By Tim Krohn
---- — WILLMAR — Don Williamson graduated from Mankato State University in 1979 with a business degree, dreams of entrepreneurship and glamorous business success.
But when he returned to his hometown of Willmar, the job offers weren't rolling in and he worked odd jobs, including driving a garbage truck on a Saturday route. A friend talked him into buying the one-truck garbage business.
"I wasn't excited about getting into a small trash business to be honest. But I feel like God told me, 'What's wrong with trash instead of bellyaching about not getting jobs,' so I did it."
Fast forward 35 years and Williamson's company, West Central Sanitation, has grown to a large family firm serving 15 counties in west central Minnesota. This week, his company became the new waste and recycling hauler for the city of Mankato for the next five years, beginning in 2015.
West Central offered a five-year rate of $3.12 million, compared with $3.42 million from Mankato's long-time hauler Waste Management. West Central also has the low bid in North Mankato, which hasn't yet acted on a new contract.
Williamson said a close eye on overhead, maximizing efficiency, embracing new technology and close ties with customers and communities has allowed the company to flourish and to offer competitive bids. Don and his wife, Carol, have about 90 employees.
A couple of years ago West Central started converting its fleet, buying new trucks that run on compressed natural gas. While adding about 10 percent to the truck cost — which are in the $300,000 range — they have a number of advantages.
"Natural gas prices are more stable than diesel and natural gas is produced in North America. There's a payback in about seven years."
The trucks are also better for the environment and the engines make half the noise of their diesel counterparts. The company has nine of the trucks so far and continues to add more.
West Central also uses a variety of computer technology in its trucks.
"Tablets — small computers — is the newest thing. We have one in each truck," Williamson said.
"It takes the place of a 100-page paper route. Trucks are continuously connected by GPS, so if they're lost they hit a button and have turn-by-turn directions."
The computers also geocode every route, allowing the company to set up the most efficient routes. Drivers use the tablets to text to the office, but the texting automatically shuts down if the truck is moving more than 3 mph to prevent texting while driving.
"They save time and money," he said of the tablets.
Williamson said he will initially have about six trucks and drivers in Mankato, but expects to add more as he moves into the commercial waste hauling business locally after settling in.
He is looking to buy a few acres of land, with our without a building, for a shop location in Mankato or North Mankato.
"We'll hire some staff and start making connections in the community. We like to support non-profits and the community, that's important to us."
Williamson's business has grown 10 percent or more annually since it started. While large enough to stay competitive, it's a small player compared to the international haulers such as Waste Management.
"When I started it was all mom and pop businesses. I had eight competitors but all were one or two trucks. But times change. Landfills changed, no city dumps, more regulations. It added a lot of cost and you had to be a good money manager.
"The big companies came in, but corporate objectives don't always flow down to the local community in a nice fit — they might fit and they might not. When they don't, there's opportunity for someone like us," he said.
"Every customer leads us to the next one."