WasteExpo 2015
Houston Executive Juggles Solid Waste, Chief Operating Officer Roles

Houston Executive Juggles Solid Waste, Chief Operating Officer Roles

In his adopted home state, Harry J. Hayes is proving the motto that everything really is bigger in Texas.

Hayes, 50, successfully juggles two demanding, high-profile positions with the city of Houston. He’s the chief operating officer and solid waste director for the fourth largest city in the U.S.

As chief operating officer, Hayes is responsible for six departments, including police, fire, public works, municipal courts, fleet management and solid waste, which account for about 15,000 of the city’s 22,000 employees and more than two-thirds of the city’s budget.

As solid waste director, he oversees a $65.5 million budget and is responsible for services to about 423,000 households, of which more than 375,000 are directly served by his department. The city just completed rolling out curbside recycling and now all the households have two 96-gallon carts–a black cart for garbage and a green cart for recycling.

“Truly I get to see government up at its closest and most bare knuckled,” says Hayes, a down-to-earth Southern gentleman who grew up in the piney woods of the “middle-of-nowhere” Arkansas. “I will admit it is a challenge. But I can’t tell you what a great team we have here.”

Hayes, who was tapped for the chief operator position 14 months ago after impressing the mayor with his leadership and operational successes in the solid waste department, will speak at WasteExpo next month on his city’s integrated approach to recycling.

Waste360 was able to steal some time with this busy city executive to get a sneak peek of what he’ll cover in his presentation and a little more about the father of three.

Waste360: Houston is a unique solid waste department. Can you give us an overview?

Harry Hayes: We have 640 square miles of territory that we have to cover. We provide service every day to about 100,000 units, and as far as size, we are the fourth largest collection system in the nation but we are the largest in the southern United States. And we don’t have a fee. That is one of the most remarkable things that we do. We operate without a user fee. We are a generally funded department which means we come out of property taxes. So we have a lot of pressure to be extremely competitive so that our cost structure is not burdensome to the taxpayers. Since I have been director, and this is my eighth year, we have operated 5 percent below the consumer price index. We find ways to be economical.

Waste360: How have you been able to do that?

Harry Hayes: We really think about what we are doing as part of the entire solid waste market in our area. We try to build relationships with all of the waste companies in our area. We are doing something with just about all of them. Because of the way we deal with our private sector businesses–not as adversaries but as partners–I think that has made it a lot easier.

Case in point: we re-negotiated our waste disposal contract back in 2009, and the anticipated savings from that alone is over $300 million. We were spending about $24 million a year, and the first year that we re-negotiated the contract our waste disposal was $11.4 million–that was a more than 50-percent reduction and the company still made a profit.

Waste360: Can you give an example of how you leverage and maximize partnerships between public and private entities, particularly on the recycling front?

Harry Hayes: We have a number of partnerships for various slices of the waste stream. Take our partnership with Cherry Companies. We are actually paid now for any concrete that we are able to provide to them. The partnership allows the Cherry Companies to use our neighborhood recycling centers, or self service centers, and place boxes there to collect broken concrete that used to end up in the waste stream. They pay us $2 a pound for the material and all we have to do is call them and tell them that the box is full.

It’s a win for us to get the material out of the waste stream. It’s a win for us that we don’t have to pay for the disposal or extra personnel to manage the material. It’s a win for these recycling companies to have increased volumes of material that are simply generated from our customer base.

Waste360: You led the cleanup effort after Houston was hit by Hurricane Ike, one of the largest storms to ever strike the U.S. coast. That must have been a gargantuan task.

Harry Hayes: We had a debris field of nearly 6 million cubic yards covering 640 square miles and 21 days into that project we had collected about 75 percent of the material. That’s a testament to the depth of the bench that we have here, we completed the entire project with zero injuries. 

We had 12 debris sites. Oh my goodness, I can still remember when it finally hit me what we had done. I had driven around the city to two or three of the site and I went to the largest site which was University Place–it was 125 acres–and it was completely covered with windrows of debris that were 25 feet tall. A chill just went over my body and I’m like,“Oh my God what have we done.”

Every stick of debris that we collected was recycled as mandated by the mayor. Some of it went as far away as Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. The paper mills were choked. It was used as boiler fuel and erosion control. Even artists came out to harvest logs for art. It took us a year to get rid of all of it.

Waste360: You have a background in human resource management, logistics and a degree in French, how did you end up in the waste industry?

Harry Hayes: That makes everyone laugh. They want to know what a francophone (French speaking person) is doing working in garbage. The answer to that is a philosophical one. My favorite period of study was the Age of Enlightenment with all of the great philosophers. They were concerned with how to make things better for men and how to get out from under omnipotent kings and princes. For me it’s a philosophical process about how do we change the dynamic that we have gotten accustomed to in the waste industry of “Let’s put it all in the landfill.” It’s a stretch but it’s how my mind works. I am a very spatial thinker.

Waste360: Do you enjoy speaking at industry conferences and conventions?

Harry Hayes: It’s part of the job. For my partners around the country it’s beneficial for them to know what we have gone through and the learning that we can provide. We call up different municipalities from time to time to find out how they handled different situations. It’s an obligation I believe to share with your peers what you have been successful with or where you have had a failure so they don’t go down that same path.

Waste360: Tell us what you do in your free time. Well, that is if you have any.

Harry Hayes: I’m an assistant scout master. I used to play golf a lot but now it’s more like once a month. And I’m still experimenting with my backyard garden. We share gardening tips in the office. My bananas didn’t take this year but I’ve done some lemons, I’m growing potatoes and mangoes and my wife is growing Asian bitter melons. This weekend I picked up some La Bahia pecans and I’m going to see if I can grow a pecan tree (the state tree of Texas).

Hayes will present his talk from 10:15 -11:45 a.m. Wednesday, June 3, as part of the session, "A Municipalities Integrated Approach to Recycling."


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