Turning pro

How a customer-centric focus helped John Jennings establish Waste Pro USA as the third-largest privately owned solid waste and recycling company in the country.

When Waste Pro USA founder and CEO John Jennings started the Longwood, Florida-based waste management company back in 2001, he had a simple mission: Transform an age-old business model that revolved around operational expediency into one that put the customer first.

Jennings began his career in waste in 1973 by founding and eventually selling Orlando, Florida-based Industrial Waste Management Inc. He later founded Orlando-based Jennings Environmental Services in 1992 and sold the company in 1996 to USA Waste Services, now known as Waste Management, where he served as regional vice president until 2000.

After close to three decades in the industry establishing, developing and selling waste management firms, Jennings saw firsthand what separated successful waste management companies from haulers who put profits in front of people. With this in mind, he set out to form a company that emphasized face-to-face communication, employee engagement and the importance of locally sourced vendors to foster a better relationship with the customer.

Fixing what was broken

Jennings says that the competition growth in the 1990s led to haulers slashing prices to get contracts, which prompted an industrywide erosion of service that trickled down to the customer.

“The decade of the 1990s in the waste industry was one of getting market share—companies were cutting prices to get business,” Jennings says. “The result eventually was that companies began making cost-cutting decisions to try and make a profit that had unexpected results: higher turnover, deterioration of service and unhappy customers.”

With an eye on changing the status quo, Jennings says he spent a year speaking with municipalities, staff, elected officials and large commercial businesses to identify the pain points associated with waste collection. His takeaway was that people wanted better service and deemed it reasonable and acceptable to pay more in order to get it.

These findings were instrumental in forming Waste Pro’s approach to service that is championed throughout the company, Jennings says.

From left: Ryan LeBeau, vice president of finance; Will Howard, production manager; Sean Jennings, division manager; Chris Lockwood, site manager; and Shea Drury, route supervisor.

“We encourage our employees at every level to go above and beyond and be the ‘distinguishable difference’ to every person they see—providing them with the exceptional service they deserve,” Jennings says. “It is part of our culture and part of our training components when new members join Waste Pro. It is our philosophy to do whatever it takes to service the customer, even when it isn’t expected.”

He says the company sets high standards for its teams and expects them to provide exceptional service to every business or home they serve.

Jennings says this distinguishable difference may involve simple acts of kindness such as a driver taking time to return a cart to the garage for an elderly resident or stopping to talk to neighborhood children during his or her route.

Jennings says he hopes to encourage these types of spontaneous acts by rewarding those employees who provide exemplary service with a “Franklin Award,” a $100 bonus for those employees who go out of their way to show kindness and integrity on the job.

This focus on service has been instrumental in Waste Pro’s growth. Today, Waste Pro has 3,350 employees and 75 operating facilities spread throughout nine states in the southeastern U.S. In the past 17 years, the company says it has expanded to become the third-largest privately owned solid waste and recycling company in the country, serving more than 500 cities and encompassing more than 2 million customers.

In servicing its assortment of commercial, construction and residential customers in the region, the company currently processes more than 13,000 tons of materials per day. Waste Pro operates more than 2,700 service trucks, including automated side load, commercial front load, rear load, commercial/construction roll-off and compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles to handle this volume.

Building from within

While customers are at the heart of Waste Pro’s operational focus, it’s the employees who are responsible for the day-to-day success of the company, Jennings says.

That’s why Jennings makes it a priority to invest in hiring and retaining quality workers. He says the emphasis on bringing in the right people has manifested itself in a company culture where people are genuinely happy to come to work and are excited about serving their communities.

“Part of [our success] is realizing just how lucky each of our employees are to come to work and be surrounded by such a talented and dedicated group of people,” Jennings says.

To ensure that the foundation of the company remains strong in the future, Jennings instituted the Young Leaders Initiative at Waste Pro in 2015.

The program is designed to identify, develop and nurture Waste Pro’s emerging young professionals and to ensure the creation of a vibrant second generation of management. Through the Young Leaders Initiative, participants are paired with established mentors within the company to further their professional and industry growth, Jennings says.

This program, which Jennings says is an integral part of Waste Pro’s goal of becoming a “100-year company,” started with an inaugural class of nine participants from all lines of business.

Still in its infancy, Jennings says he has seen the impact that this mentorship program has had on developing the skills of the company’s young employees. According to him, the program’s participants are “disruptors and young guns, poised to change the industry for the better.”

One of the participants in the mentorship program is John’s son, Sean Jennings, who serves as a corporate officer and division manager at Waste Pro. According to Sean, the experiences learned through the mentorship program have been instrumental in cultivating the Waste Pro philosophy within the next generation of the company.

“The program is instilling in our next generation of leadership the values that led to a company this industry has never seen, continuing our upward trajectory,” he says.

Second chances

From left: Tim Herman, chief operating officer; John Jennings, CEO; Cort Sabina, chief financial officer; Ryan LeBeau, vice president of finance.

In addition to Waste Pro’s emphasis on growing through its mentorship program, Jennings also has taken strides to help his company fight back against the driver and mechanic shortage affecting the industry.

One of these initiatives involves seeking out in-house employees and rewarding those who’ve displayed exemplary service.

“One of the challenges for the industry as a whole is finding qualified drivers and mechanics. There continues to be a shortage in both of these areas, and we are looking at some innovative ways, such as our internal training programs, to fill these roles,” Jennings says. The company recently expanded its training program to include those “who currently serve as helpers” to become certified drivers. Waste Pro also has a safety award that rewards drivers with $10,000 per three-year accident-free, damage-free driving record. To date, Jennings says Waste Pro has awarded more than $5 million as part of the safety program.

The company also is looking at previously ignored labor pools to give capable employees a second chance at a career. Waste Pro recently made news for its agreement with the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) to bring in nonviolent offenders to help meet the company’s staffing needs.

“The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) actually reached out to us with this idea of reducing recidivism among prior nonviolent offenders by providing them with the opportunity to have stable employment post-incarceration,” Jennings says. “Many individuals face bias and stereotypes when attempting to reintegrate into society, making them more likely to return to the prison system. The FDC will identify candidates they feel would be a good fit for this program, then Waste Pro will review the applicants on a case-by-case basis, determining whether they meet the minimum qualifications for the desired position. If hired, these individuals will be supervised by Waste Pro in addition to a probation officer and receive training, and in some cases, assistance with the position-specific certifications, giving them the greatest opportunity possible to succeed.”

Jennings notes that the company is just now taking first steps to institute the program. The first group of potential candidates has been identified by the FDC, and Waste Pro is in the process of scheduling interviews. Once worthy candidates are selected, Waste Pro will bring them in for an onboarding process.

Jennings says that the success of the program will ultimately be evaluated after a year in action, but he is hopeful that it can be beneficial for the company and its new employees.

“We are hopeful the program will assist in alleviating the need for commercial drivers and skilled mechanics, while having these individuals learn the Waste Pro way and become familiar with our culture,” Jennings says. “This program could be essential in securing and growing a specialized, skilled workforce for [the company].”

While this initiative is just getting off the ground, Jennings is hopeful that other waste companies throughout the country can adopt similar programs for the betterment of the industry as well as for the advancement of the communities in which they serve.

“The shortage of qualified drivers and mechanics is an industrywide challenge, so this program can be the blueprint for how to address those skilled personnel shortages,” Jennings says. “Additionally, it allows us to be positive stewards of our community, assisting an often-overlooked sector of the population.”

Whether it’s taking the time to provide assistance to a resident in need or opening the door to employment opportunities for a neglected segment of the workforce, Jennings says Waste Pro’s commitment to think differently about waste management services is what will help differentiate the company from other providers, now and into the future.

“We often say Waste Pro is built on the foundation of being a true team working toward the common goal of building a company that outlives its founders and carves out a unique role in each of the communities we serve,” Jennings says of the company. “We are a group of disrupters constantly looking to shake up the industry from what it has always done in the past.”

The author is the editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.

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