In his new role as Total Reclaim’s chief executive officer (CEO), 20-year industry veteran Bobby Farris hopes to restore trust to the company that has been plagued by its owners’ illegal business practices.
Total Reclaim, a Pacific Northwest recycler of regulated waste materials, in September announced Farris’ appointment as CEO. He most recently served as a general manager for TerraCycle and had previously spent 10 years managing Waste Management’s Electronics Recycling Division.
Last year, Total Reclaim owners Jeff Zirkle and Craig Lorch pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud after the company was paid millions to safely recycle electronics for the city of Seattle and other customers. However, instead of safely recycling the electronics they collected, Zirkle and Lorch secretly sent the electronics to Hong Kong for disposal.
Zirkle and Lorch reportedly sent more than 8 million pounds of flat screen monitors to Hong Kong between 2008 and 2015 to cut costs, while allegedly using false records to hide the transactions. This past April, a U.S. District judge sentenced Zirkle and Lorch each to 28 months in prison after they were found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
We recently sat down with Farris, who plans to reinstate transparency and accountability at Total Reclaim, to discuss how he plans to restore trust with the company’s employees, customers and public at large.
Waste360: Please discuss your previous role at TerraCycle and how you got your start in the waste and recycling industry.
Bobby Farris: I’ve been in the waste and recycling industry for more than 20 years. Most of my service in the industry has been spent in the electronics recycling arena. I spent 10 years with Waste Management managing their Electronics Recycling Division on a national basis and have worked with various leaders in the industry—from Universal Recycling Technologies LLC to ECS Refining, which went out of business last year due to financial problems.
My most recent role was with TerraCycle. My position there was general manager of their Regulated Waste Division, which essentially covered universal waste—lamp and battery recycling. I was brought into TerraCycle to facilitate an acquisition of a company in Chicago called Air Cycle. TerraCycle brought me in to purchase Air Cycle and then integrate that company into TerraCycle. It was really an opportunity for TerraCycle to move into a regulated waste environment, which they had never been in before as the company focuses primarily on consumer waste, consumer packaging and difficult-to-recycle items primarily from a consumer environment. They hadn’t worked in things like fluorescent lamps, batteries or e-waste to any large degree. So, I worked with them to help them identify a company that would fit their profile. I was there for two years bringing the company in, integrating it and then passing it on to the COO [chief operations officer] there.
Waste360: What led you to your new role as Total Reclaim’s CEO?
Bobby Farris: I’ve worked with Total Reclaim for over 20 years. One thing about the industry is it’s got a lot of companies in it, but the primary players in the industry are fairly small and everybody knows each other and works with each other—both as friends and competitors.
I was very familiar with Total Reclaim and the team here. The company was a vendor of mine when I was at Waste Management.
With the troubles that [Total Reclaim owners] Craig [Lorch] and Jeff [Zirkle] had, I heard they were looking to find someone to basically take over the company and relieve it. So, I made contact with Craig and talked to him and Jeff. The timing fit well, and it seemed like a great fit and opportunity.
Waste360: Total Reclaim’s owners were recently sentenced to 28 months in prison after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. As CEO, how will you help bring integrity back to the company’s regulated recycling business and restore trust with customers who expect you to responsibly recycle their electronics?
Bobby Farris: There are a lot of things that need to be done. First thing I am going to say is my job is to earn trust, and that isn’t done overnight, and it isn’t done immediately. It is done by consistently doing what you say you’re going to do. You process what you say you’re going to process; you recycle the way you say you’re going to recycle. You make yourself transparent, effective and consistent within the industry and to the customer base and the public at large. That’s really the way to manage a business.
Jeff and Craig have published a public op-ed piece detailing the issues they got into and explaining what they did, why they did it and the decision-making process. I wasn’t here at the time or involved in the decision-making process, but I will say that from everything I know, it was a decision made by them, not by the employees of the company or the company at large. It was their decision; they paid restitution or are in the process of paying restitution for those decisions.
That is something that happened three years ago. While their sentence has happened recently and their restitution is occurring at this point, the company has certainly survived those three years beyond the incident and is still flourishing, so that is a testament, in my view, to the employees here. They’ve really stepped up to the plate and have done a great job.
Jeff and Craig have both told me that they wanted to see the company restored to the place of eminence that it had and that the employees who stuck with the company over these past three years are rewarded for what they’ve been through, for the work that they’ve done, for the effort they put in and for the loyalty that they’ve shown. That’s one of the reasons why I was interested in joining this company, and it’s really my charter here—to restore the company to what it was and reward the employees for the work that they’ve done.
While they remain owners of the business, Jeff and Craig have passed all day-to-day management decisions over to me. Jeff is currently incarcerated, and Craig will be serving his sentence beginning in July 2020 in order to facilitate a smooth transition. Craig is currently serving in an advisory capacity to me but is no longer a full-time employee of the company.
Waste360: How would you describe your leadership style?
Bobby Farris: My approach is one of transparency, honesty and empathy. I really feel like you have to be open and honest in everything you do—both personally and professionally. You have to lead and manage a company in that way and manage a team in that way. And you have to show empathy for the people who work with you and give on a day-to-day basis. I think a lot of companies forget about that part of the approach. One of the things that I’ve heard consistently—not just at this company but at the companies I’ve been a part of in the past—is that people want a professional environment, but they also want to feel like they are part of the family. And you can build that family environment through trust, by having empathy, and by building connections with people. That’s how I like to lead. You don’t lead by being the boss; you lead by building a team, and that’s what I am here to do.
Waste360: What challenges come along with properly managing and disposing of e-waste, and how does Total Reclaim work through those challenges?
Bobby Farris: Total Reclaim had and still has an excellent system and process. The company is ISO certified and remains ISO certified. The company was meeting all the standards that it set from an environmental and quality perspective. The issues that occurred were related to less than 3 percent of the business. And, really, it was a set of decisions made by the owners of the company. It wasn’t a failing of the system; it was that the system wasn’t followed.
One of the things that I am really focused on here is making sure that the employees, staff and organization understand that they can hold me, hold their fellow employees and hold themselves accountable to the system we put into place. Going forward, we are putting things in place, such as a hotline to allow employees to notify an independent party if there is anything they find that is not above board. We’re putting that in place for them to communicate any issues they may have. We’re also setting up a code of conduct that all employees, managers and executives need to sign and adhere to, which will reinforce the environmental quality policies that were in place and need to be adhered to going forward.
Again, it wasn’t a failing of the system; it was really a failing of accountability within the system, and I think we can address that by putting some of these things in place.
Waste360: What measures does the company take to ensure employees are safe while responsibly recycling e-waste?
Bobby Farris: Fortunately, safety is one area where the company has a very strong track record. One of the things I learned at Waste Management was you don’t just enforce safety rules; you build a safety culture. One of the things that I’ve challenged the operations team here with is to come up with a method of building a culture rather than just putting up safety rules. We are enacting things that I think a lot of companies do, like safety committees. One of the things we will build is an awards system around that and a way for employees to be rewarded monetarily, or at least through some kind of compensation system, for meeting certain operational standards, and within those standards, we’ll include meeting safety goals.
Waste360: Data security is a major concern. What measures does the company take to ensure its customers’ data is protected?
Bobby Farris: I just returned from the E-Scrap Conference held in Orlando, Fla., last week. I can positively say that the biggest subject of discussion at that conference was about data security. Data security really is, to a large degree, the reason that companies work with companies like Total Reclaim. It’s all about security.
When I was working for Waste Management, someone asked me, “What business are you in?” My response at the time was, “Well, I’m in the recycling business.” And this executive’s response was, “No, in fact, you’re in the security business. People work with you not because they specifically want to recycle and gain value from the products they’re sending you but because they want security—either from a data perspective or environmental perspective.”
One of the problems in the electronics recycling business is that it has been turned into a commodities business; everything has been commoditized—from the front end in the stewardship programs that are in the majority of the states out there to the back end side of businesses selling circuit boards or scrap metals from the waste. It’s all built around pricing and commoditization of the market. The problem with that is the business, in my view, should really be built around providing a service for the customer, and the service is security. The entire business should be built that way, and the entire company should be compensated accordingly. Unfortunately, that’s not really how the industry has been set up or progressed over time, but I really got the feeling at the conference that there is an opportunity to change that. The fact that every piece of electronic product in this environment has some sort of data being captured creates a situation where, I think, the service of protecting and securing data is what the business will be going forward. It’s a key component of what we are going to be doing going forward.
Waste360: What are some of your top goals for the company moving forward?
Bobby Farris: The overall goal is to get the company back to where it was in terms of size. At its high point, the company had 215 employees. Right now, it has about 65. And the overall revenue is about half of what it was from its highest point.
I would like to put the company in a position of being the pre-eminent recycler of electronics, appliances and fluorescent lamps in the Pacific Northwest. That’s where the company was and where it can be again. It has the same infrastructure, the same employees and the same resources; it just needs to rebuild and re-earn trust in the customer base, in the industry and for the public at large. All those constituencies need to be able to trust that this company is going to do what it says it’s going to do.
From a smaller picture perspective, one of the things we want to do is take a look at who we are and who we want to be. The company was larger at one point, but a lot of the business was stewardship business, and I think anyone in the industry who operates in the stewardship arena would agree with the fact that it’s not a very high margin for business; it’s very commoditized, and that’s not necessarily the market we want to play in going forward.
Data security is an area of focus. Appliance recycling is an area of focus. Lamp recycling is an area of focus. With construction going on and LED bulbs being installed in a significant portion of commercial real estate in the United States, there is an opportunity to continue to collect and recycle fluorescent bulbs from buildings that are being refreshed with LEDs. Those product lines could be the lines that we grow more than the electronics recycling side of the business. That’s not to say we don’t want to do electronics recycling; it’s just that we are going to do it at an acceptable price point.
What’s happened here hasn’t been a good situation for the employees or in the market. There has been a gap created in the market in the Pacific Northwest—we have locations in Portland, Ore., two locations in Seattle and one location in Alaska. What we would like to do is put the company back in a position to be able to service the market at the level that it did before. While the customer base was uniformly happy with the services Total Reclaim was providing, the issues that occurred were related to commodities and decisions based around commodities sales. And while the decisions were egregious, the core component of the business and the services provided were always strong, continue to be strong and can be built upon again. I want to make sure that it’s clear that we are here to provide a service to the market, and we have the employees and the resources to do it. It is upon us to rebuild that trust; it’s not going to come overnight, but we’re willing to work at it and earn it, and we’re willing to do so over the long haul.