When Jeremy Higgs heard about EcoVet he thought it was too good to be true. No experience necessary. A livable wage. Flexible hours. He needed just one qualification: be a veteran of the Armed Forces. “I thought they were messing with me,” says Higgs, who served three Army deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
EcoVet doesn’t mess around. The sustainability company hired Higgs, 30, to be part of a fledgling work force that consists exclusively of veterans. To date, 28 vets work the factory floor in Springdale, Arkansas. There, they receive training for a new mission: saving old semi trailers, primarily from Walmart, that are slated to be decommissioned, crushed, and dropped in a landfill.
The trailer floor, usually oak or maple, is reclaimed for high-end, custom-made furniture, such as a mod Adirondack chair that sells for $850. Some pieces range up to $12,000. The trailer’s steel and aluminum are recycled, or sold to be used as skirting–a modification that increases the efficiency of trucks still on the road. Plywood walls go to Habitat for Humanity. The tires find a new life as patches at tire shops. No waste.
But the work force is EcoVet’s primary reclamation project. Executives believe veterans are the answer to a shortage of skilled labor now faced by many domestic manufacturers. College-aged veterans, especially males, are looking for work, suffering an unemployment rate of 24%, almost 10 points higher than their civilian counterparts.
That’s ironic, says to the company’s co-founder, Drake Vanhooser, because veterans are invaluable. “They’ve been taught how to get things done,” he says. “They all have the skill of being adaptable.” When EcoVet first started in 2011, none of the workers knew how to make furniture. They learned.
Now, EcoVet is putting the business model to the test, scaling up to three new decommission centers, the first opening in the next 18 months. Executives have sought out areas with concentrations of veterans and discarded trailers: the Carolinas, the Chicago area, and Nevada. Workers will strip the trailers and rail the reclaimed wood back to Springdale. In three years, the company hopes to employ 500 veterans.
“It’s a profit center for us,” says Adrian Dominguez, the vice-president for business development of the parent company, EcoArk, which is located near Walmart’s home office. “We manufacture furniture and wood accessories, and we are able to label it as 100% recycled, repurposed wood, made by American veterans, right here in the United States.”
Dominguez views that sales pitch–American made, veterans, sustainable–as a trifecta for the company. EcoVet has garnered a host of customers–individuals, restaurants, and several Walmart vendors–interested in standard and custom furniture. Last month, the company earned its first big score: a contract with Sam’s Club, which debuted two EcoVet lines on its website.
All EcoVet furniture carries the same Bohemian-chic flavor. But the Sam’s Club line comes at typically low prices–an oak kitchen table with steel legs for about $600. A higher-end line is in the works for upscale retailers–Macy’s is interested–and the company is fielding offers from furniture retailers around the country.
Vanhooser says EcoVet has an “uncommon business model: It’s compassion first.” EcoVet pays a living wage, about $15 an hour, in addition to stock options, and encourages the veterans in its workforce to get a college degree by offering flexible hours and a night shift.
Jeremy Higgs is pursuing an associate’s degree in agriculture, food, and life sciences at a local community college. Now a shift manager at EcoVet, he sometimes clocks out to write a paper. The veterans-centric environment also means the employees understand each other, including problems related to PTSD. “Everyone is going through some issues,” Higgs says. “We give each other advice.”
The bottom line is aided by the cheap raw materials: a scrap-heap trailer costs only $1,200. And there are tens of thousands already available, with another 15,000 to 20,000 being discarded annually in the United States. With the new decommissioning centers, EcoVet estimates it can take 10,000 trailers out of the waste stream every year. Its long-term goal: to catch all of them.
Parent company EcoArk has a number of subsidiaries, all focused on sustainability and with ties to Walmart. One subsidiary recycles Walmart’s plastic trash into, fittingly, trash cans and then sell them back to Walmart. EcoArk calls it “closing the loop.” Another subsidiary, Intelleflex, monitors the efficacy of the food-supply chain to save millions of dollars in food waste.
EcoVet dovetails with Walmart’s stated goals of emphasizing domestic products and hiring veterans. Still, Dominguez insists EcoVet isn’t relying on Sam’s Club, which did $56 billion worth of business last year, to make this business plan work. “We’re hiring veterans here in the United States,” Dominguez says. “The furniture is made from repurposed wood. That is why people will buy our furniture.”