When Carole McLeod’s husband of 29 years, Mans, was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer in July 2011, her world stopped revolving. She had just left a leadership position with a major waste services company 45 days earlier and was in final-stage negotiations to purchase a small waste hauling business of her own.
“The deal was going to close by the end of July,” she recalls. “And when my husband’s diagnosis came out, I had to call and say, ‘Guys, I can’t do this right now.’”
Successes and Trials
McLeod, a native Carolinian, grew up in Greensboro, the daughter of a highway patrolman. He saw plenty of totaled cars in his tenure as a cop, so when he retired, he started a vehicle wrecking company. Over time, he expanded the company and added a profitable salvage yard into the mix.
“Garbage is in my blood,” laughs McLeod. “I inherited his common sense,” McLeod says. “I learned to see an opportunity and grab it.”
Upon graduation from Appalachian State University with a degree in business, McLeod started out in sales. “I knew what I liked and what I was good at,” she says. She sold everything from accounting systems to postage meters.
Then, after eight years with a major solid waste removal company and a brief stint at a chemical company, McLeod partnered with an old business associate to start her own waste disposal company, New South Waste, in 1997.
“You knock on doors,” Weller told her. “I’ll drive.”
The timing—and leadership—were right, and the company grew quickly, doing $1.3 million in business its first year. As a matter of fact, she tripled her business plan during the second year of operation.
In June 2001, NAWBO recognized McLeod as its “Rising Star of the Year” for growing her business from one truck and one driver to 15 trucks and 20 employees in just four years. Crediting much of their success to “real quick” service and competitive pricing, it was not surprising that every major waste company in the area was vying to purchase McLeod’s business, and in 2005, she sold it for a tidy profit.
McLeod took a five-year hiatus to honor her non-compete agreement, and spent it enjoying a well-earned break.
But she wasn’t done with the industry. She came back for a brief stint at another southeast regional waste company in 2010. As their new district manager, she was responsible for everything related to the Charlotte market, from reviewing bidding procedures and managing accounts, to selecting an operations site and getting the right people and equipment on board.
“We did it, we entered the market successfully and created a lot of opportunity,” says McLeod. But McLeod’s entrepreneurial blood wouldn’t let her settle. Working for someone else was simply not what she was cut out for.
So in June 2011, she announced her resignation and set out to purchase a waste disposal business of her own. And that’s when Mans’ devastating diagnosis was announced.
The next few months were a blur for the McLeod’s as they sought treatment from Carolinas Medical and then Duke University, and their young adult children—Will and Anna—dealt with the implications of his prognosis.
McLeod took a few months to regroup, but she didn’t let her personal tragedy keep her down for long. She called on the family’s heritage for an old Scottish saying that kept her going: “Hold fast.”
“This means so many things,” she says. “It’s about being patient, holding on to the present moment, and to me, it’s holding fast to the people you really care about.”
So she held fast, and once treatments had begun for her husband and they’d settled into a routine, it occurred to her that his hiatus from working at Wells Fargo might be a blessing in disguise.
“We decided we were going to start this company,” she recalls. “We were going to work together while he went through treatment.”
So McLeod called up the little company she wanted to buy, MacLeod Construction (the similarity in name is a coincidence), and asked if their offer to sell still stood. It did.
“Everybody kept saying that we needed to think about retiring,” she says. “But we didn’t want to do that. We had obligations, and we weren’t going to just stop and retire.”
McLeod got in touch with a former employee, Eric Voner, from her first company and asked if he was interested in driving for her new company, Advantage Waste Recycling & Disposal, Inc. They met over dinner to talk business and discovered they had another significant thing in common: Voner’s wife was fighting a serious diagnosis of breast cancer.
“We just looked at each other,” McLeod says. “Who would have thought?”
With a common mission and a common battle, the two went full force into the business of taking care of waste—and each other. “He’s my right-hand man,” says McLeod. “He has done everything in this business, run it when I couldn’t, and been the best helper I could have hoped for.”
In less than a year of business, Advantage Waste Recycling grew to seven employees and over a million dollars in revenue, and was turning a profit by January 2013. McLeod credits the people around her for her success.
“My husband never doubted that I would be successful,” she says. “He believed in me.” And so did everyone she asked to come work for her. Kailie Alvas, now office manager for Advantage Waste Recycling, happily left a position at a more established company because she wanted to be a part of what McLeod was building. The company’s outside sales representative Marcy Nichol also worked with McLeod at another company and knew right away she wanted to join the new company.
“Everybody wants to be a part of something that grows,” says McLeod. “Our country and especially our industry have just been through a horrible period with layoffs and downsizing. People want to be a part of something positive, to have an opportunity to excel, to do more than they’ve ever been given to do before. To make a difference.”
More Tribulation and More Blessings
That’s also why Casey Simonds, owner of Simonds Sanitation, decided he wanted to sell his little company to McLeod at the end of 2012. His had father died a few years earlier, and he had built the little Gaston County company from nothing and was proud of what he had accomplished. Most of the large waste service companies wanted to purchase his business, but he didn’t want to do that. He chose McLeod instead.
McLeod eagerly began negotiations to acquire Simonds Sanitation by the end of November 2012.
And that’s when tragedy struck another devastating blow.
In October, Mans’ health took a sudden and devastating turn for the worse. For a second time, McLeod had to call up the company she wanted to purchase and ask for more time. Once again, time was granted.
For two months, McLeod and her family held fast to each other, as Mans began his final journey. Their 21-year-old son came home from college mid-semester to be with them. McLeod handed Will the reins of the company and said, “Here, do this.”
And he did. Voner, Alvas, Nichol, and the rest of the crew kept the wheels turning and the customers satisfied at Advantage Waste Recycling as the McLeod family stood vigil. In December 2012, Mans passed away.
Though her loss is still devastatingly fresh for her, McLeod is determined that her journey will not be one of sadness alone, or of defeat.
“I’ve got six employees who stood by me when I had to be out,” she says. “I’m going to make sure this company succeeds for them, because they took that leap of faith to come work for me. I’m doing it for them.”
In February 2013, knowing that her husband wanted it for her, she moved forward and completed the purchase of Simonds Sanitation, ensuring a strong foothold for the company in Gaston County. She considers herself lucky.
“People look at me funny when I say I’ve been blessed,” she admits. “But my husband would say I’ve been blessed, too. I’ve been blessed with people helping and promoting the business, and blessed with everything that’s happened around me.”
“Doing It for Them”
McLeod is determined to give as much as she has received. “Doing it for them” is one of her secrets to success. She has always taken an interest in mentoring young entrepreneurs. Her alma mater Appalachian State has benefited from her commitment via an endowment that helps aspiring entrepreneurs prepare for their careers.
In honor of Voner’s wife, who is still fighting breast cancer, Advantage Waste Recycling includes pink dumpsters among their offerings. The website prominently displays the Susan G. Komen logo and the company supports several cancer foundations.
In fact, the very structure of the business is based on giving back. It’s about maintaining a clean environment, both for the businesses and communities that they serve, and for the people who live in those environments.
McLeod says she’s pleased to see the entire industry moving toward cleaner, more sustainable ways of managing waste. She points to several major brands—Target and Walmart among them—as leaders in the environmentally friendly waste management fight, who began insisting to vendors that they recycle their waste. That demand moved the entire waste management industry strongly into recycling.
It’s been a tough transition for some companies, who have traditionally relied heavily on high profit margins from landfills to keep their business going. But for McLeod, it’s exciting. Advantage Waste Recycling already provides recycling pick-up and delivery to area recycling centers. By the end of 2013, McLeod expects to be providing the actual recycling service as well for some customers.
Most of Advantage Waste Recycling’s customers are contractors and commercial businesses that rent their dumpsters and contract for waste removal. So far, in their first 10 months of operation, the company’s revenue is approximately $1 million. This year, McLeod intends to also go after municipal contracts in some of Charlotte’s surrounding areas such as Gastonia and Belmont, and to expand gradually.
“It’s not about being the biggest,” she says. “It’s about growing a company that takes care of its employees and its community. It’s just a nice group of people that have come together to say, ‘We can do this.’”
She points out that when you have good employees and you take care of them, they take care of the customers and vendors. She says her team members are always getting just a little bit extra done, and making sure everything gets done right, even when it’s difficult. They’re able to provide faster, more reliable service than many others thanks to this.
McLeod’s quick to add that she has no interest in promoting herself to the world. “I don’t have to do this anymore. I could retire. But maybe my story will help somebody,” she says. Then, for the first time in the conversation, she tears up.
“Life is tough out there. Things are tough. Maybe my story will help somebody start something, do something. It’s hard, but they can do it.”
People tell McLeod that she is an inspiration. But she says she never set out to be that.
“I’m just trying to help these people who have committed to me; to help them get where they want to go,” she says. “All I’ve ever done is just take one step at a time, and hold fast.”