The Aggie 100: We Asked, Our Founder Answered

Sprint Waste Services was named to the prestigious Aggie 100 at a formal luncheon Oct. 23 at the Zone Club at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, ranking 83rd on this year’s list. It’s the fourth consecutive year our company has been honored with the award. Sprint Waste Services founder and co-owner Joe Swinbank, a 1974 graduate of Texas A&M, sat down with us to mark the occasion:

Q: The Aggie 100 recognizes the 100 fastest-growing Aggie-owned or Aggie-led businesses in the world. When you stepped onto the Texas A&M campus as a freshman back in 1970, did you already envision yourself becoming an Aggie entrepreneur?

A: I knew I wanted to own my own business, but I didn’t really have a clue what it would be. At that time I thought I would be a homebuilder.

Q: You started the Sprint family of companies back in 1976, not very long after graduation. What drove you to start your company?

A: A guy named Don Poarch (whom I’d grown up with and who’s been my partner in a bunch of businesses) found an expansion opportunity that he presented to management at the gravel and clay mining company he joined after graduating from [the University of] Texas. But his company turned him down. So he told me about it, and I got my dad involved, and we capitalized Donny’s idea and got in the sand and gravel mining business.

Then in 1979 we bought a trucking company with a permitted landfill in Columbus, Texas. The previous owner’s idea was to haul gravel to Houston and then backhaul garbage to fill up the sand pit, but he was not executing well. It’s a fate deal, probably, because we were banking at the same bank he was, and we did a leveraged buyout of Taylor Trucking Co. And that got us in the waste business.

Q: You were so young, only a few years out of school. Did you get help along the way from Aggies?

A: I do believe that innately, older men want to help young men. Somehow or another humans are made to want to help young people. And I think it’s innate. I think all of us have it, the desire to help the younger generation.

Our state inspector at our first landfill was an Aggie from Richmond, Texas, who is still alive and retired in College Station. So we’re in our 20s and he’s probably in his 30s, but he was older than us. And back to this older men helping young men … I think that’s more prevalent if the young man is humble. If you hustle and you’re not acting like a big shot and like you know everything, then old men will help you. So this inspector told us about some guys that had permitted this landfill who were real estate-type people. They’d received the state permit but had not opened the landfill yet. So we struck a deal with them and we started this landfill [now the Fort Bend County Landfill].

Q: Sprint Waste Services is led by Aggies, you employ a large number of Texas A&M former students, and many customers have strong Aggie connections. Do your Aggie connections help your business?

A: There’s something called the “Aggie network,” and I do believe it’s viable. For example, when you’re doing business with other Aggies, you probably get last look. And that’s the truth. And when we’re buying something as a company from someone with Aggie ties, then the Aggie gets the work. We’re not paying a premium and we’re not getting a premium, but the Aggie network buys you the last look, so that’s pretty cool. That doesn’t happen with every university.

Also, there’s a lot of Aggies in the construction business, so you overlay this Aggie network with the fact that a bunch of our customers are Aggies, and this is something we need to exploit as a company. How can we take advantage of this Aggie network as a company? The Aggie 100 is a great way to do that.

The foundation for what Sprint Waste is today was laid by this landfill, and the landfill came to us by way of the Aggie network.

Q: One criteria of the Aggie 100 is that you must operate your company in a manner consistent with the Aggie Code of Honor, which states, “An Aggie does not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.” Can you speak to how you put this code into practice in your companies?

A: One of my foundational beliefs—and it’s typed up on the wall in our building—is this:  When in doubt, you tell the truth. I think you have to premeditate responses. In sports you practice so whenever the bell rings you go. When you get in the hot box you naturally go to what you know. When in doubt you tell the truth, no matter how painful it is. And there are actually very few people who tell the truth, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Q: Part of the stated purpose of Aggie 100 is to provide a forum to pass lessons to the next generation of Aggie entrepreneurs. How do you pay your wisdom and experience forward?

A: I have a degree from Texas A&M in Agricultural Economics, not the business school. I’ve personally been involved for probably 10 years in a class where we’re attempting to teach entrepreneurship in the agricultural department. The class is called Rural Entrepreneurship. I’ve given an endowment to fund the graduate assistants to help these kids to put business plans together. Once a year I actually go speak to this class and tell the students the Sprint story, and then I’m funding part of the class, I guess. So that’s one way I pay it forward.

Q: What would you say to students on college campuses today?

A: I think you have to work harder than your competition and you have to tell the truth, and if you do those two things, you’ll probably be successful.