It was the summer of 2005. I was driving our bright orange and green Junk Truck down the road — and at the same time checking in a three-ring binder on the passenger seat for the address of my next appointment — when the cell phone in my lap began to ring. The voice on the other end did not sound happy.
“I’m behind one of your trucks, and the driver is not staying in his lane!” he complained. I apologized and promised that the employee would be disciplined. What the caller did not know, of course, was that he was talking to the careless driver himself: the 800 number on the side of the truck had been routed to my cell phone.
It was probably the third time I’d fired myself that week, so the episode led to a realization: if my partner, Nick Friedman, and I were going to achieve our goal of expanding this one-truck operation into a national brand, something had to change. In short, we needed to begin making the shift toward working on the business instead of in it. Driving the trucks, answering the phones and hauling the junk ourselves was preventing us from growing our company. But the idea of turning over the keys to our truck to an employee gave us nightmares. How could we be certain an employee would treat the business with the same seriousness and dedication that we did (poor driving notwithstanding)?
That’s when another lightbulb went on. I thought back to how much I had hated every job I had ever had, and then Nick and I set out to create a place that was the opposite of those jobs. We asked ourselves, How could we make our company fun and different so we could attract the best and the brightest to come work for us? The answer, we decided: We need to treat them like business owners, not like employees.
In our minds, that meant giving them the freedom and authority to operate their piece of our business as they saw fit — within limits, of course. And so we did. As we started hiring people, we made clear that each of our drivers was expected to run his truck as if it were his own small business, with control of the marketing, sales and even profits. There would be no boss breathing down his neck and no top-down office hierarchy. Instead, each employee was given a business card with his name on it and whatever title he wanted. My favorite so far is “director of smiles.”
Imagine the difference in attitude between our employees and the competition’s. The competition’s employees aren’t handing out business cards while doing a job. They aren’t looking for efficiencies or ways to cut costs. And during their time off, they don’t work on marketing projects or write blogs about their exciting day hauling junk. (Yes, believe it or not, ours do.)
Six years have gone by since that early realization. College Hunks Hauling Junk has grown to include 37 franchises across the country, with a national call center fielding every call and dispatching appointments and more than 500 employees systemwide (or HUNKS, as we call them: honest, uniformed, nice, knowledgeable students). We receive dozens of franchise leads every day from people who want to open a business based on our concept in their city or town.
It would have been easy to tell you our success is the result of some technology-based efficiency we found or system we implemented, but that isn’t it. I could list all the national partnerships we have with property managers, Realtors and restoration companies; it isn’t any of those either. When people ask what separates College Hunks Hauling Junk from other junk-hauling companies, my response is simple: We do not hire junk haulers. We hire future doctors, lawyers and business owners. Who would you rather have knock on your door? (We’re pretty sure no other junk-hauling company can say it has employees who have gone on to play in the NFL, like Rendrick Taylor and Nathan Overbay.) Our insistence on hiring such high-caliber employees is exactly why we have earned a level of trust extremely rare in the junk-removal industry.
Because so many of our team members have lofty ambitions, many of them do this part time, but others decide they want to make a career within our organization. Three of our franchise owners are former employees who started out as junk haulers, and eight of our general managers started the same way. Our corporate staff? You guessed it; most of them started as junk haulers too.
As the CEO, I like to feel that College Hunks Hauling Junk is succeeding as a direct result of my efforts. But I have a secret: I’m not that smart. Even if I were, one CEO could not achieve this type of success in such a short time. The real secret to our success is that we have not just one CEO but 500. They drive the trucks, haul the junk, answer the phone and by doing so build an empire each and every day.