Let’s start with ‘who are you?’ and ‘what do you do?’
I was raised in Colorado, Colorado Springs to be exact. Spent 35 years there, before I got married. Graduated from college at Colorado State University with a degree in Biology. Started school with every intent to become a Veterinarian. That’s because I get along better with animals than I do people. I worked summer jobs to pay my way through school. One of my bosses was appointed the regional administrator at EPA and offered to take me with him. He said, “if you really want to be a vet then go back to school. But if you’re not sure, take a couple years off and come join me.”
So I left. I got involved in Colorado politics for a while. One of the campaigns I worked on was with a local businessman who was running for governor. When we lost his race, he kicked me out of politics. He said, “You don’t want to be a politician. Go out into the world and make something of yourself. After you do that, you can return to the political process with some real world experience. But do not build a career as a politician. That’s the worst thing you could do for the system. You need real world experience to add value to the political process.
He looked me in the eye and said, “I’m going to make sure you don’t get another job in politics until that happens.” It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I left, and floundered around with 4 or 5 different failed projects, learning a lot along the way. Then in 1993 I got married, and my wife suggested that we look for a change of scenery. We moved to Bellingham and I took a job with a company here that I’d been doing some contract work for.
Bellingham appealed to me for a few different reasons. It was about the same size as Colorado Springs during my youth. Colorado Springs today is too big, over 500,00 people. I loved being close to the mountains. She loved being close to the water. It just fit. The plan was to focus our marriage with a fresh start here.
After a time I had an opportunity to buy one of the projects that I’d been working on from the company. So I did just that. I worked out of my house. Not long after that we were offered a chance to purchase a failing cardboard recycling facility in Idaho from Weyerhaeuser. We then made a name for ourselves buying unprofitable cardboard recycling plants and overhauling them—improving their efficiency until they were profitable. The second plant we bought was in Canada, and it was a big risk. It took a gut check. We put the house and everything up as collateral, but it worked out. The first two went so well that we bought another and another. By the time we were done we had 4 plants. All we really did was remove the waste and bureaucracy and they became profitable.
So where did all the cardboard come from and then where did it go after you were done processing it?
The community and commercial ventures nearby. A couple of the plants did more than just cardboard, they recycled everything.
But when we were done, we shipped bales to paper mills. The plant we had in Canada was shipping 10–15 trucks a day of baled cardboard to a plant in Tacoma.
It was a great business for us, but doing more deals became an addiction. I loved finding a great opportunity and negotiating a good price. I loved it so much that I couldn’t say no. I was putting me on a very dangerous path.
My wife noticed—she’s been a steady, wise hand throughout this whole process—and she said, “You’ve gotta stop. You can’t be gone for weeks at a time and then come back for a weekend and expect to make up the time you missed at home.”
So in 2000 we sold them all. Got them all back when the buyers defaulted and had the pleasure of selling them again.
Did you get the same rush from making the sales deal as you did the acquisition deal?
No, it wasn’t quite the same, running an operation personalizes the business and it becomes your baby, hard to let go. Buying is a big chess match—you’re trying to find the best position with no emotional attachment. But when you’re selling a company, you’re talking about something that you took from failure and transformed it into something successful. All the people who work with you on they are your people, family. You have a loyalty and a camaraderie with all of them. The reality of having a real family at home trumped my business desires. I knew enough about what happens when kids don’t have engaged parents at home and I knew I needed to make a change.
The one project that I kept, which has been my one consistent venture throughout my career, is a project in Antarctica. We take everything out of the research stations for the National Science Foundation. It has some really interesting challenges.
I worked the Antarctic project while the girls were young, so I was there when they got home from school. And I traveled a little, but they could travel with me.
The Antarctic project created a niche for me. People started asking me to do cleanup and remediation in very remote, inaccessible places like Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and Greenland. So Best Recycling became the go-to company for cleanup that nobody else wanted to do in places where nobody else wanted to go.
After years of experimenting we developed a technology that could clean spilled oil out of dirt and snow, extracting the oil and returning the soil back to its original condition. That created a whole new business segment for us. We created the Iron Creek Group. Named it that because Iron Creek was adjacent to our first oil spill cleanup. Iron Creek will easily surpass Best Recycling in the next two years.
We now have 3 patented technologies for different purposes. The coolest one lets us cook the oil out of spill, condense it down and reuse it. So spilled oil isn’t lost, we can come in and not only clean it up, but also recover the oil.
You have projects all over the globe, and it sounds like you could work from anywhere. What is it that keeps you in Bellingham?
My wife loves it here, and I love my wife.
That’s a great reason! If you guys have a sunny day in Bellingham, how do you spend it?
We have a condo in Birch Bay and spend time there. It is a great escape for us and so close to town but yet so far away.
I love to run, so if it’s sunny you’ll probably find me in Whatcom Falls Park, running the stairs. I don’t run as much when it isn’t sunny. And it shows. [laughs]
This is a good place for that.
Yeah. There’s so much to do. You’re close to Vancouver and Seattle.
I love taking one of my motorcycles out for the day. I will often will take the long way home. Nothing better than a ride up Baker to Artist Point, around the lake and through Acme, or my favorite the long way to Birch Bay. Head through the reservation along the water and into town. The bike ride feeds my soul.
Is there a restaurant or a business unique to Bellingham that the world needs to know about?
The world needs to meet Edwin Martinez and spend time at Onxy coffee.
Anyone who doesn’t understand good coffee is missing out. If I could issue a challenge to the world it would be: spend 30 minutes with Edwin at Onyx. And I apologize to Edwin in advance.
If everybody would do that, the world would be changed. No doubt in my mind. And everyone should travel with him and his dad to Guatemala. We would have world peace, I’m convinced.
If you had the chance to go back to school today, what would you go study?
This is not a secret. I would tell 18 year old Ken, “Go become a baseball umpire.” They pay you to stand on the field and watch baseball games.
What would be the course of study for that? Sports psychology?
I think it’s more a matter of experience.
But you’ve got to start young.
Right, and work you way up through the ranks. But once you reach the MLB—
You get to watch 162 baseball games a year.
And they pay you!
I have never had a bad time at a baseball game. On a separate note I’ve never had a bad time around a campfire either.
One of the things that I love to do is invite high school boys to our house for poker night and a bonfire.
I do that because I have 2 daughters. It is my job to keep my friends (daughters) close but the enemy (boys) closer.
So we hosted these poker tournaments at our house, and you can learn everything about a young man at the poker table. You learn his character, his personality, everything there is to know. I had the best intelligence of any parent at Squalicum High School. Then we would go out by the campfire and we would have some of the greatest talks. Some of these kids would stay until 1 or 2 in the morning and talk about what’s important—faith, purpose, and relationships. They just want someone other than their parents to talk to.
What do people misunderstand about your job most often?
I’m in an environmental job, so many people think this is a political action. But it’s not. I am here to do a service. It is a great way to make a living and feel great at the end of the day.
I’m in this business because it’s a great business and I believe it makes the world better. My whole career has been focused on keeping things out of the landfill. When we dump or cap a landfill, we’re just putting it off for our kids do deal with later. I want to deal with it now, so we can hand down to our children a world that is full of opportunity not a world full of messes that they have to go clean up.