BUSINESS MANAGEMENT: The 360 Degrees of Bruce Leven

Bruce Leven began his career by providing the Seattle-area with expert, reliable waste management services. Today, he continues to provide these services and do what he has done best for 40 years - make a career of selling to and buying from Waste Management.

During the 1960s, Leven bought a garbage truck and signed up customers. By 1968, his Bayside Disposal Company Inc., had grown into a successful solid waste hauler. Using some of his profits, Leven started another company, GK Industrial Refuse, which sold compactors, trucks, bodies and other waste industry equipment.

Throughout the 1980s, Bayside continued to add customers in the Seattle area. In Washington state, the Bayside fleet grew to 400 trucks and spanned 10 locations, including three landfills and five transfer stations. Leven also expanded his holdings by buying other hauling companies in the Northwest, including one in Great Falls, Mont.

In 1987, Waste Management Inc., then headquartered in Oak Brook, Ill., came calling and waving a check. Leven sold the operation in Great Falls as a first step. A few months later, he sold the rest of Bayside. While Leven won't disclose the actual amount, he says that Waste Management paid substantially more than Bayside's $60 million revenue stream.

But money isn't everything, and Leven missed the action. "After I came out from under the ether of having sold the company for a good sum, I realized I had made the biggest mistake of my life," Leven says. "I wanted to get back into the business."

However, the non-compete clause in Leven's sales agreement prevented him from starting another hauling company or buying one in the area. With a little creative thinking, Leven thought of a solution. Waste Management had expressed interest in buying several companies adjacent to the area serviced by Bayside. Those owners, however, would not consider selling to Waste Management. In addition, Leven knew that the Department of Justice probably would prohibit Waste Management from making further purchases in the region because of antitrust restrictions.

Leven took action. "I went to Waste Management and told them that while they couldn't buy these companies right now, I could," he says. "And if I did buy them, Waste Management could rest assured that I would certainly talk to them if I ever considered selling."

Waste Management executives liked the idea and agreed to modify Leven's non-compete agreement and allow him to purchase four hauling companies in the Seattle area. Upon acquiring the new companies in 1989, Leven built a solid regional business serving 60,000 customers, both residential and commercial, and generating approximately $40 million in annual revenues.

In 1997, USA Waste, Houston, began negotiations to purchase a large Seattle hauler, a $165 million company whose owner had decided to sell. During their stay in Seattle, USA Waste executives investigated potential acquisitions that would complement the purchase of the larger company. Leven's name appeared on the list, and he was interested in making a deal - if USA Waste would meet his terms.

"I was getting tired of doing business in Seattle. The political atmosphere had grown difficult, and I thought it might be interesting to do business in another area of the country, a more rural area," Leven says.

With that in mind, he spoke to USA Waste. Leven's terms included a satisfactory price plus a business in another geographic area. But because they couldn't offer an agreement that interested Leven, the deal fell through.

But Leven's wheeling and dealing paid off. Within two months, USA Waste purchased Waste Management. Executives of the new Waste Management called Leven and offered to meet his price and his demand for another company in a rural area. They offered him Waste Management of Great Falls in Great Falls, Mont. - the very same hauling company that Leven sold to Waste Management in 1987.

"The people managing [the Great Falls] company were the same people I had trained when I owned it," he says. "Because it was earning profits and operating in such an isolated location, Waste Management had for the most part left them alone."

Leven and Waste Management struck a deal. He bought the Great Falls company, and they gave him a check for the four Seattle companies.

Leven also signed a non-compete agreement with Waste Management covering the Seattle area. At the same time, Waste Management agreed not to compete with Leven in the Great Falls area. That allowed Leven to acquire his own operations around Great Falls. His new business has 40 trucks, several municipal contracts and a well-turned-out landfill with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a Waste Management operation.

And, for a smart entrepreneur like Bruce Leven, what goes around can come around - to great advantage.