The arrival of the new year brought a new head of Milwaukee-based Veolia ES Solid Waste Inc. On Jan. 1, Richard Burke became president and COO of the firm, replacing Paul Jenks, who retired as president and CEO after more than 20 years in the waste services industry. Jenks now serves as a special advisor to Veolia Environmental Services, reporting directly to Veolia Environmental Services North America CEO Michel Gourvennec.

Burke entered the solid waste industry in 1987, when he started as a route supervisor for Waste Management. There, he worked his way up to director of operations for New York state before joining Superior Services (which became Onyx Waste Services before morphing into Veolia ES Solid Waste) in 1999. Before assuming his current titles, Burke served as vice president of Veolia ES Solid Waste's Eastern Region.

Gourvennec says Burke possesses several qualities that make him the right replacement for Jenks. “He's a garbage guy,” Gourvennec says. “He's also a team builder with a lot of charisma. He's always prepared to roll up his sleeves and address the issues.”

Burke's first few months on the job have been busy ones, as his company has announced a couple of tuck-in acquisitions and joined the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He recently spoke to Waste Age about his goals, the biggest challenges facing both his company and the solid waste industry and the leadership influence of coaches.

Q What are your goals for the company and what kind of changes are you planning?

My first goal would be strategic growth. Since [Veolia] came to the U.S., we've had a very stable presence in the U.S., and we've taken the assets that were originally purchased back in 1999, and we've grown them incrementally, more organically than anything else. We've stabilized our returns and have built a very strong company.

But, the next phase as we mature as a company is to look for more external growth. I call it strategic growth.

I want to be smart about growing the business. We'll look at tuck-in acquisitions, small companies that we can bring into existing platforms that we already have. We've done two of those so far this year, one in western Pennsylvania and one in Evansville, Ind. We have another half dozen of those that we hope to get done in the first six months of this year.

We're also looking at some new market entries, a couple of markets to expand our platform. But, we're very cautious about those and very careful. The way I look at those is that disposal must be at the center of those new market entries.

Right now, we internalize 70 percent of all the solid waste we collect. One of my goals is to drive that up to 75 percent over the next 24 months. That will create additional shareholder value. It certainly draws better cash flows throughout the organization.

That's a long answer, but strategic growth is a goal.

Also, disciplined price strategies. On the hauling side, we've done a nice job in the last 12 to 18 months of making sure that we fully understand our costs and that we're pricing appropriately to get the right return on capital.

We're now moving that same concept and the same metrics that we built for hauling to the landfill side to see if there's additional value that can be driven out of our landfill operations.

And then, just like my predecessor, improving safety is a goal. It's something that's near and dear to my heart. It's not just about money. It's a social responsibility.

We have got to improve the safety of our company. We've made great strides the last two years of improving our [accident] frequency numbers by about 10 percent year over year.

My goal is to ramp that improvement up to 12 percent year over year. We're doing that by focusing on our recruiting, our hiring and our training. It's so important at all levels of the company that we put the right people in the right job and that we train them well to do the job of ours.

It's just so critical — we want our employees to go home just as healthy as they came to work, and it's a big focus.

We begin every Monday with a safety conference call with all of our managers to talk about a topic. That topic could be bad weather, following distance, school safety, being mindful of school buses and neighborhoods. It runs the whole gamut.

And my last goal is for us to do a better job of promoting the environmental solutions that we bring to companies and to customers. What I mean by that is we need to get greener as an industry and also as a business.

So, I'm looking at some emerging technologies: biodiesel to cut down on carbon emissions, hybrid trucks. We have to figure out at what point we jump into the mix and begin to integrate those into our business.

Also, landfill gas recovery programs. We have done a few, and we've got a few more on the drawing board. Probably the best example and one that I'm really proud of is the one down in Moody, Ala. We partnered with a company called Jenkins Brick Co.

They've located a new $46 million brick plant in close proximity to our landfill, and we've run a pipeline from our landfill to capture the methane coming off the site [and transport it] to [Jenkins].

With landfill gas, we are providing 45 percent of Jenkins Brick's energy needs. As that landfill grows and matures and creates more gas, our plans are to [meet] 80 to 90 percent of their energy needs.

It's a real success. Those are the type of green projects that I'm excited about and that we absolutely need to do.

So, I have a lot of goals. There's not a lot of idle time now.

Q What are your company's biggest challenges?

I think our company's biggest challenge and the industry's biggest challenge is recruiting, training and hiring quality people. We can have the best business model, the best strategies in the world, and if we don't have the right people to execute, then we are probably not going to be as successful as we should be. I think the ability to go out and recruit, hire and train is huge.

The second one is safety. We as a company and an industry must improve our safety and I think that comes with hiring, recruiting, training and a constant focus on putting safety even ahead of productivity. The safest way to do a job is also the most productive. We're really trying to hammer that message.

Q What experiences have you drawn on to help you prepare and perform in your new position?

Well, I think one of the advantages that I have is having started as a route supervisor. I've just had a variety of jobs, from a route supervisor to running a recycling operation to general manager of a hauling company to general manager of a landfill.

Because people have allowed me through my career to take on different challenges that came along, I have a real good first hand knowledge of what our workers are up against. I've walked a mile in their moccasins, to steal an old phrase. I think that insight helps me understand how we can build business strategies to drive the company forward.

One of my challenges is — now that I look out my window every day and I can't see a trash truck and I can't see a landfill anymore — not to forget where I came from, that my background is on the front line with the drivers and with the mechanics.

Q Whose leadership styles have you admired and why?

I've had so many good mentors, people who have probably given me more latitude than they should. They've allowed me to go out and make some mistakes and learn from them and keep moving on. It's hard to nail it down to any one person.

Everyone from family members to bosses that I've had through the industry from the beginning until the end have helped me.

Also, coaches. I played a lot of sports growing up. I've always admired the good coach, the guy who could get his assistants around him and draw up the game plan and try to put the best players on the field, whether it was baseball or football or what have you.

I admire the coach who can bring in all of his people around him, devise a plan, execute the plan, put a good team on the field and then have enough sense halfway through the game to say what adjustments do we need to make.

I guess, in the end, I see myself a little bit as a coach.

THE BURKE PROFILE

Name: Richard Burke

Title: President and COO of Veolia ES Solid Waste Inc.

Hometown: Huntly, Va. (grew up on a farm)

Lives in: Currently resides in Richmond, Va., but will be relocating to Milwaukee this summer.

Family: He and his wife Karen have been married for 18 years. They have three children: Emily, 14; Wilson, 13; and Jackson, 7.

Hobbies: Golf, coaching children's athletic teams, reading and studying Civil War history.