Trash and Cash

Small, independent garbage haulers have always had to battle the big companies, but now they have a new foe: the City of Miami

Eric Bohnenblost backs up his truck until it's just touching the long, bulky trash bin. At the moment he's collecting debris from a window-screen manufacturer in Opa-locka, though his job takes him all over South Florida. On a typical day, he could drive from a Miami fabric-cutting factory to a Broward subdivision or a high school in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.

The 48-year-old Nicaragua native doesn't drive a standard garbage truck, which compacts trash in the rear. He operates a roll-off truck, so named because it unloads large commercial garbage containers by sliding them off the vehicle's hydraulically operated "tail," as it's known in the industry. He's new to the business and hasn't learned the skills of a swingman, someone who can haul trash in the three most common ways: front-end, the standard back-end, and roll-off.

Bohnenblost jumps down from the Mack cab to make sure the truck is aligned with the trash container (in garbage-hauling parlance, it's simply called a box). This one is filled to capacity with construction debris. The container, grooved along its bottom, will be hooked by a cable to the truck and hoisted onto twin tracks that extend out from the tail. In another minute, the driver will raise the tail -- it can achieve a slope of nearly six feet from the rear of the cab toward the ground behind -- and winch up the container onto the truck bed. He'll drive the load to a privately owned landfill that accepts only construction and demolition material. The landfill, operated by Waste Management, Inc., is located in Medley, an industrial town near Hialeah.

Waste Management is the largest trash hauler in the United States. In addition to owning more than 300 landfills, the company hauls $6.7 billion worth of garbage in North America. Waste Management's climb to the top of the heap in the garbage industry is by now a South Florida legend. Company cofounder Wayne Huizenga entered the trash-hauling business in 1962 at the age of 25 with just one truck. Through a series of mergers and a canny entrepreneurial sense, he built his firm into a billion-dollar conglomerate. Then in 1984, when the company was at its zenith, he resigned. (Huizenga used a strategy he would later employ in video rentals and used-car sales. Like garbage, these were service industries with few, if any, dominant players. He sold stock in the companies to attract capital. Then, like snowballs gaining momentum in a downhill roll, the companies grew, buying out one competitor after another.)

In 1995 Huizenga returned to the garbage business, convinced there was room for still more consolidation, and began the cycle anew. He and his partners purchased 40 percent of the common shares and took the helm of Republic Services, then based in Atlanta. (Today the company headquarters are in Fort Lauderdale.) Republic soon grew big enough to go up against two other titans of trash: Huizenga's former company, Waste Management, and Browning-Ferris Industries, both of which are strong in South Florida, and both based in Texas.

Garbage is not the only industry touched by mergermania; the list ranges from banks and auto makers to bookstores and funeral homes. This past year in the United States, a record $1.6 trillion changed hands in mergers and acquisitions. In 1997 alone some 240 of the nation's 5000 solid-waste companies were absorbed, many of them taken over by the big three. In Florida the garbage industry is worth around $1.8 billion in annual revenues. The big three control about half the business in the state; some 300 other companies, down from 350 ten years ago, vie for the other 50 percent, according to industry analysts. The small haulers, who are being pushed aside, call the big fish "the majors." In turn some of the big company men derisively refer to the little haulers as "gypsies."

Miami has been open territory for the trash haulers for more than 30 years. Any stalwart who can navigate the bureaucracy to obtain the licenses and produce the approved equipment can compete for refuse. The city itself hauled commercial accounts until 1994, when it decided that collecting licensing fees from companies would be more profitable than collecting garbage. (It has retained the residential hauling service.)

Bohnenblost drives for a commercial hauler called MacPac Waste Services, one of the gypsy companies. He sets in motion the truck's hydraulic lift to raise the tail, then tilts it down in the direction of the container. As he does this, he inches the truck backward again and activates the winch that hauls the box up and onto the rear of the truck. The container is secured in less than three minutes. Time, after all, is money, and he has several more trips to make in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Bohnenblost points the Mack's hood ornament, a silver bulldog, to the south, and the truck lumbers away to the landfill.

MacPac, with about a dozen employees, is owned by two brothers, David and Mark McWilliams, second-generation haulers. Their father, Leonard "Mac" McWilliams, started hauling trash in 1969. He bought a commercial route in Dade County from a couple of Italian guys, David says, and worked eighteen-hour days to make it pay. The Italians had come from the New York City area after they'd been driven out by the Mafia's stranglehold on trash collection there. In South Florida they found a niche, worked hard, and thrived. They confessed to the senior McWilliams, as he paid his last installment for the route, that they'd had doubts about his success. The 52-year-old McWilliams had previously worked as a shrimper and tour-boat operator on Miami Beach, and probably didn't have the mettle for the trash business, they'd reasoned. In those days garbage hauling involved much more physical labor than it does now. The trash was collected in 55-gallon drums, and Mac would roll them onto the truck, empty them, then dump the refuse out again at a private landfill.

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