
Whether it is spending money on an extra truck for a route to ensure the area’s drivers get home to their families for dinner; a willingness to upgrade to newer, safer model trucks drivers can be proud of; or investing in things like Third Eye systems with cameras, analytics and GPS technology to keep staff safe and productive, Lanier says Ryland is constantly striving to invest in the company’s people to let them know they’re important.
“I’ve seen good people ruined because of always wanting that little bit extra [from them] all the time. When we offer them a different way and a different philosophy of doing things, we’re able to attract good talent.“ - James Lanier, partner, Ryland Environmental
This investment comes in the form of both money and time.
Lanier says that in October, he had a discussion with Yates where he was sharing that he felt a bit disconnected from his staff around the state due to the company’s recent growth. Realizing there were some new people at the company who he hadn’t yet met, Lanier says he took one day out of the week for a 6-week stretch where he hauled his grill to each one of the company’s locations in order to cook for the employees, shake their hands and tell them thank you.
“I have always believed in making sure that our folks feel like they have a say in the business. Nobody works for us. We have people that work with us; we all just have a different function to do. We believe in that, and we try to promote that,” Lanier says.