Growing their roots

Features - Cover Story

Waste-Away Group fixes itself as a leading provider of waste disposal services in the Midwest through deep-rooted family values and longstanding experience.

June 21, 2022

From left: Charlie, Ken and Chris Himes of Waste-Away Group are the third generation of the Himes family to operate the Elkhart, Indiana, company.
Photos by Krista Kuskye Photography

With early beginnings as a one-truck hauling operation, Elkhart, Indiana-based Waste-Away Group has seen many transformations since it was founded by Charles Himes Sr. in 1940.

Originally known as Himes Cartage Co., the company got its start in the freight business making deliveries for a local pharmaceutical firm. This relationship eventually expanded when the firm sought disposal options for its pharmaceutical waste, which prompted Charles Sr. to purchase his first refuse truck.

“[Charles] sold the family car and bought a truck and went out on his own to start hauling freight from Elkhart to Chicago … off the rail depot,” says Ken Himes, third-generation owner and president of Waste-Away Group. “One of his larger deliveries was a pharmaceutical company in Elkhart, and they thought he was a good operator moving freight. They needed some waste byproduct taken care of, so he bought a trash truck and started hauling the company’s waste materials.”

It was at this point Charles Sr.’s sons, Charles Jr. and Stephen, entered the family business. Charles Jr. and Stephen began driving hauling trucks and managing operations, playing a key role in the company’s organic growth.

In 1960, Himes Cartage continued to pursue opportunities within the waste disposal sector, purchasing a landfill to provide final disposal for its growing portfolio of waste customers. By 1966, the company made the decision to rebrand as Himco Waste-Away Services Inc.—a move that would ultimately jumpstart the company’s trajectory to becoming a leading waste provider in the Midwest.

“[That move] was where we really broke off the waste from the trucking and started [offering] commercial waste services alongside our industrial [services],” Ken says.

“For us, assessing the market opportunity as the world changes around us [is the key].” — Ken Himes, president, Waste-Away Group

Embracing the markets

Through what Ken describes as a “natural evolution,” Himco Waste-Away Services remained steadfast in its goals to create a comprehensive suite of waste disposal options for its customers, growing primarily through acquisition to expand in not only geography but services.

From 1974 to today, the company has made strides in these efforts through the addition of several subdivisions, including Borden Waste-Away Service Inc., which provides residential waste and recycling removal; Integra Certified Document Destruction LLC, which offers safe, secure destruction of sensitive materials and hard drives; Recycling Works Inc., a material recovery facility (MRF) that sorts and ships commodities to market for reuse; and PineCone Recycling, a wood waste recycling company.

Most recently, the company—now called Waste-Away Group—acquired a new business called Site Works in 2021 to broaden its reach into the construction and demolition (C&D) recycling market.

“We didn’t want to restrict ourselves,” Ken says. “We look for opportunities [where] we can take our existing expertise and expand and maintain some degree of synergy. Also, where we are geographically, we’re really exposed to the recreational vehicle market; it’s the capital of the world. So, we’ve made an effort to [better] diversify our revenue and our geography to minimize our risk to cash traded revenue.

“When Himco was first founded, almost 80 percent of our revenue was concentrated in the pharmaceutical industry, [so] we intentionally grew our volume and our revenue to other industries.”

A family-led business

Being so closely involved in the family business, Ken says he and his two brothers—Chris and Charles III (better known as Charlie)—got an early look into what it’s like to run a waste company. However, Ken says the siblings were always given the opportunity to take another career route after completing their education.

“After I finished high school, I went to college and would come home to work [for the company] during the holidays and summers,” he says. “Once I got my degree [from Indiana University], I worked outside of the family company for about five years learning more trade, but I got into computer consulting and information technology (IT) management.”

Chris and Charlie also took the opportunity to further their education, receiving degrees in logistics and sales, respectively. While all three brothers pursued their own careers initially, Ken says they all eventually made their way back to Waste-Away Group as the company grew and positions became available to them.

“Our parents certainly encouraged the educational side,” Charlie says. “That time away gave us the opportunity to potentially seek something else. Family businesses generally are very tightknit, and there is sometimes … an unspoken understanding of, ‘Hey, this is where you’re going to [work], why would you go anywhere else.’

“Well, my father and my uncle looked at it as another opportunity to make sure that’s what we wanted to do, or if we wanted to come back to the family business.”

Charlie, who is the current vice president at Waste-Away Group, received his bachelor’s degree in administration from Metropolitan State College in Denver. Following some time away working in sales and administrative roles, he returned to Waste-Away Group in 1991 to work in its maintenance shop and IT department.

During this time, Charlie says he was tasked with recording and digitizing data from the trucks and parts, which was used to assess costs at the time. Charlie worked in the maintenance shop for about 10 years before shifting to a different position within the company’s recycling division.

“It gave me some experience and understanding of commodities,” he says of working in the recycling division. “[I learned about] the value of recycling, and with some of my maintenance and mechanical knowledge, it kind of made sense for me to get more involved with recycling machinery.”

For about eight years, Charlie worked to grow the company’s recycling division by pursuing strategic mergers and acquisitions, while also expanding the division’s use of new technology. Today, he serves as the president of the company’s maintenance division, Mechanic Inc., where he oversees fleet conditions, compactor repair, equipment fabrication, container inventory and purchasing.

Chris, on the other hand, began his career at Waste-Away Group in 1992 after receiving a degree in management from Indiana University and working at a trucking company. As the current president of Recycling Works, he manages all scrap processing as well as operations at Integra. Prior to this role, Chris spent about 23 years within the recycling division in various positions.

“When I came back, we had an opening in our recycling facility as a plant foreman … Less than a year later, the general manager of the recycling plant moved up for another opportunity,” Chris says.

Ken was the last Himes brother to make his way back to the company, joining the team in 1997. With a background in IT, his initial position was to manage the company’s IT infrastructure and replace its enterprise resource planning system to achieve Y2K compliance.

Built with experience

Taking inspiration from his grandfather’s and father’s time leading the company, Ken says the Waste-Away Group team follows a set of ideas known as the “Himes’ way of doing things.”

“When I think about it in more practical terms, it’s a multigenerational succession plan to both reflect and foreshadow what we need to do to [uphold] a family-owned business as the family grows,” he says. “The ‘Himes’ way of doing things' is to embrace family values, which at their core are values such as honesty, integrity and being straightforward.

“The business tends to be held together as much by core values as economic ones. They’re high on the business agenda and have become deeply embedded in the culture of our business.”

Given the growing markets in recycling, C&D and secure destruction, staying on the cutting edge of new advancements gives Waste-Away Group a significant foothold in its territories, which include operations throughout northern Indiana and southern Michigan.

“The biggest challenge [with overseeing equipment for the different divisions] is that as rapidly as technology is changing, you have to keep up with it,” Charlie explains. “In a lot of senses, you have to stop and say, ‘Let’s hold off, make what we’ve got last another 12 months, 16 months or 18 months’ because right behind it is another generational change.”

Since Charlie and Chris rejoined the company in the ‘90s, the recycling division has implemented several upgrades to improve quality and efficiency. Initially, the Recycling Works MRF operated as a dual-stream line but was modified around 2008 to accept single-stream recycling in an effort to increase processing capacity.

“That was a major investment; we had to continue to spend capital and add new technology,” Chris says. “[This upgrade] made us much more competitive, but also made us more attractive to third-party haulers that had their own recycling programs since we had the capabilities to process their material.”

In late 2021, the MRF underwent a multimillion-dollar upgrade to improve sorting efforts, which Chris says has helped the company handle growing volumes in local recycling programs.

“There’s a lot more cardboard in the mix and a lot more contamination, so quality concerns are important. This upgrade makes us more efficient and also helps with the quality of our material,” he says. With these improvements, the recycling division has been able to increase processing capabilities to roughly 6,000 tons per month, a major improvement from its 600 tons per month capacity when the MRF first opened.

Finding the value

With a growth trajectory aimed at meeting market demands, Ken says Waste-Away Group has remained successful by keeping a close eye on economic and regulatory changes as well as customer preferences.

“For us, assessing the market opportunity as the world changes around us [is the key],” he says. “Some of it is driven by the economy and some are driven by regulatory changes, so [with] the recent desire for recycling or waste minimization, we’ve been compelled to manage our waste stream to meet market pressures.

“With that being said, we opened [the] landfill and then sold it [in 1978] to focus on recycling. The catalyst for that was regulatory pressures for landfilling at the federal level. Concurrent with that, recycling became a market driver in managing and minimizing waste.”

As for Integra, Ken says the growth in the secure destruction division was primarily driven by more stringent Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations and a desire for more confidential information.

Since its founding in 1988—the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that trash is public domain—Integra has grown to serve over 16 counties in Indiana and Michigan. Using what Integra describes as a “value-added shredding, recycling and waste approach,” the company offers secure destruction and recycling of certified documents and hard drives.

PineCone has also seen encouraging growth since starting operations in 2018, mostly due to a large manufacturing presence in Indiana.

“Per capita waste as a result of manufacturing is large, and one of the byproducts of that waste stream in our market is wood waste,” Ken says. “We’re flanked right next to that [market] by a fairly robust agricultural industry, and once we discovered there was a demand for animal bedding, we began selling our wood waste to the agricultural market.”

While a large portion of the business is based on commodities, Ken notes that finding value for customers remains a top priority.

“We have a personal commitment across the organization for all associates to do what’s right for the customer and what’s right for the company,” he says. “[Our] success is the responsibility we have to our customers, which is a point of making sure that we do things that are profitable.

He continues, “I can remember the years that we battled for pennies, and it just seemed that everybody was dropping prices or whatever it might be. So, in order for us to be a good vendor to our customers, we have to be successful.”

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