At an age when most of his peers were finishing up college or just getting their feet wet with entry-level jobs, Mike Schmidt was setting his sights on carving out a niche all his own.
Schmidt, who grew up the son of a dairy farmer in a rural area outside Philadelphia, learned the value of hard work from an early age. Along with his father, Schmidt grew accustomed to waking at 4 a.m. to milk the cows, often staying out on the farm until 8 p.m. when the work was done.
Beyond his work at the farm, Schmidt started working part-time for a family friend as a helper on the back of a waste truck running small residential routes while he was in high school.
It was during this experience that the idea of a career in waste began to percolate in Schmidt’s mind.
Attracted by the predictable revenues that waste collection could offer—a stark departure from the fickle economics of farming—Schmidt founded Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania-based Whitetail Disposal in 2006 at the age of 20 with a lone pick-up truck.
“Farming and the waste industry are a lot alike as far as get you up early every day and you work late. But growing up with farmers, I just saw my parents struggle where money would come and go. In trash, that is something that’s very consistent. I just wanted something where I could help my family out if need be and just hopefully have a better future,” he says.
In the early days, Schmidt hustled to win commercial collection business in the area by going door to door looking for clients.
Taking a page from his days on the farm, Schmidt committed to getting up before everyone and staying later, doing whatever it took to try to build the company. Whether it was fixing the company’s truck himself, cleaning the bathrooms, or heading out on a route early in the morning, Schmidt says he’s always been willing to do anything to get the job done.
This commitment has continued to pay off as the company has grown.
“One thing with Whitetail I think that really made us successful is that I will never ask anybody to do a job that I won’t do,” Schmidt says. “So, when guys see me doing that, they want to help. They want to do the best they can. It just gives them that extra enthusiasm to show up and work and do a good job because they know I’m right here with them.
“As far as getting up early, working hard, that’s how we’ve become successful. I attribute that to my father. It was a very sharp learning curve in the early days not really having a background in the industry [because in waste], you don’t have many friends [looking to help you out]. But I did know how to get up early and I did know how to work hard. I think that has been what the people around me and my customers have seen over the years, and that is what has taken Whitetail Disposal to where we are today.”
From its humble origins, Whitetail Disposal has grown to a company of 215 employees and boasts a fleet of 195 vehicles. The company serves a client base in the Pennsylvania counties of Berks, Bucks, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton and Chester that is 70 percent residential, 22 percent commercial, and 8 percent industrial.
In 2020, the company brought in revenues of more than $52 million.
Willing to invest
Although it goes a long way, effort alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the waste industry. To give Whitetail an edge over some of its competitors, Schmidt says the company has continued to make substantial investments in dash cameras, GPS and routing software, in-cab tablets, on-truck scales, and other solutions.
“Technology has really allowed us to continue to grow at the pace we are growing,” Schmidt says. “We have cameras in every truck, as an example, which allow us if there’s an accident to see everything that happened [out on the road]. Now, along with the GPS we have in all our trucks, we can monitor the route to make sure it is being completed, especially in the cases where there are new drivers or someone is filling in on a route they’re unfamiliar with. We have put a lot of focus into the technology that’s out there that we can use in our industry, which not a lot of companies our size are willing to invest in. We put a lot of capital into the business, a lot of sweat, and it hasn’t been easy to implement. But now that we are up-and-running, it allows us to continue to grow in the waste industry.”
According to Schmidt, the company’s investments have helped Whitetail better train its drivers, improve billing with customers, and avoid litigation in accidents where the company wasn’t at fault.
Most recently, Schmidt says that the company’s routing technology helped Whitetail deal with COVID-related volume increases that were upwards of 20 to 25 percent on the residential side.
“Almost overnight, we had to do a complete reroute, and we were able to expand the use of our routing system to properly pick up that additional volume—which was really like suddenly having 20 to 25 percent more customers on the residential side of our business. So, it was instrumental in helping us manage those routes during that transitional period,” Schmidt says.
Besides investing in fleet solutions, Whitetail Disposal works to separate itself from the competition by prioritizing the customer.
Every one of Whitetails’s new residential and commercial customers gets a new cart or container when they sign up for service. Additionally, the company actively works to attend to their customers’ needs through one-on-one service.
“We answer every phone call that comes into our office,” Schmidt says. “If there is a missed pickup, we try and get out to them within 24 hours. If, for whatever reason, we can’t be out there within 24 hours, we always let them know that and make sure we’re there the day after. Even if the missed pickup isn’t our fault—if the customer put it out late or whatever the reason is that we missed them—we go out and pick it up no questions asked. That has allowed us to gain a little bit of an edge.”
Further, Whitetail embodies its commitment to its customers through its pricing structure.
“You have to set yourself apart from the bigger waste companies,” Schmidt says. “There’s not a lot of price stability in the waste industry. And so early on, I brought price stability to the market. We only raise price when we really need to, such as when our vendors’ prices go up or when there is a real unusual event like we experienced during the pandemic where we had to slightly raise our rates [due to the market], but we work to keep those rates as consistent as possible.”
Building on its foundation
Schmidt says that although the company has expanded markedly over the last 15 years, Whitetail has largely relied on organic growth over acquisitions.
The four smaller acquisitions that the company has made over the last five to six years share a lot of similarities, according to Schmidt.
“Ninety percent of Whitetail’s growth has been organic,” Schmidt says. “When we go into a new market, we always reach out to the local haulers that are there, if there are any, and we will ask them if they want to be a part of the team. And for the four companies that wanted to come aboard, we worked out a deal with them to get their employees and the owners to continue to work with us. We’re going to continue to do that as we move into new markets. We like buying the small local haulers because they’re there, they show up to work every day, and they’re hard workers.”
Adds Whitetail COO Paul Brady III, “From a growth side, when we are making an acquisition, we look for those same characteristics that we embody at Whitetail. We are largely a family company, even though we’ve grown well beyond the point of a small family operation. It tends to be a successful formula here.”
While Whitetail’s existing customers take precedent, it’s that elusive next customer that keeps Schmidt and the company’s management pushing forward.
Brady says that the company’s management team, which has the average age of 33, gives the company an advantage when it comes to the energy and enthusiasm needed to pound the pavement to grow the company’s customer base.
“Ultimately, the competitive nature that management brings on and their commitment—and the commitment in general from all of our employees where the average age is 37 or 38—differentiates us from all the competition,” Brady says. “That youth helps because they tend to look at Mike and see that leadership, see the fact that he’ll do anything to get the job done, and that makes all our employees bring that energy every day as a result. It’s kind of unique. You don’t run into trash companies as young as Whitetail, but our team is growing and getting better every day as a result.”