Michael Mills is a born entrepreneur. And he is refreshingly candid about how well his first few endeavors worked out for him.
They tanked. All of them. His roadside vegetable stand from when he was a kid? Flop. Baseball card selling? Nope. Recycling? Actually, that one is working out. But then, this is the third incarnation. The first two? Let’s just say it’s better that he stayed in school.
Mills today is the co-founder, with his father, John, of MCC Recycling, which maintains an office in Cranbury, where it started, though it recently moved its operations to a 20,000-square-foot facility in Bristol, Pennsylvania. The firm has found a niche in the trash industry by concentrating on the recyclables generated by large companies that handle lots of physical product. Founded five years ago, MCC is now making hefty profits (though Mills won’t say what they are) hauling refuse for distributors, warehouses, and other large-scale industrial businesses that tend to set up shop in areas like the Exit 8A or South Brunswick industrial markets.
A few years before he founded MCC, Mills was a student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte studying for a degree in mechanical engineering. In his sophomore year he set out to fuse his entrepreneurial nature to a business with solid staying power. “I looked around and said, ‘I think recycling is going to be here for a while,’” he says. So he started a recycling business as a student and it went belly-up within a year.
Then he started another recycling company that flopped just as quickly. After he graduated in 2003 Mills took his mechanical engineering degree home to New Jersey and got a job in an engineering firm. For about two days. “I told my boss, ‘I’m really sorry, but I made a mistake — I can’t do this, I’m an entrepreneur,’” he says.
This time Mills approached the recycling business idea with full attention and has yet to look back. He also enlisted his father, a former business owner and contractor himself, to help him. Mills promotes and develops the business while his father is “entirely field operations.”
The reason MCC is working, Mills says, is because he concentrates on businesses with a lot of stuff to throw out. MCC sets up, at no charge to a business, the equipment it will need to separate and compile materials. Such equipment, depending on the type and size needed, could potentially cost a company anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000. MCC sets things up without charging the companies up front — it will just take payment on the equipment out of the money it pays clients for picking up their recyclables.
MCC does pay its clients for the refuse, though Mills says there is no one, set price. It all depends on the amount, frequency, and types of materials being hauled away. Once the equipment is paid off the business starts getting paid. Some clients earn as much as $2,000 a month. And even if a business of such scale were paid nothing by MCC, it probably still would save that much in the hauling fees that some companies charge the business before taking anything away.
MCC sends its trucks to facilities with loading bays and the drivers collect plastic wrap, bundled paper, corrugated cardboard, and other recyclable waste materials. The company makes its money on the resale to suppliers and buyers of bulk material. “It’s pretty straightforward,” Mills says. “We sell paper to a paper mill, for example. What people might not realize is that most recycling is commodities. Somebody needs it.”
A mathematics minor at UNC-C, Mills is ever-attentive to how the numbers work when considering a new client. MCC does not haul from office parks or mom-and-pop businesses, for example. Nor does it get involved in municipal recycling. The amount of materials and the time it would take to get them, sort them, and do whatever else with them is not worth it to Mills. Instead, he says, MCC’s clients are the “million square feet under one roof” businesses that deal with a lot of packaging and shipping. The company’s geographic range stretches roughly from Middlesex County to Philadelphia.
Mills targets companies in the $10 million to $40 million range, though MCC does have at least one Fortune 50 client. He prefers doing business with privately owned companies in the $20 million area because he gets to sit down and talk with the owners. A company like Wal-Mart, for example, is too big for him to ever have lunch with the CEO.
Mills chalks this perspective up to what he has learned by failing in earlier endeavors. On the business side, he has learned that having a niche is a great idea. He also has learned the value of right-sizing — not the size of his own company, but rather the size of the clients. At first MCC did do business with smaller companies, he says. “But we weren’t any good at it. It was best to stick with what we did well.”
Early misfires taught him something about his professional self too — he needed to let the clients do the talking. “I’m the No. 1 salesman for the firm,” he says. “And I’ve found that sales is a lot easier if you just shut up and listen. If you listen, the customer will offer you a problem and you can either offer a solution or you can’t.”
Listening is at the top of the company’s list of core values. The others are to look for customer problems, have a solution that creates value to the customer, and follow through. “So many companies talk about customer service but they don’t listen,” he says. “Sometime’s I’ll meet with customers and I’ll never even tell them what I do.” The customers, he says, tell him what they need.
Mills believes in face time, but he believes in the power of technology too. Ever the entrepreneur, Mills is planning to roll out what he hopes will become a standard software application for his industry. In his businesses, the materials bought, sold, and moved, are required by law to be reported. At the end of every year companies that have their recyclables hauled away all year go crazy looking for exact figures — how much they moved, what they paid, what they earned.
For Mills and MCC, the year’s end has traditionally been spent looking for old data for companies who need to file their reports pronto. A process he refers to as “a tremendous hassle.” Mills and company decided to craft a program beyond the basic Micrsoft Excel and spreadsheet models that most companies use, something that offers more industry-specific data. The result is MyRecyclingReport.com, Mills’ website/blog that lays out how a company like his and its customers can keep track of all that data.
Mills says the idea to market it to other companies came to him in an epiphany. He had not set out to make something he could sell, he just wanted to solve the problem of keeping track of everyone’s data. But he has seen the potential. Launching in January, MyRecyclingReport.com will offer MCC’s customers the chance to create an account and, like an online bank account, log in to see what the numbers look like at any time. Subscriptions will likely cost $50 to $150 a month.
Add to that Mills’ plan to market the application to other businesses like his and he sees a solid income stream in his future. The good thing about the recycling business, he says, is that it’s regional. “I’m not going to compete with a business like mine in Nebraska or California,” he says. “So why not let them join the revolution?”
MCC Recycling, Box 391, Cranbury 08512; 732-226-3900; fax, 215-945-6400. Michael Mills, CEO. www.mccrecycling.com