A long winter was coming to a close when Jim Berquist gathered his employees and told them the news: After 44 years, he and his wife, Bonnie, were selling their trash hauling business.
The stress of St. Paul’s new organized trash collection system had proved too much. Come April 1, the Berquists told their workers, Ken Berquist & Son Disposal would be folded into Houston-based Waste Management.
On March 29, the company’s last Friday in its tiny Inver Grove Heights office, the Berquists and their employees posed for a photo in front of one of the old trucks. As Jim and Bonnie drove away, he broke down.
“That’s still hard to talk about,” Jim said, his voice breaking into a whisper. “Bawled like a baby all the way home.”
St. Paul allowed residents to choose their own garbage hauler until last year, when the city launched organized trash collection in an effort to reduce illegal dumping and cut down on the number of garbage trucks crisscrossing the city. Though the fledgling system has reduced traffic and created a uniform pricing system that is cheaper for some residents, its first months have included a lawsuit and millions of dollars in unpaid bills because of hauler errors or residents simply refusing to pay.
Meanwhile, the city has lost half its trash-hauling businesses. A mix of small companies and big corporations were among the 15 haulers that signed a contract with the city in November 2017. Seven remain, including three based outside Minnesota.
The number of haulers will soon drop again. Last month, Waste Management announced it had bought Florida-based Advanced Disposal Services.
The retreat of haulers is happening despite the city’s pledge to preserve small businesses in the transition to organized trash collection.
“The city chose to pursue a consortium option to ensure all garbage haulers — of any size — could maintain their current market share in providing services to St. Paul residents,” Lisa Hiebert, a spokeswoman for St. Paul Department of Public Works, said in a statement. “This approach was reflective of the feedback we heard from the community, and what was represented in the final council resolution.”
The City Council resolution directing negotiations with haulers listed “[maintaining] opportunities for small, local, minority and women-owned trash haulers” among its priorities.
The Berquists said the message from City Hall didn’t match their experience. Throughout more than a year of meetings and negotiations, they said, city officials repeated that they could seek bids for citywide trash collection if they couldn’t reach an agreement with the haulers. Knowing that they wouldn’t be able to win a bid against the larger companies, the Berquists agreed to the contract.
“You had to vote yes on it if you wanted to stay in business,” said son Mike Berquist, who joined the family business after high school along with his brother, Dan.
Endless phone calls
Jim and Bonnie had been kicking around the idea of retiring, and had gotten inquiries from two national trash hauling companies interested in buying Berquist & Son. But before making any decisions, they decided to give organized collection a try.
Then the phone calls started.
Under the new system, haulers are each assigned a portion of the city — an effort to reduce traffic and pollution on streets that once saw several garbage trucks a day.
Since buying the business from Jim’s parents in 1975, the Berquists had increased the number of properties they served from about 350 to about 6,000. Still, they knew their customers so well that they could list off family members’ names and would take neighborhood children for garbage truck rides on their birthdays. Their business number was the same as their home phone.
But with the launch of city-run trash pickup, the Berquists were assigned parts of the city where they’d never worked, and customers who hadn’t chosen their service. Some of the new customers were irate about the change — and organized trash collection in general — and let them know it.
“I understood their anger. But you could only be sworn at a few times, and then you wanted to quit,” Bonnie said. “There’d be times we’d be eating dinner and the phone would ring and I’d just start crying.”
Bonnie still cries when she talks about those last days. There was a lot more work to do — a new software system to learn, new reports to submit to the city and new rules to abide by, coupled with fines if they didn’t comply. And all day, every day, the phone kept ringing.
Residents found out who their new haulers were in August. Shortly after the first bills went out in September, Bonnie said, she knew it was over.
“I mentally and physically couldn’t do it,” she said. “If somebody would’ve said to me that people could be so mean, I would’ve said, ‘No, I don’t believe that.’ ”
Ken Berquist & Son began in 1930, less of a company than a survival tactic.
Ken, Jim’s father, was kicked out of the house by his own father at age 15. In those days, St. Paul residents burned coal to heat their houses — so Ken attached a wooden cart to the back of a car and drove around town picking up ashes.
One job turned into several, from snowplowing to landscaping. Ken worked until he couldn’t work anymore, and then Jim did the same.
Years of physical labor have left Jim in a lot of pain, unable to stand for more than a few minutes. But he and Bonnie are hopeful that physical therapy and surgery will help, and they’ll be able to take full advantage of their retirement.
The Berquists declined to say how much Waste Management paid for Berquist & Son, but said they expect to be comfortable. They’re looking forward to simple things, like having more time for yard work, and are hoping to travel around Minnesota and maybe to Michigan or Florida.
Their son Dan took another job, and Mike is working to build up a dumpster roll-off business to support his own family.
“It was a great run, but all good things come to an end sometime, it seems like,” Jim said on a recent Friday afternoon, seated beside Bonnie in their former office, now home to Mike’s business. “Leave it to government to mess it up for you.”
Bonnie looked over at him, her eyes soft. “We don’t have to worry about them,” she said.