A Publication of WTVP

Coulter Companies, Inc. is the parent of 16 different companies, including Peoria Disposal Company, PDC Technical Services, PDC Laboratories and Area Disposal Service, Inc. Since its founding as a one-truck garbage service in 1928, the company has been owned and operated by the Coulter family.

President and CEO Royal Coulter is the third generation of Coulters to manage the family business. The fourth generation–sons Chris, Jeff and Matt–are intimately involved with the business and poised to assume ownership upon Royal’s retirement. And with seven fifth-generation members born since 2001, there is a solid chance that the company will even see a fifth generation of family ownership–no small feat for a family business.

Royal Coulter was last interviewed by iBi in January 2001. To read the earlier interview in its entirety, visit

Most family businesses do not make it past the third generation. How were you able to overcome that trend?

Each generation of the Coulter family has made it the priority to pass this business on to the next generation. In my case, my father, Elmer Coulter, left the operational control of the company to me. In addition, my uncle Melvin eventually sold me his ownership stake in the company. Had it not been for these gestures, PDC most likely would not be in existence today and probably would have been swallowed up by one of the large publicly traded companies. Like my father, it is my goal to transfer the ownership and operation of Coulter Companies to my three children: Chris, Jeff and Matt.

What did you learn most from your father and grandfather when it comes to running the business?

Work hard, deliver superior customer service and take care of your employees. If you don’t put your best foot forward for your customers in terms of servicing their needs, you will be out of business soon enough. Although it’s a relatively simple mantra, this explains why the Coulter family has been fortunate to be in business for 81 consecutive years.

What do you consider to be the true value of family ownership?

I employ a fair amount of pride when it comes to running the business. As an example, the company’s image is very important to me. To expand on this point further, I want our companies, especially our landfill facilities, to not look like typical landfill facilities. If you visit one of my landfills, we take great pride in making them look like parks. For instance, our landfills have blacktop roads that lead practically to the active working face of our facilities. If you visited one of our laboratory facilities, you would get the sense that you were walking through a hospital corridor. I treat my businesses’ facilities like they were my home. I want them to look clean and impressive, and I spend a lot of time with my staff to ensure that they stay that way.

Do you think that having a business passed from generation to generation helps to keep the original vision intact?

Yes. My family is very proud that we have been able to keep this business going for over 80 years, and we realize that is due to our loyal customers and dedicated employees. As I stated earlier, my father taught me how important customer service and dedicated employees were to our business. Likewise, I have done my best to teach my sons how important it is to take care of our customers and employees.

After your father unexpectedly passed away in 1979, there was a two-and-a-half year power struggle over the company. Were those issues related to family ties or operating as a family business?

My father and uncle recognized during the early ‘70s that they needed some assistance with managing the company from the financial side. They recruited a gentleman with a financial background to join the company, and in exchange, they gave him a minority stake in the company. After my father’s untimely passing in 1979, I assumed his ownership stake in the company, and this gentleman and I did not share the same vision for the company’s future. My uncle and I parted ways with this minority stakeholder a few years after my father’s death, and I acquired my uncle’s ownership stake in the company seven years later.

How did each son come into the company? Did you always know you wanted them to join the family business?

It was my sons’ decision to join the company, without any pressure from me. From an early age, all three showed interest in joining the company someday. Nevertheless, I was very pleased that they decided to join me in the management of the company when they did. My oldest son, Chris, joined in 1997 as the marketing and development director for Peoria Disposal Company, our hazardous waste division. He now manages the sales and marketing activities for PDC, PDC Laboratories and PDC Technical Services, and is responsible for the human resource and safety departments at our corporate office.

My son, Jeff, joined PDC Services in 1995 as an operations coordinator and route supervisor for the commercial solid waste collection division. He now serves as the general manager for our largest waste hauling division located in Clinton, Illinois, and is responsible for the purchasing department at our corporate office.

My youngest son, Matt, joined Coulter Construction Company in 2001 as the marketing director. He is now responsible for all solid waste sales, recycling and acquisition activities for PDC Services and Area Disposal Service. He is also responsible for managing the IT and 6 Sigma departments at our corporate office.

Was it difficult to determine how each son, with different strengths and skill sets, fit into the company?

Fortunately for me, Chris, Jeff and Matt started with the company at different times and filled vacant positions. We are fortunate that the company is big enough and diverse enough that their strengths matched up very well in the business segments in which they are employed. Since they began working for the company, they mutually developed a plan to take on additional responsibilities (i.e. human resources, purchasing, IT) at the corporate level, which has helped the company handle its recent growth.

Is there competition or rivalry among the brothers?

At one time, there was, despite the fact that they were in different divisions of the company. Any rivalries that developed early on in their careers were due to lack of communication. My sons and I are working better as a team than we ever have due to the fact that we meet once per month outside of the office to catch each other up on the various projects we are working on, and determine jointly if we are staying on track with our vision for the company. These monthly meetings have had a significant, positive impact on our working relationship together.

In terms of family members gaining experience in the business, how important is it to wear many different hats?

I have seen my sons mature greatly as business professionals as a result of them taking over more corporate responsibilities. Before they assumed these responsibilities, they were only looking out for the benefit of their respective divisions and did not appreciate the impact their decisions were having on the corporation as a whole. As a result of having corporate responsibilities now, they truly consider the global impact of their decisions, which has greatly fostered better teamwork and cooperation between them and me and our other senior and middle-level managers.

How do you approach the topic of succession planning?

We are currently in the process of developing our succession plan. The foundation of that plan is that the company will be owned and operated by Chris, Jeff and Matt, and they will have to practice shared governance effectively if the company will continue to pass on to their children. Based on the steps they have taken so far, I believe that they will be successful in managing the company after I am no longer an active part of it.

Has working with family ever strained relationships? How are disagreements handled?

When working with family, whether that is working with my father, my uncle, my cousins or my sons, there is a psychological dynamic that always exists. The good and bad thing about working with family is that you can be really honest with them, typically in stressful situations. However, we do not let matters fester, do not take things personally and move on quickly after decisions are made. It is fair to say that the Coulters are passionate people, and our employees know where we stand at all times.

How do you carve out time to be with family and not discuss work?

My wife, Kathy, and I have been blessed with seven grandchildren since 2001. Prior to 2001, it was difficult for me to not discuss work when I was around Chris, Jeff, Matt and their spouses after business hours. Since the grandchildren have been born, we have made it a priority to not discuss business when they are around. We also make it a priority to take at least one week of the year to vacation together as an extended family. We recently completed a family trip to St. Louis to see the zoo, the children’s museum and the Arch, which was a lot of fun.

What about non-family employees? Is there ever tension over their roles within the company?

No. I am blessed to have a loyal, senior executive staff that on average has been working with me for 20 years or more. In addition, I am blessed to have a middle-level management staff that has been working with me on average for 15 years or more. Everyone knows their responsibilities, knows my objective to pass this company onto my sons and knows the immense opportunities to grow personally and professionally with the corporation.

Why has the successful curbside recycling program in Morton not been replicated elsewhere? You mentioned in the previous interview that “The one thing we need is a better and more stable market for recycled products.” Nine years later, it would seem that this is still the case. How can waste management practices be improved to move towards a more sustainable future?

In 1992, the State of Illinois made it mandatory for all counties to recycle at least 25 percent of their estimated waste stream generated within its respective borders. In the case of Tazewell County, it chose to meet this mandate by incenting its municipalities to provide curbside recycling collection through grants. The Village Board in Morton was blessed to have some visionary members, and it sought to economically coerce its residents to recycle by making them pay more for garbage collection but provide free recycling in return. Morton took advantage of the timing of the mandate, but very few communities chose to take a similar approach when this seminal event occurred.

The most popular thing that our industry has provided to make recycling more popular is through single-stream recycling, which means that recycled products can be placed at the curb without separating any materials. In addition, recyclers are now accepting more products in curbside programs, such as junk mail, magazines, cardboard, phone books, plastics #1-7 and other commodities, which they weren’t collecting in 2001.

With the introduction of single-stream recycling to our residential customer base, the total number of residential recycling customers has increased by 30 percent since 2001 and will continue to expand. In the spring of 2008, we implemented a single-stream commercial collection route in Peoria for our current customers. This is a trend we see continuing for surrounding areas, as this is popular in several states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Along with residential and commercial recycling being at the forefront, our company is now shipping industrial waste streams to a waste-to-energy facility in Indiana and applying several beneficial reuse materials from local industrial plants to avoid landfill disposal. Finally, in 2006, our Clinton Landfill began operation of our first gas-to-energy plant at the site. As a result of our ability to convert landfill gas into electricity, we are now providing power to over 3,000 households in DeWitt County. We believe that this is a great opportunity for PDC to provide a sustainable environment for the future.

How has the down economy impacted the waste management industry and your employment base specifically?

In the waste industry, we serve three markets: residential, commercial and industrial. The residential part of our business for the most part is recession-proof, the commercial side of our business is recession-resistant, and the industrial side of our business is recession-prone. We are fortunate that we are diverse enough that we have not suffered the devastating impact of this recession like some of our customers have. However, our waste volumes on the hazardous waste side of our business are off by 50 percent, due to the fact that these customers are solely industrial. We have had to lay off about 20 people in our hazardous waste division due to volumes being off from prior year.

Do you foresee a 5th generation entering the family business?

Kathy and I surely hope so. It is fair to say that this generation will definitely give the 4th generation a run for their money! iBi