Bobby Farris took the helm as CEO of Seattle-based Total Reclaim and its sister company, EcoLights, recyclers of regulated scrap materials, in mid-September. The companies, which Craig Lorch and Jeff Zirkle founded in 1991 to provide recycling solutions for refrigerants, lightbulbs, computers and batteries, likely sound familiar: Total Reclaim was the biggest participant in E-Cycle Washington, a program created by the Washington state legislature to provide safe recycling of hazardous electronics. That was until, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, news got out that Total Reclaim shipped 8.3 million pounds of mercury-containing flat-screen monitors from a storage facility on Harbor Island, off the coast of Seattle, to Hong Kong from 2008 through 2015.
Lorch and Zirkle, who previously served as Total Reclaim’s co-CEOs, appointed Farris to the role following their sentencing to 28 months in prison earlier this year. The sentencing occurred after the duo pleaded guilty to federal charges related to their LCD exports. Their prison time is to be followed by three years of supervised release, according the Department of Justice.
Farris’ responsibilities include improving transparency into Total Reclaim’s operations. He comes to the company from TerraCycle, a recycler of “hard-to-recycle” materials, where he served as general manager. Farris led its division that collects and recycles regulated end-of-life materials, such as lighting, batteries and electronics.
He has more than 20 years of executive-level experience in the appliance, lightbulb and electronics recycling industry and will use his background in sales and operations management to grow Total Reclaim. Farris previously served as vice president of business development for JACO Environmental, the country’s largest appliance recycling company at the time. For nine years, he also served as director of electronics recycling services at Houston-based Waste Management Inc., overseeing development and implementation of the environmental management standards for its electronics recycling operations and spearheading its expansion of electronics recycling services into nationwide product stewardship markets.
At the time of his appointment, Farris said, “My mission is to leverage my experience to lead Total Reclaim into a future that provides material reclamation services in a sustainable, accountable and transparent way.”
Shortly after starting his new role with Total Reclaim, Farris told Recycling Today, “Maybe I’m a sucker for the redemption story, but I think we have an opportunity to provide some redemption here for the company and for the employees of the company. I’d like to be a part of that, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
In the interview that follows, Farris shares the way he plans to increase transparency at Total Reclaim and his vision for the company going forward.
Recycling Today (RT): How do you plan to help rebuild trust in Total Reclaim given its owners’ legal issues?
Bobby Farris (BF): As you probably well know, one of the parties (Zirkle) is in the federal penitentiary right now, and the other (Lorch) will be going in next July. I think it’s important to note that the issues occurred three years ago, and the company has been operating since then, although it’s about half the size as it was at that point.
Obviously, we’ve lost some of our state product stewardship programs due to what occurred, but the business as a whole remains strong. It’s doing quite well in the lamp recycling side of the business and in the appliance recycling part of the business.
“Maybe I’m a sucker for the redemption story, but I think we have an opportunity to provide some redemption here for the company and for the employees of the company.” – Bobby Farris, CEO, Total Reclaim
The mistakes were made, and they were decisions made by the owners of the company, not by the employees. The employees have remained strong through the process and have stuck with the company and have kept it afloat. A lot of companies in the industry that have experienced similar things have gone out of business. I give credit to Total Reclaim that they have stayed alive and moved forward.
What I see my role as is coming in and setting a path, providing direction and allowing the employees to thrive, allowing the company to thrive. I’m in charge of all operations, all decision-making related to the company, all day-to-day decision- making. [Lorch and Zirkle] are no longer involved in that. And my charter here is to earn trust: earn trust from the customers, earn trust with the employees and earn trust from the industry as a whole. The main thing we’re doing to accomplish that goal is to provide more transparency to the process and to the company.
Oversight will be a key component of the company going forward. We’re actively searching for a new EH&S (environmental, health and safety) manager who will be a part of the executive leadership team. We’re putting in place a new code of conduct for employees as well as an ethics hotline that allows employees to call out any issues they may see that are concerning to them regarding company practices. The hotline will be independently managed and monitored, with any alerts communicated to a designated committee within the company charged with following up.
We’re still operating according to all the best practices within the industry. The company had and continues to have a very robust ISO system, both for environmental and for quality standards. The problem wasn’t that the system wasn’t in place; the problem was that the system wasn’t abided by. The company needs to do what it says it’s going to do, and that’s my mandate.
RT: Do you have anything planned to increase the company’s transparency?
BF: As I noted previously, we are in the process of onboarding a professional EH&S director and we are adding an ethics hotline.
Additionally, we are reassessing all of our processes and procedures related to material handling and downstream commodity management with the intention of establishing the most rigorous and transparent environmental quality standards in the industry. Additional details regarding these improvements will be rolled out over time as a part of our marketing and communications strategy.
RT: Do you have a timeline for implementing that strategy?
BF: Absolutely; we won’t be delaying decisions. In a sense, this relates to the core of how we operate the business. I don’t want to jump ahead on some of the questions you have, but one of the things I’ve learned over my career at Waste Management and at TerraCycle and other locations is that the electronics recycling business has been turned into a commodity-based business and not a service business. Currently, the stewardship programs or the manufacturers ask, “What’s your price?” and then evaluate your relative value primarily based upon how your price compares to the other providers in the market. Service probably doesn’t come up top on the list of evaluation criteria, yet it is the most valuable thing that you provide. And then, on the back end of the process, you’re really a slave to the commodity market.
In my view, the businesses in the industry need to be rewarded for the service they’re providing. Our goal is to set the company up so that it’s a service-based company and adequately compensated for the services we’re providing. But, at the same time, the services we’re providing need to add value to the supply chain ... [and you need to be] recognizing that value and communicating that you add value.
If you want the lowest price, you’re going to get the lowest quality service in most cases. I’m firmly convinced that’s not necessarily what the industry wants. It’s just that the companies providing higher value services haven’t done a good job of communicating what that value is, and so they’ve been put in a position where they’re competing with lower quality service and the pricing associated with [them].
Look at something like certifications. Those aren’t inexpensive. There’s a value that you’re providing to the supply chain by gaining that certification. For pricing to be built around the industry as a whole without taking that into account, I don’t believe it’s fair, nor is it sustainable, and it puts companies in a position where they have to operate on a shoestring to try to meet the pricing requirements of the industry. And that’s not where we want to be going forward. We want to be a service-based business. And we want to be transparent in what services we’re providing and what value we’re providing.
Just as a side note, someone I worked for a while back at Waste Management asked me, “What business do you think you’re in?” Obviously, my answer at the time was, “I’m in the recycling business.” His response was, “No, you’re not understanding fundamentally what you’re doing. You’re in the security business. You’re making sure that a customer’s material is handled correctly from an environmental liability perspective and then from an information security perspective. You’re being paid to provide a security service, and so you need to think about your business in terms of security. You need to manage your company accordingly, and you need to be compensated accordingly for the services that you provide.”
RT: How much of the company’s business today is on the lighting side versus on the electronics side?
BF: The question’s hard to answer because, you can answer in terms of revenue, in terms of pounds [and] in terms of resources. I would say roughly “half and half” of resources and revenue would be a good way to look at it.
At its high point, the company had about 200 to 250 employees. Now it has about 65 employees. But ... the business that we’re doing now is a more profitable business. The e-waste stewardship business, as everyone in the industry could attest to, does not come with very high margins. The business that we’re focusing on is a more profitable business and requires less resources to operate, but it’s not as much of a high-revenue business.
RT: What are Craig Lorch’s and Jeff Zirkle’s current roles with the company?
BF: They are still the owners, but they are not involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. I’m the one making all business decisions related to the company. Craig at this point is operating in an advisory capacity. He’s not an employee of the company, but he’s helping transition the management of the company over to me. Again, the decision-making is all in my hands, but I need Craig’s help to transition background issues related to any executive management decisions that were made in the past.
Jeff and Craig were the sole owners in the business, and those decisions resided in their hands. It’ll take a little while to get everything fully transitioned over to me.
In terms of Craig and Jeff, one of the things I want to point out is that they both expressed to me when they asked me to entertain this opportunity that their goal is to put the company in a position to reward the employees that have stuck with the company.
It’s been a very rough time, obviously, for those two, but it’s been an even rougher time for the employees. I wasn’t with the company at the time, but there were many times where the company could’ve gone under, and the employees kept it alive and kept it successful. And Craig and Jeff both expressed to me that the charter that they see for the new CEO is to put the company in a position to reward the employees for the efforts they’ve given. And I think that’s a credit to both of them.
RT: Where do you believe Total Reclaim excels?
BF: One of the things I noticed coming into the company is that the employees have all been with the company for a long time. They’ve managed very many types and very high volumes of material. They have had to make lots of decisions in a very stressful environment. And then they’ve weathered the storm through the legal issues, through everything that’s been going on over the last three years. It’s a very experienced team that can do great things, they just need a little bit of guidance, a little bit of leadership.
RT: Where would you like to see the company strengthen?
BF: We’re in a position now where we need to earn business. And earning business means being much better at marketing and communicating and sharing—simply sharing the story of the company, of the industry, of what we do, how we do it and why it’s important. That hasn’t been a strength of the company because it hasn’t needed to be. But I think that’s an area that we need to focus on going forward. And, in fact, I think it’s an area where the industry needs to focus going forward. You hear a lot about the bad in the industry; the good news doesn’t often sell. But I think in today’s news environment, one of the things I learned working for TerraCycle is that if you’re doing good for the environment, people do want to know about it. They do want to hear about it. And if you communicate it effectively, you can succeed at building your brand and building the business.