Saturday, October 10, 2009


I try to talk about my friend Wiley whenever I train equipment operators who work at solid waste facilities. It's not easy, because I feel tremendous guilt about his tragic death. But I don't want anyone to make the same mistake I made, so I put it out there as often as I can. Years after I left the company, he slipped and fell one day getting out of a tractor while working at a landfill in California. He was horribly killed. Skip watched it happen. I remember the first time I talked to Skip after it happened. Shook up doesn't even begin to describe it. I respected his grief too much to have asked him for details. To the best of my knowledge, Wiley was exiting the dozer, and it went into reverse, and he slipped on the tracks, and got carried underneath. How many times had I seen him jump down off of the tracks of a dozer? I spoke to him about it, sure, but he didn't work for me. He worked for one of the corporate big-shots, and never hesitated to bring it up. Nevertheless, even though whenever he was working on my site it was on a temporary project, he was on my site, and safety was my responsibility on my site.
He was an incredible operator. He would build roads, cut ditches, cover slopes, and excavate ponds with Skip, and together they would do the work of four skilled operators. And he would take chances. I saw him fail to use three point contact, leave equipment running after exiting, exit machinery without engaging the parking brake or lowering the bucket or blade, and generally beat the hell out of the heavy equipment he operated. I spoke to him about it, sure, but he laughed it off. Had any of my operators operated in that fashion, it would have been one, two, three strikes and you're out. But not so with Wiley. When I shared my guilty feelings with Skip, he told me to forget it. He had been operating for 40 years before he ever met you, he told me. Nothing you could have done would have changed what happened that day. I will never know.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Puerto Rico Me Encanta

As a reward for all our hard work in Puerto Rico evaluating our client's environmental performance, Jeff Schleider and I treated ourselves to a visit to El Yunque National Park. Truly an amazing place. It was a last minute decision I am so glad we made. What a perfect ending to a very successful trip. Hopefully the first of many.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Quality Time

Kevin, the General Manager, came to my desk and told me we were going to go do some volunteer work at the Chamber of Commerce. “When?” I asked. “Now. Get your coat”. Kevin had bright smiling green eyes, and always with a ready laugh, but his smart and serious character made him one of the best bosses I ever worked for. On the way we talked about the beautiful new yellow iron just delivered at the site. We didn’t know it at the time, but Caterpillar was putting out some of the best waste handling equipment it ever produced in the early 1990’s. The 826C Compactor is still a favorite among old school landfill operators.

We got to the small chamber of commerce office and the secretary showed us into the conference room. I guess I was expecting a bigger crowd. It was just me and Kevin. After the secretary showed us the mailing that needed to be sent out, I arranged the stacks of fliers in order and got down to business. Kevin’s eyes went wide and he smiled broadly when I started rapidly and efficiently pulling, folding, stapling, stuffing and stamping, with a steady rhythm, buzzing through the piles.

I asked him why we were the only ones there and he said “Well, Karen wanted me to have a talk with you.”

O shit.

So we talked. The work we were doing seemed to take all the pressure off; and Kevin appeared to be changing his mind about me as we talked and worked. You see, it was my first “real” job after college, and two years in the Peace Corps. Looking back, it was simple. Get the payables and all supporting documents assembled and approved, key them in before the deadline, and send out the checks. But I never seemed to beat the deadline. Fact was, that wasn’t what was taking all my time. Even though when I started working there the year before, I didn’t know a thing about their systems, within six months everyone there was asking me to figure out their printer, copier, spreadsheet, database, network, phone, fax and computer problem. And I never said no to anyone who asked for help. Kevin started to get the picture. Accounting just wasn’t for me. That being said, we agreed that I needed to prioritize my work, and focus on my duties. And say no once in a while.

I’ll never forget him telling me “it’s a nicer place to work since you came on board, Mark, but you have to get your work done.” Within a few months I was promoted to be a manager trainee, which changed the direction of my career forever.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


When he realized that I would be getting to Costa Rica a few days ahead of Skip, the man who hired me to work there told me to wait until Skip arrived to go out to the site and introduce myself. When he told me that I should wait for Skip, I felt a little hesitation. Why? Didn’t he trust his partners there? Yes, of course, he said, it’s just that Skip has a lot of experience with these guys and he will keep the pressure off of you. Being the only North American hired to work in Costa Rica permanently for the company, which was owned by a waste services firm headquartered in New Jersey, would require diplomacy and tact.

He called me from his hotel and asked me where I would like to pick him up. Knowing I didn’t know my way around there yet, he offered to meet me at the airport. Tall, straight and strong, jeans, boots, and a button down long sleeve denim shirt, baseball cap, mustache and cigarette, he was the epitome of a construction manager. One of the first things he said about the Ticos (Costa Ricans) was "They’re good people, and I like ‘em". I asked him a lot of questions, trying to figure out where he fit in, and what was expected of me. Wanting to ease my concerns, he told me "my number one priority is to make sure you succeed". We drove on to the site and he introduced me to Milton. It had been a few months since Skip’s last visit, and as we went for a tour of the facility, Skip started asking Milton lots of questions, about properties, contracts, equipment, construction, and each question had a follow up. Milton hesitated at each question, choosing his words carefully, then broke the tension by saying, "Skip, do you want to learn everything on the first day?" with a smile and a sideways glance. Skip laughed at that and said "Why, yes I do, Milty".

I had a crash course on the key issues as Skip saw them that month, and grew very attached to him. He moved into the hotel I was staying at and I drove him back and forth to work every day. He would be waiting for me by the car every morning, seven days a week, at 6:30 AM. I never kept him waiting long, but I never beat him out the door either. He would be grumpy if I kept him waiting, but he would get over it shortly. Boy, did he hate my driving. He’s not the first. Guess I should be more careful. He was all business at the jobsite, and not opposed to raising his voice to get what he needed. After work, he took me to his favorite bar, and made me feel at home. In a few weeks he taught me more about operating landfills than I had learned in the five years I worked in the business.

One afternoon he had me drive him up a dirt road into the hills on the other side of the site to a very humble little gathering of houses. I probably would have called them shacks if I didn’t know any better, but I do. We had hardly stopped the car when a bunch of smiling kids around the age of ten surrounded us. Skip got out and got a bag of brand new ball caps out of the trunk.

I must digress a bit here and go over some ball cap issues for the uninitiated. Company hats are easy to get your hands on; they’re cheap and companies love to have you wear them. Guy like Skip probably politely accepted, and got rid of, more company hats than some folks will see in their whole lives. The hats Skip gave those kids that day were not company hats. These were the kind of hats you bought at the mall, which probably cost at least fifteen bucks each; with full color team emblems of all Skip’s favorite teams, starting with the Buckeyes, of course.

Skip came to Costa Rica four times during the year I worked there, and spent about a month each time. The operation was an incredible challenge, with tropical rains, difficult clay and gravel, and large volumes of trash. Equipment breakdowns were always a nightmare too, owing to the scarcity of repair parts. He would get frustrated at times, and show it, and I never saw a bunch of operators, mechanics and engineers strive to please someone as much as everyone tried to make Skip happy. The site was always in much better shape when Skip left, and he always made sure the operators had a plan of action to follow. Sometimes he would proudly point out an initiative that the operators had taken and say, "You see that, they’re thinking. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I want them to come up with their own ideas to fix this place. That’s progress."

A year after I left Costa Rica, I called Skip from Mississippi, where I had been transferred to work in a sales position for the company. He was in Florida working at a new facility. I asked him what he was doing, and he said "I’m looking for a manager to take this place over". I told him I’d be interested. I got a call from the president of the company later that day.

(to be continued)