Writing about the creation and growth of Waste Management, author Bill Plunkett conducted numerous interviews with the key players and put together a great story that includes anecdotes, lessons learned, and observations on how the industry has transformed over the years. Bill discussed his experience with putting the book together and what inspired him during the process.

I was enjoying retirement in 2020 when Dean Buntrock, a Waste Management co-founder, asked me to write a book telling the story of the company’s founding and growth in advance of celebrating the 50th anniversary in 2021 of Waste Management becoming a publicly traded company. While COVID delayed work on the book, once I got started, I had a lot of latitude to talk to anybody I wanted and the freedom to write it the way I wanted to. I had never before written a book and I relied on my experience and years in journalism to pull it together. Everyone was very helpful. What I most enjoyed about writing this book was learning where people came from, what their education and career backgrounds were, how they came to join the company, and what they achieved. Almost all of them were young and inexperienced. They didn’t know what they could accomplish or later would achieve.

Who were the key players? What were their roles? It is really quite a story. The book is about the remarkable people who led the development of not just the company, but also the industry. Key among were Dean Buntrock, Wayne Huizenga, and Lawrence Beck—the three founders of Waste Management. Three others played key senior roles. They included Phil Rooney, a decorated Marine officer who served in Vietnam who led the company’s operations for many years, and Don Flynn, who was the architect of the company’s financial structure. They also recruited Harold Gershowitz from the National Solid Waste Management Association, now the National Waste & Recycling Association, who would lead the company’s external affairs and serve as its chief spokesperson. They were all incredibly talented people who saw an opportunity for growth through industry consolidation.

My research turned up an interesting story—that Waste Management almost wasn’t formed. Browning-Ferris, Inc. (BFI), the first waste company to go public, was on a tear acquiring other companies. Its leaders approached Waste Management in 1970 about bringing them into BFI and joining the fast-growing company. The merger was all set to close—in fact, they were at the lawyers’ offices to do so—but Wayne Huizenga said, ‘I can’t do it’, so they backed away from the offer. And several months after that, they went public on their own.

Dean Buntrock’s story is an interesting one. He was from a farming community in South Dakota. His family owned a farm equipment store and farm. He went to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where he met his wife, B.J. Huizenga, and they moved to Colorado, where Dean was in the insurance business. When Buntrock’s father-in-law, who operated a hauling company on Chicago’s west side, passed away, he was enlisted to run the company. The company grew to be Ace Disposal. After a dozen or so years of growing Ace, he partnered with Wayne Huizenga, his wife’s cousin. Originally from Chicago, Huizenga had moved to South Florida after serving in the Army reserves, and started a company that was growing rapidly, called Southern Sanitation. The third founder, Lawrence Beck, had an interest in a hauling company and landfill on Chicago’s south side. The three combined their assets to form Waste Management. They incorporated the name in 1968, and in June 1971 conducted their first offering to become a publicly traded company. In the 1970s and 1980s, they enjoyed amazing growth. They had acquired hundreds of companies from coast to coast, using their stock as currency to attract local operators. The company’s acquisitive nature never changed.

How did the founders/owners contribute to nurturing employees, talent, growing the company, and building an effective team? The founders had a gift for recognizing and nurturing talent. The early employees and managers were a group of very young and untested people. They were smart, had energy, and they were given a lot of responsibility to grow the company, and they did. The company’s people were aligned and benefited from generous grants of stock options. As the company grew, so did their wealth. An example of employee opportunity derived from operations that occurred in the mid-1970s when the company’s expansion had slowed due to a recession. Buntrock found an opportunity to implement an international city cleaning contract in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was going to generate $50 million in revenue for the company, which, at the time, because of the economic environment in the U.S., was sorely needed. The Saudi team included a core of young men who had never done anything like that, but they succeeded in mobilizing an entire city’s sanitation department. They had to scale the size of the contract, ship all the equipment over from the U.S., build facilities, and assemble a force of several thousand workers from India. Once they had succeeded there, a similar opportunity developed in Buenos Aires, and they then replicated the model there with another contract in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was these young, untested people who developed the skills, camaraderie, and management expertise to get the job done and then transferred these experiences back to the company’s American operations.

There are other noteworthy people in the book. One is Jane Witheridge, who was among a group of the first engineers hired. Witheridge would later become one of the top landfill managers in the company and later lead its corporate recycling efforts. Another is Jody Bernstein, who joined the company after a controversial time that involved hazardous waste compliance matters. Bernstein was from Galesburg, IL and a University of Wisconsin and Yale Law School graduate and was a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm. She had earlier been general counsel of the EPA. She joined the company as general counsel of its hazardous waste subsidiary and later led its ethics program before returning in the mid 1990s to Washington to become director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission.

How did the company navigate changing regulations over the years? In the 1960s, Buntrock recognized that regulations were changing and there was a sense in the country that the environment was much more important than it had been. There were concerns about clean air and clean water, and the waste industry was in the middle of all that. Waste Management’s leaders knew it would take financial resources to build the company so they could respond to what was happening. When they followed Browning-Ferris to become a public company in 1971, they finally were able to assemble the resources needed to respond to the environmental regulations that they knew were coming. Buntrock, in particular, also understood from his early days managing the family business that you needed to have a voice with governmental agencies, so he was involved with local trade associations in Illinois, and he applied that experience when traveling to Washington, D.C.

Waste Management knew that they had to be positioned to respond to coming regulations. As they were preparing to go public, the EPA had just been established. The agency would also have responsibility for solid waste and the regulations that followed. This included the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and RCRA in 1976. All of these had influences on the company’s operations. For example, RCRA required improved standards for management of landfills. At the same time, Buntrock with Harold Gershowitz’s help expanded the company’s government relations efforts and established a Washington office. Two people were key in that move—Frank Moore, who had been a top aide to Jimmy Carter in the White House, was brought on. He strengthened the Washington office and established a network of state government relations offices. The second was Jim Range, who had been a top assistant to Howard Baker when he was in the Senate and had played an influential role in establishing the Clean Water Act. In addition to the government and legislative affairs, Moore and Range developed the regulatory affairs arm in the government affairs offices, which was responsible for dealing with the EPA and other agencies.

What do you believe was the most pivotal time that made Waste Management become a force in the industry? The founders aspired to be leaders, to play a role in shaping legislation and regulation and adopting technology that would drive its operations and the industry. As a company, Waste Management possessed a culture with a highly spirited environment of growth and excitement. Rather than a single pivotal time, there was an attitude among its leaders and managers from the beginning that they could achieve whatever they set out to accomplish. It influenced all facets of its business. The leaders would set goals and achieve them. It was an attitude that came from Buntrock, Huizenga, Beck, Rooney, and Flynn. They brought that attitude to the industry.

The company was growing quickly in the 1970s and 1980s. It was acquiring a series of assets, including hauling companies, landfills and hazardous waste businesses. But it was the number two company in the industry until 1984, when it merged with SCA Services. At that point, it passed Browing-Ferris in size and became the largest public waste services company. As the company achieved greater size, its influence followed.

How do you think Waste Management continues to use everything that they have learned over its history to make the operation more effective? What can others learn? My impression is that the company has a skilled management team that focuses on continuous improvement. The foundation was established, and the company’s leaders continue to grow and build on the value of the company’s original assets. They have done a masterful job of growing the company and of being predictable. Today, there appears to be a strong focus on management systems and using technology to be more efficient and productive. They are exploiting technology to focus on service and customers, analyzing their customers’ needs and responding to them, as well as supporting employees. As with the origins of Waste Management, the company has made commitments to environmental protection and sustainability, especially in reducing their carbon footprint. The latter were all principles espoused by the founders.

My book may be of value to others who are building a business. The Waste Managers is about the people who founded and grew Waste Management, and the talented managers they acquired along the way. It is a guide to how to develop a business and an industry. Readers will find that it provides a great model for corporate success. | WA

The Waste Managers: The Team that Build Waste Management, Inc.

What started as a modest waste collection and disposal company in Chicago transformed into North America’s leading provider of waste collection, recycling, and disposal services. The Waste Managers recounts the creation and transformation of Waste Management, Inc., highlighting the stories of the young and untested talent pool who helped grow the company into what it is today.

The Waste Managers includes interviews with company leaders, first-person accounts of acquisition experiences, international adventures, and perseverance in the face of challenges. It is the story of the people who made the company the industry leader and one of North America’s most important companies.
—From book jacket. Published by Republic Book Publishers and available through Amazon.

For more information, e-mail Bill Plunkett at [email protected].