For 38 years, Don has been at the helm of Mid America, one of the country’s leading independent recycling companies. Born and raised in Chicago, Don is just as comfortable in a production plant as he is in a boardroom. He has seen plenty of change and evolution at Mid America, which are inevitable in any healthy business, and appreciates that Mid America has
come a long way since its early days.
After all, recycling and being “green” are in Don’s blood, and he knows the business well.
Family owned for three generations, Mid America Paper Recycling was established by Don’s grandfather as a plant that recycled metals, textiles, and paper. “My father then grew the business, expanding the paper and metal recycling segments over several decades,” Don remembers. “I started out in sales, mostly trying to find new fiber supply generators and new mill outlets for all of our paper tonnage. Since then, I was tasked with every job function up through the ranks.”
Don was President of the privately held company until 2018, when Paul Pirkle joined the company. Don transitioned into the role of CEO as Paul became President. Walking the production floors and assessing the process flow of materials through customers’ plants, Don has gained extensive knowledge and insight into what can improve plant processes and what the Mid America team can do to help customers generate more revenue from their paper waste. In a highly competitive industry such as recycling, operations change rapidly every week, as Don can attest. So, he likes to keep an eye on the front lines.
Rolling with the punches
Currently, in the wake of the coronavirus, there is much disruption as customers and suppliers develop contingency plans to keep operating should employees become ill. No one could have predicted how quickly the virus would spread or how quickly the U.S. economy slid into a steep downturn. However, some companies are seeing surging demand for essential products and services. This has been Mid America’s experience. Now is a time when people count on the company more than ever.
“My days are especially full right now. There’s never a dull moment,” Don says. But he’s used to thriving under the pressure and maintaining a positive attitude. “We overcame a very large five-alarm fire back in October 1995, that totally destroyed our building and all of our equipment. Rebuilding a company from the ground up was quite the challenge. I am so appreciative of all the great suppliers and mill relationships we have. They were the best motivation to continue to rebuild all that was lost in the fire.”
With the current unpredictable business challenges, Don wears several hats. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he points out. “I have always been a positive person and am rarely rattled by negative parts of a day, week, or month. I really enjoy exploring and developing the various opportunities that come from wearing all those hats. I take great pride in seeing employees develop as they reach new limits. I treasure the opportunity to deliver real added value to suppliers and mill customers.”
Don continues to look forward on how the coronavirus situation might play out in the coming weeks and works with Paul and the team to decide what actions to take while staying safe and boosting productivity.
Working smart in uncertain markets
Has the business has changed dramatically over the years? “Definitely,” Don says. “Our plant and brokerage business have grown and expanded dramatically, with new equipment and technologies. The industry also saw exceptional growth in export markets. More recently, it witnessed their decline and the shift to alternate regions. Market cycles seem to be shorter now and all played out on a global landscape. Paper mills and the waste hauling industry continue to consolidate. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic is the current challenge to many industries. Specific to the recycling industry is the continuing challenge to provide growing streams of high-quality clean fiber for consuming paper mills.”
Despite these and other trials, the company is working much smarter, Don observes. “These days, we have a better focus on communicating and delivering on our mission and core values. We have a great team of salespeople and customer service representatives, who with excellent oversight, are continuously working to WOW the supplier and customer.
Leadership and management at both the generation sites and the consuming paper mills must strive for continuous improvement, education and continuous communication and feedback — all of which are part of our core mission. They
are essential elements to real improvement in our recycling efforts. “
He took leadership and management inspiration from his father, who led Mid America before him. “My father was a great mentor to watch and learn from,” Don adds. “He always worked hard, was good to his employees and cherished his time with family and friends. That works for me too.”
What Don likes most about the recycling industry is the abundance of opportunities it provides throughout all of the market cycles. “It can bring real economic benefits to the bottom line of a supplier and customer, provide great job opportunities, and is good for our environment.”
For the company to achieve its goals today, Don considers it important to be clear on the objectives. “We’re operating in a time of uncertainty, but we stick to our clear-cut goals on what’s important,” he says. “I am proud of the continuing history of Mid America and how the company has provided the opportunity for so many people to provide for their family’s needs and dreams. I am also proud that the current team and I have been able to bring real added value to so many suppliers and customers over the decades. I have developed so many great relationships that I value tremendously.”
Don cherishes the time he spends with family and friends (now via Zoom), along with his personal time.
“What would I be doing if I could have another career? I’d be a pro golfer in the summer, a ski instructor in the winter and a sailboat captain in spring and fall. That sounds fun — tell me where to sign up.”