Drew Boyles’ The Charger (last of 3 parts)
Last of three parts
by Mark McDermott
There was something different about the man on the waste-hauling truck. This was the greater LA area, circa 2004, and it wasn’t just because the guy seemed especially eager to serve. He wore the blue uniform of 1-800-Got-Junk. He smiled a lot, worked hard and seemed unusually well-spoken.
What few of the junkman’s customers could have known was that he was a USC Marshall School of Business MBA graduate who’d worked at the Big Five consulting firm Arthur Andersen, before it went up in flames during the Enron scandal. Or that this was the very least of the disasters he’d emerged from, including one business (and a home) destroyed by an earthquake, another by hubris and inexperience, a marriage destroyed by his wife cheating with his good friend, a childhood in which he was abandoned by his blood father and beaten by his stepfather. What his customers did not know is that he owned the company, or at least this particular franchise.
Drew Boyles didn’t need for them to know. He only needed them to know that his company was doing a good job. 1-800-Got-Junk was the unlikely salvation for an unlikely junkman who had one quality that somehow blasted through every conceivable challenge life could throw at him: he was a charger. He didn’t give up.
“If you are not falling,” Boyles said, “you are not trying hard enough. That’s kind of the story of my life.”
“It’s about getting outside your comfort zone,” he said. “That creates learning. That’s something I impart to my people all the time: you’ve got to get uncomfortable. If you are not uncomfortable, you are not learning. In all aspects of life, really.”
Boyles had come to the junk business only two years removed from getting his MBA and fresh off the worst business failure of his life. In his first attempt at entrepreneurship, Boyles had tried to reinvent and consolidate the dry-cleaning business. He and his Ivy-league educated partners failed spectacularly, losing several million dollars in investment money in the creation of a high-tech, spa-like dry cleaning operation that turned out to have one flaw: it didn’t clean clothes very well. Boyles realized afterwards that this was because he didn’t know how to clean clothes very well.
He wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. Boyles saw a lot of the same things in waste-hauling that he’d seen as an opportunity in dry-cleaning: a vibrant industry with a fragmented market and no national brands in which not a lot of attention was given to each customer’s experience of the service provided. He’d run across an article on the Fortune Small Business site about the rags-to-riches story of 1-800-Got-Junk found Brian Scudamore, who’d started the business after dropping out of high school and touted a “Willing to fail” philosophy on his way to establishing a national chain of franchises. Boyles did his due diligence, spending time out on trucks at franchises in Los Angeles and San Diego. He liked what he saw.
“First, people were spending $300 and $400 for junk removal because they didn’t want to give up their time, and seeing the smiles on their faces when they wrote checks, just super happy, made me think, ‘Okay, I get it now,’” Boyles said. “This is a viable business.”
He was also impressed with people who were involved, not only as franchise owners but at 1-800-Got-Junk headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia. But as he scrabbled together the $125,000 needed to invest in a franchise — including $50,000 from his mother — he departed somewhat from Scudamore’s philosophy. He’d just married the love of his life, Lee, and had a baby with her. He wasn’t willing to fail. It was time to succeed.
“There was no option to fail,” Boyles said. “I didn’t really see a viable way out. There was no option. Living in a tiny apartment with my new wife and child and two teenage sons. It had to work.”
And so every morning, he got on a truck and worked. He was relentless, both in learning the business and looking for ways to make it better.
“I spent the first year and a half to two years in the truck, hauling junk all day long,” Boyles said.
The experience was humbling. Boyles had done plenty of hard work in his life. He had served in the Navy, and he’d grown up in the Midwest, mowing lawns and shoveling snow off sidewalks. He was also hands-on in the dry cleaning business, rising at 4 a.m. to fire the boilers. But this was different. Going into people’s homes and hauling out junk from sun-up to sundown was grunt work at its most basic level.
“I was two years out of having gotten my MBA,” he recalled. “Most of my colleagues’ MBAs [from school and Arther Andersen] were being paid for by their employers. So I felt a lot of pressure to make it work. For me, putting in the time, the sweat, learning the business was absolutely essential.”
He also had precious little capital. Yet within four months, he was cash-flow positive.
“A lot of that is because I was in the truck,” Boyles said.
His friends in El Segundo, including Bob Roddy and Alex Abad, told him from the outset he was crazy to go into the waste-hauling business.
“When he told me he was thinking about getting into the junk business, I said, ‘Don’t you realize we get trash pickup for free in El Segundo? Why on Earth would you want to be charged for something when we get it for free?’” Roddy remembered. “He said, ‘Oh, no. This is going to be different.’ And of course it was.”
What was different was the timing and quality of service. People who need to get rid of junk often need to get rid of it fast; they aren’t waiting for bulky item pick-up day via their trash service. Maybe somebody has died, or maybe something else has changed, and more than likely even getting the junk to the curb is a mountain too high.
“People don’t want to wait for bulk item collection events two times a year,” he said. “If someone passes, the family needs to come and clean out the estate. People don’t think about junk removal, or moving.”
Boyles’ specialty as a consultant had been organizational change. Now he set about making the organization of junk hauling as efficient and friendly as it could possibly be.
“Doing all the work, and sweeping up when done,” he said. “It’s all about service. I tell employees, you can hire anyone to pick up junk, but not everyone can show up and make the customer comfortable. It might be a woman home alone, and you can immediately put the client at ease, build a rapport and trust, get the junk out, and clean up. That is where all the magic happens. Picking up junk and putting in the back of a truck, recycling at the end, that’s the easy part.”
What he began telling customers distilled the service to its essence: “Just point at the junk, and it disappears.”
It worked. Within a few years, Boyles had purchased the two 1-800-Got-Junk franchises he’d looked at during his due diligence. He did it, in part, by also working as a consultant with an old contact from his Arther Andersen days, Loews, a gig that required him to travel to South Carolina several times a month. He was working two challenging full-time jobs while raising a family but he figured out a way to just grit it out, and he did it with his usual aplomb. Roddy recalls seeing him in a purplish-blue afro wig out on one of his trucks one day, out on Imperial and Sepulveda, marketing the business, guerilla-style. “There was no shame in his game,” Roddy said.
Boyles would soon acquire another 11 franchises. He became known as “California’s millionaire junkman,” according to one press account.
His first franchise was 44th in the company’s history; eventually, Boyles would structure, negotiate, and close 32 acquisitions and/or mergers of 1-800-Got-Junk franchises. He consolidated markets in LA, Chicago, Santa Cruz, San Francisco’s East Bay, and Coachella Valley. Today, his 1-800-Got-Junk franchises are doing something unprecedented in the industry. Once a customer calls for the service, a truck can arrive the same day or the next day. Using a metric called “Next Open Window,” his franchises’ arrival time averages 90 minutes after the call.
“Which from a service standpoint is almost unheard of,” Boyles said. “Especially in an industry like ours.”
But of course, given the trajectory of everything Boyles had done, even this success would not come without a staggering blow to his business and life. Just as his business began to truly thrive, the biggest recession since the Great Depression descended on the country in 2008.
In 2009 and 2010, Boyle’s 1-800-Got-Junk franchises teetered on the cusp of collapse.
“I mean, I was so leveraged,” Boyles said. “I had all these truck payments and all this debt from acquisitions, and then lost 40 percent of my revenue essentially overnight when the recession hit.”
“Not only was the economy bad, but people weren’t feeling good about their home value. They were just not spending money on our services, and homes weren’t turning, and the ones that were turning were because of foreclosure and they weren’t our customers. That was the toughest period I’ve ever gone through. It lasted about two-and-a-half-years.”
Somehow, he got through it.
“I don’t know how it happened to this day, but we just worked with all our vendors, and we ended up paying everybody what we owed them,” Boyles said. “We got new terms. Because I had acquired so much, when I was acquiring, from SBA loans, where the seller was financing some of the terms of the loans…. We came out of it much stronger.”
Which is, if you wanted to distill a single lesson from the lifetime of hard knocks Boyles had somehow not only endured but somehow thrived upon, pretty much a summation: he always came out of whatever body slam life gave him somehow stronger.
After emerging from the recession, Boyles not only acquired additional 1-800-Got-Junk franchises but acquired a moving service, You Move Me, operating franchises in LA and Orange County. He became president and later regional director of the Entrepreneur Organization, another non-profit, whose mission is to “engage leading entrepreneurs to learn and grow.” He joined the board of the El Segundo Art Museum, which had just opened in El Segundo and was a harbinger for the creative wave that would crest over the next decade. And he launched a pair of start-ups: Crypt Cases, a company with a patented design for a new collapsible, hard case meant for traveling with surfboards, snowboards, and musical equipment; and HazAway Today, a household hazardous waste removal company. All throughout, he also kept running his consultancy company, Endless Pursuit Consulting.
His friends marveled at Boyle’s endless bent for expansion, both on a personal and professional level.
“He always was thinking about what he was going to do next,” Roddy said. “He never settles. It’s always about the next thing.”
In 2013, Boyles asked then-Mayor Bill Fisher to speak at an Entrepreneurs Organization meeting about serving as an elected official. Fisher, who owns a tech company, spoke about what an eye-opening experience it had been to see how cities are run.
“People who come into government don’t have business experience,” Fisher said. “They are kind of at a loss in budget and accounting processes. They are being told by staffers, who have also never run a business, ‘This is the way it is.’ They don’t know how to ask the right questions, and never look at a profit and loss or balance sheet. So it’s easy for people to get lost in it.”
“Part of this talk was about how we need more business people in city government,” Fisher said. “You need to know how to get things done.”
After the talk, several business people came up to Fisher and expressed sympathy for his message. “But most said, ‘I just don’t have time to do that,” Fisher recalled. “‘I’ve got 50 employees and a $10 million business.’”
The only person who expressed more than sympathy was Boyles.
“Gosh, I get exactly what you are saying,” Boyles told Fisher. He also said he was interested in serving. Fisher appointed him to the Economic Development Advisory Council, a formerly dormant committee that Fisher had resurrected to bridge the private and public sectors. Boyles turned out to be wildly effective in helping revive EDAC, which in turn became a key cog in the city’s larger efforts at economic development, which would culminate in more than a billion dollars in new investment in El Segundo and a mini-boom, the likes of which the city had not seen since the aerospace sector’s heyday.
Three years later, Boyles was elected to council. In 2018, he became mayor.
Former mayor Eric Busch said Boyles has helped El Segundo’s government function more effectively.
“He comes from the school of hard knocks, for sure,” Busch said. “He brings these abilities and that mentality and perspective to the City Council and the City of El Segundo and I firmly believe if you have good people in government you almost always have good governance. I’ve seen it time and time again, where people have these strong capacities and traits that they bring and share with the community, and it ends up resulting in good outcomes. It all starts from the top, and in a large organization it really helps to have leadership like Drew’s.”
Councilperson Carol Pirsztuk said that Boyles has brought private sector best practices into the public sector.
“What he has been able to do is bring awareness that the city needs to operate more as a business, and ensure that we are aligning with the development of the city,” Pirsztuk said. “Our city develops around us. I always say El Segundo was like Rip Van Winkle. We were a little bit asleep. It’s helped us to really wake up. We’ve functioned more like a business, to be successful and align with our business partners.”
“I feel very proud of where he is,” Fisher said. “He’s an honest man and a smart guy and he’s in the right position in this city.”
Early most mornings, if you want to find the mayor of El Segundo, your best bet would be to look for him in the surfline at the El Segundo jetty. He’ll be the guy sitting on the outside of the lineup, a bit apart from the rest.
Boyles learned to surf 30 years ago after arriving to California as a young man serving in the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at Miramar base in San Diego and fell immediately in love with surfing. He’s been a deeply committed surfer ever since. Surfing is one of the reasons he ended up in El Segundo; though all the ups and downs of life and the often hectic pace his many endeavors require, the ocean has been his constant. It’s where he recharges.
“There’s something about going out on the beach with your shoes off, barefoot in the sand really and truly getting grounded,” Boyles said. “When you are in the water, it’s meditative, in a sense. Sometimes when I’m going to the beach or I’m paddling out, I’m like, ‘I’m going to think about this problem today.’ That usually doesn’t happen. I’m not even very social in the water. The attempt to better focus has been a lifelong effort for me — I’m going to take it all in and be present. So you kind of lose some of that stress, you forget about things for a while. You get that time away to focus on yourself and the present environment.”
“The other thing for me is that regardless of what has been going on in my life for the last 30 years, the next surf trip is always on the horizon, and it’s always something to look forward to.”
Of course, Boyles being Boyles, he’s also found a way to turn this passion into a quest for expansion. He has a goal to surf every country in the world, even those without a coast (“Think rivers…. behind boats if I have to,” he said). He figures there are 193 countries to surf. So far he’s surfed 17.
“I have to stay pretty diligent about knocking them off,” Boyles said. “I have maybe 50 years left, so that’s a pretty daunting undertaking.”
Boyles’ next frontier brings together his skills as an entrepreneur, his passion for surfing, and even his surf quest. He intends to expand the sport itself by bringing a wave pool technology developed in Australia to the United States. A friend, surfer and inventor Eddie Lester, brought the technology to Boyles’ attention a few years ago, and the two traveled to Australia to investigate. They liked what they saw.
Boyles believes the technology, called Surf Lakes, will one day make it possible for kids who grow up in Illinois, as he did, to learn how to surf.
“It could be in the middle of Chicago,” Boyles said. “We are also removing a lot of barriers to entry for people that don’t surf. Think about all the people who don’t surf because of jellyfish and stingrays and sharks. It can be dangerous to paddle out. Unpredictable conditions, you name it — it’s an intimidating environment all around.”
Each Surf Lakes pool will take up about 12-acres — the size of a 9-hole golf course — and use plunger technology to create a 360-degree surge inside a man-made lake. The technology will create eight different waves over four distinct reefs and be capable of producing 2,400 surfable waves an hour.
“It’s predictable, it’s consistent, the wave breaks the same way every time and it’s machine-controlled, so you could perfect a move that it is otherwise impossible to do,” Boyles said. “It’s a game-changer. I’m excited about that — I think bringing surfing to a point where it’s accessible and readily available to more people is just huge.”
Boyles does have some ambivalence about making surfing a bigger sport. What he loves about surfing is that it’s not a mainstream sport. And part of what he loves in both surf, and life, is its unpredictability. But ultimately, his life, his career as an entrepreneur, and surfing are all one thing: he is a charger, and taking on what could be a worldwide boom in surfing is what he is built to do.
“Surfing offers a lot of metaphors,” he said. “I’ve certainly taken my beatings in my life, and certainly paddling out on a big day, being in over your head can be pretty scary. It’s about knowing your limits and learning from your mistakes. But you’ve got to get in.” ES