From left, Sean and Joe Winters of West Babylon, New York-based Winters Bros. Photos: George Kamper

There are no metropolitan areas in the U.S. larger or more complicated than that of Greater New York, which includes New York City and the expansive, multistate area surrounding it. With roots tracing back to one truck operating in 1950, West Babylon, New York-based Winters Bros. Waste Systems has nonetheless carved out an impressive market share in the metropolitan area, relying on a staffwide commitment to customer service.

The company, started by James (Big Jim) and Joe Winters in 1950, remains in family hands, with James’ sons Joe and Sean now leading the firm, and Joe’s son Patrick also involved.

The reach and scope of the company have changed dramatically over the course of six decades, however, as Winters Bros. now employs more than 520 people who help serve about 100,000 commercial and residential customers using a fleet of some 250 collection trucks and an array of sorting equipment to handle recyclables.

Joe and Sean Winters intend to keep the company moving forward, saying they view themselves as “extreme entrepreneurs” who are willing to make investments to grow the business and “to deliver phenomenal customer service.”

TAKING THE WHEEL

When Big Jim and the elder Joe Winters started their trash hauling company on Long Island in 1950, they relied initially on their own hard work to get the company up and running and to attain firm footing for future growth.

Eventually, the elder Joe Winters moved to Florida, and Big Jim, along with his wife, Brigid, continued to focus on building the firm’s customer base in the growing suburbs of Long Island. In the late 1980s, Big Jim retired, and he and Brigid were ready to hand leadership of the business over to their sons, Sean, Joe, Jimmy, Michael and Andrew.

Sean was commissioned with running the Long Island portion of the business, while the other brothers who chose to remain involved did so by running an acquired waste hauling firm based in Burlington, Vermont.

On Long Island, Sean learned the operations details of the business from the driver’s seat of Mack trucks, eventually accumulating more than 1 million miles behind the wheel on collection routes.

After building the Vermont business and eventually selling it to Casella Waste Systems, the other brothers returned to Long Island in 1997, where they combined their efforts, skills and experience to guide the firm into its fastest growth stages.

In 2011, Winters Bros. acquired an existing hauling business and its network of facilities in southern Connecticut, rebranding them as Winters Bros. and basing them in Danbury in that state.

The steady growth in Long Island, coupled with the considerable acquisition in Connecticut, has helped create a company that now operates throughout much of the New York City metro area. Winters Bros. now does far more than collect solid waste and recyclables, as it currently operates 14 waste transfer stations and 10 recycling centers that help ensure recyclables from Long Island and Westchester County in New York and from Connecticut are diverted from landfill and obtain their maximum value.

Sean says the company has come a long way from its origins. “I’ve got to pinch myself every day,” he says. “I’m a fortunate guy. I’m doing what I love, and my whole family’s story is a good story. Our family was tight then and we’re tight now.”

While much of the company’s growth has taken place while Joe and Sean have been leading the company, Sean does not hesitate to credit his parents’ work ethic. “As a young man, I heard my father knocking on my door every morning at 3:30,” Sean says. “We worked our routes until 2 p.m., and then went back and picked up the misses and did anything else that needed to be done.”

Regarding going from one truck to 250, Sean says, “My father and mother always said if we stick together we can accomplish a lot, and we’ve stuck together and accomplished it.”

INVESTING TO UPGRADE

Long Island is the 10th largest island by area in the United States, surpassed only by the Big Island of Hawaii and eight sparsely populated islands in Alaska. However, with a population of 7.8 million packed onto its 1,400 square miles, Long Island has far more people than any of the other islands on the list ahead of it. Long Island also no longer has an open municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill, according to Will Flower, Winters Bros. vice president of corporate and public affairs, making it an ideal place to undertake investments in sorting and recycling.

“I’ve got to pinch myself every day. I’m a fortunate guy. I’m doing what I love, and my whole family’s story is a good story. Our family was tight then and we’re tight now.” – Sean Winters

“We have a big focus on recycling and the use of technology to improve the quality of materials we produce,” Joe says. The company has recently completed an upgrade of its flagship material recovery facility (MRF) for commingled materials in West Babylon he says.

Flower says the processing equipment at the facility has been upgraded to include a new hyper spectral imaging (HSI) optical sorting system, which operates in combination with sizing screens and magnetic separation technology.

“Our latest mixed materials MRF upgrade is designed to handle both mixed residential postrecycled MSW and mixed dry commercial waste,” says Bill Brennan, Winters Bros. vice president of recycling and transfer operations. “The commercial dry waste we collect is loaded with recyclables that we are able to liberate from the waste stream.”

The lack of landfills on Long Island, Brennan says, means “almost all of the commercial waste that is generated on Long Island is shipped off the island to distant disposal sites. The newly installed recycling equipment allows us to be more efficient in the handling of both bulky dry waste and MSW.”

With plastic and paper scrap buyers in China now making purity demands similar to, or surpassing those, in the rest of the world, Brennan says the investments have been timely. He says the optical sorter, which uses “artificially intelligent hyper spectral technology to automatically identify and sort a wide range of materials,” offers “very clean output and the efficient recovery of recyclables, reducing labor costs while increasing throughput.”

Brennan says the new technology means the amount of recyclables Winters Bros. will recover from its residential MSW stream has increased dramatically, thus sending less waste upstate or out of state to landfills.

He adds, “We are the biggest and best recyclers on Long Island.” However, “We are always looking to enhance the effectiveness of our facilities.”

RESOURCES, HUMAN AND MECHANICAL

Having helped guide Winters Bros. from beyond its roots as a one-truck waste hauling firm to its current size, Joe and Sean say the effort put into the growth of the company goes far beyond their own.

“What sets Winters Bros. apart from the competition is the quality of our people,” Joe says. “Our people care about the customer, the environment and about each other.”

Sean says the same fleet of trucks, containers and other equipment placed into the hands of a different group of people would not yield anywhere near the successful results Winters Bros. and its “amazing group of talented individuals, who have worked together to build an amazing company,” have attained.

Flower says the skill and attention to service ethic starts at the top, with Winters family members who “have remained humble despite their success and are generous in the community.”

As exhibited by Sean having logged more than 1 million miles in collection trucks, the brothers “grew up in an environment where they were taught the value of hard work and determination,” Flower says. “They have done every job there is to do in the waste business, from cleaning trucks and containers to driving, dispatching, sales and management.”

Flower says the company’s leaders “also take great care of their team at work.” He adds, “They create a family-like environment. The brothers spend time with every employee. They greet drivers after their routes. They ask about employees’ family and vacations. They support people when they need it and always thank people for their hard work.”

Joe, Sean and others at the company “also love to have fun,” Flower says. “At every home New York Jets football game, you will find the Winters brothers, with hundreds of friends and family, tailgating at games.” (For more on Winters Bros. employee perks, see the sidebar “Fighting toward good fitness”.)

In addition to its long-term commitments to employees and customers, Winters Bros. has a decades-long relationship with Greensboro, North Carolina-based Mack Trucks. “My father used many trucks over the years, but he always had Macks,” Sean says. “We like the Mack Trucks products because of their dependability and the availability of parts. They are heavy-duty trucks, and that durability is important in the waste industry, where roll-off containers sometimes require off-road driving at construction sites and new housing developments.”

The company’s fleet is a source of pride for Joe and Sean, with some trucks sporting award-winning customized paint jobs. “When you mention Winters Bros. on Long Island, everybody knows who we are and what we do,” Sean says. “The first comment out of their mouths is, ‘I love your trucks.’”

The company customizes the paint scheme on about five trucks per year, with recent editions depicting a 9/11 memorial, “shamrock power” and the Statue of Liberty. Standard fleet trucks are painted “kelly glamor green” and feature gold lettering and a shamrock design with an American flag and a cross. Every truck has the words “Mom” and “Dad” emblazoned on the front fenders and “In memory of ‘Big Jim’ and Brigid” on the back, to pay homage to the brothers’ parents.

Recently, one Winters Bros. Mack Titan truck took home two first-place trophies at a truck show in New Jersey. Sean says, “We’re walking away from these truck shows with trophies and people say, ‘Those can’t be front-line trucks.’ But the reality is, the Friday before the show those trucks were picking up trash, and Monday they are going to be back on the route picking up trash. But on the weekends, the trucks win awards.”

Proper deployment of technology, whether for sorting recyclables or hauling, has been and will remain a priority for the company, along with a commitment to quality service, Joe and Sean say.

“One of the things we enjoy is that the business is not static,” Sean says. “We’ve really embraced the technology that allows trucks to be cleaner and more efficient. Successful companies like ours are the ones that embrace the changes and use the technology to make advancements for the customers. We like to figure out new and better ways to do things.”

At Winters Bros., that attention to mechanical resources always will be matched with the proper attention to people, according to the duo.

The next Winters generation is taking on greater importance, with Joe’s son Patrick, a Fairfield University graduate, now working full-time in the office, leading an effort to upgrade the firm’s route tracking technology. In 2017, Sean’s 21- and 18-year-old sons, John and James, began working on residential collection routes and working in other operations roles.

“It was great to have my kids working for me out there,” Sean says. “They picked up garbage and were eager and enjoyed it. They just want to know what they need to get things done; they have a real can-do attitude instilled in them.”

Sean says through this experience, his kids got to see what he really does.

Joe and Sean express confidence that the Winters family’s core values bode well for the future.

“Our goal is not to be the biggest, just the best,” Joe says. “While technology is changing and allowing us to be more effective and efficient, one thing that will never change is Winters Bros.’ commitment to our customers.”

The author is an editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.