“I’d like to tell you that we crunched a bunch of numbers beforehand,” Fish says, “but when we do that, it usually takes a lot of time. I tried to do a little bit of the back-of-the-napkin math but, honestly, it didn’t matter what the number said. It was an easy decision.”
Naturally, everyone on the call was shocked, in the best possible way. For some time, Fish has espoused a “people first” mentality when it came to WM, but it’s one thing to say it and another to make it a reality in the face of a global pandemic.
“Well beyond the success of the company, the stock price, and all of those things, Jim wants his legacy to be [making WM] a great place to work,” says Tom Beaulieu, ’98, an area vice president at WM and Fish’s classmate at Chicago Booth. “And I think his decision on the pandemic really put that front and center.”
“Well beyond the success of the company, the stock price, and all of those things, Jim wants his legacy to be [making WM] a great place to work. And I think his decision on the pandemic really put that front and center.”
Twenty-One Years of Leadership
Fish started working at WM in 2001. When he first told his father he had accepted a role at the Houston-based company, his dad’s initial response was, “I think that company is run by the Mafia.”
After reassuring his father that he wouldn’t be reporting in to Paulie Walnuts (and recommending he watch a little less HBO), Fish began his 21-year-and-counting tenure. He started off as financial director for two years, then moved to vice president, and then to pricing for another three, before getting promoted five more times. During this stretch, Fish changed addresses nearly as often as he did roles—from Boston to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh—inching closer to WM’s Houston headquarters with each move. His final promotion was in 2016, when he replaced David Steiner as CEO, a position Steiner had held since 2004.
From the time Fish assumed the role as both president and CEO in November 2016, WM’s reported earnings have met or exceeded estimates in every quarter but three, and none of the three occurred during the first year of the pandemic or the 2020 recession. At press time, the company was valued at $58.5 billion, or 96 percent more than what it was the week Fish took over.
As Fish said on WM’s 2022 first-quarter earnings call, he credits the company’s success to “executing on our strategic priorities of providing the best workplace, advancing technology and automation that differentiates WM and reduces costs, and leveraging our sustainability platform for growth.”
In February 2022, Waste Management officially rebranded itself WM. The decision to initialize Waste Management originally came at the suggestion of former secretary of state John Kerry. The current US special presidential envoy for climate was a guest at a company forum on sustainability that WM runs in conjunction with its golf tournament, the Phoenix Open.
Kerry approached Fish and said, “I see what you’re doing with sustainability—and I like it. Let me ask you kind of a silly question: Why do you still have ‘waste’ in your name if you’re trying to be synonymous with sustainability?”
“It was actually a great question,” Fish says.
Acronyms can help to rebrand or simplify a company name. Famously, Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded itself as KFC to distance itself from the word “fried.” Few people know that the m’s in 3M stand for “Minnesota,” “mining,” and “manufacturing.” When the name change to WM was announced at the 2022 WM Phoenix Open, almost two years after Kerry’s question, Fish explained: “We’re much more than a waste management company.”
It may, however, take some time before WM catches on. “People still call us Waste Management,” Fish says, before admitting, “I still refer to us as Waste Management.”
Wasting No Time
One of the biggest changes to have occurred over Fish’s 21 years at WM has been to prioritize sustainability. This includes expanding recycling capacity, automating recycling processing, and increasing renewable energy produced from WM’s landfill network.
Fish’s passion for the environment and preservation was forged from a young age. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Fish spent most of his summers with family in Wyoming, which shares “Big Sky Country” status with Montana. As a young boy, he frequented both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, taking in the breathtaking vistas protected from the environment-polluting perils of industrialization.
“It was something ingrained in me as a kid that we need to preserve resources,” Fish says. “That’s really what recycling is about.” WM is planning to spend more than $1.6 billion by 2025 on its recycling and renewable-gas businesses. In February 2022, Motley Fool investor Jamie Louko praised the move as “a bullish development for long-term investors,” adding that “it is clear management does not want to sit back on its heels when it comes to sustainability, seeing it instead as a major opportunity.”
“It was something ingrained in me as a kid that we need to preserve resources. That’s really what recycling is about.”
Despite WM’s best efforts, there are still those that only see the “waste” in WM’s former brand name. Less than a month before the start of the pandemic, Fish was in Washington, DC, to speak at a National Geographic Forum. There, he was asked by someone in attendance, “How do you consider yourself sustainable when you’re the biggest landfill company in North America?”
After reminding the skeptic that WM is also the biggest recycler in North America, he addressed the tough question. “How much of that landfill waste and recycling do you think WM generates?” Fish asked. “The answer is ‘zero.’ It’s you. It’s me. It’s your business. All of it is generated by individuals and businesses, and none of it comes from Waste Management.”
It’s more beneficial for WM to recycle. It doesn’t benefit the company when recyclables end up in the landfill—much of what the company recycles, such as water bottles, doesn’t weigh anything, and WM charges by the pound. “And yet,” Fish says, “if I take those bottles to the recycling plant, they’re highly valuable to us, and I think sometimes people don’t fully understand that.”
WM is committed to improving consumer education about how to recycle and what to recycle. The company is also working to do a better job optimizing low-value plastics. In January 2022, WM Organic Growth, a wholly owned subsidiary of WM, and Tailwater Capital acquired Continuus Materials, a company that can turn certain types of refuse, such as junk mail and the plastic containers supermarkets often use for berries, into Everboard, a proprietary, high-performance, low-slope cover board that’s useful for the roofs of big commercial buildings. “It stands up to hail and doesn’t crack the way some nonsustainable products do,” Fish says.
WM also has its sights set on a business that takes shrink-wrap and other plastics commonly used at hospitals, palletizes them, and then sells the material back to Dow Chemical to make more shrink-wrap or plastic bags. It’s another example of how WM is leveraging materials that previously, because of their weight, had little monetary value to the company and even debilitated equipment. “Not only does shrink-wrap not decompose,” he says, “but it’s worse than other plastics because it literally gets wrapped around the axle of our big equipment, so we end up having to cut it out.”
Some of the more ardent nonprofit directors huff when Fish starts espousing sustainability efforts that turn a profit, but Fish knows that social and fiscal responsibility are often only attainable if they’re not mutually exclusive. “It’s got to be economically viable, because nobody’s going to do it at a loss,” Fish says. He’s had some environmentalists even recommend that WM recycle everything.
“Maybe I could recycle a baby’s dirty diaper,” he says, “but I’m not going to make a profit from it. They say, ‘Well, who cares?’ I say, ‘You should care about that—because what business is going to tackle that problem of recycling a baby’s dirty diaper if they can’t make money at it?’” Profit incentivizes the innovations that make recycling efficient and feasible.
Finding His Way
After finishing high school, Fish enrolled at the University of Texas, not far from where he was born. In the summer before his senior year, he took the opportunity to visit his aunt and uncle near North Scottsdale, Arizona. It was then Fish contracted meningitis.
He was hospitalized for six weeks. After he was released, his mother rented him an apartment a few miles from the hospital. He was required to go in three times a week. Over a two-year period, Fish endured approximately 200 spinal-tap procedures—“a big, long needle in the back of the neck.”
His dream of earning a degree from UT no longer seemed feasible. But Arizona State University was nearby, and was willing to accommodate his convalescence.
“Arizona State University had a handicapped van that would actually take me from my apartment to the hospital, wait for me to get my spinal tap, and then take me home,” Fish remembers. “Then I passed out the rest of the day because of my medications.”
Fish recalls taking only one class on campus. The rest were completed in his apartment with a teaching assistant by his side. He graduated from ASU in 1986 with a BS in accounting.
“I still consider myself a Longhorn,” he says, “but there’s definitely a soft spot in my heart for ASU for what they did for me.”
After graduation, he briefly joined accounting firm KPMG before taking a job at Tempe, Arizona-based America West Airlines as a director of yield management. To help the airline avoid bankruptcy, in 1987 Ansett Australia bought a 21.6 percent stake in the company, and Fish lived and worked in Melbourne for a short time. After nine years at America West Airlines, he went to work for the now-defunct Trans World Airlines in St. Louis, where he met his wife, Tracy.
Fish learned a great deal from his 13 years in the aviation industry that would serve him well later. “Just from a purely business standpoint,” he says, “the airline industry was one of the first to really utilize e-commerce.” That knowledge has come in handy as WM invests heavily in virtual technology and customer-service automation.
But after more than 3 years with TWA, Fish was feeling more burnt out than inspired. It was around this time he bumped into Gerald Gitner, the then CEO of TWA, in the company parking lot. Fish told him he was considering leaving TWA and going back to school to get his MBA. Although Fish wasn’t necessarily looking for his advice, Gitner decided to give it anyway.
“Look,” Gitner began, “if you’re going to do that, go to a top school. There are other options, but the top four are always the top four, and they hardly ever change.”
The advice hit home, but there was a part of Fish that didn’t believe he was worthy enough to attend any of those schools. His mother had been the first woman from Wyoming to attend Stanford University, and he felt the weight of that accomplishment.
“She was clearly the smartest person in the family,” Fish says. “The manifestation of that, I think, was that the kids (myself, my twin sister, and our younger sister) grew up not really feeling we measured up intellectually.”
So when Fish was accepted at his first choice, Chicago Booth, it was a huge boost to his self-esteem. Still, he wasn’t entirely convinced he belonged there.
“Everybody that went to Booth was brilliant,” he says. “When I got to school, I felt like the densest guy in the classroom.”
David Wickersham, ’99, an attorney working with small businesses and startups, remembers Fish feeling a bit like a fish out of water. “All of these guys were working at banks and everything, and he said to me, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in trouble.’”
But as soon as Fish learned Wickersham was a pilot for United Airlines, he breathed a huge sigh of relief. There were at least two guys in the room that came from the same place.
“He was very comfortable talking to me about airlines,” Wickersham says. “Back then, the president of TWA was a pilot, so he worked for a pilot, basically. He knew airlines inside and out, and I knew them pretty well, so it gave us something to talk about.”
Besides the exceptional curriculum and access to world-class professors, Fish says, the biggest thing Booth gave him was “a level of self-confidence that I don’t think I’d have gotten if I’d gone somewhere else.”
“Fish is relatable to anyone, no matter who they are, what their title is, or what their position is.”
Higher education is so important to Fish that he’s made it a core tenet at WM. While some companies contribute to employees’ college education, WM announced last year that it would also contribute to the college education of employees’ dependents as part of its new Your Tomorrow program. The program also includes flexible work schedules and sign-on bonuses.
Not long before Your Tomorrow was announced, Fish was in Little Rock, Arkansas, riding in the passenger’s seat next to Terrell, a young millennial driver for WM. (Fish makes it a point to connect with workers across all roles and throughout the United States every year.) That day, Fish was with Terrell as he performed his job for about three hours.
At first, the driver was reluctant to open up with the CEO of the company. But after a while, Fish was able to break the ice, as Beaulieu says only he can do. “Fish is relatable to anyone, no matter who they are, what their title is, or what their position is,” he says.
Terrell began to talk freely. He shared that he had never had the opportunity to go to college. He told Fish he had five children; their mother had fallen into substance abuse and was no longer in the picture. But the man wasn’t unhappy. He loved working at WM, though he had a wish that he feared would go unmet.
“While I’m happy with what I make at WM, and it gives me enough income to buy a house and to live comfortably,” Terrell told Fish, “I don’t make enough to put my kids through college.”
Fish was forced to bite his tongue hard. Your Tomorrow was still under wraps at the time, but he wanted so badly to give Terrell the news. So when the program was finally announced in May 2021, Fish called Terrell himself.
“So, Terrell, do you remember when you and I rode together, and you told me about your biggest concern?” Fish asked him. “Well, we just took it off your plate.”
Terrell was elated. And so was Fish.
“Part of being ‘people first’ is helping employees live a better life,” Fish says. “And to the extent that we can do that, whether it’s paying for their college or their kids’ college, or giving everybody a big raise last year in the face of high inflation like we did—all those things are part of what helped me be a better person and a better CEO.”