There are many ways to be a leader. To Chip Russell, a humble attitude, gratefulness and hard work are what have gotten him to where he is now. As president and founder of AmWaste, Russell has played a role in cultivating an impassioned and talented team of people who are excited to provide waste services.
This Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner recently sat down with us to share his story and what he believes makes a great leader. In this Q&A, Russell discusses what makes AmWaste so successfull.
Waste360: Can you tell us how your career led you to where you are now?
Russell: I fell in love with landfills and waste in college. I was studying environmental engineering and was assigned a project to design a theoretical landfill for the whole country. I put a dollar figure to that and I just said “you know, that's what I'm gonna do when I grow up.” I did my senior capstone, designed a permitted landfill, and then had the opportunity to get to work for a company called Hodges, Harbin, Newberry and Tribble, which is kind of like the boutique guru of solid waste.
From them, I got some unbelievable opportunities to see advanced disposal built from the ground up, along with some other really cool projects in the South East like the coal ash spill in Kingsland, Tennessee that got railed down to Perry County. Not a lot of folks get that opportunity. I got all those experiences and then one day I was sitting at my desk and I Googled landfills for sale.
I found a landfill in Mississippi that utilized rice holes listed for half a million dollars and since I was just a poor boy from Conyers, GA, that was a big number. I couldn't afford that landfill but, I met the gentleman who owned that landfill and figured out a way to make it work in like 2008 before he, unfortunately, passed away.
It was a C and D landfill and I convinced the bank to let me sign on to the note at 26 years old.
It began as me and five employees, and now it's me and 500 employees. I started with one landfill and now I’ve got 8. That's kind of the story of how I got here.
Waste360: As the leader, what would you say are the primary characteristics that are present in all of your employees?
Russell: We have what we call the 5 C’s, which is a list comprised of characteristics that start with the letter C and describe our workers. The first two C's of the list are character and competency. You can't really teach those.
Following those two is that competitive spirit.
Along with the other one is compassion. I think all our people really, really want to see their colleagues do well. It's definitely a team.
I would say that we each have all of these to varying degrees, but the competitive spirit is definitely a huge one.
Waste360: What is a quality that you believe makes a great leader?
Russell: I think humility is a big one. A great leader is able to say “I don't know the answer, but we'll find the answer.” That is another quality I notice in a lot of my team; humility.
Waste360: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced within this role?
Russell: When COVID first became prominent, it was pretty challenging for me to try to figure out what is it and what our game plan should look like. We knew we had to go back to work, but how?
Another challenge has been the backside of COVID. I would say the last 12 months we have experienced supply chain and labor shortages. Of that, driver shortages have been probably the most challenging.
Those are just challenges everyone is facing now. Those are the challenge we’re working through.
Something else that has challenged me specifically has been my natural set of skills; having the mind of an engineer more than having a business mind.
I think I can learn those things, and they came fast, but there were definitely some moments where that challenged me.
I’ve been doing this for 13 or so years, so I’ve been able to learn, but being an engineer and being an operator are two different things. You can hire some great people, to tell you how to do all that stuff, but learning those things myself was definitely one of the biggest challenges.
Waste360: What motivates you to go to work every day?
Russell: My family is what brings me to work every day.
That's what we tell everybody; you come here because of your family and the most important part of your day is when you walk through the threshold of your door. You know the safety, the safety of my people.
Another reason is I really do love problem-solving. I think we really get the chance to solve the problems of the communities and people whose garbage we pick up.
The engineer in me loves getting to solve problems because there's always a problem and I love putting everything I know together to resolve them.
Waste360: Are there any people who stand out to you as having a significant impact on your professional journey?
Russell: I've got a couple of people that come to mind.
Bill Hodges was a huge influence on me at Hodges, Harbin, Newberry and Tribble.
Throughout the garbage industries consolidations from superiors and going “under a different flag now.” Bill Hodges is definitely up there on my list of influences.
Then there is another guy named Gary Brotherton who was a Waste Management employee for 30 years. He was a Vietnam veteran and passed away two years ago from Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
He did the acquisition of a greenfield that I permitted as an engineer.
He bought an asset in South Atlanta when I was an engineer which was a landfill called Turkey run, and we built a relationship through that.
I was just the button pusher–just the peon engineer–but he was just so kind to me and then we became friends after I left and went on my own.
He was just such a good mentor and helped me find my direction.
The same goes for Bill; they were both really integral and kinda in demonstrating how things were done.
Waste360: Where do you see AmWaste five years from now?
Russell: Our company is Matter Management, which has 16 different holding companies or so, and AmWaste is one of the holding companies in the hauling division of our company.
I think in five years we could be a superregional solid waste company.
We have a lot of opportunities to keep doing what we do.
We pick up waste from more than a couple hundred thousand homes a week, so I could see this continuing that growth in the SEC world. We’ll keep doing what we do, you know, keeping service and our people our number one priority.
We kind of joke around that we're trying to build the Chick-fil-A of the garbage business. I don't know if that means a lot where you're from, but there's a high demand for their service, and that's kind of how they’ve continued to be able to grow. That’s what we want to continue for ourselves as well. Our customers have demanded that we grow, so we have.
Waste360: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Russell: I have an unbelievable team of both young professionals and senior veterans of the industry. The younger folks are super passionate about garbage service.
I can't express enough how great my team is. I would put them next to anybody in the industry and still say we lucked out with the best.