News

One man's junk is another's gold mine

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Going from garbage man to businessman is a tricky transition, but Hal Smith, a 1990 Decatur High School graduate and longtime south King County resident, is doing his best to make it work.

Smith and his wife opened their own Got Junk franchise last November. The business is a rising national private hauler, but Smith is trying to grow his own version of the brand here, learning in fits and starts and getting help from friendly bankers and associates.

“A lot of the franchise owners are businessmen,” he said. “I’m a garbage man trying to run a business.”

He said he’s out of his comfort zone sitting behind a desk working out his books on the computer. “I never thought I’d be sitting in this seat. I was happy. I was content. I liked being a garbage man,” he said. “There are still days when I wish I was out on the truck. I wouldn’t have to deal with scheduling and hiring and stuff. I’m always hiring.”

Smith has big dreams, but they’re simple: In five years, he wants to run a million-dollar company, settle into a comfortable home with his wife and watch his daughters grow up with his business. “I’d definitely like to be a household name,” he said. “I’d love the DECA program at Decatur to have me come in and speak.”

So far, Smith has hired a small core of employees and found a business site in north Milton on Pacific Highway South. He’s discovered some of his best employees are college guys looking for physical work to do outside during the summer. The only problem is they generally leave when school starts again.

But the job is attractive during the break. “It’s always different,” Smith said. “Some days it can be a physically demanding day. Yesterday we moved six tons of concrete. Other times, it’s a couch, paper and styrofoam.”

While there are many garbage haulers, including the municipal waste utility, Smith said his business is different because “when you call the number, you’ll talk to someone. All our guys are uniformed, all our trucks are clean, shiny trucks. All our pricing is done up-front. We have two-hour call windows, so you book appointments and we show up.”

His franchise recycles about 60 percent of the materials the workers pick up. On slow days, Smith’s crew sorts the stuff they’ve collected, taking things apart for wood, scrap metal or other recyclables, and properly disposing of electronics, appliances and computers. They haul clothes or other items that are in decent condition to local charities.

“We don’t want to take everything to local landfills,” Smith said. “I’m a real stickler on recycling stuff, and I’ve passed that onto them.”

In addition, Smith has an agreement with another local business, I Sold It on eBay, to sell discarded-but-valuable things online and donate the money to Federal Way charities.

For the seven years before starting the franchise, Smith worked as a garbage hauler. A knee injury last year knocked him out of commission and he wasn’t able to go back to work. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but fortune smiled on him through the Internet.

“From the day I saw the (1-800-GOT JUNK) Web site to the day I signed the papers, this seemed like a hand in glove situation,” he said. He already knew the business, he said, and he knew where all the transfer stations were and where certain recyclable items were supposed to go.

Smith’s haulers will take anything except paint or hazardous materials. “We haul everything else. There hasn’t been a job yet we’ve turned down,” he said. “I can’t even tell you how many hot tubs we’ve taken.”

He noted one of the main attractions of his business is people don’t have to move things from where they sit. His haulers will go into homes, wrestle fridges, dryers or other heavy household appliances from their spots and take them away.

Smith’s guys have hauled furniture, fridges, washers and dryers — “six or seven a week, easily,” he said — freezers, couches, beds, “and a lot of mundane things. This is the summer of decks.”

One Federal Way family had a hot tub with a gazebo on a cement pad they decided they wanted to get rid of so they could have a garden instead. Smith said. His crew took the hot tub and gazebo and, after the family had broken up the concrete, they took that, too.

Since January, Smith and his crew have done 241 jobs. He said he receives about 150 calls a month — many of which are inquiries — and his crews respond to about 45 jobs a month.

Right now, Smith only has one truck, but another’s on the way. His crew rides two to a truck, but some days, Smith jumps on, too. He likes to see how his workers are doing, but “mostly, I don’t want to sit in the office,” he said.

Smith said there isn’t a particular time of year or time of life people seem to want to jettison their stuff, but they do typically call when they decide to move. “People don’t want to move stuff,” he said.

Still, “the majority of it is people who are just sick of looking at the stuff,” he said. “It’s pretty steady all year round, but it’s busier in spring and summer.”

Another big elimination time comes when a spouse leaves town. Smith said he gets calls frequently from women saying their husbands are out of town and they need to get rid of stuff now.

“It’s not only man toys, it’s general stuff people have collected over the years,” Smith said. “Everybody has it. How many videos do you have? When was the last time you’ve watched them? It’s a lot easier for people to let go of stuff when they don’t know it’s gone. I don’t know how many bowling balls I’ve picked up.”

Smith said he has noticed older generations seem to save more of their stuff for a longer time. “Our generation, once the thrill is over, we get rid of it,” he said. “One of our first jobs, someone had passed away and we were going through the garage with newspapers from 1946. If there was a market for National Geographic magazines, I’d be a millionaire.”

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