Royal J. Coulter is the third generation to manage his family business, founded by his grandfather as a one-truck garbage service in 1928.
During his 21 years at the helm, Coulter Companies, Inc., has grown from a solid waste company of 40 employees to a highly diverse company of 600 employees.
Coulter Companies is the parent company of 17 different companies that provide hazardous waste, solid waste, wastewater, recycling, analysis, engineering, consulting, remediation, and construction service. The most-recognized of these subsidaries are Peoria Disposal Company and Area Disposal Services, Inc., which, combined, account for four landfills, three transfer stations, and 10 transportation terminals that support a fleet of more than 200 trucks.
Coulter and his wife, Kathy, celebrate their 30th anniversary May 1. They have three sons: Chris, 28; Jeff, 25; and Matt, 23.
Tell us about your background: family, upbringing, schools.
My parents, Elmer and Dorothy, were both raised in Peoria. My mother was born and raised on Peoria's south side, and my father was in West Peoria. My parents were high school sweethearts and got married and lived with her parents on Faraday (by the Logan Swimming Pool) until I was about two years old, and then we moved to West Peoria. During that time, my father worked at WMBD as a singer and also helped his father in the garbage business. In my father's early years, he sang and performed with country music legends like Gene Autry and Red Foley, but he really never cared for the life and especially didn't like being away from home. When his father came down with cancer and didn't have much time to live, my father joined the trash business full-time.
I graduated from Peoria High School in 1965. While I was there, I met some outstanding coaches and teachers who helped mold my character, including Swen Wallin, Bruce Boyle, Harry and Dick Whitaker, William (Corky) Robertson and Phil Salzer. In high school I played basketball and baseball, and during my junior year, in 1964, we probably had one of the better baseball teams in the state. We unfortunately were beat by Spalding 1-0 in a regional game. The following year I was the captain of the team, and though we had lost much of our talent, we won the first game of the regionals. It was during that season that I injured my friend, Judge Joe Vespa. I ran into him coming in for a fly ball from center field and broke his collar bone. At that time, I think we had one of the largest classes that ever attended Peoria High School, with about 450 students.
During my high school years, I was always interested in my father's trash business and worked Summers part-time spraying garbage cans, helping on the routes during vacation times and washing trucks. In fact, one way my parents would discipline me was that if I was not behaving, my mother wouldn't let me go with my father on a truck.
Immediately after I graduated, my father was the successful bidder for the City of Peoria garbage hauling contract, which was the largest contract the company had ever done. At that time, I was trying to decide whether to go to college or not. What I really wanted was to be president of the company some day, and I really didn't understand what some of the college courses would offer me. So I started working and learned the nuts and bolts and street smarts of the trash business. I have asked myself often if I should have gone on and completed my education. I later did attend ICC and Bradley night school for accounting.
I was drafted in 1967 and after a period of training at Fort Sam Houston, ended at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N. Y. With the Vietnam War going full force, I felt really privileged to be stateside throughout that time. In 1968, I was nominated for Soldier of the Year for the First Army, which was a pretty nice honor for just a two-year serviceman. I received my discharge April 19, 1969, and returned home to work in the family business.
With my return, my father started to grow the industrial customer base of the business, and one of his first big accounts was Caterpillar Tractor Company. We started hauling industrial waste for them, both sludges and liquid wastes. From that platform, we were able to grow and diversify more of our industrial base and expanded services to markets outside of Peoria. We diversified from just a residential and commercial collection company into a significant industrial collection company.
As with any family-owned company, I have worn a number of hats. I've picked up garbage, driven trucks, operated heavy equipment, supervised activities at the landfill, dispatched trucks, been involved with sales, and now today am the president and chief executive officer. The hardest time in my life occurred in 1979, when my father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. A lot of things changed in my life. All of a sudden, I started to learn more about banking, ownership issues, politics, and the true value of family ownership. My mother and my uncle, Melvin Coulter, both gave me the opportunity to run the business when a power struggle ensued, which lasted about two-and-a-half years. During that time, we had to find a new bank, and eventually found one to which we had to pay 22 percent interest. Fortunately for me, Kathy stayed home to raise our three boys, while I worked hard trying to build the business–putting in 15 hours each day. Two people who helped me greatly in giving me direction during these harder times were Ross Canterbury and Brian Meginnes, both from local law firms.
Give a brief history of Coulter Companies, Inc. Number of employees. What was the original vision? What is it today?
My grandfather started the company in 1928 with one truck and a handful of customers. Thirteen years later, my father and his two brothers–Melvin and Reuben–became involved. The company's first "big deal" came when my father and Ray Becker partnered to bid on the City of Peoria hauling contract. That was in 1965 and the City hauling contractor was then Becker-Coulter. In 1967, my father bought out Ray Becker's interest in the company and later sold an interest to Paul Weih. Paul and my father worked well together, where each had certain strengths and complemented each other very well. In 1979, my father passed away. After internal disagreements as to the direction of the company, my family bought Paul out in 1981.
Perhaps the three most significant events in the company's life occurred in the following few years. First, in 1982, we bid and won the City/County Landfill contract, which we kept until April 1998. Second, we received the Part B permit for the hazardous waste treatment plant in Pottstown. Finally, our purchase of the Clinton Landfill in January 1988 started our growth outside the Peoria market.
Since 1988, we acquired 30 companies located in central Illinois, consisting of four landfills, 200-plus trucks (powered with Caterpillar engines), 100 pieces of heavy construction equipment (the majority of which is Caterpillar), three transfer stations (one permitted but not yet constructed), one non-hazardous liquid waste treatment plant, four recycling and processing centers, one RCRA hazardous waste stabilization facility and one analytical testing laboratory. Today, we have in excess of 500 employees.
The original vision of the company was to give quality service and that is something I preach everyday, just like my father and his father. The company mission statement is as follows: To meet present and future market needs by expanding services in the waste management industry; to reduce client's risk associated with the management of wastes; to lead the industry in quality and professionalism of services provided; and to continue to earn a reputation with customers and employees for integrity, honesty and loyalty.
Did you know from a young age that you would run the company some day? Did you ever consider another line of work?
It was always something that I dreamed about, and my father assured me that someday I would have that opportunity. The one thing I really did enjoy was the operational end of the business. I never really considered another line of work; my heart was always centered on running our family-owned business.
When and how did you become president and CEO? Was it an easy transition?
I became president of the company in 1983. It was a very difficult transition until I was able to obtain financing and resolve some other issues. I am pleased and proud to say that I have developed a very solid senior management group, with key individuals consisting of Steve Davison, Ron Edwards, Jim Johnson, John LaPayne and George Armstrong. Most of the major responsibilities for daily operations have been delegated to them over the last 15 years. During the transition period, I was fortunate to have outside advisers provide ideas and suggestions to help build the companies. Those advisers were Ross Canterbury, Brian Meginnes, both local attorneys, John Gaffney from Price Waterhouse, and Ted Losby, who I eventually hired as our senior vice president.
How has the company changed/grown since you first came on board?
We have grown in scope of services and in geographic areas served. In the 1980s we were only in the solid waste business in the Peoria area, and with about 50 employees, one landfill and 35 trucks. Today, we are in liquid treatment (one of the first operations outside the Chicago liquid treatment marketplace) and are one of the first three Part B hazardous waste operations in the country. We also provide engineering and consulting services, remediation services, tank installation services, analytical services, and most recently, earthmoving and construction services. We now serve customers outside Illinois. As you can see, our breadth of services has expanded tremendously from our roots in solid waste. We have received seven consecutive EI Digest awards. This award is given each year to companies which have had no environmental violations at their hazardous waste treatment and disposal facility. In addition, our lab has been recognized as one of the Top 10 Labs in the country by Analytical Standards Inc.
List some of your professional accomplishments.
My biggest professional accomplishment would be that 25 years ago I was driving a garbage truck and today I tell people I've been able to live the American dream. That is, I have been able to grow a very diverse group of companies, and now have three sons who are interested in carrying on the growth of the business. I have been honored by being recognized and featured in national and local publications, including World Wastes and Waste Age, to name a few. I have taken an active role with the Chairman's Club of NSWMA, the largest independent group of privately-owned companies in our industry. There are about 20 of us who come together every six-months, and we have been able to go across the country to see very large operations and very diversified companies similar to our own.
Your newest acquisition, environmental testing laboratories, is a change from your traditional roots in solid waste management. What prompted the addition?
The laboratory business complements our existing businesses because our landfills require groundwater analysis and permit packages for them to operate. We essentially have expanded the service offerings to municipalities and industry. People might not realize it, but our laboratory is one of the largest labs in the country. We have always thought we had a good niche and still believe it even today. Today our lab analyzes more than 6,000 samples a month, and we see a growing opportunity to build the laboratory into the best in the industry, especially since recently receiving certification from the Army Corps of Engineers, a major achievement.
Describe the role Coulter Companies and its subsidiaries play in the Peoria economy. Describe the process of "contracting" for city services. How many municipalities are you involved with?
I believe we provide a growing employment base to the Peoria economy. Since my father's time, we have had incredible fortune by hiring and retaining dedicated employees, many having worked for us for 35 years and longer. One employee, Jack Carter, finally retired at 75 after working for our company for 40 years. I think this is good for everyone. I also believe that with Bradley and ICC in the community, we have been fortunate in getting good people. Another area where our company has filled key positions is from the industrial-based customers in the tri-County area. As an example, cutbacks over the years from two companies enabled us to pick up two key individuals who have helped grow our company, namely Bob Leister, a chemical engineer from Lonza who ran our waste water treatment plant, and Ted Losby, a one-time employee of Keystone. Ted was the chief operating officer and helped give our company a more professional image.
City Services: Contracts are gained, of course, through competitive bidding and fierce competition. PDC has had the good fortune of working for both the city and the county. We worked very closely with both groups when we operated the city/county landfill for 18 years, until April 1998. On the city side, we currently service the city buildings and condos for the Peoria area. One of my business goals is to have the city hauling contract. Waste Management now has that piece of business after they bought the BFI assets in the Peoria market. I will look at that contract seriously when it is up for bid again.
Today in central Illinois, we service a 30-county area. In all hauling companies combined, we have 12 municipal hauling contracts, 75,000 subscriptions for residential pickup, 15,000 commercial businesses, and finally, 5,000 industrial customers. PDC Laboratories has a customer base of more than 5,000 active customers. Misco Service, Inc. (located in Pekin) has more than 1,200 customers. PDC Technical Services (our engineering group) has more than 50 clients from a six-state area.
Do you foresee problems with landfill availability in the near future? What are some ways your company and the waste management industry in general are dealing with this problem?
No, I don't see a problem in the state of Illinois for at least the next 10 years. Right now there is still a lot of capacity out there, and for a short period of time, especially in the tri-County area for the next three years–this marketplace will be in good shape with landfills in Peoria and Tazewell Counties. Waste Management announced that it will close its Tazewell landfill in the near future, which will create a need for a landfill in Tazewell County. PDC is in the process of identifying potential sites for a facility in the county, and so far, our work toward that effort has been promising.
Our industry is responding to the situation of fewer landfills through waste minimization and recycling efforts. The one thing we need is better and more stable markets for recycled products. Our industry believes education in schools and in the workplace will help, and is working to increase the education now being conducted.
Is recycling becoming a larger part of your business? What have the trends been over the years? Does your company actively encourage recycling? Are you becoming more environmentally aware? Is your industry?
I don't know if it's becoming a larger part of our business, but I will state that everyone in our industry is doing it. One important factor in recycling is that it is more expensive than the public perceives. The markets need to improve and stabilize more for paper and corrugated cardboard. The whole industry is very aware of these issues.
Yes, our company encourages recycling, but one huge problem is that the two leaders in our industry have had trouble making money in the last five years and closed recycling plants throughout the country. When your largest competitors cease their recycling operations, it's hard for companies like ours to keep operating unless the consumer is willing to pay for it.
Does your personal involvement in the community influence your business? How so?
I believe it does. I have a vested interest for the economies to grow in the communities we serve, because then my company will grow. Many of our customers have asked me and/or the company to participate in fund-raising efforts, and we enjoy doing that. From what I have experienced, it has built loyalty, though that doesn't mean we don't still lose customers because of price. If we do lose a customer, though, they usually come back because our level of service is unmatched.
In a tight labor market, how do you recruit and retain quality employees? How has that changed over the years?
Our staff is composed of engineers, chemists, truck drivers, landfill operators, mechanics, welders, laborers, sales people, construction workers, environmental compliance officers, safety officers–all of that makes for a very diversified work force. We use the local colleges and universities in our area as tools for recruitment. To retain our people, we try to move dedicated employees who have been with us for a period of time into other positions of interest to keep them and ourselves growing professionally. The one thing we consistently cultivate is our reputation for excellence in the industry. We have, just like most businesses, a profit sharing and health insurance program, and we are known for being fair to our employees.
Your three sons are already–or soon will be–involved in the business. Is it important that the business remain in the Coulter family? Have they always planned to join you?
My sons will encounter challenges like I have. But the experience they gain will help them later on. I think they probably won't diversify the company as much as I have over my 20 years. Hopefully, they will always remember the customer has the final say. But, I hope my boys will enjoy the business as much as I have during my career. Each of my three sons have their own strengths, and I hope they build on the basics I have given them. Currently, Chris heads up all marketing and development efforts for our companies, Jeff is a supervisor of operations for one of our transportation companies, and Matt will join Coulter Construction this Spring.
Now that they have pursued their college educations, they are ready for the business challenges. I do tell them the difference when they join me is that I will always be their father–I might not always be their boss. But enjoy what you have and work hard and be honest with yourself and the employees that work with you, and everything will work out for the best.
What does the future hold for your companies? New technology? New ventures?
I believe our future is very strong and bright. The greatest challenge is to keep the work force motivated and give the customers the service they want, always trying to cross-sell the different services which we have in our businesses.
I think for us the main concern is to be sure that equipment is maintained and updated in a reasonable time period. We must be cautious about new technology and what is happening so quickly–we could spend millions and lose sight of profitability very quickly. The laboratory definitely has equipment changes more than any of the other businesses I'm involved with, and I believe we must be very sure when making capital commitments that it's the right piece of equipment to do exactly what needs to be done for that period of time.
Because the two largest companies in our industry, Waste Management and Allied Waste, have fallen out of favor with the investment community, those companies are actively looking at exiting markets that don't make sense for them. As a result, they need qualified and interested buyers for those operations, and PDC is in an excellent position to be that buyer. So I think we definitely see growth in the solid waste side. As I mentioned previously, we also are looking at developing a landfill in Tazewell County, so we will have to see where that takes us. I also see more acquisitions on the horizon for our other businesses, so it should be interesting.
What are your greatest challenges? Your greatest rewards?
I think one of the greatest challenges in the waste industry is keeping service standards at higher levels than our competition. The appearance of our equipment, attitude of our employees, services provided to our customers, and challenging our work force to do the best job we possibly can are daily challenges.
Being the third generation to run the family business, and now, the good fortune of seeing the fourth generation–my three sons–become active in the business, and that I'm allowed the opportunity to grow with them in this ever-changing business climate is my greatest reward. Seeing the people who work for me grow and become better people, too, creates a high level of personal satisfaction.
Finally, staying faithful to the original values on which my grandfather and father built this company is important to me. The highest reward for me is to continue making integrity, honesty, and loyalty bedrock principles that I am recognized for by my customers when they use PDC or its sister companies. IBI