Robert A. Smith switches from business executive to business owner at Capitol Waste


Robert A. Smith, president of Capitol Waste & Recycling Services, is a 2018 Columbus Smart 50 honoree and Impact award winner

The Great Recession changed Robert A. Smith’s life forever.

Smith started his career in waste management more than 30 years ago, moving up through sales and operations at several companies. He turned around underperforming locations and divisions, including Waste Management’s $400 million Ohio operation. Then the recession hit.

In January 2009, Smith was called to a hotel and laid off. The company had underperformed and it was making up the difference by cutting salaries.

The next day, Smith opened a consulting company. A native of south central Pennsylvania, he worked his home state, often sleeping on his sister’s couch. In 2010, he founded Capitol Waste & Recycling Services.

“I went out and raised about $1 million to start the company, and we began without any customers in the greater Columbus area,” says Smith, who is Capitol’s president.

Building the business

After establishing himself in Columbus, Smith helped the business, which focuses on commercial and industrial service, grow organically. Capitol also acquired three companies along the I-70 corridor in Lancaster, Cambridge and Pittsburgh, added private equity firm GPB Capital to the ownership, and bought a business in Cincinnati.

“We’re a small player, as far as percentage of market share,” Smith says of Capitol, which generates about $24 million in annual revenue. “In each of the markets that we’re in, there’s still a lot of opportunity for us to grow organically.”

In Columbus, the company is growing 30 to 35 percent a year.

Capitol competes by being easy to do business with, such as providing service in a fraction of the time that it takes others.

Owner vs. executive

One difference between business executive and business owner is the treasury role. Smith had never dealt with investors, raised money or maintained banking relationships.

“Even things that I was more familiar with became more critical, things like managing cash flow,” he says. “I was always cognizant of it and measured those KPIs — how fast we were getting paid and how fast we were paying vendors — but it becomes vital when you’re looking at your bank account every day and seeing the results.”

Smith estimates he’s raised $5 million for Capitol, but it wasn’t easy. “Sharing your vision with potential investors is work,” he says.

However, one aspect is more straightforward: making the group function as a team. At Waste Management, Smith managed close to 1,400 people. Today, he employs about 140. He says it’s easier to connect, creating a two-way street of loyalty to the employees and customers.