How One Company Grew Over 1,000 Percent in Just 3 Years

Dumpster diving is just one of the reasons why CleanScapes was one of the fastest-growing private companies last year.
Writer/Author/Publisher/Speaker, Garden Guides Press
February 22, 2012

When property manager Rebecca Stum met with an account manager from the environmental waste management company CleanScapes a couple of years ago, she anticipated quickly reviewing the trash arrangements at her company's 35 properties. Stum didn't expect the CleanScapes account executive to go dumpster-diving.

“I was really surprised when the representative, who wore a cute skirt and heels, put on rubber gloves and sifted through our trash,” says Stum, who is with Allegra Properties located in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. “We spent two hours touring our trash facilities as she pulled out recyclable items and explained that we could reduce trash removal costs if we educated tenants about recycling.”

Superior customer service that includes close attention to detail is at the heart of why the Seattle-based CleanScapes was among Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in 2011.

Exponential growth

CleanScapes opened its doors in 1997, originally providing subscription-based environmental streetscaping services, such as graffiti removal and litter control, to Seattle's Pioneer Square area. Eventually the company branched out, adding large-scale solid waste and recyclable collection to its repertoire, growing from $4 million in revenue in 2007 to nearly $50 million in 2010.

How the environmental waste management company grew the business more than ten-fold in just three years has to do with its creation of attention-getting programs that improve the environment like the Dumpster Free Alley project. The program allows customers who were previously using dumpsters to switch to daily bag collection, leaving alleys clear and safe to walk in. The program was so successful that it inspired Seattle's Clear Alleys Program.

City contracts

CleanScapes was already on the city of Seattle's radar when the company bid on the waste service contracts for three municipal areas and won two of them, later gaining two more contracts in 2009. Obtaining large city contracts swelled the company within a year from about 25 employees to a workforce of 300. (Get tips on on-boarding new employees.)

“When we won the municipal contracts, we dramatically expanded the scope of our operation, undertaking one of the biggest U.S. garbage contract transitions in the last several decades,” says CleanScape’s community and government affairs manager John Taylor, who notes that Seattle has 8,000 commercial customers and about 61,000 residential clients.

Though hiccups might be suspected with such an immense transition, the conversion ran smoothly, says Taylor, who notes that Seattle now experiences some of the best waste collection service in decades.

“We pick up 160,000 cans in a week and could contractually miss 160 pick-ups, but we only experience 12 to 20 oversights," says Taylor. "Past contractors missed as much as 500 per week.”

Motivated employees

How the company manages to offer exemplary customer service has to do with fostering a positive employee climate.

“It's interesting to note that the workforce once performing poorly is the same workforce we were required to hire,” says Taylor, who attributes their improvement in performance to a
couple of factors.

“CleanScapes clearly articulates to employees the company's mission and goals and lets them know they must abide by our policies," he says. "At the same time, we've also got their backs.”

The use of sophisticated computer technology, including 360-degree cameras on the trucks, allows the company to determine if a trashcan was placed out according to schedule.

“If a customer calls to complain that the garbage wasn't picked up and we find that the driver arrived to no trashcan, we'll say so,” says Taylor.

CleanScapes also makes employees feel like a part of the team so they care about achieving excellence.

“As a small business, we're competing with multinational corporations with layers and layers of management,” says Taylor. “With such large companies, there's often a disconnect between what goes on in the trenches and the upper echelon. At CleanScapes, we have a weekly meeting involving all of management, including route supervisors, during which time everyone has a
chance to voice their opinions and concerns.”

Lofty goals

While 1,000 percent growth may sound insurmountable to the average small-business owner, Taylor points out that bold goals lead to success.

“Our president, Chris Martin, sets audacious goals,” he says. “There are 37 suburban cities in King County where we're located, and they all have garbage contracts coming up for renewal. We intend to win every single contract. When you set formidable goals, what's the worst that can happen? If you achieve half of your goals, you're better off than you were before.” (Get more tips on achieving your goals.)

A freelancer since 1985, Julie Bawden-Davis has written for many publications, including Entrepreneur, Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle. Julie blogs via

Photo credit: Thinkstock