Photo: Jeff Silker
Rapid Response Team
Entrepreneurial New Ulm couple gathers and compacts opportunities to generate green.
Entrepreneurs Kevin and Kathy Finstad of New Ulm engage and encapture business opportunity, not unlike the way their River View Sanitation trucks engage and encapture residential New Ulm garbage. They came, they saw, and they conquer—opportunity.
Somehow, they compact 30 hours of job, business, and community into a 24-hour day. They co-own and -manage regional onsite shredder RVS Shredding, River View Sanitation, Finstad Realty and Auctioneering, Finstad’s Oak Haven Campground, and the latter’s event center.
Remarkably, they built up nearly all their businesses while working full-time for someone else: 54-year-old Kevin from 1979-2006 was head of maintenance of New Ulm manufacturer Firmenich; and 56-year-old Kathy since 1977 has been a registered nurse and now trauma coordinator of New Ulm Medical Center. And they accomplished all this while actively involved in community life, with Kevin currently as a New Ulm volunteer firefighter 33 years and he and Kathy each former emergency medical technicians more than 20 years. Kevin has served as president of New Ulm’s Professional Referral Organization and been a local green advocate, Kathy has been a Putting Green board member, and together they generously offer their event center free to certain nonprofits. Oh, and Kevin has been a private pilot and stock car racer, too.
Though not employing many—12 full-timers and a regular MRCI crew—their companies directly affect the quality of life of many thousands of people and the operations of hundreds of businesses each week. RVS Shredding covers every nook and cranny of our reading area and River View Sanitation serves most homes and businesses in eastern Brown County and some beyond. Astonishingly, the Finstads’ only business plan has been to respond rapidly, and their only approach has been to live in the moment.
The McCleod County Chronicle reported your actions on the night of March 7, 2009, went “above and beyond what is expected of the general public.” What happened?
Kathy: We had been at my mom and dad’s near St. Cloud. I usually do the night driving, and as we were heading on US 15 south of Hutchinson near Lake Marion about 9:30 p.m. I saw a car in my lane heading toward us. As the lights drew closer, I swerved off the side of the road onto the shoulder to avoid a collision. The driver continued driving north in the southbound lanea.
Your heart was beating pretty fast.
Kathy: Yes, and Kevin said to me, “Turn around, we need to stop him.” So I wheeled around, not really knowing what we were going to do except somehow head him off before he hurt someone. Kevin called 911. We drove over a knoll after him and saw he had struck someone. The wreckage was smoking in the middle of the road and another car was stopped behind it. We jumped out to check on the person hit—she was young and very shaken up. We took her to the side of the road.
Kevin said he was going after the driver and jumped in our Jeep in pursuit. Then I called 911 and heard sirens. Kevin and I both had been in emergency medical services more than 20 years apiece—and I was an emergency room nurse. Even so, it was a little daunting being in the middle of a dark highway with all that wreckage.
What did you do then?
Kevin: I could see an antifreeze trail down the highway. The driver had hit the girl’s car with a glancing blow and three-quarters of a mile down the highway I saw his empty car steaming. It was a snowy, moonlit night, and on one side of the road was an open field and on the other, cattails. I swung out toward the cattails and could see him way out beyond running and hunched down in a field trying to hide. I hollered to tell him to get back over here or we were going to get him, but at that point, there was no “we’re.” It was only me. Then he started walking back and stumbled down face first. I was a little less intimidated then, figuring he had been drinking. When he stood again and reached the edge of the ditch, I grabbed him by the arm and told him law enforcement was coming. Shortly after, when the sheriff arrived, the guy wouldn’t get into the squad car, so I stayed to assist the sheriff. Once the sheriff mentioned using a “taser,” the driver went into the police car peacefully.
Kathy, your present position at New Ulm Medical Center is being a registered nurse and the trauma coordinator of the emergency department. And Kevin, you have been a New Ulm firefighter over 30 years. You both were EMTs for more than 20 years. How has your emergency training helped what you do in business?
Kevin: We can think on our feet. It’s part of our personalities. While being an EMT, we have worked with patients who think we are being pushy, but with our training you don’t wait to make a decision because often you can’t.
Have you had opportunities in business when you have to make quick, major business decisions?
Kathy: This is what we’ve done in business. I don’t think any business we’ve started has been something we’ve sat on and put a particular plan in motion. Our recycling contract (with River View Sanitation) for the eastern half of Brown County, for example, was awarded September 2010 and we had to start three months later. The building we needed to start in didn’t even exist when we received the contract.
So you were putting a bid on a contract for recycling and didn’t have a building for it?
Kathy: We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have a recycling building or trucks. We just knew we had to act fast and we could do everything else later.
Kevin: We had never done recycling, never visited a facility, had no recycling employees, equipment or trucks, and didn’t know how to do it. After receiving the contract, we had three months to make it work. We did go to a construction company before the bid saying if we won we had to have the building built by January 1. I was at the State Fair when Brown County telephoned saying we had won the contract.
Let’s start back at the beginning. Tell me about your backgrounds.
Kathy: I’m originally from Minneapolis. My mother is a registered nurse and my father worked for the City of Minneapolis sanitation department. I graduated from Roosevelt High in 1974 and I always knew I wanted to be a nurse. I applied to St. Cloud Hospital School of Nursing and at age 17 went to nursing school. After graduating I was hired at Loretto Hospital, now New Ulm Medical Center. This June 15 marked my thirty-fifth year. Both my parents are proud I followed in their footsteps becoming a nurse and running a sanitation company.
Kevin: There is no part of running the sanitation business she can’t do except she doesn’t have her Class B license. But as for running the equipment and trucks, she jumps in. She doesn’t back down.
What are the commonalities between running a sanitation company and being a nurse?
Kathy: At the hospital, I am the clinical/trauma coordinator of the emergency department, which translates to being the assistant head nurse. I have learned how to handle patient and employee issues. Even though I’m a staff nurse, I also have a leadership role. In leadership, you need to see the importance and viewpoints of both management and employees. My knowledge base spills over to our business, where I have to do time sheets, set up offices, and obtain the equipment employees need to do their job. That’s similar to what I do in the hospital emergency room—making sure we have all the right equipment to do our job. Both industries are heavily regulated.
What’s your background, Kevin?
Kevin: I was raised on a 600-acre crop and livestock farm south of New Ulm and graduated from New Ulm High in 1976. I was in Future Farmers of America, and was president of our local chapter, district president, and state vice president. When I became old enough to farm full-time, my dad was too young—so I had to move on. I worked in a New Ulm hospital as an orderly and for DM&E. I also became an emergency medical technician (EMT) after my dad and I had an experience coming upon a car accident involving a grain truck way out in the country. We didn’t have the knowledge to do anything. Until the ambulance came 20 minutes later, we could do nothing but hear their moans and groans for help. In 1979 at age 21, I began working for Borden Foods, which eventually was purchased by Firmenich, a Swiss-owned company manufacturing flavors and fragrances. I worked there full-time until 2006 as head of maintenance.
What did you take out of that job?
Kevin: In part, I did purchasing, set up, and equipment maintenance. Because I was an EMT, I was in charge of plant safety and environmental issues and regarding that had to fly out to Firmenich in New Jersey for meetings. Though everybody else there had a college degree, I didn’t. My street smarts made up for it. Back then, if you could prove yourself, you didn’t need a piece of paper. I have always been more a technical, hands-on person.
How did you two meet?
Kathy: Through working at the hospital. I had been married and divorced—and so had he. We had known each other many years and married in 1995. I have two daughters and he has two sons.
What attracted you to each other?
Kevin: Back then, if having a critical patient, the hospital would send a nurse along in the ambulance with us to help transfer the patient to Rochester. EMTs are basic life support and nurses are advanced life support and bring drugs and meds. I worked six out of seven days on the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. ambulance shift for the hospital. So we met by association.
What particular traits of hers appealed to you?
Kevin: She never backed down from a challenge. On the ambulance, and because of her training, she could see things happening with a patient we couldn’t see. And later, she always backed my crazy business ideas. Many of these businesses she didn’t know about until almost the last minute and yet she stood right behind me and helped make them work.
What were some of these crazy ideas?
Kevin: First, I received my private pilot license in 1981. I still have one, although I haven’t flown for a while because I’m too busy. In 1996, I quit flying as a hobby to start stock car racing at Arlington and Redwood Falls. I later quit racing in 2001 and sold my stock car to buy a garbage truck and start a sanitation company.
What did you like about racing?
Kevin: There is no video game that can replace the feeling of rocks flying at you, dust and dirt, the noise, and the feeling of hunting down a competitor on the racetrack. It doesn’t matter where you are on the racetrack—in the back of the pack or leading—you have a competitor nearby. It’s a feeling to this day I wish I could have once in a while. We now sponsor two stock cars and once a year they let me have a test run. If having never raced, you can’t understand the feeling. I started in the Bomber class at Redwood Falls—just because it was a cheap class to enter. One night, the little track was rained out and they had us race on the bigger track. Kathy said I would never go back to the little track again. I didn’t.
Wait a minute. Kathy, you’re an emergency room nurse and you have this husband who likes to race stock cars. No doubt you’ve seen people coming in banged up from driving.
Kathy: I liked watching others, but was nervous when he was out there, especially when he entered the faster classes. I can’t say I was sad to see him quit.
Name another crazy idea?
Kevin: We started the campground in 1992. We lived outside New Ulm on a former 100-site mobile home village. Kathy’s dad and I were remodeling our house while Kathy was working the 3 to 11 shift. Her dad and I were out for supper one night and I talked about starting a campground. Heritagefest was big then and they always had campers parking on the streets when the state park filled. Our campground started as a two-weekend event tied to Heritagefest, but then we began hosting groups of ten to fifteen campers on weekends and it developed from there.
Kathy, is it your job to test his ideas, talk him out of them or patch him up later?
Kathy: (Laughter.) I challenge the idea if I’m not a true believer. He knows he’s going to hear me say my piece about whether it’s good or bad. But in the end I always try it and stand behind him—because that’s what you do.
Have you been able to talk him out of anything?
Kathy: Pretty much not. He didn’t tell me about the campground until four weeks before it began. We had to jump through (regulatory) hoops and get licensed. It started as a way to make extra money to take our children to Florida.
Kevin: We’re licensed for 40 sites. We put up a building with seating for 100 and thought it would be used mostly for campers playing cards and having potluck suppers. But the building quickly developed into a place for graduations, family reunions, and wedding receptions. Now the building is busier as an event center than for campground functions. A couple times this year (through June) we’ve hosted events there every day from Thursday through Sunday.
What came next?
Kevin: In July 2002, we started River View Sanitation. Again, I sold my stock car to buy our first garbage truck and we hired two full-time employees. A few years before, my friend Mark Firle, who owned Firle’s Funeral Home, had wanted me to join him in his funeral business. My dad said then I should be in the funeral or garbage businesses because those businesses always have customers. I certainly missed an opportunity joining Mark in the funeral home business—he’s retired in Texas now—but when Brand Sanitation in New Ulm came up for sale, we looked at starting a sanitation company.
You sold your stock car, bought a garbage truck, and started with 160 customers, which isn’t a lot.
Kevin: Looking back now, it was a foolish—yet gutsy—move. We put our necks way out. We bought one truck and guaranteed two people employment while having only 160 customers in the hope of more customers coming on. If you build it and they come, you’re fine; but if you build it and they don’t, you’re not.
Kathy: Back then, we were making money at camping, but had to move around our finances considerably to pay two people full-time.
And then a large national company bought out Brand Sanitation—and that saved you?
Kevin: We started River View Sanitation in 2002. We both had full-time jobs, and had one truck and 160 customers. We struggled because customers were faithful to Brand Sanitation, who had been here many years. They were trying to sell out but we couldn’t come to an agreement with them. Then a large national company purchased their business. We had been in business six months with 160 customers when it happened and knew we couldn’t financially last past December. Then when the large company bought out Brand Sanitation, we gained 900 of their 1,200 residential customers in two weeks. Talk about the telephone ringing off the hook. People decided to stay local after they sold their business. We started a roll-off division in 2004 because we got so many telephone calls for commercial dumpsters. (Now the company has 450 commercial accounts.)
When did your auctioneering and real estate begin?
Kevin: In a way, that began in 1981. My first wife’s father was a lapidary (precious and semi-precious stone) auctioneer who ran a Fairmont auction house. I went to auctioneer school in Mason City and eventually hooked up with Ferdie Krenz from Sleepy Eye. His son Larry and I are now partners. I earned my real estate brokers license in 2003 and started Finstad Realty and Auctioneering. Kathy earned her license in 2004.
We got into real estate because in auctioneering, when you list someone’s household goods, the first thing they usually tell you is they are moving because they want to sell their home. There was an opportunity to sell a home nearly every time we listed an auction. We have slowed down on realty and auctioneering because of having to take the time to get our recycling center fine-tuned. I’m now diverting most of our realty and auctioneering to my partner Larry, but until a couple years ago, we listed the auction, listed their home, and picked up the customer’s garbage for their old home. A customer could make one telephone call and have everything done.
I have to stop you right here. Let’s just take the year 2005, for example. Kevin, that year, you were an auctioneer, Realtor, full-time head of maintenance at Firmenich, a volunteer firefighter, a campgrounds and event center co-owner, and co-owner of a sanitation company. In addition, Kathy, you were a registered nurse, EMT, Realtor, and co-owner of the campground and sanitation company.
Kathy: Pretty much, yes. (Laughter.)
Kevin: I was an EMT that year, too. Yeah, we were busy. Everything was a challenge.
What’s next on your “crazy” idea list?
Kevin: The shredding division started in July 2007. Our accountant asked us when we were going to start a shredding business because he was having his done by a Minneapolis company that charged the heck out of him. We had never given shredding any thought. So I educated myself on the shredding business, and bought a stationary shredder and a shredding van. We thought we could pick the paper up at their business site and shred it at ours. Doing it that way lasted exactly 30 days. Everyone wanted onsite shredding. Here we had already spent $5,000 on a stationary shredder and another $15,000 on the shredding truck and suddenly they were both useless. So we searched the Internet and bought a new onsite shredding truck out East for $70,000. I flew out and drove it back.
Why wasn’t anyone else in this region doing it?
Kathy: There was no one local.
Kevin: We now have almost 200 shredding accounts including accountants and banks and attorneys—even law enforcement and 3M. Identity theft and fraud is a huge problem. If you throw out confidential information in your trash and you’re an accountant, for instance, and someone finds that information, you can be held liable. No one can take that chance. We pick up monthly, biweekly, weekly or will call. A customer storing their records in a basement for 20 years can call us to do a purge. One very large business had us purge several semi loads of records dating to the 1950s.
Let me guess: You had never done shredding before.
Kevin: We had never done shredding before, had to learn it, and learn it quickly.
Kathy: This is another example of our thinking on our feet and being able to react to developing situations. It’s what we do best. Shredding and recycling fit hand in glove. We shred, bale, and market the shredded paper—because it’s paper.
Kevin: You can recycle paper 14 times before the fibers are too short to use.
What was next?
Kevin: In mid 2009, we completed our new office building and in late 2009, we built a 9,000 sq. ft. recycling center. Before that, our River View Sanitation offices had been inside our Finstad’s Oak Haven Campground building. Our secretaries were cross-trained to park campers and answer calls for sanitation at the same time. The recycling business started January 2010 when we began the contract for the eastern half of Brown County.
Besides being local, what other advantages do you feel you have in competing against such a large national company?
Kathy: New Ulm is a free enterprise zone. A resident can hire anyone for residential or commercial garbage pickup. The national company is licensed to do business here and so are we. At first, we had to win some local people over, who doubted us and didn’t believe we could make it through the first two years.
So your truck goes down a street of ten homes, let’s say, and picks up at six, and the other company picks up at the other four homes?
Kevin: It keeps us competitive. In many cities, only one hauler has the city contract. Fewer trucks are on the streets there, but those people often pay higher rates. Competition here in New Ulm keeps everyone honest. For sanitation, we have the contract for eastern Brown County, which includes New Ulm, Searles, Essig, St. George, Lafayette, Klossner, Courtland, and Nicollet. Nicollet has a city contract through LJP, but we can do commercial there. In all, we have about 460 commercial accounts.
Kathy: With our roll-off services we go as far as Mankato and Fairmont.
Kevin: And we have a contract through another company for the New Ulm and Fairmont Walmart stores.
What else do you do?
Kevin: I was raised on a farm. My neighbor came over one afternoon in 2005 and said he wasn’t going to run his land anymore because he was retiring. I went over later and ended up renting his land and equipment the next year. It’s 63 acres—just enough to get my fingers dirty.
Any other businesses you’re involved in?
Kevin: In 2009, we helped our daughter remodel a former insurance office into her beauty salon, The Hair Boutique.
You two shoot from the hip. I’m guessing you’ve never had a business plan.
Kevin: We haven’t. We did it the wrong way, but it was the right way for us. We rarely say no to an opportunity. We don’t like hearing people saying we can’t do something.
Because you like proving them wrong?
Kathy: It’s not so much that, it’s the challenge. It steps up our desire to a new level when people doubt us.
Kevin: And we’ve always made decisions that way.
Why host a one-day spay and neuter clinic for free at your campground?
Kathy: We like animals and someone has to help them. Kevin’s cousin runs a nonprofit shelter for abused animals. A vet came down here and spayed and neutered 32 cats and 7 dogs in one day. We also let the Disabled American Veterans and Comrades of Valor use our campground facility for free.
The New Ulm Chamber Green Initiative is trying to encourage and educate businesses to adopt more environmentally sound practices. Kevin, you were a panel member on its public forum in May. Kathy, you’re a Putting Green board member. Besides this, how have you two helped people locally become more environmentally aware?
Kathy: We feel we can make a difference. Kevin is the public speaker, not me. He goes to public meetings and talks about the importance of being green and gives statistics about recycling and how long it takes for landfill items to degrade. He brings Boy Scout groups to our recycling facility. We understand change won’t happen overnight. Every day, our trucks go to the landfill and when you see for yourself what people leave in their garbage, it makes you all that more determined to stop the waste.
Kevin: I give tours of our single-sort facility to all the fifth graders. If we teach the kids, they will teach their parents not to throw recyclables into the garbage. If I were younger, and could start another venture, it would be one that sorts the recyclables out of garbage. I bet up to 40 percent of the contents of our garbage trucks could be recycled.
You have been president of Professional Referral Organization in New Ulm. What does your group do?
Kevin: I joined four years ago and was president one year. It’s made up of local businesspeople. We have a $55 annual membership fee, meet Wednesdays for an hour, and each member has 60 seconds to promote his or her business. Each member also becomes my “salesman” out in the community throughout the week, and I’m theirs. We have 24 members, from electricians and bankers to chiropractors. You build friendships in the group and it’s easier doing business with friends. I’ve missed a couple weeks now, and it’s almost like missing dinner with your own family.
I was going to ask you about the future of your company, but something tells me you don’t know. My guess is, when another opportunity arises, you’ll take it.
Kathy: That’s pretty accurate.
Kevin: If another door opens, we’ll go there.
Books For Africa
In 2011, River View Sanitation co-owner Kevin Finstad received a telephone call from District 88 (New Ulm Public Schools) Facility Director Scott Hogan asking what to do with several tons of old and discarded Jefferson Elementary books. The books couldn’t be recycled because of having hard covers. Searching online, Finstad found a home for them with Books for Africa, a Minnesota-grown nonprofit, which collects, ships, and distributes books to help Africans in 45 countries gain literacy skills.
Getting to know you: Kevin & Kathy Finstad
Education: Kathy, Minneapolis Roosevelt High, ’74, and St. Cloud Hospital School of Nursing (became a registered nurse), ‘77; and Kevin, New Ulm High, ’76.
Organizational involvement: Kathy (Minnesota Nurses Association); Kevin (Professional Referral Organization and New Ulm Fire Department (33 years)); Both (Farm Bureau and New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce).
River Valley Sanitation/RVS Shredding
Address: 16188 County Rd 29
New Ulm, MN 56073