All Commentary
Friday, November 1, 1991

Whats Your Problem?

Mr. Tilton is a full-time, free-lance magazine writer living in Hereford, Arizona. He is coauthor of a novel, Night Pilot (Deseret Books, 1991).

In a market economy, when individuals look within themselves rather than to the state to solve their problems, those problems become opportunities for success. After all, problems aren’t solved by laws or by organizations, but by individuals.

With more than 1,300 acres of campus property, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, generates mountains of grass clippings, tree trimmings, and the waste associated with the daily campus living of 27,000 students. Their landfill expenses kept climbing.

Waste is a particular problem in the western states because so much of the land is owned by the federal government. Less private land is available for landfills, so fees tend to be high. Many industries, caught between the demands of economics and environmentalists, expect government solutions. Rather than turn to the state for help, BYU, one of the largest private universities in the nation, initiated its own recycling program.

University officers gave Roy Peterman, BYU’s grounds manager, responsibility for solving the university’s waste-disposal headache. In 1990, in addition to keeping the campus in its usual visitor-impressing condition, Peterman’s crew of 43 full-time workers and 260 student employees turned green waste into 10,000 cubic yards of compost. They also sold 12 tons of aluminum cans, 120 tons of cardboard, 150 tons of newsprint, and 200 tons of other recyclable materials.

Says Peterman, “We recycled 30 percent of our total waste. Our goal is 50 percent.” Not only hastheir private enterprise recycling program generated outside money for the university, but it’s cut landfill fees $30,000 per year.

Since BYU was one of the largest users of the local landfill, this program means that the landfill will last longer than expected. Market incentives (cost reduction and extra income) helped ease a problem that concerned everyone in the region, without hiring a single extra bureaucrat to oversee the situation.

The First Yogurt Sandwich

As Americans became more health conscious, the ice cream industry responded to changing customer preferences and began producing frozen yogurt. The Elgin Company developed a soft-freeze yogurt maker, much like its highly successful line of soft-freeze ice cream machines.

Unlike ice cream, however, yogurt cannot be kept overnight in the machine. Bacterial growth is one reason, and the many city, state, and Federal health regulations constitute another. Nor do customers like yogurt that has been saved in the store’s main freezer and re-run the next day through the frozen yogurt maker.

Supermarketers could either throw away the yogurt left over at closing, or quit making yogurt when the machine emptied late in the day. They couldn’t afford waste; neither could they fail to have the expected product available. That’s a fast way to lose customers to the competition.

Keith Neibdring of the Food Marketing Corporation of Fort Wayne, Indiana, found a lucrative solution. From his bakery counter he took two cookies that were destined to be discounted because they were “day old.” He layered two ounces of yogurt on one cookie, pressed the other on top, and voilà! the world’s first yogurt sandwich.

The stores in his chain began making yogurt sandwiches with the leftover yogurt and the day-old cookies. They also started featuring different flavors, increasing customer selection—and satisfaction—considerably.

With the help of Jim Newlin, Elgin’s sales director, the inventor took the solution one step further. He started filling pie crust shells with seven ounces of yogurt, adding a piece of appropriate fruit or decoration on top, and selling yogurt pies.

Says Newlin, “Basically, Keith took 93 cents worth of ingredients and turned them into a $6.95 product.”

The One Book Bookstore

Walter Swan is a retired plasterer in southeast Arizona. Although health finally forced him to retire from a young man’s trade, he wanted to remain active. He fulfilled a lifetime dream when he wrote his autobiography. Since no commercial press would handle his book, Swan decided to publish it himself.

Serf-publishing led to another problem: marketing. There was no one to promote his book, and bookstores wanted 40 percent off the top to sell it. “I had to succeed,” he said. “I borrowed on my house to get my book printed.”

Swan found an empty department store building in nearby historic Bisbee, Arizona, and stocked it with his book. Dressed in cowboy hat, red neckerchief, and overalls; he sat in the window and waved to the tourists. His “One Book Bookstore” caught the tourists’ fancy, and he was off and running. His business helped the landlord rent out the rest of the building to other entrepreneurs who took advantage of the traffic the One Book Bookstore generates.

Television soon discovered this storyteller, and he’s been a guest on several national late-night programs. Every appearance generated hundreds of requests for his $19.95 book. Some days walk-in traffic and mail orders total more than 700 copies of the book no one wanted to publish. (A national publisher recently offered him a $20,000 contract, but he turned it down flat.) Swan’s got a second book out, and he’s opened another bookstore. He calls it “The Other Bookstore.”

The common thread through these examples is that accepting personal responsibility for problem-solving leads to success, whether your problem is garbage, leftover yogurt, or even a book no one else wants to publish. The solution to each problem took work, time, and imagination. But those three things are available to anyone who understands that the real answer to almost any problem is in the marketplace.