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Bruce Parker - The Exit InterviewBruce Parker - The Exit Interview

In a candid and wide-ranging Q&A, recently retired Environmental Industry Associations CEO Bruce Parker discusses his time with the association, his views on the industry and what is next for him.

July 5, 2012

26 Min Read
Bruce Parker - The Exit Interview

Shortly before the end of WasteExpo in May, Waste Age editors Steven Averett and Allan Gerlat took the opportunity to sit down with outgoing Environmental Industry Associations (EIA) CEO Bruce Parker as he prepared to conclude 16 years in that role, and more than 30 total years of service with the organization. The resulting Q&A, presented here in full, covers a range of subjects, including Parker’s observations on how the waste and recycling industry has changed during his tenure, the strengths and weaknesses of the EIA, his plans for retirement, and much more.

Links to video of this interview, divided into four parts, can be found below:

Steven Averett: What are your feelings right now as you’re looking toward riding off into the sunset as EIA CEO? What are you feeling as you wrap up your last WasteExpo?

Bruce Parker: Well, it’s like Shakespeare said: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” And it’s a combination of sweetness and sorrow. The memories that I have working here and all the pleasures that I’ve had — what I’ve done for the industry and the association — will always be a part of me.

And I’m looking forward to other challenges as I retire. The sorrow is that when you spend 31 years of your life at an occupation and you get to know an industry so well and all of a sudden one day it’s over with, it’s very difficult emotionally. Intellectually you understand that, but you still have that emotion pulling at you. I know it goes away eventually, but during the time it’s difficult.

SA: It’s almost like a marriage.

BP: That’s exactly right.

Allan Gerlat: When you were first considering joining EIA, what were your initial thoughts about becoming part of the waste industry?

BP: That’s a very good question. Gene Wingerter, who was my initial mentor — I started here in 1981 — told me that they had actually hired someone else before me. She was a woman and she worked for five days and she quit. She heard that it was mafia controlled. [laughter] Now this is going back to the ’80s when there was some realism to that, in New York City in particular.

But I was looking forward to it because I was an environmental lawyer prior to that with a large [Washington] D.C. firm and I did environmental law. So I was qualified. I knew what the regulations were. This was during RCRA [the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, passed in 1976] and the hazardous waste era. So that’s why I was the general counsel. And I was the general counsel until 1996 or 1997 when they made me the CEO.

SA: So what happened once you came in after what happened with her? Did you have any reservations?

BP: No! I loved it immediately. It was very exciting. Because, as I said, I was in there on the ground floor of it. The industry when I started was for the most part different than it is right now. I’ve talked about [how] I’ve seen three different, almost titanic, changes in it. When I started, there were like 15 or 16 publicly-traded companies and the industry was just getting some discipline to it because Subtitle D, which required all of these old, sub-standard landfills to either close down or retrofit, was beginning in 1981. So you had all of these thousands of landfills that were sub[-standard] and they couldn’t get the capital to change. So there was a lot of consolidation.

There was a lot of excitement. The larger companies were buying all of these smaller companies. It was a very, very dynamic industry at that time. It was also very generational. You still had, really, a lot of mom and pop businesses going on. There were 15 or 16 publicly traded companies. There were a lot of financial buyers because everybody knew that from a financial point of view, this was a very good industry — a lot of free cash, resilient in recession. So I really enjoyed being a part of this shaping of the industry.

SA: What are some other ways you've seen the industry change under your tenure?

BP: Well, I’ve seen that part of it, when it was taking shape. Then there was this tremendous consolidation. Let’s move up to the ’90s. Recycling took root. That’s why recycling really started taking off and was growing because you had all of this curbside recycling going on at that time. The states were really into it.

We had the Mobro [4000], where everybody thought that ship would sail around the world with garbage nobody would take. We thought there was a big landfill crisis. I saw all the waste-to-energy plants built in New Jersey and elsewhere as an alternative to landfills. And then recycling came in. So that was another major change that was made that would shape the industry. And there was some technology involved that would affect recycling.

Then, in the late ’90s, we had all of this massive consolidation. This is an industry that’s built on consolidation, but we’d never seen a small publicly traded company buy a big publicly traded company. That’s when Allied bought BFI, which at that time was the second largest company. So you saw an ant buying an elephant, so to speak. That was sort of a shock around the industry. Since then, we’ve seen that happen. We saw USA [Waste] buy Waste Management, and now we have Republic and Allied merging together.

There’s so much more discipline. This is an industry right now that has a lot more discipline. People are proud to be in the garbage industry. In the ’80s, they were still coming through that era of “Yeah, I’m a garbage man. I don’t want a lot of publicity. I just want to support the local little league.” But now that everybody realizes that this is a $60 some billion business with people running it who have college degrees, who could be successful in any other industry, it’s matured and everybody feels good about it.

AG: Talking about pride, looking at your tenure as head of EIA, what are you most proud about as far as what you’ve been able to accomplish in the association?

BP: That’s a very good question. When I took over this association, there was a deficit of close to a million dollars. There was no morale in the staff. There was no public eye on the industry at the time. And we did a strategic plan with four or five actions.

One of them was to basically increase our visibility nationally with the media. Another was to build a good, strong staff morale. If I remember correctly, another was to maintain our financial stability. Develop a code of ethics. And I did all of those. I did all of those and I feel very good about that; particularly about the staff. Our rate of turnover doesn’t exist. I’ve been there for 31 years. Ed Repa’s been there for 26 years. Chaz Miller’s been there for 20 years. David Biderman — it’s amazing.

We have a great staff. We’re not a hierarchy. The organization is flat, which means everybody’s door is open. And I am a delegator. I don’t micromanage. If people get their job done, I’ve insisted that, if they have children playing sports, for example, I don’t want them in the office. I get upset if they don’t see their children play. Because it’s very time-consuming, and there’s life after work.

So I’ve built a really good culture and I’ve related to the industry very well. I know I’m a little bit eccentric. My personality is not your typical button-down CEO. But I think the biggest thing I bring to it is I really love people. And when I look at someone, I really look them in the eye and I want to know about their children and where they live. And I think they open up to me. And that’s the rapport that we have. That’s what I love about this industry. It’s fabulous.

SA: Looking at the other side of the coin, what were some things, historically, that maybe didn’t go your way or that you were disappointed about over that period?

BP: That’s a good question too. Membership has been difficult. Being an association person for the last 30 years or more, membership is very difficult. You have to have the value proposition. You just can’t bring people in without giving them value.

So there were times when we said let’s basically broaden our base. Let’s be horizontal. In fact, that’s why we changed the name back in 1993 to the Environmental Industry Associations, which I think was a terrible mistake because it’s very confusing for people. But the idea was to bring in generators and everybody else. But what some boards don’t understand is that every fraction of any industry has its own sub-associations to take care of that space. So it’s very difficult to bring a lot of members in.

Secondly, and I can talk to you guys [about this]: You know, it’s like I woke up one day and I found out that I had five different magazines next to my bed this high that I never get a chance to read. I’m saying, “Why am I paying for this? Why am I paying all this money for it? What am I doing?” That’s what a lot of people say. We call them the “mailbox members” of any organization. There’s 20 percent of every organization, no matter what it is, that’s the leadership, that’s the doers. The others just get the stuff you send out. And one day they wake up, the economy’s bad, and [they say] “I’m going to drop out. I’m not getting the value.” You only get value if you participate.

So that’s one thing: membership. We could be bigger. We only have, I think in NSWMA, close to 400. I think we probably have a little bit more in WASTEC. That’s one thing. We need more members right now. And hopefully Sharon will address that and maybe she has fresh ideas.

We didn’t have the technology when I took over. We were still faxing. Technology puts more pressure on you. In the old days when they came out with the fax machine we said we have to get back to them within four or five hours. Now with the Internet, they want results in two minutes.

I don’t really have any major disappointments. Another thing I want to say: I really concentrated on building an association of service. When the telephone rings I want everybody to answer it and to call back immediately, not in two days. I answer my own phone. If I can’t return a call that day at work, I’ll call from home that evening.

AG: What surprised you the most about the waste industry?

BP: I really haven’t been surprised. There have been no startling surprises where something revolutionary happened. There have all been incipient things that you know are coming, and you just prepared for them.

I used to always talk about this as an incremental business, and I was criticized once — properly, in retrospect — by a woman with the Reason Foundation. She said, “Bruce, the waste industry talks about incremental changes and the CEOs of the companies talk about incremental changes.”

We’re a trucking industry. You make right turns, and we do the same things we’ve always done. Technology was not a big thing on a truck. You had a better compaction ratio and minor things on a truck, but the technology that has taken this industry by storm is phenomenal. It is remarkably changing the industry. You have telematics on trucks right now where the data is just incredible. On trucks, you can find your tire pressures electronically; what the RPMs are; where the truck is. You have RFID that tells you every stop you’ve made and what time you made the stop. So if a customer says you didn’t pick up my garbage, lady, we have it right here: the actual time, and you didn’t have your can out that day. It’s incredible. We have automatic back up protection, which is passive or aggressive. It’s tied to your brakes.

It’s just amazing what’s going on in the economy. And the biggest thing is that we’re now looking at waste as a resource and doing something about it with all of this conversion technology. Most of it isn’t scalable right now. I’m seeing how it is playing out in the industry right now. Waste Management is taking the lead, spending a lot of money in investments and getting patents in all of these new types of technologies. They want to make money on the front end. They want to be part of collecting it and processing it. Then they want to be part of the action on the back end, where they are selling renewable fuels, intermediate chemicals for the production of different types of products.

Others are looking at it right now. But that is going to be a big transformation. From 1990 to 2010, there has been a 15 million ton diminution in the amount of waste that is going to landfills. You say that isn’t a lot. But, you know, it’s always a function of GPD and population growth. Population growth has been growing quickly, and GDP has been pretty good.

So it’s part of light packaging, more awareness of recycling, more awareness of reuse, and it’s going to change the industry. I think you’re going to see smaller companies that won’t be able to afford to stay in. Or they’ll have to combine with other smaller companies and become regional companies so they can get access to capital.

SA: How do we convince people of the value of recycling in a down market? When the economy is good, everyone recycles, and we build up the infrastructure. But if the economy tanks, as we saw a few years ago, people have recycling sitting in a warehouse somewhere. It’s harder to stick with it in tough times. How do you do that?

BP: Well, one thing is mandatory recycling. Another thing is pay-as-you-throw, although there are some downsides to everything.

There are two things about recycling: education plays an enormous role in recycling. You can look at every community that puts in a recycling program. The ones that are successful are the ones that plan for it and they spend three or four months before they put it in, and they have town meetings and all types of meetings that educate people. Okay, you’re going to get a bigger container, but you’re going to have wheels on it and you can wheel it down. So it’s really education and recycling.

Single stream has been a big advance in recycling, I think. There are some issues with contamination, so forth and so on.

So it’s going to come along. I’ll tell you what I do: In our house right now we don’t use soap in any of our bathrooms, we use these pump containers like you see in a hotel. And when it’s empty, my wife just buys the lotion and she pours it in. We don’t buy detergent like this [gestures to indicate a large box]. We buy condensed detergent. Walmart only sells that now for shelf space. At Christmastime, you know what I wrap all my gifts in? Newspaper. The first time they laughed about it. Now they expect it. Who cares what it’s wrapped in? You throw that stuff away. You want the present in it.

Just think if everyone in the United States, one Christmas, was asked to wrap with newspaper. Of course, there are pros and cons. Then you hurt commerce, the people that manufacture that.

Environmentalism and sustainability has a yin and a yang; the positive and the negative. As you advance sustainability and environmentalism, it is going to affect the economy in some way. The adjustment to it is not going to be easy. There’s always a winner and always a loser. It’s a cost plus game.

Is it better to have a planet that is clean, and your children are going to live a good life or to have people manufacturing items that are really cosmetic and status oriented. I think it is better to be environmentally positioned.

AG: How far do you think it is going to go, the green movement? How sustainable will we get?

BP: I think the big change is that we’re moving [away] from environmentalism, which is very ambiguous terminology. Sustainability is much more definable. The metrics are there. Every fraction of the waste stream has its ecologically and economically optimal use. I say economically because you can’t use something — you can’t basically start things that aren’t going to have any economical use.

But we’re finding right now with creativity that there is a lot in the waste stream that we can recycle. Look, Ford Motor Company is taking carpets and using them for parts of the engine, as a covering. Plastics right now are being mixed with soy to do different things. Mattresses right now — they are difficult to recycle. But we are seeing mattresses being recycled.

So, you know, if you buy it, if you use it once, you can probably use it again. The technology has to be there.

SA: We’re seeing a lot of issues — I’m sure there has always been something — but we’re seeing some issues where we have different segments of our industry at loggerheads. I’m thinking for instance of landfill-gas-to-energy versus composting. How does EIA bridge those gaps and work through to something that is good for everybody?

BP: Many of our members compost. But this is the fraction — if we wanted to bring everybody in, you have the Composting Council. And that’s the other thing: When I started back early on, the waste-to-energy group, we had them in our association. There was a waste-to-energy institute. We had the landfill conference. As soon as RCRA was passed, there was a big fight between the two because the cheaper the landfill disposal was, the more it hurt waste-to-energy. So they eventually left us.

We’re seeing that now with composting. The composting people say why put it in a landfill when you can compost it? We say, well, we can get natural gas from it, and sell it to the grid. Composting is becoming as much demonized in many ways as landfills. At least twice a week we get daily clips. People are complaining about the smell of composting facilities. And they do smell bad. Secondly where are you going to put these big composting facilities in a major urban area? Where are you going to get the landmass to do that?

California is leading the way because they have all that land out there and because it’s a different culture out there. That plays a big role. And you have a very, very liberal regulatory system out there that is setting the standard for everything else.

So again, change is very difficult, particularly when you are dealing with changes that affect the world. Potable water is a huge issue. Population growth. These are things we should be thinking about too because they affect waste.

AG: How do you see the waste industry changing, moving forward?

BP: I would say that within the next 15 years or so — certainly within 15 years — you’re going to see scalable technology that is going to be doing this. But I think what is going to happen is that the infrastructure is going to be different. Transfer stations will play a much larger role. We’re seeing this happen now — companies buying transfer stations because of C&D.

And if in fact you’re going to fragment the waste stream for further treatment so you can turn it into something, you’re going to need places where you can separate it out. So you’re going to have more transfer stations or you’re going to have these eco-centers. They have a couple in Europe, which years ago was a sort of Buck Rogers type of thing. I remember my father and I watching “Get Smart” and laughing — Oh my God, taking off his shoe and using it as a telephone! That’s impossible! They can do that right now. They are doing it right now.

What is going to happen in an eco-center is you’re going to have a landfill where the residuals that have no economic value will be treated. You will have organics that will be either composted or put in an anaerobic digester to sell the power to the grid or whatever it may be. You’re going to have other components like thermal technologies. It’s going to be a community, like the petroleum industry where you have these massive places that do everything. It will be vertically integrated. It’s going to happen. There is no question in my mind.

AG: I just visited Texas Disposal in Austin. They have a compost operation, a MRF, a landfill.

BP: Yeah they do. That’s an incredible place. You saw the animals down there. That is the poster for the perfect landfill. That’s the standard.

SA: How has serving in the waste industry generally and with EIA changed you over the years?

BP: Good question. It made me appreciate the value of relationships in the industry — how to manage an industry. I have told many people that I disagree with them. I’ve told a few to go to hell at times. But I did it in such a way that when I said it they would just look at me and laugh. That’s Bruce. Doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s just telling you what he feels.

I think what changed me the most and what I’m so passionate about is that people have no understanding of what waste is. They really don’t. It’s true, the average person doesn’t even think about it. It’s like a utility. You get up in the morning and turn your light on, and you don’t think about the public utility that is providing it. You turn your water on, and water is going to come out. The only time you think about it is when the water doesn’t go on or the light doesn’t go on. Right?

It’s the same way with waste, which is a compliment in a way. It is one of the most efficient and reliable industries in the United States by necessity and also by good management.

But people don’t know. I took my wife one time to a MRF, and when you walk into a good MRF and you see what they’re doing with the stuff you just threw out in the kitchen and what’s going on, even though it isn’t really super sophisticated, even though it is in a lot of ways, it blows your mind. Or when you go to a waste to energy plant and you see all this coming out, it is remarkable. People would appreciate it better.

AG: Industries will have their own personalities. Talk about the personality of the waste industry.

BP: This is an industry made up of entrepreneurs. That’s the other thing. I said this when I accepted the award for induction into the Hall of Fame. You know, this industry for the most part, they respect a person for what he is and what he does.

You walk around this show floor, and you’ll see people walking around with their bellies hanging out and a pair of jeans on and a hat. They’re millionaires. You would never know it. Seriously, guys that sold their companies 20 years ago and walked away with a stash, took off and played some golf. Their son is now in it. Now they are helping their son and they’re going to sell it again.

This is a really entrepreneurial industry, and it’s an industry where people are — their great grandfathers came over from Ireland and Germany and from different places and they got the lowest job.

The Irish became firemen and were Catholic and everyone hated them. The guys from Eastern Europe, when they came over, and the Dutch came over and were garbage men. Now look at them: $6 and $7 billion-dollar companies. The Huizengas and O’Connors. O’Connor’s father was a policeman, who was killed in the course of doing his job.

So you have all these people here, and you know the people running these companies could run any company whether it’s a widget or garbage. That’s what I like about this industry. I remember going to give a talk to ISRI. Everyone was wearing black suits and white shirts. And I was up there, typical Bruce Parker. I had a sport coat on, but I had an open shirt. I had my argyle socks on which I had been wearing since I was a kid. And I just looked and thought how sorry these people are — sitting out there, dressed up like that.

You go into Waste Management. First time I met David Steiner, he was wearing a pair of Dockers and he had his feet up on the desk if I remember correctly. Why do you want to go to work with a tie and suit on? But when he’s on Wall Street — you got it.

SA: What do you see in the future for the association and as a follow up to that what do you think Sharon’s selection says about that?

BP: I think Sharon was chosen for a couple reasons. Number one: She has a very long association background. She was with the Chemical Manufacturers Association and now the American Chemical Council where she managed the plastics division there, which really tests you because everyone hates plastics. Also she has been with a major corporation. But she understands how associations work.

Secondly, she’s a chemist. So she is technologically trained, and she could probably pick up some of the things we’re doing. And as I talk about technology, this is the perfect time for a new person who doesn’t have the attitude of “Well, we tried that and it didn’t work then.”

She wants to build the association by bringing more technology members into the association, to talk about technology, to work with Waste Age, these types of things.

To increase the membership; I think that is what her goal is. That’s what the Board expects of her and I think she will succeed.

AG: When I interviewed her, she mentioned she’s a neighbor along with Gene Wingerter.

BP: It’s remarkable. First of all we all live on the same street. And Gene, of course, was there for 24 years, and he hired me. Gene lives on one side of me and Sharon lives on the other.

Not only are we all on the same street, we’re all from Pennsylvania. Sharon is from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I’m from Scranton, Pennsylvania. She went to the University of Scranton. I didn’t. I went to school out in Berkeley. And Gene is from Erie. This is like a Lotto. What are the statistical chances of having that happen? I think we’re Martians. Kryptonite. We all just sort of came out of it.

SA: After this is all said and done, what will you be doing with yourself?

BP: I’m not really sure, but I do need to work. I don’t have any hobbies. I read a lot and I love music. I like to put my headphones on and listen to the Stones and Dire Straits. I go to a movie every week. When the Academy Awards are on, I’ve seen every movie. I see three movies in a day sometimes.

I used to go see Woody Allen movies, from the morning to the afternoon. I’m a cinephile. I really get into movies. I love ’em. My wife and I and another couple, we do it every single week.

SA: What’s your favorite movie?

BP: My favorite movie right now is the one about the East Berlin police, the Stazzi. [Editor’s Note: Bruce is referring to “The Lives of Others.”] I love foreign movies. My all time favorite movie is hard. “The Sands of Iwo Jima” was a good one. That was with John Wayne and William … That was back in 1949 or so. I love Fred Astaire movies. But we could talk movies forever.

SA: Why don’t you take up dancing?

BP: I took tap and ballet when I was growing up, and I quit because of the ballet part.

But what am I going to do? I want to stay in the industry. So I don’t want to work full time. I’m just hoping that I’ll get a call from someone: “You want to be on a board?” or “Do you want to work with me and give me some ideas?”

You know Recology, which is a member. That’s the other thing, Recology. I brought Recology in. First west coast company that wasn’t a member of a national company. On Recology’s board, they have a writer. They have a woman who was part of the architectural team that designed the inside of Candlestick Park.

I asked Mike Sangiacomo why. He said different occupations bring new ideas and see things differently, and as the CEO you learn a lot in that way. You get inbred when you bring in everybody from the same industry.

AG: Will you be involved in any way with EIA?

BP: I don’t think so. When the new boss comes in, they don’t want the old boss hanging around.

SA: No hobbies, so what are you looking forward to most in retirement?

BP: Reading; being able to. My favorite on the weekend is reading newspapers. I read from the very beginning every article in the New York Times. About four-and-a-half hours it takes me. Then I read the Washington Post. Then I go to my favorite — Panera Bread. You don’t have to pay for the second cup of coffee. So I’ll have nine or 10 cups of coffee.

And unlike the iPad, I love newspapers. If someone comes in that I don’t want to see I just pick the papers up in front of my face. You can’t do that with an iPad. And you can’t pick up dog shit, excuse me, with an iPad. You can do it with a newspaper. I can give you ten other good reasons. I wrote an article about why I like newspapers better than technology.

SA: Are magazines a part of that?

BP: Yes. I like paper. My articles are not about garbage. They are about cultural things I like to do.

But today, you guys get everything online and everyone has to look for new venues electronically to get advertising. And you have everybody fishing from the same bowl; all your competitors. It’s going to be hard. Challenging.

AG: Do you want to make some comments about the magazine?

BP: I think you do a good job of covering everything. I think you got a lot of history wrapped up. Where the industry is going, where it has been. I could spend hours talking about that, if I really thought it out more. I could do it in five-year sections. Might be interesting for you to talk to me about it. So you could write the stuff. We are at a big inflection point, and it is going to be very, very interesting.

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