When Troy White bought a 1-800-Got-Junk franchise nearly 10 years ago, he spent a lot of time educating people on how the junk-removal business works.
"People didn't know the market existed. It wasn't really branded as a professional service,'' he said. "A lot of people thought we were junk collectors.''
Early on, his operation was small enough that White rode around on a truck, collecting old furniture and whatever else a customer decided had to go. The finds occasionally shocked, like the time crews picked up a casket — thankfully minus a body — or a life-size dummy of Frankenstein, which now stands guard at the company's warehouse in Tampa. They call him Frank.
These days, White works mostly in the office, doing sales, marketing and employee training while his team of 11 crisscrosses Hillsborough, Pasco and northern Pinellas counties gathering junk from homes, businesses and construction sites.
On a busy day, the company can get up to two dozen calls, many seeking same-day service. Crews will pick up a single item, like a couch, for a minimum cost of $75, or a houseful for $558 per truckload.
Every job is an adventure, said driver Shane Sewell, a former wrestler known as the Canadian Glamour Boy. "I like the element of surprise.''
White's business is up 32 percent this year on top of 20 percent last year, with sales expected to hit $1 million. A few weeks ago, he added Sunday hours.
"June was our best month ever, and July was better than that,'' said White, a former medical sales rep who runs the franchise with his wife, Rachelle.
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The Whites are among a growing group of junk removers enjoying a boom in business nationwide. As the economy has improved, consumers are more willing to spend money tossing that ratty couch taking up space in the guest room. Homeowners are redoing kitchens and bathrooms, and baby boomers are downsizing. People are finally selling their homes and moving.
Decluttering is cool.
"Our business mirrors the housing market and the stock market as well,'' said Omar Soliman, CEO and co-founder of College Hunks Hauling Junk, a nationwide company with headquarters in Ybor City. "Whenever our business is up, I can tell you that things are going well, and our business is definitely up.''
College Hunks was founded in 2005 during the housing boom when demand for junk removal surged. It slowed during the recession when homeowners hunkered down, but has returned as people found jobs and have more money. A few years ago, College Hunks added moving services.
Despite more competition, the company seeks to nearly triple the number of franchises nationwide, from 52 to 150, and boost annual revenue to $100 million from $30 million, Soliman said. So far this summer, sales are up 40 percent above last year.
"We want to be as mainstream as a plumber or an electrician,'' he said. "It's almost like we're creating an industry that didn't exist 15 years ago.''
A blue-collar task, junk removal has become a white-collar business. Crews wear company polo shirts that match the brightly colored trucks. Sweat through a shirt during a job? A worker might change into a fresh one for the next stop.
Due to the highly competitive nature of junk removal, customer service is paramount. Referrals and repeat business make up a big chunk of sales. Except for hazardous materials, they'll remove just about anything.
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Melissa Tirado-Pavloff hired 1-800-Got-Junk last week because she had just gotten married and was moving. She took most of her things to her husband's house, but had a garage full of stuff she no longer wanted, from toys her teenagers had outgrown to stained, torn furniture.
Tirado-Pavloff considered having a garage sale or donating things to charity, but ran out of time. One call and her problem was solved.
"I'm thinking it's easier to do it this way,'' she said, surveying the pile. "I don't want to have to go through everything and check if every puzzle piece is there.''
Industrywide, about 60 to 70 percent of items collected are recycled, either at donation centers and nonprofit thrift stores or scrapyards. The rest goes to a dump, where companies pay a disposal fee.
Junk removal got a boost from the A&E's hit reality show Hoarders, which aired from 2009 to 2013. Each episode featured 1-800-Got-Junk crews hauling debris from hoarders' homes, proving that not every cleanup has to fit in a garbage can.
Fred Tomlin started Junk Shot in Tampa in 2008 with a friend's borrowed pickup, collecting junk that municipal haulers wouldn't. Two years later, he went full time.
Today, he has seven trucks serving the Tampa Bay market and parts of South Florida, and is getting ready to launch service in Orlando. Notable is the Junk Shot smartphone app that allows customers to take photos of their junk to get an estimate.
"It's hard to give a price over the phone and this takes out the largest hurdle,'' said Tomlin, who owns the company with his partner, Sherrod Hunter. "Our customers know the price they get over the phone will be the price they get on site.''
Paying to get rid of worthless junk isn't so painful when you consider the work involved to do it yourself, said Jeff Devin, a repeat junk-removal customer.
The Westchase resident recently called 1-800-Got-Junk to discard old tools and yard items. He had far too much to put at the curb and didn't want to sort and haul it to a dump.
Spending $375 was well worth avoiding the hassle.
"When it comes to convenience and pricing, it makes more sense,'' he said. "What took them 10 minutes would have taken me hours.''
Contact Susan Thurston at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.