People have often asked me, “How and why did you get in the garbage business?” The answer is a lengthy one. My dad is a great story teller, and I have asked him many times to tell this one. Since he hasn’t yet taken the time to tell it, I will give it my best effort.
The garbage business is not the typical industry that people go to college for. There is certainly not a curriculum for it. Most garbage companies are small family businesses or large national brands, like Waste Management or Republic Services. Our story is a family business story and one that still goes on to this day.
I graduated from college in 1985. During my time there, I did not have a clue as to what I was going to do afterwards. As I got closer to graduation I thought I may go home to Central Florida and join my Dad in the insurance business. He had been in that line of work for about 30 years. It seemed like an honest way to make a living, but it certainly did not excite me.
My dad also tried his hand in several other businesses. He once had a “chicken farm” for the production and sale of eggs. This is where my brothers, Will and Scott and I learned the value of hard work - shoveling chicken manure in the hot Florida sun. He also had a foliage nursery where he grew various indoor plants. Apopka, our home town in Central Florida was known as the “Indoor Foliage Capital of the World.” Whether we were potting plants or picking eggs, we worked our butts off in the summer months to make some extra money. I never feared this hard work and I was raised to appreciate it. I thought everyone worked as hard as we did.
Wake Forest University - 1981
I went to Wake Forest on a football scholarship. It did not take me long to realize that football was not going to take me any farther past college. I was an average player in a world of much better ones. But what I may have lacked in football skills, I did not lack in work ethic. I worked my tail off each year getting ready for the next season, passing the annual fall camp endurance test, and living the life of a student athlete at one of the premier academic institutions in America. I believe that my time at Wake as a student athlete prepared me very well for what was to come in my future.
I don’t know who coined the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know”, but they were right. While at Wake Forest, I met a man named Ken Crutchfield who would have a huge impact on my life. Ken was a big Wake Forest fan and football booster, and he was like a second father to me while I was there. He hired me out of college to work for his company, SANCO Corporation. SANCO was an equipment distributor for the solid waste industry. They sold garbage trucks, compactors and containers to cities and counties and to private haulers. Ken had an opening as a territory sales manager in North Florida and South Georgia. I would be sent to live in Jacksonville, Florida, which I thought was great as I would be closer to home. It was my four years with SANCO that would introduce me to the garbage business.
So when I was 22 in the fall of 1985, I rented an apartment in Jacksonville and began my post college career selling garbage trucks for SANCO Corporation. I called on mostly cities and counties at first. It took a while to build relationships with prospective buyers. Back then there was no internet or cell phones, so I had to find payphones between my travels and phone books with yellow pages to learn about where there may be private garbage haulers in rural South Georgia. I remember having a file of nothing but yellow page listings of people in the garbage business and I always worried that one day the phone book guy would catch me. It was a small file and it did not take me long to find that there were not many private haulers in the garbage business in South Georgia. So I focused my time on cities and counties.
While traveling through South and Middle Georgia, I would have certain towns I would stop and stay overnight to work an area from. Some of these included Macon, Albany, Valdosta and a small rural town in south east Georgia known as Vidalia. It was in Vidalia that I met the next man that had a big impact on my life. I found him in the yellow pages as well under C&E Services in Stillmore, GA. C&E stood for Crider and English, and his name was Don English. Don had a very small garbage business and was funded by Billy Crider, a very successful businessman.
Don liked to hunt and fish like me, and we really hit it off. I sold him a few containers and he took me hunting from time to time. In 1986 Don introduced me to a man who owned several thousand acres of prime hunting land. My dad was really wanting to find some good land to lease so we could have a hunting club, and it was in 1986 that we formed the Bear Claw Hunt Club in Swainsboro, GA which we still have to this day.
It was at this hunting club that my family’s entrance into the garbage business really began. One night sitting around the campfire, Don and dad struck up a conversation about the garbage business. Don was looking for a partner to help him grow the business, and dad was tired of insurance and Central Florida, so he was very interested in starting something else. After several months of discussion, Don and dad became partners in the business and started Heart of Georgia Waste Management in 1987.
Heart Of Georgia Waste Management - 1987
My dad was 53 years old and he left the only home he ever knew to go into the garbage business with a man he barely knew. Was he totally crazy or was this a risk that would pay off? My Mom stayed in Central Florida with her job as a nurse to give dad a chance to make it work before she picked up and left as well. If there was ever an example of real courage to make this kind of move, to take this kind of risk, this was it.
Heart of Georgia Waste Management only had two trucks and two small county contracts in Montgomery and Dodge Counties. I sold them their first new truck and took great pride in making it the prettiest truck in Georgia. After getting started together, Dad and Don began to clash. They didn’t agree on much and the stress of having problems with your business partner was taking its toll on Dad.
During this time, I was making my mark in sales of solid waste equipment throughout South Georgia. I met many various city and county officials and learned a lot about the politics of small rural communities. Automation in garbage collection was becoming a big thing. In the old days, most communities had rear loaders with two men on the back that manually dumped the garbage into the back of the truck. This method is still very prevalent today. But automated side loaders (or ASL) were the new thing where one man could stay in the cab of the truck and dump the garbage without ever getting out. I sold one of my largest accounts ever to the City of Warner Robins. I was involved in the implementation of their entire automated collection program. This was certainly the way of the future in residential collection and I was becoming very experienced in it.
After about a year of stress with Don, the two of them decided to part ways. Since they only had two contracts, they decided to simply split the company in half. Don took Dodge County and Dad took Montgomery County. Mom eventually moved to Georgia and they bought an old home in the beautiful town of Ailey in Montgomery County.
It was at this time that my company, SANCO, had been taken over by the Heil Company. Heil was one of the premier manufacturers of garbage trucks in the solid waste industry. It was also at this time that I met the love of my life, Susan Barton, who became my wife in 1990. Even before we were married, Susan and I bought a home in Ailey, Georgia, the same town my Mom and Dad lived in. We loved Georgia and the small town feel.
The Beginning Of Sullivan - 1990
It was in 1990, not long after our honeymoon that I got the call from Heil that they wanted me to move to Chattanooga and take over one of their equipment divisions. It was a promotion with more money. It was not an offer to move, but rather my only choice as my current position was being eliminated. But it wasn’t my only choice. After Susan and I visited Chattanooga, it was then that I met with dad and discussed the idea of me becoming his partner with his fledgling garbage business. He only had one truck and one driver and very little revenue. How could it possibly support the both of us?
I had four years of experience with all the equipment that existed in the industry and had met many people in cities and counties throughout Georgia. Certainly with my contacts and experience, I could bring something to help the company grow. But I did not have to sell any of my talents to my dad. It was quite simply the love he had for his son and the desire to give me an opportunity that was best for me to make us business partners.
Before I could even call the Heil Company to let them know of my decision, they sent out a company memo to everyone congratulating me on my new position with Heil. Little did they know that they would have to find someone else for that position. I remember being so scared to call my manager, who was a great friend, that I did not want the promotion and was going in the garbage business with my dad who had only one truck. When I told him, there was dead silence on the phone. I thought we had been disconnected. But in the end, he was very gracious to me in my departure from Heil.
So here I was in 1990, newly married, living in a town of 500 people in rural Georgia, and joining my dad in the garbage business with one truck and one driver. Where would this crazy decision take us? Would we make it? What was my plan B if it didn’t work? I had none of those answers at the time.
We had to name our new business. We wanted to keep the family name in it so it was personal. We named our new business Sullivan Environmental Services, and little did we know about the long and wild ride we were embarking on.