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)