Photos by Garrett Graham Photography

Since getting his start in the solid waste sector two decades ago, industry leader Dan Christensen has held many roles over the course of his career.

Having grown up in Sandwich, Illinois—a small city roughly 60 miles west of Chicago—Christensen initially entered the waste industry in 2002 as a litter picker at a nearby landfill while attending Eastern Illinois University.

“[I was] looking for ways to generate income, and there was a job posted for a litter picker at the Prairie State Waste Services landfill [in Charleston, Illinois],” Christensen says. “I believe the job paid $4.25 an hour, but I needed the job badly, so I interviewed for it, and things went well and I was offered the position.”

From there, Christensen went on to work in other roles at Prairie State Waste Services, helping in areas like welding, container delivery, sorting recyclables, running heavy equipment and driving collection trucks. After the company was acquired by Phoenix-based Republic Services in 2009, Christensen moved into managerial roles, such as supervisor, operations manager and general manager, within the company’s Arkansas market.

“We’ve been growing at a rapid pace, both organically and through acquisition, and the assets that we’ve acquired have primarily been tuck-ins to our existing operations.” – Dan Christensen, president, Cards Recycling

“I worked for Republic for a long time,” he says. “I got to experience everything from the front line to area leadership roles there and developed a knack for interacting with people and our employees. I really enjoyed the time I [had] there.”

Following his time at Republic, Christensen embarked on creating his first waste company in 2014—DC Trash of Illinois based in Cortland. Built from the ground up, Christensen says this was a major step in his career trajectory and a “leap of faith” after his run at Republic.

Christensen quickly turned DC Trash into a reputable waste management company within the Dekalb County marketplace. The company offered waste removal, recycling collection and dumpster rental and boasted more than 30,000 customers and roughly 35 employees before he made the decision to sell DC Trash to Lakeshore Recycling Systems, now LRS, in November 2017.

At the time of the sale, Christensen said he was “thrilled” to join forces with LRS and excited to introduce customers to an organization that he said “shares our passion for great service.”

DC Trash has continued to operate as a standalone entity serving the western suburbs of Chicago. Christensen briefly took over as regional vice president at LRS before moving on to his next solo venture.

Starting from scratch

With a wealth of experience under his belt and an understanding of the Arkansas waste market from his time at Republic, Christensen decided to create a new company to serve the South Central region. Springdale-based Cards Recycling was established in late 2017.

“I saw an opportunity in some of these markets for a locally owned hauler and landfill owner to provide great service, so I tried to build a business and brand from there,” he says.

Cards, originally known as Central Arkansas Recycling and Disposal Services, started by providing roll-off services for customers and operating a landfill in Little Rock and a construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facility. Since then, the company has grown into other markets across Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, primarily focusing on residential and commercial collection.

“Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri are fairly fragmented [markets]. You have a couple of your nationwide larger providers, but there was a real need for a locally owned [waste management] company. So, we started in [that market segment] and it’s blossomed,” Christensen says. “There were some folks serving these markets that had been here for a long time, and some of the [local residents] here were ready for a change.”

To provide competitive rates to the company’s customer base, Christensen says Cards relies on its internal network of transfer stations to offer more flexible disposal options.

“We operate in both rural markets and more densely populated areas, so landfills are not always reachable, and the transfer stations become a very vital asset,” he says. “In northwest Arkansas, there’s only one landfill and eight counties surrounding our location, so [there is] very limited disposal capacity there. By having transfer stations, it allows us to move that waste further distances and not be bound to one specific disposal site.”

Finding new outlets

Although landfill capacity has proven to be a significant challenge for Cards and other waste haulers serving the area, Christensen says he has been pursuing a more comprehensive, sustainable route to expand the company’s diversion operations.

In the coming months, Cards will break ground on a new “waste super-center,” which Christensen describes as a first-of-its-kind facility for Arkansas. The facility, at the company’s headquarters in Springdale, will accept municipal solid waste, organics, C&D debris and single-stream recyclables to be managed and processed on-site.

“Our new facility is really going to be paramount to our success and the success of the regions we serve because we’re able to offer services that weren’t previously available,” Christensen says. “Of those 30 municipalities that we provide service for, only a handful of them currently recycle. So, this new facility will allow them additional opportunities to do that, and I think that’s going to be really well-received by the communities,” he says.

Planning and development for the new facility has been a roughly two-year process, with Christensen working with agencies like the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the Boston Mountain Solid Waste District in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, to obtain permits and approvals.

“We’ve all seen [the facility] as an opportunity to provide new services to the area that maybe exist elsewhere across the county,” he says. “As the population has increased in our area, the folks that are moving here are from some of these places where similar services were available. So, being able to offer them everything that they’re used to receiving in their home states is certainly going to be beneficial.”

Christensen continues, “We have some really large companies headquartered in northwest Arkansas, including Walmart, JB Hunt and Tyson. They draw in talent from all over the U.S., so for folks to move here and feel like they’re getting the same great services here that they got where they moved from is going to be great.”

Strategic growth opportunities

In addition to the new facility, Cards has been expanding through acquisitions. The company announced in February the purchase of HTS LLC, a Pineville, Missouri-based waste company that hauls residential and commercial waste. According to a news release Cards issued about the purchase, the company’s operating footprint includes the southern Missouri areas of McDonald County, Pineville, Goodman, Anderson and Lanagan.

The HTS purchase is the 11th acquisition for Cards in the past four years. The purchase, which includes all HTS’ assets, employees and contracts, adds more than 2,500 new customers to Cards’ expanding footprint. Other acquisitions include 4D Sanitation, Best Trash,  R&S Waste Disposal, The Trash Man, Altes Sanitation and Bernice Sanitation.

“We’ve been growing at a rapid pace, both organically and through acquisition, and the assets that we’ve acquired have primarily been tuck-ins to our existing operations. We [already] serviced most of the municipalities around HTS’ service area, and they had four municipalities that they provided service for that we have now tucked into our Cards customer base,” Christensen says.

“What we really look for [when pursuing an acquisition] is quality operations with quality equipment and quality employees. And we’ve been very fortunate with the acquisitions that we’ve made, and we’ve got some really great employees that have helped bring new ideas to our existing platform.”

In terms of the company’s development strategy, Christensen says organic growth is always his top priority. However, he admits that it makes sense to look at acquiring a company in certain instances, especially in the cases of Cards’ last two acquisitions.

“[With HTS], the owner had been working in the industry for a very long time and was ready to retire. And this was a great segue for their customer base to know that they’d be serviced just like they had been in the past,” he says. “So, that’s one of the benefits of selecting us as a potential acquisition partner: We really do take pride in the customer service that we provide—we don’t just view it as additional revenue.”

“Being able to create a team and harvest talent from other places and industries and see what they’re capable of doing has been one of the greatest contributors to our success.” – Dan Christensen, president, Cards Recycling
From left, Cards employees with the company’s Vice President of Operations Jason Fitzgerald and President Dan Christensen

Christensen says Cards will continue working toward its goal of being the largest and most well-respected waste services provider in the mid-South.

“As we look at growth opportunities, both those that exist within our current footprint and also outside of it, I would say we plan to remain disciplined in our acquisition and growth strategy and will continue to pursue companies that are well-run with good leaders and good employees and that provide great service,” he explains.

“Being able to create a team and harvest talent from other places and industries and see what they’re capable of doing has been one of the greatest contributors to our success,” Christensen adds.

“We have a very strong team of folks at the corporate management level, as well as our frontline managers, and they’ve really helped cultivate our talent,” he says. “And our frontline employees have done such a great job with safety and some of those things. We just couldn’t be where we are today without them.”

The author is assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net