The Commercial Appeal
ONE MAN’S TRASH ...
Small garbage hauler looking to tackle large jobs
J & J Waste may be small, but its owner is looking to compete with the big boys in city garbage collection.
In a trash collection industry where giant companies count profits in the millions of dollars, Theodore Harris began competing in 2003 by hauling the garbage of a handful of Shelby County customers in a pickup.
Attracting more customers to J & J Waste with fliers made by his wife Jo Carol, Harris added a trailer. He found his first garbage truck, without wheels or doors, at a salvage yard in Atlanta and paid $2,500 for it, once it was rejuvenated to roll again.
Today, with some 2,500 to 3,000 customers and four trucks, J & J Waste is setting its sights on competing for contracts with city governments, as well as chipping off commercial customers served by far larger companies. Its time may have arrived. The city of Millington in north Shelby County is seeking to privatize the residential refuse collection and disposal services traditionally performed by that city’s government. Millington’s request for proposals from private firms state that the city will sell its five trucks and roughly 3,000 trash carts to the winning bidder.
The city’s proposal asks that winning private firm hire 10 city employees now doing the work for at least a year, but that’s not a requirement. With a separate bid, the city also is seeking to sell its commercial sanitation service and equipment.
Harris said he’ll be among the companies bidding by the July 11 deadline to provide residential service in Millington beginning this fall.
“One contract like that would mean the world to us,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said J & J Waste has added a $45,000 automated garbage truck to its stable; he said he’s learned to buy used trucks in California, where tough environmental standards keep them in shape.
It’s really hard to get people to contract with you when you’re small.”
Theodore Harris, J & J Waste
But the company hasn’t used the truck, which requires just one person to drive and empty carts with a mechanical lift.
He added the automated truck as proof to cities like Memphis and Germantown that the small firm is ready and able to handle at least a portion of contracts now awarded to his giant competitors, such as Phoenix-based Republic Services.
“I’m the little man, so I’ve got to do a little more to convince a contractor to do business with me,” Harris said.
In Memphis, for example, he said there’s no doubt that a private contractor could save lots of money for residents, compared with service provided by government workers. Harris said city crews pick up garbage at about 400 houses a day, while those working for a private contractor such as Republic would cover 700 or 800 houses.
“Those guys get a full day’s pay for a half day’s work,” Harris said of unionized Memphis sanitation workers.
Chad Johnson, executive director of the AFSCME Local 1733 union representing city sanitation workers, absolutely disagrees. And Dwan Gilliom, City of Memphis Public Works director, warned that there are a number of variables that make comparing city and private operations difficult.
Johnson said the number of pick ups city crews make in a day should be multiplied by three because they run not only a garbage cart route, but a second for recycling and a third for trash, defined as everything outside the garbage cart, for $25.05 a month. Private haulers may charge less, but typically for emptying a single garbage cart, he said.
Johnson added that city workers have agreed to raise their daily pick ups to 600 in exchange for work changes and retirement benefits. Gilliom said the average route size for city crews currently is 467 stops a day.
Still, Memphis contracts with larger private firms for service in annexed areas such as Cordova and Hickory Hill, Harris said.
“It’s really hard to get people to contract with you when you’re small,” Harris said.
J & J Waste also took steps to compete in the commercial trash collection market and in January purchased another truck designed to empty dumpsters for commercial customers. He’s landed some, but said a larger competitor drops its fees to keep customers. That’s slowed, but not stopped, that growth.
His wife, the owner of the business, runs the of-
BUSINESS AS USUAL
fice while he does the talking and runs everything in the field, including distributing the firm’s carts. He said the company has a workforce of five and that a $50,000 loan that a consultant at the City of Memphis Renaissance Business Center helped trigger the firm’s early growth.
Harris, 53, said he gained experience working for bigger companies, i ncluding Texas- based Waste Management as well as the former Browning-Ferris Industries and Southern Disposal. Originally from Wisconsin, he said he didn’t like having his income limited working for others and is building J & J Waste — named for his Jo Carol and his first grandson, Justin — for his grandchildren.
With a 50 percent profit margin for the firm, Harris said he believes more entrepreneurs aren’t in the refuse collection business because they don’t know how to get started. He said he’d like to see more because they could band together to compete.