Waste Connections’ Ron Mittelstaedt talks changes, future of waste

Waste Connections’ Ron Mittelstaedt talks changes, future of waste

At the opening keynote of WasteExpo Together Online, Mittelstaedt offered his perspective on his more than three decades in the industry, the emerging role of technology in waste, the importance of servant leadership, his perceptions on the upcoming presidential election’s potential impact on M&A activity and more.

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September 14, 2020

WasteExpo Together Online kicked off Sept. 14 with a keynote conversation between Waste Connections Inc. Executive Chairman of the Board Ron Mittelstaedt and National Waste & Recycling Association President and CEO Darrell Smith.

The conversation spanned a number of topics, including Mittelstaedt’s perspective on his more than three decades in the industry, the emerging role of technology in waste, the importance of servant leadership, his perceptions on the upcoming presidential election’s potential impact on M&A activity and more.

Recounting his start in the industry with Browning-Ferris Industries roughly 32 years ago, Mittelstaedt says that the waste sector looked much different than it does today.

“Technology has had a huge impact on the business,” he says. “Back in the late '80s, there were so many more public companies—probably 16 or 17 as compared to four or so today. Landfills were more like old dump sites where things were just buried or covered, and today, they’re really engineering marvels where people are spending $500,000-plus an acre to construct very sophisticated airspace and monitoring solutions. And waste collection was mostly manual back then. You had rear loaders for both commercial and residential [accounts] with two or three workers hanging off of [the truck]. Today, we’re running mostly one-man vehicles with automated side loader or front loaders for commercial.”

Mittelstaedt says that these technical advances have spurred a lot of consolidation in the space because the cost of being in business is so much higher than it was 30 years ago. Beyond the cost of managing more sophisticated landfills, which Mittelstaedt says is “20 fold” what it used to be, operators are charged with overseeing fleets that can cost upwards of $400,000 per truck, rather than the $80,000 price tag they had in the late 1980s. Altogether, these cost increases have led to consolidation among public and private companies.

Within his company, Mittelstaedt says that the relationship between management and front-line workers has also changed over the years. Mittelstaedt says this emphasis on the employee is something Waste Connections has championed over the past 15 years through its mantra of embracing servant leadership.

“Servant leadership is something you have to indoctrinate into your DNA, and it becomes a way of life and a way of doing things, so it takes a long time. … At its core, servant leadership is about the leader or manager being responsible to those who work for them rather than the other way around where people are responsible for who they report to,” he explains. “This is about the leader taking personal responsibility for the health, safety and welfare both professionally and personally for those that they have the opportunity to lead. It’s about employees being able to hold leaders accountable.”

Mittelstaedt says that while this approach to leadership isn’t for everyone, it has become a mandatory part of being a Waste Connections employee. The result, he notes, is that workers are more closely aligned and bound to each other. During the COVID crisis, the demands of being a servant leader have been on display throughout the company with employees dealing with disruptions at home relative to significant others and children being away from work and school.

“That’s where servant leadership really stands out because it’s the burden of leaders to try and figure out how [their fellow employees] can manage the work/home life balance and help them be successful both at work and at home,” he says.

Mittelstaedt went on to say that how the company looks at hiring and retention has also changed in his time in business as the industry strives to be more inclusive. Specifically, Mittelstaedt says that Waste Connections has worked to evaluate where “innate biases” may be held throughout the company to ensure that the most qualified candidates get hired and advanced irrespective of their gender, age, religion, race or sexual orientation.

Through the company’s self-evaluation, Waste Connections has reconfigured its board of directors. Currently, 25 percent of the board is composed of women or minority candidates, up from 0 several years ago. The goal is for 30 percent or more of the company’s board to be comprised of female or minority candidates in the near future, with this focus on diversity trickling down to the rest of the company.

Speaking on the industry’s future, Mittelstaedt says that the upcoming presidential election will have a lot to do with M&A activity seen in the sector over the next four years.

“The reality is that we projected four years ago that if President Trump was elected, there would be acceleration of M&A across the board …, and it has literally been a record four years of M&A,” he says. “And that’s due to tax change, interest rates, it’s due to the GDP the economy [showcased] pre-COVID, it’s due to the expensing of capital—there are a host of things that have undergirded the expansion of M&A for the industry and for Waste Connections. The reality is that if President Trump is reelected, and depending on what happens in the House and Senate as well as if current tax regulation and fiscal policy stays, I think you’ll see strong M&A for the next four years.”

Mittelstaedt went on to say that while he thinks there might be an appetite for robust M&A activity in the near term, he doesn’t envision a future where there are public to public M&A deals being orchestrated, especially in light of the Department of Justice scrutiny of the Waste Management/Advanced Disposal acquisition.

As for projections on the future, Mittelstaedt says to expect technology to continue to steer the industry forward, both literally and figurately, and for more uniform regulation to influence how companies operate.

“You’re going to continue to see automation and technology accelerate across the industry,” he says. “You’re going to see the evolution of electric trucks; you’re going to see the evolution of more autonomous driving vehicles, and I don’t mean without a driver, I mean [trucks having] lane control and other driver-assisted devices we have in passenger cars today that are not really in heavy-duty trucks. That will help accident and injury frequency of the sector. And I think you’ll continue to see government regulation advancing and more continuity across the United States, where today it is more regionalized and specific within the states. I think you’re beginning to see a more national overlay for the sector.”