Entrepreneur At Heart

June 25, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Dan Tietema began asking the questions that would eventually lead him to launch Omni Medical Waste Inc. while accompanying his wife to the frequent doctor appointments during a difficult pregnancy.

“I kept looking at those darn needles and thinking, ‘Who is taking care of those needles?’” explained Tietema, Omni Medical Waste president and a recent mayoral candidate.

As it turns out, the local medical waste market was controlled by a handful of national firms, primarily Illinois-based Stericycle Inc. From conversations with area physicians, he soon discovered that there was little price competition and even less competition on service. Those medical offices that weren’t on long-term contracts had rarely even considered an alternative, and from local providers, there wasn’t one.

Even today, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recognizes only 13 medical waste disposal services in the Lower Peninsula, the majority of which operate as mail services.

Then vice president of regional fundraising for the American Heart Association in West Michigan, Tietema was intimately familiar with the growth of the region’s health care system. In medical waste, he believed he found an opportunity to apply to that market the same commitment to service and price flexibility that he learned in his first entrepreneurial experience: Cascades Bottled Water Co.

In 1995, Tietema was 25 years old and had recently joined the ranks of the unemployed. He wrote a business plan to provide three- and five-gallon water bottles for office water coolers, only to have what seemed like every banker in Grand Rapids pass on the venture. He finally received start-up financing after nearly a dozen rejections, and successfully ran the company until its sale in 1999.

The business plan for the medical waste disposal service was similar in its core function to the bottled water business. Instead of replacing empty water bottles with full ones, he was replacing sealed boxes of medical waste with empty ones. Unlike the bottled water business, the disposal of the medical waste had to be carefully documented to comply with state regulations.

Currently, his firm contracts with a separate provider to process the waste. Tietema has hopes to launch his own steam sterilization and incinerator facility in the near future.

Compared to the bottled water launch, Omni Medical Waste Inc. was a relatively easy model to get off the ground. Now an established entrepreneur, Tietema had proven he was capable of running a business, and investors didn’t need much convincing that there were opportunities in the health care market.

Earning acceptance from potential customers, however, was easier said than done.

“There weren’t that many other choices; most health care facilities just went day-to-day without even looking at alternatives,” he said. “When I would call, they had no idea this was something they should be looking at.”

Tietema refers to the company’s first two years as his “internship period.” He learned the market, made contacts and relationships, and found his niche. Omni focuses on small to midsize producers of medical waste, including schools, medical clinics not affiliated with hospitals, municipalities and private practices.

Any institution that produces medical waste — syringes, lab specimens, contaminated animal carcasses, pharmaceuticals, blood or other chemotherapeutic or pathological waste — by law must have a documented process to remove waste on at least a quarterly basis. Tietema found that small producers of waste such as schools and municipalities were particularly interested in lower-cost alternatives. As Omni became more established, it attracted the ear of larger groups and more private practices.

“My approach is to go after smaller companies that haven’t seen the service level they deserve,” Tietema said. “They start looking at their invoices and realize that maybe they can find some savings. And I think businesses just like doing business with a local company.”

Now approaching its fifth year, Omni is finding potential customers more welcoming of an alternate provider.

“Once you’re able to convince them that there is an alternative, you need to convince them that if they are going to make that commitment, that there are safeguards in place,” Tietema said.

“If it goes wrong, they could be looking at fines and a major PR problem. Our job is to keep them out of the news.”

Although he launched the company as a local alternative, Omni’s footprint has grown to include the entire Lower Peninsula. It is now settling into new, likely temporary, headquarters at

1560 Taylor Ave. NE
in Grand Rapids, and looking forward to a potential expansion into Indiana and Ohio. Tietema has hopes to build a new, permanent facility with onsite processing.

The success of the business has forced Tietema to put his political career on hold. A graduate of Grand RapidsCatholicCentralHigh School, what is today Grand RapidsCommunity College, and AquinasCollege, Tietema has lived in the same southeast side home for all but six months of his 37 years, purchasing his parents’ home upon their retirement to northern Michigan. In recent years, he became frustrated with his neighborhood’s representation in city government, prompting him to an unsuccessful campaign for city commission in 2005.

“I wanted to bring a stronger voice to the southeast side,” he said. “I thought the 3rd Ward had been silent, and I think that the message I ran on influenced our commissioners to become more vocal. In defeat, I think I served a purpose.”

Earlier this year, Tietema entered himself as a candidate for mayor because of similar frustrations.

“Looking at all three wards, I became concerned about where I thought the city was headed,” he said. “It seems the city has become one-sided, and I wanted to expose that our non-partisan leaders had become very partisan. The conservative voice is not being heard.”

Tietema withdrew his name from the race in March.     

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