Aggressive, empowered employees are driving growth at Sprint Waste Services

Growth is arguably what every business is after. Expanding services to an underserved market, finding new customers and establishing new lines to fill unmet needs brings opportunities to capture market share and increase revenues. But with growth comes new challenges.

Sprint Waste Services is said to be the largest privately owned trash hauler in the Houston area. The family-owned company began by hauling construction waste from job sites to its landfill. When Will Swinbank joined his father’s business with his brother in 2006, taking on the role of president, it injected a youthful energy that would accelerate its growth through an aggressive say-yes-and-figure-it-out-later philosophy.

That aggressiveness is fostered by a flat organization that empowers employees to think like an owner and make decisions on the fly. It’s how the company was able to significantly grow its revenues three years running, capped by a remarkable 40 percent increase in 2014 — by empowering employees to seize opportunities.

The company’s structure is well-suited for growth. But as business begins to level off, Sprint has had to temper its cavalier approach, adopting some of the business processes it eschewed. It’s also working to maintain the family atmosphere it prides itself on as its employee count rises.

The first mistake is on the house

Sprint’s main business line is its industrial services, which represents some 60 percent of its revenues. But the line that has driven its growth in recent years is its oil-related waste hauling business, which has been fueled by the fracking boom of the Eagle Ford formation.

“Obviously there were huge opportunities down there and we were able to react fast,” says Swinbank. “One of the most important things we can do is act fast. We can make decisions without a lot of red tape, literally with a phone call, and we can buy whatever we need to buy.”

Its rapid growth in this area is a direct result of its flat hierarchy and aggressive, competition-driven philosophy.

“The oil field is a great (example) of a guy down there just smelling opportunities,” he says. “We work for a refinery and we see an opportunity to haul petroleum coke, we see the trucks going down the road and start asking around, ‘Hey, can we do that?’ We don’t know how to do that, but I’m pretty sure we can figure it out.”

That move helped to grow that line, which had long been a lesser part of the company, to represent 30 percent of its business. It was spun off in 2013 to become a wholly owned subsidiary of Sprint.

Results like this can happen because Swinbank empowers people to make decisions.

“One of the sayings we have around here is, ‘The first mistake is on the house.’ You make the same one again you might get in a little trouble, but we want people in the field making decisions and thinking and seeing opportunities and having the power to act on them without having to make 10 phone calls and fill out the forms,” he says.

“So, at the end of the day, it’s really the people in the field feeling bought in to the team and thinking like they’re the owners of the company and looking out for opportunities that we can all benefit from.”

The minimal hierarchy at Sprint gives every one of the company’s more than 700 employees working across its business lines a chance to have their ideas heard. Whether it comes from a mechanic or management, any idea that could make customers happy has value.

“I was never big on titles because at the end of the day I don’t want to ever hear, ‘That’s not my job,’ so we never really had titles, never really had job descriptions,” Swinbank says. “It’s kind of all hands on deck. If that means a salesman is out there helping to deliver equipment in the middle of the night — having a culture where pretty much anyone can do anything, I think that’s empowering.

“You’re not sitting in a cubicle. When we need help we move people around. You might work for one department and a day later things change.

“There are guys that are 25 making big decisions and getting a lot of responsibility on their plate, but I think that’s rewarding to people because you can make a difference.”

The winners will swim

When Swinbank is interviewing job candidates, he says he likes to tell them working for Sprint is “miserably fun.”

“We work a lot of hours and it’s a stressful job growing like we have,” he says. “But we all get along and we’re all trying to get to the same place. So we’re grumpy sometimes, but a lot of the time we’re running around here high-fiving whenever we pull something off that took a lot of work and blood, sweat and tears.”

While Sprint has created an environment that’s fun for some people, it’s not for everyone. Swinbank values hard work and competition, so he looks to hire people who have a strong will to win. He realizes, however, that some people may not work out in an environment that can seem chaotic. So the company likes to throw people in the deep end — the winners will swim, the others won’t.

“At the end of the day we ask a lot of our people, all the way from the truck drivers to the upper management, and they make sacrifices from their families and their personal life for the company,” he says. “However, we get that buy-in when we’re talking to them. We hire people and either they like doing that kind of stuff or they don’t.”

Peace of mind

Sprint is planning for a time when its oil and gas line of business contributes less to its rapid growth. Though the company was aggressive in pursuing the opportunity, it was measured in its approach so as not to overextend itself.

“We’re always trying to think of the worst-case scenario,” Swinbank says.

For example, to capture the oil business it bought an industrial frack tank that meets the specifications plants and refineries require. It’s also a piece of equipment that could migrate back into the company’s sizeable industrial division.

“So we spent more money on the front end, but it gave us some peace of mind on the back end that we had an out,” he says.

Growth in other areas of its business means the company can migrate people to handle assignments outside of the oil line. It’s also led Swinbank, who has an accounting background, to micromanage the details to stay profitable.

“We’ve grown so fast and we have good momentum, so we’re hopeful that instead of doubling every year we can potentially flatline. Time will tell, so we’ll find out,” he says.

Meanwhile, the company’s industrial business continues to grow and absorb the company’s underused resources. A new contract with Marathon Texas City has Sprint bundling services, which has necessitated an investment in equipment because the job requires significant resources to fulfill. That spurred the company’s investment in a system to track assets and manage costs.

“We’ve invested a lot in technology as far as tracking the equipment and tracking the cost and kind of partnering with (customers) in a transparent tracking of where your assets are, what your costs are, kind of live data where everything is on the table and we work together to manage the costs and build the relationship. So there’s a lot of growth opportunity there,” he says.

Getting to the finish line

Swinbank says that he’s had to temper the youthful aggression of his company with people who are more measured in their approach to take care of the details that can sometimes get missed as the company pushes ahead.

“We’ve been able to add some quality high-level people that have kind of filled in those gaps, just trying to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s,” he says. “When we have ideas, don’t do them 80 percent, let’s get to the finish line.”

Rapid growth is also challenging the family feel of the business, which allows the company to give personalized attention to its customers — being personally available to answer late-night calls rather than pushing customers into an overnight phone bank. Further, as a small family company, everyone knew everyone’s name, knew their family, their wives and kids.

“And now we’re a much larger company, so it’s how do you be a bigger company but still keep the family atmosphere where people care and it’s not an 8 to 5 job,” Swinbank says.

Sprint is trying to avoid having lots of rules like a big company, preferring to stay flexible and fast moving, but it’s a challenge.

“I don’t ever want to be bureaucratic and have a lot of red tape, but also we’ve had to transition people from running wild to filling out all the appropriate forms and doing all the proper paperwork,” he says.

Swinbank remains optimistic. With petrochemical expansion expected to continue in the coming years, he says, “With that comes a lot of opportunities for us and I think we’re positioned in a pretty good spot right now to try to take advantage of some of those.”

Takeaways

  • Empowering employees to make decisions can facilitate aggressive growth.
  • Say yes and figure the rest out later.
  • New phases in a company’s life cycle require adjustments in philosophy.

The Swinbank File:

NAME: Will Swinbank
TITLE: President
COMPANY: Sprint Waste Services

Born: Houston

Education: A bachelor’s degree in accounting from Texas A&M University and completed the university’s professional program in accounting.

How would you characterize your leadership style? I think I’m pretty hands off and try to hire the right people and let them make decisions. There’s not a lot of micromanaging because I don’t know all the answers. I try to lead by example as far as hard work is concerned.
I don’t want anyone acting like they know everything. A good answer is, ‘I don’t know,’ nothing wrong with saying that. We can figure out an answer or someone else around here knows.

What hobby do you wish you had more time to indulge? I like working, to be honest. I’m a big sports guy, a big Aggie fan. I like to hunt. I have a 2-year-old boy and a 1-year-old boy, so I’d like to spend more time with my wife and my family.
What is the best business advice you ever received? Work hard and tell the truth.

Had you not gotten into the family business, what career would you likely have pursued? I would have liked to go into the investment banking field. It just seemed intense and (a good way) to make money. I get bored real easy, so I need chaos. I like that environment.

Three things the Astros need to be a contender in 2015? We’ve got a long way to go. We need our starting pitching to be a little better. We need (Jon) Singleton and some of the other young guys to step up a little bit. And hopefully with the bullpen signings we have, the back end will be better. But I think we have a lot of number three and four starters, and not a lot of aces in the hole.