Newsmaker: Barry Caldwell, Waste Management

Thanks to Waste Management's SVP of government affairs and corporate comms, an increasingly receptive audience is learning how much good garbage can do.

Thanks to Waste Management's SVP of government affairs and corporate comms, an increasingly receptive audience is learning how much good garbage can do.

When most of us look at a landfill we see trash - lots of trash. When Barry Caldwell looks at a landfill he sees an opportunity to create high-octane fuel or industrial chemicals out of what consumers throw away.

As SVP of government affairs and corporate communications for Waste Management, Caldwell wants the rest of the country to dig through the trash and understand how garbage and his company's processing initiatives can also help the environment.

Caldwell's team must be adept at finessing communications around the basics of curbside pickup as well as technologically complex eco-efforts. "When talking, even during informal cocktail chatter, I can get carried away discussing garbage," he admits.

Waste Management is in a joint venture with energy corporation Valero and tech company Terrabon developing an asset-fermentation process to make organic material into high-octane fuel. A project in the Pacific Northwest with Innatech converts waste materials to synthetic gas that can be used to create ethanol and diesel and be a part of the process to generate heat and electricity.

2002-present
SVP, government affairs and corporate comms, Waste Management

2000-2002
VP, government relations, Cigna

1996-2000
VP, federal affairs, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America

1991-1996
Worked for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), including as chief of staff from 1992-1996

One project the company is developing on its own involves producing pellets that have a high BTU content as a substitute for manufacturers that use coal as an energy source. For some hard-to-recycle plastics, Waste Management has partnered with Agilyx on a pyrolysis technology to convert that plastic into synthetic crude to be used either as a fuel or to make more plastic.

"We're doing really cool stuff with the materials we handle," explains Caldwell. "That is the story we're trying to communicate. We must be direct and honest. We can't leave the impression that we're doing this across the planet because we are still in the testing phase, but we know that some of these things work and we are looking at ways to roll them out."

Caldwell is paving the way for the company to expand its fleet of trucks that burn compressed natural gas. At present, there isn't adequate infrastructure in place to support the initiative, so Waste Management must either build it or partner with a municipality that has a bus fleet that runs on the gas. He is currently identifying available resources within government agencies such as using grant money to defray costs and, in conjunction with the government affairs team, keeping a sharp eye on what state or local government initiatives will present a challenge or opportunity.

Engaging different audiences
Waste generation is down across the board in large part because of the economy and customers now demand that what trash is generated be re-purposed in an environmentally responsible manner. And since one man's trash is another man's treasure, Waste Management is looking at what it collects as a commodity that can be used to create new revenue streams by building in processes that pull out more recyclables that can be baled and sold.

Garbage is big business. Waste Management, the largest player in North America, reported revenues of $12.5 billion and ranked No. 196 on the Fortune 500 in 2011.

"Our company has made a ton of money off of our landfills and we will continue to," says Caldwell. "Less material is going to landfills, but we can make money off handling it in a different way and that means engaging with our people on how to do so. That will really take up a lot of our time."

Creating that engagement shift had to start internally. Caldwell says there was a strong communications team in place when he arrived at the Houston-based company in late 2002, but it was heavily engaged in playing defense and the story of how the company collects, transports, and disposes of materials, along with its forward-thinking environmental initiatives, was not being told.

The business is now focusing on three objectives: knowing customers more and how to service them better; extracting more value from the materials handled; and innovating and optimizing the business from a communications and public affairs standpoint.

Caldwell's team is working more closely with HR and other business units to develop internal practices that involve employees and bring in more bottom-up innovation.

"We respect our people a lot, but, honestly, sometimes we talk at them and we don't get their input," notes Caldwell. "Part of change management is adopting practices that involve more employees and talking more about business imperatives that we are trying to accomplish strategically. It will require some behavioral change and that is not easy."

Community relations is also becoming increasingly important as the company builds out more alternative technology facilities. Getting business partners invested in that area also falls to Caldwell's team.

"We need partners to appreciate that there is a real community involvement needed," he says. "It is our imperative to be a trusted and valued community partner. Keep in mind it is garbage, no one likes to be around it."

Caldwell reports to Waste Management president and CEO David Steiner and has nine direct reports. About 125 people work under the government affairs, communications, and community relations umbrella.

"Fortunately, we have Barry driving our public affairs and communications, which any CEO will tell you are crucial ingredients to successful change," says Steiner. "One particular tribute to Barry and his team is that when I get asked about Waste Management today, most people recognize us as a green company - not just a garbage company. That says a lot about the value he and his team are driving for us."

Holding court

If Barry Caldwell wasn't leading communications at Waste Management, he'd be on a court teaching young girls how to play basketball. "Girls are such sponges," he says. "They absorb everything."

Caldwell, an avid basketball fan who played the game at Dartmouth, has two grown daughters, both athletically inclined. One is a rower at UCLA, the other is on the equestrian team at Gettysburg College.

Last year, the Caldwells hosted a Palestinian sophomore student, a boy the same age as his own son who does not play basketball. Caldwell couldn't resist the opportunity to enhance the student's experience abroad with a schooling in the game.

"My wife joked that since my kid's not playing, I had to grab our surrogate kid and teach him," he recalls.

Embracing social media
Waste Management debuted a social media platform in mid-2008 called greenopolis.com, which began as an all-things-green consumer and business site. In late 2011, the company invested in Recyclebank, which now manages greenopolis.com and gives Waste Management's 20 million-plus customers access to its rewards-for-recycling program.

At last count, Waste Management had 16,000 fans on Facebook. It also uses YouTube internally, providing videos on job safety, and externally for facility advocacy.

Talking to its own employees means building lines of communications to a workforce where many don't have a traditional desk job.

"There are about 43,000 employees; two-thirds are not connected to the Internet or to our internal electronic communication systems because they are on the road," says Caldwell. "We are trying to figure out how to leverage that more."

Waste Management is in the initial stages of rolling out technology in trucks to create more efficient routes to free up managers to engage with employees. The company is also using technology to reach employees in break rooms and transfer stations.

"We've even looked at reaching people in their homes, but have to respect that some people want us to stay in their rearview mirror when headed home," notes Caldwell. "That's a challenge with a work force not connected to IT systems, but we are making progress."

Dealing with the "vexing" issues is one of the things Caldwell loves most about his role in communications.

And whether the topic is healthcare, insurance, or garbage, Caldwell, who held posts at Cigna and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association prior to Waste Management, believes the key to good communications is elevating the message - whether through social media, employee engagement, or one cocktail conversation at a time.

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