Before he was charting a career in solid waste, Walter “Wally” Hall Jr. was more focused on getting teenagers to learn Shakespeare and how to hit a curveball.
Hall, who spent six years teaching American history and English while coaching baseball at the high school level, eventually landed a position as a graduate assistant baseball coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 1988, he was hired to coach at Ole Miss. It was there that he met Jim Cosman. Cosman, who was working as a regional vice president at Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) following a 10-year professional baseball career with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, had two sons on Hall’s team—Jim Jr. and Jeffrey Cosman.
Through this affiliation, the elder Cosman got to know Hall and liked his leadership style. Cosman told Hall that if and when he wanted to make a transition from baseball, to reach out to him for a job in the solid waste industry. In 1989, Hall took him up on that offer. After making a call to Cosman, Hall packed his things and drove to Birmingham to learn the business from the ground up at BFI. Once there, he quickly moved up the ranks, going from supervisor, operations manager, manager-trainee, general manager, region operations manager and, eventually, area president.
After transitioning to Republic Services in a general manager position, he was asked to assume the role of area president for the Southland Waste division of the company. At the same time, Cosman also had transitioned to Republic in the role of president and COO. Hall says Cosman was a “waste legend” who served as his industry mentor during this period.
After years working as the area president of the Southland Waste division, Hall ventured out with two partners to found Advanced Disposal Services Inc. in late 2000. The trio grew Advanced from a three-truck operation to the fourth-largest solid waste company in the U.S. After completing the integration of Interstate Waste and Veolia Environmental assets into the company following acquisitions in 2012, Hall left Advanced Disposal in 2014 after the board named the former Veolia CEO to the position of Advanced Disposal’s CEO.
Wally Hall Jr.
After spending a couple years out of the waste industry, Hall’s baseball and waste past converged as a familiar face came calling him back to the industry in 2016.
Jeffrey Cosman, who was working as the CEO of Meridian Waste Solutions Inc., asked Hall to serve in an advisory role at the company. At the time, the Atlanta-based waste services provider was a NASDAQ publicly traded company only operating in the St. Louis marketplace.
Sensing an opportunity, Hall took on the challenge.
In February 2017, Hall worked with the company as it expanded its footprint to its second state when it added two MSW landfills and another hauling operation to the company’s portfolio through its acquisition of Richmond, Virginia-based The CFS Group. Through this acquisition, the company brought 30,000 new residential and commercial customers into the fold.
However, as Hall worked with Meridian to expand its solid waste assets, the company was simultaneously venturing into non-solid waste lines of business. Through the pursuit of both of these trajectories, the company soon came to the conclusion that it needed to delever, as it was overextended. The decision was made in April 2018 to sell the solid waste business to Jacksonville, Florida-based Warren Equity Partners (WEP) while spinning off the non-solid waste lines of business.
It was at this time that Hall was appointed to CEO of Meridian.
“The most efficient means [of delevering] was to spin off the solid waste assets to private equity with me serving as the CEO of the privatized solid waste operations and Jeffrey remaining with the newly rebranded public company, Attis Industries Inc.,” Hall says. “This allowed me and my leadership team to focus exclusively on solid waste and growing the company as a well-funded, independent and experienced environmental services provider, especially in a time of considerable industry consolidation, which continues to this day.”
Hall says that the decision to split off Meridian’s solid waste operations and partner with WEP were the catalyst for jumpstarting the business.
“Knowing that we needed to secure private equity interest to fund our future, we went on a fundraising road show positioning my experience as one of the three founders of Advanced Disposal, the successful growth of that company under my leadership as COO for 14 years, and the leadership team of experienced waste executives I was able to bring to the table under Meridian Waste,” he says.
Hall says after meeting with Swedish mega-fund EQT Capital, EQT suggested looking into WEP since Meridian’s fundraising request was below EQT’s investment threshold and the fund had a positive relationship with Warren Equity.
Beyond the ability to help finance its growth, Hall says WEP’s industry knowledge and M&A expertise were attractive attributes for Meridian.
“Warren Equity offered expertise in financial markets as well as another viewpoint of M&A activity,” he says. “Their resources and financial oversight have been extremely important in allowing us to reach our current financial and expansion goals. This is the deal that changed the trajectory of the company and positioned us to be aggressive in the M&A space.”
Swinging for success
With Hall at the helm of the more organizationally aligned company, and with the support of WEP, Meridian had both the know-how and the cash to drive strategic growth.
Post-WEP acquisition, Meridian put together a string of deals focused on growing its footprint in the Southeast.
In short order, the company acquired three Virginia-based companies, a pair of C&D landfills in Tennessee, and entered the Florida market with the purchase of Partner Disposal in 2018. In 2019, the company acquired WCA hauling assets in Knoxville, Tennessee; bought two haulers in Augusta, Georgia; acquired a transfer station in Missouri; and purchased Designated Disposal LLC in Knoxville. In January 2020, the company entered the North Carolina market with its acquisition of the Shotwell Companies.
According to Hall, the Shotwell acquisition was an especially important move for the company.
“In regards to standout acquisitions, our acquisition of the Shotwell Companies in Raleigh, North Carolina, represented a fully integrated opportunity for Meridian Waste as it included a hauling operation, C&D disposal and a network of both C&D and MSW transfer stations,” Hall says. “The acquisition also served as the springboard into other acquisitions in the Carolinas. Also, it’s important to note the growth rate of the Raleigh marketplace—it’s the fastest-growing city in North Carolina and the 33rd fastest-growing city in the U.S. We believe we can benefit from the opportunities this explosive growth offers while offering a vital infrastructure service to the community to help manage the growth.”
In discussing the company’s series of acquisitions, Hall says it is part of Meridian’s overall objective for building the company.
“When our leadership team talks about our growth strategy, it’s always focusing on four factors: acquisitions, disposal volume increases, municipal contract wins and organic growth improvements,” he says. “Fortunately, we have great financial partners in Warren Equity and Goldman Sachs who are 100 percent behind our plans to build a financially strong and operationally superior company, granting us the funds to pursue and close on those acquisitions and capital growth requirements that will help us reach our goal to once again build a profitable, customer-oriented solid waste company in the markets we understand best and know we can be successful in.”
Today, through both organic and M&A growth, Meridian boasts 35 city and county municipal contracts and serves 129,905 residential, commercial, industrial and governmental customers via its 360 employees. The company collects 526,221 tons of waste and 14,102 tons of recyclables annually through its network of 282 commercial, residential and roll-off trucks.
Additionally, the company disposes of 920,814 tons of waste in company-owned landfills and processes 1,460 tons of recyclables in company-owned recycling facilities every year.
“Warren Equity offered expertise in financial markets as well as another viewpoint of M&A activity. … This is the deal that changed the trajectory of the company and positioned us to be aggressive in the M&A space.” –Wally Hall Jr., CEO, Meridian Waste
Keeping an eye on the ball
Hall says that Meridian’s flurry of M&A pursuits slowed early in 2020 as the company placed its emphasis on stabilizing the company as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated.
“Meridian Waste, like all solid waste companies, definitely felt the effects of COVID,” Hall says. “Our primary efforts were to ensure the health and safety of our own team members while providing the essential services necessary to keep our customers’ service needs met across all lines of business. We worked very quickly to adjust operations and safety measures to ensure the best quality of service and precautions for our workforce. While our commercial collections were the most impacted, we are pleased to be able to state that in no location did we discontinue any collection services and managed the business around employees who were either exposed or tested positive with COVID. It was a challenge, but we emerged a more resourceful and nimble company due to the pandemic.”
Hall says that while the company took a measured approach to M&A later in 2020 due to the unknowns associated with the pandemic, it did complete two smaller acquisitions in the second half of the year. However, he points to its February acquisitions of Greenville, South Carolina-based Sunrise Sanitation and Greer, South Carolina-based Ace Environmental Holdings LLC, as well as other deals that are in the company’s pipeline, as indicators that conditions have improved for the company in the new year.
As for its larger goals, Hall says Meridian is intent to continue to pursue both tuck-in and large-scale acquisitions as it works to expand its customer base.
“Our strategic plan leads with acquisitions, organic growth and continued operational efficiencies,” Hall says. “We are always looking to identify tuck-in as well as major acquisitions within our pipeline across multiple lines of business. We want to be seen as the premier, independent solid waste company in the Southeast with the strongest, most capable management team. We allow our field managers to run their business as if it was their own. While we give them corporate oversight and policy, we demand superior local execution.”
Although Hall boasts more than three decades of waste industry experience, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the former baseball coach takes a cue from his days in the dugout when it comes to building his team at Meridian.
“I’m an operations guy and I manage like I coach—together with my leadership team, we give our field and corporate staff the training needed to understand the company’s goals and systems, the tools to do their job, and then [we] hold them accountable for their results,” he says. “I rely on productivity stats and weekly projections to understand the ongoing performance of our operations in order to offer our stakeholders strong financial results.”
Hall says that by coaching up the company’s employees and then giving them the autonomy to operate independently, Meridian is able to distinguish itself on the local level by providing a more personalized offering.
“We focus on the operational and customer care details without going so far as to remove the human aspect from our business. … Our phones are answered by local team members in the marketplace in which they serve—no centralized call centers,” he says. “To us, garbage is a local business and needs to be managed by those who live in the community, understand its unique needs and believe in being an involved, contributing community asset.”
Both through the company’s approach to cultivating talent and its willingness to make big bets to grow its footprint, Hall says Meridian is working to secure a competitive advantage in the market.
“Since 2017, our leadership team has had to overcome some significant challenges in regards to underperforming hauling assets, inherited environmental concerns and the pandemic. However, we have dealt with those issues head-on and are beginning to maximize the positive qualities of our assets across our market areas,” he says. “We are excited about the opportunities ahead as we push for continued operational excellence, take advantage of key acquisitions and build a team of top performing waste professionals in the industry.”
This article originally appeared in the April issue of Waste Today. The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be reached at [email protected]