Kevin Atkinson has loved garbage since he was a little boy -- he followed garbage trucks on his bike, collected toy garbage trucks, and named his goldfish BFI after a large waste management company.
Today, he owns Texas Pride Disposal, a waste management firm with 54 employees and a fleet of 18 trucks that serves 40,000 customers around Houston. The key word in the company name is “Pride,” he explained at a "Power to the Small" panel discussion, hosted by Windstream. Pride is something Atkinson takes pains to instill in his workforce, which is not easy in an industry that is quite literally dirty and smelly.
“My employees do a job that is widely disrespected,” Atkinson says. “People assume that if you work on a garbage truck you’re a felon that can’t do any better. The customers don’t realize these are hard-working guys who are trying to do right by their families. They don’t get recognition from the customers, so recognition has to come from the management team.”
That recognition” begins in the hiring process when Atkinson dissuades people from working for him. He talks about how difficult the job is -- being chewed on by spider ants, enduring awful smells, being exhausted from hauling tons of refuse, and then getting up and doing it all again the next day. He says he “discourages applicants in a positive manner” to find people who are truly committed to the job and understand what they’re signing up for.
After they’re hired, he wins his employees’ loyalty by jumping on the back of the truck himself and hauling garbage at least once a month. “I have a massive ant bite on my arm right now,” he says. “But that shows the crews I’d never ask them to do anything I won’t do myself. It matters, and whenever I work on the truck, employees come into my office and comment on it.”
He says it also provides a reminder to himself of how he wants things done, such as having crews properly replace the lids on cans after the pickups. He believes that staying in the trenches allows him to understand when workers are making reasonable requests, because he knows what they’re going through first-hand.
Atkinson builds camaraderie by stressing to his employees that Texas Pride Disposal is a team game. Even though each employee is part of a three-person crew, they’re expected to be familiar with the routes of the 16 other crews. After a worker finishes his tasks, he might be asked to jump on another route or wash a truck – earning additional compensation.
“Money talks,” he says. “We budget in the compensation for extra work, but the employees look at it as a bonus and it goes a long way with them.”
The rewards aren’t only financial, though. It also matters that when employees put in extra time, he shakes their hand and thanks them for helping out.
At the same time, Atkinson instills in his employees the importance of taking pride in their work. He has safety meetings with his crews, explaining the importance of closing the lids on trash containers, following their supervisor’s instructions, and listening to customers’ comments.
He routinely does unannounced observations, where he follows a truck to ensure the crew is doing their job safely and correctly. He’ll stop the crew while on the route; go through a safety check list, and have each member of the crew sign it. That puts them on notice that he considers their work important, and they should too. “We don’t want an employee to ever think they don’t need to respect their job because it’s trash,” he says.
The lesson: Sometimes morale is not a matter of a weekly pizza party, but having simple, honest respect for your employees and the work they're doing – and finding ways to express that through words, actions, reinforcement and compensation.