Collin Wheeler is the last person you’d expect to be hauling away your trash. For one, he’s a germaphobe. He washes his hands every chance he gets, and launders shirts after one wear.
“But when I get into junk mode, it all goes out the window,” said Wheeler, the 27-year-old founder and chief executive of 123 Junk, an “eco-friendly” trash removal service based in Sterling that donates and recycles about half of the items it collects.
In his cargo shorts and Ray Ban sunglasses, the clean-cut Wheeler looks more like a lifeguard than a CEO.
He started the junk removal service at the age of 23, after a stint in the sales department of a moving company.
“It seemed like a good business opportunity,” said Wheeler, who has a degree in Business Administration from Radford University in Virginia. “I decided to hang up my suit and tie and became a junk man.”
He started the company in January 2008, as the economy tanked and the housing market crumbled.
“We started small and organically,” Wheeler said. “We bought a truck as we needed it, we hired people as we needed them.”
The strategy has paid off: The company now has eight employees and five trucks. Last year, it raked in $415,000 in revenue, four times more than in 2008. This year, it’s expecting revenue of $650,000.
At the heart of the business, though, is a grim fact: The company’s success goes hand in hand with the housing crisis. The more foreclosed houses and displaced families, the better for trash removal services like 123 Junk.
Daniel Sanders, president of the Alexandria-based Four Sales Ltd., which specializes in estate sales and liquidations, has been working with 123 Junk for three years. Most of his clients are downsizing to a smaller home or deceased, he says.
“Frankly, it’s a blue-collar task,” Sanders said, “but Collin has branded it into a white-collar business.”
Wheeler used to drive from charity to charity, recycling facility to recycling facility, trying to find new homes for the items he’d hauled away. But he quickly realized that it wasn’t an efficient strategy — and driving across town all day, every day, wasn’t good for the environment.
Now the company has two freight containers at the Fairfax County landfill. Donations go in one bin, recyclable items go in the other, and everything else goes into the dump. The company funnels furniture, books and clothing to area charities, including the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. Wheeler and his team keep tabs on donated items and send receipts to their clients for tax deductions.
“They do it all, and they give back to the community,” said Kathryn Lynch, 57. She called 123 Junk to clean out her basement a couple of years ago, and again last week to haul away three mattresses from her basement.
Mostly, 123 Junk gets called to move old furniture or haul away bags of trash. But sometimes it gets exciting: a library full of books, a house full of animal skulls. (Wheeler found a new place for both: a resell service for the books, a local home for the skulls.)
The worst jobs, Wheeler said, are homes that belong to hoarders. There are papers everywhere — candy wrappers, magazines, unopened mail.
Every now and then, though, 123 Junk finds something that is decidedly a treasure, like the time it was asked to clear out an old Louis Vuitton steamer trunk. The trunk later sold for $4,000.