THIS IS THE WAY
By ANDREW MCGINN
Don Ross was bathing in perpetual sunshine in Florida, working as a consultant to the solid waste industry and even helping the country of Qatar develop a recycling program ahead of its duties as the 2022 World Cup host nation, when he received an unlikely invitation.
Come work in Scranton.
And by “Scranton,” they meant Scranton, Iowa (pop. 524).
A native New Englander, Ross apparently missed the changing seasons so badly that the offer was one he couldn’t refuse.
“Sunshine every day can get a little boring,” Ross, 54, reasoned, sticking by his decision four years ago to relocate to rural Iowa.
The truth is, in his work as a consultant, Ross had increasingly started recommending a certain brand of garbage trucks to municipalities and private haulers looking to upgrade their fleets.
That he would simply wind up on the payroll of Scranton-based New Way Trucks is in keeping with CEO Mike McLaughlin’s savvy ability to surround himself with good people.
“He’s a good businessman,” Ross said recently of the man whose family company — er, companies, plural — have arguably kept Scranton, Iowa, on a map.
As for Ross, vice president of sales and marketing for New Way Trucks and the McLaughlin Family Companies, proof of his own worth came with the 2020 Distinguished Individual Achievement Award from the Collection & Transfer Technical Division of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA).
As Ross explained, the honor is “an interim award to keep me going” — a sort of Cy Young Award to out-and-out enshrinement at Cooperstown in bronze.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the company locals still call Scranton Manufacturing, and it may very well take all of 2021 to properly celebrate all that has transpired since ’71.
From its base in Scranton, New Way has grown to become the largest, privately owned refuse truck manufacturer in North America, Ross said, with dealers in all 50 states, all Canadian provinces and 13 other countries.
The company is, overall, the No. 3 manufacturer of garbage trucks, according to Ross. The top two are publicly held companies.
“We hope in the next couple of years to be No. 2,” Ross said.
At this rate, it’s entirely possible.
While the rest of us were hunkered down during the pandemic, New Way delivered one of its rear-loading Cobra garbage trucks to Guadalupe, El Salvador, then turned around and delivered 30 rear-loading Cobra Magnum trucks to Kansas City. Those Cobra Magnums in Kansas City each run on clean-burning compressed natural gas, or CNG, instead of diesel, and are serving 160,000 homes.
A deal is in the works to provide upwards of 100 innovative ROTO PAC trucks to a private hauler serving downtown San Francisco — all made by New Way’s year-old Mississippi facility.
The great common denominator between red states and blue cities?
“We make a really, really hard job look really easy,” Ross explained. “If I asked you where your garbage goes, you’d say, ‘Away.’”
Last October, New Way announced it would be expanding production some 750 miles away in Booneville, Miss., after scouting 12 locations in seven states.
The first Mississippi-made Cobra rolled off the line this past March at New Way’s 152,000-square-foot facility there.
As Ross explained, the company would have preferred to remain completely in Iowa, but rural Iowa’s notorious lack of labor — skilled labor at that — “forced us to look elsewhere.” Current unemployment in Prentiss County, Miss., was at 5.5 percent as of September, compared to 3.1 percent locally.
But in the fall of 2019, when New Way made its move, Greene County’s unemployment rate was at an uncanny 1.9 percent — meaning that anyone and everyone who wanted a job probably already had one.
The company’s excursion into the Deep South gives New Way a clearer path to market dominance. In fact, when asked what it would take to become the No. 1 garbage truck maker — knocking Heil off its throne — Ross answered, “For Mississippi to equal Scranton in production.”
A native of Norwalk, Conn., just 45 minutes outside Manhattan, Ross jokes that his 33 years in the industry can be attributed to a “summer job gone bad.”
“It’s turned into a tremendous career,” he said.
A go-kart racer in his teens, Ross said that the guy who owned the local go-kart shop also owned a garbage business.
“I would throw trash to cover my parts bill,” said Ross, who took his place on the back of a garbage truck at the age of 16 and still maintains a Class A CDL.
It was a time when everything on a garbage truck was “very mechanical.” Computer controls, and a body that talks to the chassis, would have been like something out of “Star Wars.”
And emission systems? Diesel trucks spewed particulate matter.
The trucking industry, Ross said, has managed to reduce emissions “a thousandfold” over the past 20 years. Then again, it’s been just 44 years since the U.S. forced open garbage dumps to close.
CNG is more sustainable and burns cleaner than diesel. But compressed natural gas, Ross said, is merely a stepping-stone to the big prize.
“The future,” Ross explained, “is 100 percent battery-electric.”
Six to eight New Way battery-electric trucks are already on the streets of San Francisco, Palo Alto and Seattle, he said, but they won’t be alone for long. Every major chassis manufacturer, he said, has an electric vehicle project, and all of them want to work with New Way.
New Way makes the compactor that fits on the chassis. Or, as Ross puts it, “We make it a truck.”
New Way, he said, is farther along than any other manufacturing company in being able to integrate a trash compactor with a battery-powered chassis.
“We don’t want to be the reason the battery dies,” Ross said. “We don’t want to put more drain on the truck than we need to.”
Between emissions from trucks and the methane released from landfills themselves, municipal solid waste management is considered to be a big contributor to climate change.
New Way has a partial solution to the latter problem as well. Its ROTO PAC truck — which New Way fully acquired this past February from a Quebec-based partner, Ginove — uses an auger to chew up refuse.
Ross likens it to a food processor.
Organic waste that goes in comes out like a slurry, he said, making for a compostable product.
Regular garbage gets delivered to a landfill essentially pre-compacted, requiring less energy and less precious landfill space.
New Way’s Sidewinder XTR truck — one of which was recently put into service by the city of Jefferson — is also changing the game in its own way. The automated side loader, which grabs and dumps garbage cans from up to 12 feet away with a frame-mounted robotic arm, could reshape an industry synonymous with injuries.
“The truck does the heavy lifting and the driver’s safe,” Ross said. “That’s the future.”
The garbage hauling industry, Ross said, is considered by OSHA to be the fifth-most dangerous industry, in league with loggers and Alaska fishermen.
As Ross likes to say, “We’re the only one without our own reality TV show.”