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Waste Management’s Johnson was Born to Be a Leader in the Waste Industry

Aaron Johnson, a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, discusses how the industry is in his blood, what affect that had on his career path and what he sees for the future of waste and recycling.

Following the path of his great-grandfather, Waste Management Area Vice President for Eastern Canada Aaron Johnson was born to be a leader in the waste industry.

“This is where Aaron truly stands out from most others in the industry,” says Jeff Harris, retired senior vice president of operations at Houston-based Waste Management (WM). “Aaron has quite a story that begins when he was just a child.”

Johnson’s family owned a waste company that WM eventually acquired. As a young child, he had responsibilities including managing dispatch, payroll and billing. At 18 years old, he was driving a front-end truck.

“This hands-on experience is one of the many things that makes Aaron successful in his role as area vice president today,” says Harris. “When he talks to drivers, he’s walked in their shoes, so he is relatable.”

In his current role, Johnson spends his day working on market development strategies and tackling issues like driver and technician shortage and recycling contamination.

“Aaron’s vision, strong work ethic, coaching and mentoring capabilities have enabled him to excel at Waste Management and within the waste and recycling industry,” says Steve Batchelor, senior vice president of operations at WM. “He relates to all individuals within our organization and connects with people instantly. Aaron has knocked down barriers to become the youngest area vice president in the history of WM.”

Recently, Waste360 sat down with Johnson, a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, to discuss how the industry is in his blood, what affect that had on his career path and what he sees for the future of waste and recycling.

Waste360: How long have you been working in the waste and recycling industry?

Aaron Johnson: I am a fourth-generation garbage man, so I was born into this business. My great-grandfather started a company in 1958, in Northwest Indiana. My father sold the family business to WM in 2003, just a few months after I graduated from Purdue University. I have now been with WM for almost 16 years.

Waste360: Describe your career path in the industry.

Aaron Johnson: Like so many other stories, I started on the frontlines. I was a helper in the shop, greasing rear-load trucks and changing tires. Eventually, I was a helper on a route, then I became a driver. I had a short stint in sales until WM bought our family business. I became a district manager at 22 years old, initially in Indiana, but then curiosity led me to the Bay Area of California.

I moved back to Chicago and was a district manager for three sites in the Chicagoland area. After that, I was offered the position of director of operations for Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. After a few successful years, I joined the corporate team and was the corporate director of operations for the Northern Tier (Northern U.S. and Canada). I have now been the area vice president for Eastern Canada for just over two years. A desire to learn and the ability to be mobile have led me on a wonderful journey that I am so grateful for.

Waste360: What is a typical day in your current role?

Aaron Johnson: A typical day is like no other previous day. It's constantly changing. I spend a lot of time talking about people or with people. I spend an equal amount of time on market development strategies and continuous improvement conversations. I think my team would say I spend a lot of time asking questions and trying to learn.

Waste360: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Aaron Johnson: My biggest accomplishment in life is being married to my wife, Megan, for 13 years and creating a loving home for our two children, Theodore and Louise. Professionally, I am most proud of the relationships and networks I have maintained throughout my career. My colleagues are the best and brightest in our industry, and I am proud to learn from them and continue to be inspired by them. My father often told me that you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and I feel grateful.

Waste360: What are some of the challenges the industry is facing?

Aaron Johnson: Two things immediately come to mind: driver and technician shortage and recycling contamination.

[On June 20], WM opened the second of two training centers—one located in Florida and one located in Arizona. These training centers are a leading example of the company’s continued investment in a 'safety and people first' culture. During the two-week training and development experience, drivers learn safety rules, procedures, vehicle inspections, safe lifting and DOT-required [Department of Transportation] curriculum that provide scenarios reflective of day-to-day operations. Trainees spend their first week in the classroom learning and by week two transition to simulated driving courses. Technicians learn the basics of hydraulics, electrical, preventative maintenance practices and safety procedures through two weeks of integrated classroom and hands-on learning at workstations.

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WM training centers aim to standardize training, translating to better employee performance and a longer career with WM.

Another challenge our industry faces is recycling contamination. The recycling industry continues to experience depressed market pricing with increased focus on improving the quality of materials.

WM remains committed to supporting and growing the recycling industry. We are proud to share the investments we’ve made, and will continue to make, because recycling is one of our core business values.

Waste360: If you could immediately change anything about the industry, what would it be?

Aaron Johnson: If I could immediately change anything about the industry it would be to continue efforts to modernize our industry.

WM has a long track record as a driver of technological change in our industry by challenging the status quo and asking how we can work smarter for our customers and the environment in everything we do. We’ve made this pursuit of innovation part of our DNA with future-focused strategies and investments that deliver the sustainable, science-driven solutions our communities need to thrive in a changing world.

There is great opportunity for our industry to embrace technology and utilize it to improve our customer experiences, operations and data intelligence. As an example, WM currently has onboard computers in all of our routed vehicles, allowing for routing efficiencies and capturing operational data. We utilize this data from our trucks to develop algorithms that predict when parts will break, so we can proactively replace parts and avert service disruptions as well as analyze customer interactions to enable predictive customer solutions.

Waste360: What excites you the most about the future of waste and recycling?

Aaron Johnson: I am most excited about the advancements in technology. Our industry has done a great job of investing in employee safety. Things like automated collection and better sorting equipment ensure our employees go home safe at night.

Another important advancement has been in taking waste products and turning them into valuable resources. I am amazed at new technologies that generate things like renewable natural gas, electricity and an evolving commodities market. At the end of the day though, we need to ensure that these technologies are economical and also sustainable. I think society will continue to add pressure to find better outlets for waste materials. At WM, we encourage these conversations!

Waste360: What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working?

Aaron Johnson: When I am not working, I love to spend time near the water with my family. I love to fish and water ski. My family is currently building a cottage on a lake in Indiana, and I can’t wait to make new memories there. In the winter, we enjoy vacationing at our family home in the Florida Keys. Our kids are 5 and 8, so they keep us busy and create a lot of laughter. 

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