By Jeanne Davant and Rhonda Van Pelt
For the past several months, customers of the trash hauling company formerly known as Bestway Disposal have overwhelmed the company’s phones and social media with complaints.
In a series of transactions, Bestway was acquired last year by GFL Environmental, a Vaughan, Ontario-based company that serves numerous markets in Canada and the United States.
The transition from the locally owned Bestway to the much larger corporation has been a rough road.
“Are you guys planning on picking up trash this week?” Tyler H. wrote on GFL’s Facebook page four weeks ago. “You missed it last week.”
Other customers complained that they were unable to contact the company about missed pickups.
“I’ve called and emailed,” Shannon J. wrote on the Facebook page. “Nothing. My trash can is overflowing.”
Former Bestway and now GFL General Manager Judd Staton eventually went out and personally picked up Shannon’s trash, according to GFL’s reply on Facebook, but some customers were unable to get through to the company about their issues.
“I’m ready to use a different company,” Tina L. stated on the Facebook page.
Staton said he takes responsibility for the problems the company has been experiencing.
“Quite frankly, I blame myself,” he said. “I probably should have been more proactive in understanding our customer base and making sure that there was a smoother transition.”
Bestway was established in 1950 and had been owned by the Kiemel family for 51 years.
Phil and Tom Kiemel made the decision to sell the company in 2018, after they were approached by Waste Industries, a trash hauler based in Raleigh, North Carolina, that served markets in eight Southeastern states.
Waste Industries had purchased Alpine Waste & Recycling, a large trash hauler in Denver, earlier in 2018.
“That was their first entry into the Colorado market,” Staton said.
The Kiemels closed a deal to sell Bestway to Alpine on Dec. 1, 2018. But two months earlier, Waste Industries was sold to GFL for $2.83 billion, so Alpine and Bestway became a part of that deal as well.
GFL’s acquisition of Waste Industries made it the largest privately owned environmental services company in North America. According to its website, GFL serves more than 4 million homes and 135,000 commercial customers across Canada and in 20 U.S. states, and has more than 10,000 employees.
Staton said he reports to Greg Yorsten, GFL’s chief operating officer for North America, who is based in Raleigh.
“Really, nothing changed in December, other than our employees getting paid from a different source than they used to be,” Staton said.
GFL retained all 153 Bestway employees and initially kept all services and fees intact. Customers were notified of the ownership change in a letter sent Jan. 1, 2018.
In July, residential customers were informed of an across-the-board increase in collection fees that amounted to about 4 percent annually.
That was nothing out of the ordinary, Staton said.
“Even before the company was acquired, we typically did a 4 to 5 percent increase every 12 to 18 months,” he said.
Otherwise, until September, customers noticed little difference as a result of the transition to GFL.
But then, GFL started moving more than 40,000 residential customers to a new billing system that was considerably more complex than Bestway’s had been. The company also brought in GFL’s phone system.
Staton said he probably underestimated the difficulty of making the switches.
“We sent letters out to customers, but we put those letters in envelopes that were labeled GFL,” he said. “I’ve had customers admit to me that they know Bestway, they don’t know GFL, so they threw that thing in the trash.”
The letter stated that customers were being assigned a new account number and requested that they contact the company to set up a new account. But many people apparently did not get the message, and their service was stopped.
That unleashed a flood of calls, just as the company was undergoing the transition to the new phone system.
Customers were on hold for long periods of time and frequently couldn’t get through at all.
Compounding those problems, the company in October changed the way drivers kept track of collections along their routes.
Bestway had logged every customer’s name and address on a 3-by-5 card, which was filed by hand when the customer’s trash was collected.
The company changed to a digital system using Samsung tablets on all residential routes. The tablets allow drivers to access each account. They hit the “complete” button when they’re finished picking up or take a photo to show that the trash and recyclables weren’t out.
“There were issues with the tablets working all day long. The driver would input one thing and it would translate to another thing. That exacerbated service issues,” Staton said.
GFL has lost residential customers, especially because of the billing situation, he said.
“I didn’t fully understand how the new system worked and the requirements it placed on the customer to set up their new account,” Staton said.
He said the company has lost fewer commercial accounts, which represent about 17 percent of GFL’s business, but that the loss of residential customers was “pretty significant because of the first 2 to 3 months’ issues.
“I get it,” he said. “If for whatever reasons you don’t get picked up and you can’t get through on the phone, you’re going to go somewhere else. We’ve got our work cut out to re-establish our good reputation.”
PROBLEMS IN MANITOU
In 2010, when Bestway was still owned by the Kiemels, the company was awarded the contract to be Manitou Springs’ sole trash hauler. The contract is renewable each year.
Like those in Colorado Springs, Manitou residential customers saw their rates increase after the GFL takeover.
Besides the overall hauling fee, customers in both Manitou and Colorado Springs experienced a $1.98-per-month increase in recycling fees. That was in response to increases in market rates that have seen recycling costs escalate to two to three times the cost of landfilling wastes, Staton said.
The value of commodities such as cardboard have dropped to 10-year lows, and about 18 months ago, China stopped processing many commodities for recycling, he said.
In addition, China has cut the amount of contamination it will accept in recyclables.
“That has caused us to spend more time and money” and to source recycling domestically at higher prices, Staton said.
“For 18 months, we’ve just absorbed those costs,” he said. “It got to the point where we felt like we’ve got to share this cost with the customer.”
Staton noted that some haulers have dealt with the cost increases by dumping recycling materials in landfills.
“We’re committed to recycling responsibly and making sure to take them to places where they’re getting reused,” he said.
The current contract with Manitou, which expires Aug. 1, requires customers to purchase recycling. It also requires that all fee increases be negotiated with the city.
Staton said that he didn’t completely understand how Bestway’s previous owners requested rate increases from the city. He’s working to identify all of the Manitou accounts that saw increases they shouldn’t have.
“We will credit back the difference, back to the previously approved rates of the year 2018,” he said.
Denise Howell, Manitou’s city administrator, said the city is in negotiations with GFL regarding both the trash collection and recycling rates.
Since 2016, “there has been a rate increase every year, and they usually take effect in August,” Howell said. “At this point, we’re working on getting the rates back where they need to be, and then we are going to start negotiating a new contract.”
During the negotiations, the city will look at customer service GFL is providing as well as rates. Howell said.
“They also do bearproof cans, which is important in this area,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that we provide the right service … at the cost that is appropriate … and we have a relationship where we can reach out and get an answer quickly, and that the customers can contact somebody.”
Asked if the city would consider bringing commercial accounts under the single-hauler contract, Howell said “it might be considered.”
It is also possible that another company could come in and bid on the next contract.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Staton said the company’s top priority is straightening out the problems. He thinks substantial progress has been made in the past month. Drivers have received training on the tablet system, and Staton has hired more customer service representatives to answer phone calls and emails.
“We’re making a significant amount of effort to reach out,” he said. “Customers can call our office now.”
Once things smooth out, Staton said the company hopes to expand its commercial customer base.
“We’re already offering a wide range of services — rolloff, restroom service and commercial organic compost service,” he said.
GFL is the only local trash hauling company that offers the compost service, Staton said. GFL collects compostable material from customers such as the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and hauls it to Waste Management’s Midway landfill. There, it is processed to create compost and resold.
GFL may look to expanding its commercial services, Staton said, but for now will focus on “doing well with what we have.
“We just have to now adapt and get back to providing good services, as we always did in the past,” he said. “We’re going to honor whatever the customer had previous to the change. I certainly did that in Manitou, and we’re going to do right by the customer.”
Editor’s note: Portions of this story appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of the Pikes Peak Bulletin, the Business Journal’s sister publication.