From Trash To Treasure – The Sullivan Story, Pt. 2

The Sullivan Environmental Years

I was 27 years old and newly married when we began Sullivan Environmental Services in 1990. I had no knowledge or degree in running a garbage business, or any business for that matter. At Wake Forest, my degree was in Communications, not Business. Thank goodness my dad had business experience. My expertise was in garbage collection trucks and efficient systems of collecting waste. I knew automation in residential collection was the coming trend and was unknown to rural Georgia.

We only had one truck and one driver and some scattered dumpster sites in Montgomery County and we barely had enough revenue to support us both. In fact, on a few occasions we were so poor that we opened the company checkbook to see who could get a check that week. Whose house payment was due often had a lot to do with who would be lucky enough to win that week’s paycheck lottery.

One of our first automated side loaders at SES for the new Vidalia contract.
One of our first front loaders at SES.

On one occasion, our one truck broke down and would take a week to get repaired. We had no mechanic so we had to send the truck off to be fixed. We had to do something, so I called a county commissioner of a “local” county where I had sold a truck from my Sanco days, and I told him of our dilemma. He said he would be happy to loan us the county’s truck but couldn’t as the county needed it during the day. I said I would run it all night and return it to him each morning.

Running at night was crazy sounding to him but he loaned me their truck. And that is what we did for an entire week until we got our one truck back. Only in a small town where you had close personal relationships with people could you get away with that.

We had a small office in downtown Vidalia 100 yards from City Hall. I befriended the young City Manager, Tony Rojas, who became a great friend and hunting and fishing buddy. We had each recently been married and the four of us became close.

Vidalia was my target as our best chance to grow our new business. Every day I would see their four trucks come in from the landfill with 12 men on board (three per truck). I knew that I could pick up Vidalia’s garbage with an automated side loader and save them money. I began encouraging Tony to let me make a proposal to them, but we had no background or resume in residential collection. They were very skeptical but were willing to listen. Eventually we convinced them, and in February of 1992 we began our first and largest contract with the City of Vidalia, the town that would eventually become my home and still is to this day.

Harvey Bell, one of our great SES drivers, taking part in our first recycling program in Vidalia.

The City was so skeptical that we entered into an agreement where they bought the trucks & carts and we leased them from them over the term of the contract. That way if we failed, they would already have the equipment in place. I came up with this idea to dissuade their concerns about our success. If we succeeded, the equipment would eventually become ours. And we succeeded!

A Family Affair

This new business was truly a family affair. Before we could start, we had to deliver all the new carts to each customer. Automated collection requires the proper placement of each and every cart at the curb, and I had to figure out a way to deliver them and educate each customer at the same time. We borrowed a golf cart and drove down the street in front of the cart delivery crew and painted a dot on the curb where we wanted the cart. The dot was as much to train the customer on their new placement as it was to tell the cart crew behind us to place a cart in that spot. This was a laborious effort, so I asked my wife Susan, who was 8 months pregnant with our first child, to drive the golf cart. One of the carts fell over after delivery and Susan got out and picked it up. Later we had several nasty calls from customers berating us for putting a pregnant woman on the street doing hard labor. You would not believe the number of calls we received weeks later wanting us to come back out and repaint that dot that had washed away.

Our downtown office was so small, I could smell Dad’s breath from my desk. We decided to purchase a location on Brinson Road in Vidalia that had a building and some property to park trucks. This would be our home for the next 6 years.

The original SES shop. This is what we bought when we got our first big contract in Vidalia.
Dad and me in front of our new office in Vidalia on Brinson Road.

A Bumpy Road Ahead

The new contract didn’t start flawlessly. We had to drive in front of our new drivers and show them how to travel the route with an automated side loader since it only picks up from the right side. Some of our divers were former City employees who had been doing it their way for many years. I had my dad out in front of one of the routes and they got completely lost. Getting lost in Vidalia is truly difficult, but dad managed to do it. Dad was very good at the details of running a business from a payables, receivables, and taxes point of view, but he had no idea how to follow a map. After that first day, he and I decided he would stay in the office and I would handle all operations of drivers and routes. It was the best decision we ever made.

Dad trying to figure out how in the world we would pick this trash up.
This was a bad day for SES. Flipping a truck on its side on a rural wet dirt road.

Before the first month of our new contract was even over, we realized we did not have enough money to make payroll through the end of the month. Stress comes in many forms, but realizing you're not going to be able to pay your new employees is high on the list for small businesses. I went to my good friend Tony Rojas, the City Manager, and asked him for our first check early. “But the month isn’t even over yet and you haven’t even billed me,” Tony said. I had his bill in my back pocket and he reluctantly paid us early. Sometimes you have to just do what you have to do!

After Vidalia, our neighbor to the north, Swainsboro contracted with us. The same sales pitch we used in Vidalia worked in Swainsboro. We can do it for less money than its costing you now. We were beginning to build our resume.

On the way home from the Swainsboro contract award, Dad and I knew we were going to need some help. We both had the same guy in mind, my brother Will. Will was living in Central Florida, was newly married to his wife Clara, and was also in the sod business. We called him when we got home and told him about the new Swainsboro contract and that we needed help. He drove up just a day or two later and decided to leave Central Florida and come to Georgia to be a part of this new family business.

Will is a blue collar type guy and knew little about the garbage business. He quickly learned and worked his tail off in Swainsboro. He had a knack for making good friends with whom he came in contact. One of those friends led us to a new contract in Twin City, just 11 miles from Swainsboro. Will eventually bought a home in the country nearby and still lives there today.

Suddenly, towns near us started calling and we started travelling to make the same pitch. Many area cities and counties had very old equipment and antiquated methods of collection. Most counties had dumpster sites that were open to the public 24/7. These sites were impossible to keep clean. The idea of each and every house having a trash cart and a truck coming down their road weekly had never been seen before in county collection. The constant problem of dumpster sites made this new method of collection in counties a real possibility.

A typical South Georgia County dumpster site. These trash sites made residential collection in counties a real possibility.

New contracts suddenly came in from Reidsville, Glennville, Tattnall County, Collins, Claxton, McRae, Helena, Toombs County, Candler County, Baxley, Appling County and Wadley. All of this happened between 1990 and 1995. We had come from a small business who could barely make payroll to now one doing about 3 million in annual revenues. This is still very small in the garbage business, but we thought we were doing great. We had no competition as there were no other haulers in our area, as far as we knew. We were wrong.

Yard trash collection was one of the most difficult things we ever did.

The Competition

One night we made a proposal to Johnson County, in Wrightsville, GA. I nailed my presentation - the best one I had ever done - and we drove home knowing we had this one in the bag. The next day I called and learned they had contracted with another company called Sinclair Disposal, its owner a local boy from Wrightsville. Robbie Attaway, the owner, is another man that would have a huge impact on my life. He was also a new, young solid waste hauler, and despite our losing Johnson County to him, we would later become great friends and eventually something much more.

By 1995 we had a solid business with great customers and a great reputation. Our customers liked the fact that we had a very personal touch to our service. If there was a problem, we handled it right away. If they needed something, the owners were the ones who handled it. Whether it was delivering carts or dumpsters or even picking up scattered trash at a dumpster site, we handled it ourselves. The Sullivan name began to give people confidence that customers were talking to the owners and the people who could solve their problem.

Our years running SES were the best of times. We were always very involved in the solid waste issues of the communities we served. We built some great relationships with many of the community leaders. We hired and worked with some of the greatest people, many of whom still work with us today and most are lifelong friends. We had great employees and that is what made our company great. Dad, Will and I always worked well together, seldom ever having any real disagreements. Being in business with family members doesn’t always work out. In our case, it was a recipe for success that came from hard work and dedication.

We were always very involved in our communities speaking to groups about recycling and solid waste issues.

It was in late 1995 that we learned one of our great garbage friends and mentors, Andy Crawford, had sold his Jacksonville, Florida based business, Southland Waste, to a new and upstart national chain called Republic Services. His selling price was for a tremendous amount of money, probably more than he could spend in his lifetime. We called him up to ask why he had sold and his answer was simple. They paid him much more money than his company was worth. Further, they paid him with stock, not cash. He could cash in his stock on the first day but if he held on to it, it may increase in value. It did!

Wayne Huizenga was the billionaire businessman behind Republic. In 1972 he founded Waste Management, the largest solid waste company in the world. He then went off to start Blockbuster Video, owned the Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins, and also started Viacom. Now, he was getting back in the garbage business by buying up companies in the Southeast with his stock and paying multiples for companies that had never been seen before.

He bought up six of the largest regional private companies in the Southeast. These were known as the “Six Pack,” and they were the beginning of Republic Services. Andy convinced us to listen to their pitch for becoming part of this exciting new and growing company.

Little did we know, Republic Services would forever change our lives.

Even my daughter Anna enjoyed her dad talking trash to her friends.

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