Q&A: George Strom of Lakeshore Recycling Systems (LRS) on Growing up in Waste Management

Strom, a Waste360 40 Under 40 Award recipient, discusses adapting to change—and what he’s learned in each of his leadership positions, from vice president of operations to his current role as area vice president, Chicago North.

June 24, 2024

7 Min Read

LRS’s George Strom started working for his family business, Roy Strom, as a kid washing trucks and helping on whatever projects offered up to him. Over the years he learned to run every aspect of the business. So, he was ready to hit the ground running when LRS bought the company, though there were some eye openers entailed in transitioning from a small shop that ran 46 trucks in a few communities to managing operations for a 500,000-customer corporation with a 10-state reach.

Strom, a Waste360 40 Under 40 Award recipient, discusses adapting to change—and what he’s learned in each of his leadership positions, from vice president of operations to his current role as area vice president, Chicago North.

Waste360: Can you share some early memories of growing up in the waste industry?

Strom: When I was young I remember watching the big trucks ride up and down the streets and being fascinated. My dad would bring me to the office and let me ride with the drivers. I loved hearing their stories and learning how to do things the right way. Many of their tips focused on taking good care of customers, and it was fascinating to see that each driver knew so much about their customers and what they did to keep them happy.

Once I got my driver’s license, I started driving to the office after school to wash trucks, help in the shop, and handle various projects. By college, I began learning the sales side of the business. I worked with Chuck Boersema, one of the best salesmen in the business. Chuck taught me the importance of building relationships with customers, always being available, and always ready to help. He advised me to act like I owned the company, emphasizing that this mentality would ensure I always did what was best for both myself and the business. The lessons I learned from Chuck have served me well in all my roles at LRS.

Waste360: How was life different, working for your family’s small trash business vs taking on a leadership role in a 2,500-plus-employee operation like LRS?

Strom: Our family business operated 45 trucks and had 25,000 customers. LRS runs 1,600 trucks in multiple states with over 500,000 customers, 13 transfer stations, four materials recovery facilities, and two landfills.

Transitioning to a much larger corporate environment was initially daunting. I was unsure of how I would fit in and how my staff would adjust to the new organization.

One difference I noticed early had to do with structure. In our family business, we typically had one person in charge of each area of operation, so if someone was behind on tasks, there was little to no support system in place. The larger corporate environment provided more support, which I referred to as reinforcements.

Adapting to change can be challenging, especially when starting at a new organization. One night, my wife gave me some valuable advice: to be liked by my new co-workers, I should simply help others. From that day forward, I offered my assistance to anyone who needed it. This approach served me well.

Waste360: Can you touch on each of your roles with LRS and what you learned that you took into subsequent roles?

Strom: Vice President, Operations

This was my first role at LRS, primarily designed to transition all the Roy Strom work into the LRS business. I worked with large commercial and residential accounts; worked on routing and efficiency improvements; and was involved in acquisitions. This role taught me about earning trust. The ability to quickly gain trust from organizational leaders has been beneficial in all my subsequent roles.

Vice President, Municipal Service

In this role I brought together experts specializing in municipal relationships, creating a new level of support for our municipal customers. I learned about negotiating large agreements with municipalities across the ten states LRS operates in, and the importance of customer satisfaction and flawless rollouts.

Interim Vice President, Talent Acquisition

During a busy M&A period, LRS needed a leader in human resources and talent acquisition. I stepped in to assist while we searched for a new head of HR and Talent. We had roughly 10 new acquisitions to complete that year. I helped rebuild the HR team and ensured the onboarding of new employees and locations. This challenging role taught me the importance of collaboration.

Senior Vice President, Safety

LRS needed a leader to drive culture change, especially in safety, due to significant growth and new locations. One of my initiatives was the weekly Safety 15 call, a 15-minute call with operations leaders to discuss safety challenges and new safety practices. This role improved our safety culture, reducing LTIFR and TRIR to an all-time low. It taught me to manage tough situations with a level head and work through any challenge.

Area Vice President, Chicago North

This covers a large part of the LRS IL footprint, including the old Roy Strom location, making it feel somewhat like going back in time but on a larger scale. I am now responsible for making decisions to keep the business moving in the right direction. This new challenge involves guiding a strong team and ensuring we focus on initiatives that add value to the organization.

Waste360: What has been your hardest job?

Strom: The leadership role in safety has been the hardest job I have ever done. Transitioning from managing a sales group to leading safety in a large waste and recycling organization was challenging, especially since safety was not my initial area of expertise.

We built a team of both traditional safety experts and operations leaders. This blend allowed us to apply the theoretical knowledge of safety experts in practical, operational contexts.

Partnering with the operations team was essential. We spent time in the field helping, guiding, and training operational leaders to ensure they had the support and knowledge needed to provide a safe environment for our front-line workers.

One particularly impactful initiative was our focus on mental health, which we highlighted during the month of April. We dedicated this time to mental health awareness, ensuring all employees knew the resources available to them and their families. Given the demanding nature of our industry, maintaining a good work-life balance and developing coping skills was crucial. During this month, we invited mental health counselors to our Safety 15 calls and taught mental health first aid.

Ultimately, this role has changed how I view the industry and life in general. Seeing how quickly someone's life can be impacted has made me truly value safety in all aspects of life.

Waste360: What was some of the best advice you ever received?

Strom: An early piece of advice from my father has guided me throughout my career. When I was in high school, we had a number of roll-off dumpsters that needed welding repairs. I told my dad that I was going to learn to weld so I could fix them myself. But he advised me:  "Tomorrow, ask them to show you what a good weld looks like, and then hire a welder."

He emphasized the importance of understanding the business deeply so that I could manage it effectively, rather than trying to do everything myself. I took his advice, hired a welder, and have applied this principle ever since.

Still, I make it a point to understand every detail of the business. By knowing the ins and outs of each area, I can make informed decisions and provide the necessary support to my team.

Waste360: Who is one of the most important people in your life?

Strom: The most important person in my life is my wife, Katie. We have been married for 10 years and together for 17 years. She has been part of my waste industry journey from the very beginning.

During my time at LRS, I was sponsored to earn my MBA at Northern Illinois University. Katie put her successful career on hold to take care of our young children [we now have three] while I went back to school and continued working in a demanding industry. My career success is mainly due to her strong ability to help me think clearly through my daily challenges.

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