Exclusive: Q&A with new NWRA President and CEO Darrell Smith

Exclusive: Q&A with new NWRA President and CEO Darrell Smith

In an exclusive interview with "Waste Today," Darrell Smith discusses his goals for the association and how he plans to lead.

September 13, 2017

The National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), Arlington, Virginia, has a change in leadership. Dr. Darrell Smith was appointed as the association’s president and CEO in August. His background in the mining and chemical industry combined with his safety and environmental background and advocacy and lobbying experience have prepared him in his new role.

His appointment comes as the waste and recycling industry continues to rank as one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. In a recent interview with Waste Today, Smith shares how he plans to take that knowledge and experience with safety and collaboration in other industries and apply those lessons to the waste and recycling industry to help make it a safer occupation.


Waste Today (WT): Please tell me a little bit about your background and what let you to this point?

Darrell Smith (DS): I worked in various industries for 15 years, primarily as a safety and environmental person but held a multitude of other roles as well prior to coming to Washington, D.C. And when my career started here, I was hired by the chemical industry for my technical background in safety and environment. I began being exposed to that advocacy and lobbying world and really found like I enjoyed it quite a bit. I felt like I was able to make a difference, and I have gone from there. I have been employed by the mining and petroleum industries in D.C., and now I am in the waste industry and I am very excited. 


WT: How do you think your experience has prepared you in your role as president and CEO of the NWRA?

DS: One interesting thing about me is I came to D.C. from a nontraditional route. Most government affairs professionals start with their first job on Capitol Hill maybe with an internship or paid position, but I think my industry background gives me a unique perspective that a lot of lobbyists don’t have. And I am now well versed as well in the workings of public policymaking. I do enjoy understanding my industry members and I have always been an industry advocate. I think I have a special view into the world they live in and the troubles they face, and I think that almost gives me an advantage sometimes.


WT: What will be your primary focus as president and CEO initially?

DS: I am in listening and learning mode right now. This is such a great industry full of wonderful people. Every time I have a question, there’s someone ready to spend as long as I need educating me. I’ve got a world of experience available to me just a phone call away. I just have been touched by how nice and how helpful everyone has been to me. I am just trying to absorb as much as I can. Nothing has been overly complicated, but there have just been a lot of topics and a lot of issues to learn. Secondly, I am developing a strategy and structure here at the association.


WT: What are your goals for the association in your first year?

DS: First, and foremost I want to have a happy and productive staff and workplace here at the NWRA. My role as the head association executive here puts that squarely in my lap, and I take that very seriously. I want to help people develop. I want to help them be happy, and I want them to be productive. Happy people who trust their leadership are more productive and that is my management philosophy.

I want to organize the association and increase efficiencies so that we are responding to our members and that we are putting out products that benefit the membership. Next, I want to develop an effective and efficient advocacy program both at the local and national level. Not just government advocacy, but communications advocacy and public relations advocacy as well. I want NWRA to be the recognized voice of the industry. We already do have a major voice in the waste industry, and I want that only to increase and I want us to be the spokesperson for the industry.

Next, I want to form some valuable partnerships and bring synergy to our efforts. There are a lot of state groups and similar trade associations and potential partnerships we have with government and community groups, etc. I think with a small-staffed association as we are, synergy with other groups is very important and I am making a long list of people I am going to reach out to.

And then finally, I have a very long list of improvements. We’ve already started working on some of them from things like our website to communications planning to hiring some key staff positions. That is where I am right now.


WT: How will you build on the work that has been done in the area of safety?

DS: I am coming from the mining industry and we had a rule in the mining industry that every talk should really start with safety, and I am going to try to start implementing that here at NWRA and try to do that within the industry.

The mining industry is very good with safety, of course, because it is a very dangerous occupation. We had several basic principals in the mining industry and one of them [relative to safety] was basically, “Have no secrets.”

If a huge company with lots of resources came up with a new technology that could save lives, they tended to share that and make it available to the smaller companies as well. Safety is not a competitive industry. Having a safe work force makes us all look better, and safety is foremost on my mind. I have something that I am very excited about this Friday (Aug. 25), I am going on my first ride-along with some waste handlers. With one of our largest companies and I am scheduling several other ride-alongs as well.

When I was in industry the most rewarding part of being a safety guy—and you can’t do safety from your desk—was to walk out on the shop floor and just spend time with the workers. You can learn more in ten minutes with a worker than you can learn from spending a whole year paying for a consultant, doing an analysis and thinking on our own.

The guy or the woman doing the job can tell you exactly how to do it safely and exactly what the problems are. I am not just going on one ride-along to make myself look like I am involved in the industry, I am going to make it a routine thing where I get out in the field and figure out why our employees are being injured as we are.

We are the fifth most dangerous occupation—waste handlers are—and that’s got to end. So I am going to be out in the field using my safety expertise to figure out what is going on and lending a hand where I can. [Information sharing] is one of the things that has saved the mining industry. There are parts of the mining industry that are safer to work in than the retail industry and we are going to do the same thing here.


WT: How important is it to collaborate with other industry groups such as the Institute of Scrap Recycing Industries Inc. (ISRI) and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) on issues affecting the industry?

DS: At this point I have met with the leadership of the other two major groups in the industry. They have been very receptive and helpful to me. I think trade associations in a similar space should work together. In the mining industry, we had probably five or six trade associations at the national level, not to mention dozens as the state level, and it was nothing short of a love fest is the only way I can describe it.

We worked together like we were working for the same employer, and I want that to be the case here. I was on the phone this morning with one of my colleagues at one of the other trade groups and we had a great conversation and decided something we were going to work together on. I want those relationships to be genuine, and I certainly have a genuine intent to work closely with others, whether it be at the state level or the national level.

Relative to state associations we want to be supportive, and nobody knows their state like people in the state. I am not looking to step on anybody’s toes. I just want to get out there and see what we can do together. There’s nothing better than a piece of paper sent to a legislator with multiple logos on it. If you can have a couple of trade associations working for the same industry on a single piece of paper, it’s wonderful. If you can add labor to that, it’s even better. If you can add an activist group to it, it’s awesome. Working like that gets things done, and that’s my approach in general to government relations is looking for consensus and win, win, win opportunities for everyone.


WT: How is NWRA responding to recent developments in China, who has said it will broaden its ban of imported scrap materials?

DS: The first policy issue I heard about upon taking the job. It is something that is very concerning anytime one actor can have a up to 40 percent effect on a market and an industry, it is extremely concerning. Even though I am concerned I am cautiously optimistic. I’ve attended, along with some industry colleagues and at our other trade associations, a meeting of the U.S. trade rep’s office and we had a good long discussion with them and they are on our side and they are trying to deal with the issue and we are filing comments on the matter as are industry colleagues and we will go from there. We are taking it seriously and we will do what we can.


WT: Why would you advocate becoming a member? What are the benefits?

DS: This is the fourth trade association I’ve worked for and membership has been a big part of all of them. There are two primary reasons to be a member of any trade association. One is to gain benefit for your organization and two is to support your industry. I always like to begin any conversation about membership with the real reason for an association and that is to support the industry, talk with one voice and to increase our footprint and power to get things done.

I think that it is important to look at what the benefit is for your organization, but I think the real purpose of the association gets lost in all of that. That being said, we certainly have a lot of benefits for individual members and let me go through a few of those. As the leading voice of the industry we demonstrate that we are stronger when we are united using the power of our number and the talents of our members, what we are able to accomplish from an advocacy and consumer education perspective is limitless.

Members benefit from our legislative wins and from our consumer behaviors we help to adjust through our educational campaigns and we are looking at all kinds of things to increase our advocacy among the company. Next, especially for our small and medium-sized companies that do not have safety leaders and compliance professionals, communication experts and technical experts on staff, they can benefit from the synergy available to them through the association relationship.

We have lots of events that provide effective networking opportunities in the industry. The opportunity that our members have to meet and collaborate is invaluable. Associations provide antitrust protections and venues for doing this that just wouldn’t be available otherwise. We also have a very important group of members that we call endorsed providers. They provide our members with unmatched savings.

For example a typical NWRA member can save thousands of dollars purchasing tires from Goodyear and their employees achieve a significant savings when purchasing vehicles from Auto Nation. Those are just two of a number of examples we can provide of how our members save money and in many times recoup their dues so their dues aren’t even an issue, they are making money by being a member with us. And we are looking for lots more opportunities like that.

One thing I plan to do is spend a lot of time working on the value proposition for members. If you can prove that it is cost effective and even profitable to be a member that is a good membership formula. Finally, we provide thought leadership in the industry. We drive conversations on issues that are important for our members and we bring leaders together to work on solutions and address needs.


WT: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

DS: Waste handlers are being killed and it is just not acceptable. It is the fifth most dangerous occupation. They are being killed at a higher rate than policemen and firemen. If you were to ask the public to name the most dangerous occupations I suspect no one would even think of our humble waste handlers.

I am so excited about my ride along and future ride-alongs. I want to find out for myself what the dangers are so that I can use my years and years of safety experience to lend a hand. We are going to make progress in this area, and that’s one thing that I am most excited about.

Distracted driving puts our workers at risk. Sixteen states have passed Slow Down to Get Around legislation, but we have a lot more to get done. It would even be good to get states driver’s license exams to incorporate—just like they do with school buses and construction zones —the importance of slowing down for garbage trucks.

A strong waste industry is important, but it’s just not worth losing a single life for. We as an industry and the public at large need to fix this problem.