Environmentally friendly companies have been on the rise, finding innovative ways to protect our planet and recycle materials. Lowell Fleming became one of those eco-masters when he started Northwest Biofuel in 2014.
Northwest Biofuel came from very humble beginnings. Its inception came from the culmination of knowledge gained from industry experience and the courage and brilliance to seize an opportunity.
When Lowell first started his business he was in search of a new job. Instead of continuing that search, he took the audacious step to start his own business. He did not have the financing or pump truck or enough containers. Despite the lack of equipment and financing, he took his pick-up truck and the one 55-gallon drum that he had. He leaped forward to develop new contacts.
Lowell got his first customer when he simply offered to collect the restaurants’ cooking oil. When the owner agreed. Lowell instructed the gentleman to empty their oil into the drum. He dropped off his 55-gallon food grade drum and he told the owner that he would pick it up the following month. He began dropping off drums all over town, and so started his journey. He kept pushing forward. Failure was not an option.
Northwest Biofuel serves the Portland, Oregon metro and surrounding areas. The service he provides is grease trap cleaning. In addition, he provides free cooking oil collection, that is recycled and turned into clean-burning biodiesel.
How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?
I was working for two different companies in the beginning. I was a manager for one of the companies who specialized in cleaning grease traps. It is a requirement from the city to have grease traps cleaned. I was in sales for the other company. They specialized in cooking oil collection. They were both good companies. I recognized that both services go hand in hand. I couldn’t understand why either one of the companies didn’t do both. I saw a real opportunity to provide restaurant owners with the combined service.
How do you make money?
I provide a service to restaurants. I clean the restaurant’s grease traps, collect the oil and turn the oil into a biofuel.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
It took me about two years to become profitable.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I was almost sure that it was not going to work. I had to do something before I found another job. I don’t think there is ever a good time to start a business. You just have to pull the trigger and go for it. You may not have the right financing. You have to be creative. It is not an option to fail.
How did you get your first customer?
I literally just walked up to the owner of the restaurant and ask if he wanted his oil collected. He agreed so I just left the oil drum and told him to call me when it was almost full. I didn’t even have a business card then. I am pretty sure I left my number on a piece of scrap paper. It has been quite a journey since then.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
There are a couple of things that we do to generate new business. First, I like to go out to restaurants to meet people or just leave a business card or a door hanger. I also do what I call a loss liter. Every new business that we get, we provide the first months’ oil collection free. We just leave a drum and when we pick it up, we ask if they like the service and if they want to stay. It works almost every time.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
I think the toughest decision that you have to make is finding the right drivers to do this business. It is a tough job. There is heavy lifting, you start your day very early in the morning, it is dirty, it can be dangerous. No one will thank you for your work. The driver is the face of the business. If you have to let someone go it is the hardest decision you have to make.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I treat my customers as I would want to be treated if I had my own restaurant. We pick up when it is best for the owner. We do not charge a late fee if you don’t pay your bill on time. If we make a mess, we make sure to clean it up. We provide the best quality customer service possible. The bigger companies lock restaurants into a contract. We don’t even have a contract. We want customers to stay with us for the long haul. If we are providing good quality service, we don’t have to lock them into a contract. I have never found it to be necessary.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
I have to say that the most satisfying time that I have in this business is when one restaurant owner will refer me to another restaurant owner. What it means to me is that I have that level of trust. That means the world to me. It means we are providing a good service and that we are reputable and that we are doing it the right way. They have no reason to stick their necks out unless they believe in us.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
What most excites me is the opportunity to expand. I think the opportunities are endless. I don’t want to start setting new policy as a larger business does. I want to know each customer that we are servicing and be on a first name basis. I believe if you treat the customer fairly and provide the best pricing, you will win every time.
What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?
We just purchased a new truck. Drain cleaning equipment is critical.
Would you ever sell your business?
I would never sell my business. It is what I do. It is a niche market. I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I did not build a business just to cash out on it.