Boldly going and doing what others can’t
Ken Bell needn’t look far for inspiration. He looks around him — family, church, friends, work. At work he looks around him and sees as far as the mind’s eye can take him to clean up Planet Earth.
Antarctica, Aleutian Islands, Greenland, the Yukon….and if not your continent, your curbside. He presides over his company, Best Recycling, in its 20th anniversary year in Bellingham. The company handles waste management of every type imaginable in a niche marketplace of every type imaginable.
Bell looks out from a second-floor, corner-office setting on a Bellingham waterfront across a plaza from Bellwether Hotel. A section of Bellingham Bay, lapping up against the future downtown waterfront redevelopment site, serves as inspiration on many fronts.
Just its innate beauty, for one. One of the many magnets of this region to visitors and newcomers drawn to it. But another, a separate story altogether – call it the bane of the Bay, in Bell’s view – lies in the junk beneath the water’s surface.
After all, he’s a recycler, a composter, a decontaminator. He’s also a strong free-market capitalist, by self-description, and sees another way to clean the bay and clear the way for thriving commerce across from his panoramic window panes.
“I just look out there, and see why we do what we do, and why we live where we live”, he said, seated at his desk as another of his strong passions, baseball, provides a silent, visual backdrop (this day, the Chicago Cubs’ telecast) on a wide-screen TV.
Wait. Free-market capitalism and environmental stewardship, in the same breath? With Bell and Best, count on it….
Best Recycling brings to mind the Captain’s Oath from the long-ago Star Trek TV series: “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
At least not to carry out the trash.
“We take on projects that nobody else wants,” Bell said. The remotest of remote, the bitterest of cold. Places defying conventional transportation, and sometimes even survival.
Start with Antarctica.
That’s how Best Recycling started. Bell painted a word picture of the origins. “Battling for composting jobs (for Recomp, a company in Denver)….bored to tears….playing solitaire at my desk. I don’t idle well. It dawned on me. I gotta go.’”
Bell, who set out in college to become a veterinarian, had worked a couple of years for the Environmental Protection Agency straight out of Colorado State University. And, later for companies operating hazardous waste material, analytical labs, and waste incineration. One aspect of every position excited him.
“My confession,” he said, “Closing deals is my addiction.” Recomp in his home state had assigned him to travel to Whatcom County and service clients here. He acquired sites and permitting for Recomp, and then moved here to serve as liaison between the corporation and the City, County, and State governments regulating the industry. That was his life from 1988-’94. Late in ’93 he hit a tipping point. The tipping point was losing the composting operation to long haul landfilling.
“A bid for Antarctica recycling came across my desk Only two companies were willing to even try for it. I bid it, got it, and then bought it from Recomp, and left.” Bell said that he had an “Oh, no!” moment “I thought, What did I just do?’ I really didn’t expect something that big. But it was unique enough, and seemed to match my skills.”
Hence, Best Recycling was born under a different name, Bell Development. In a rapid-fire series of deals, within weeks, Bell had negotiated with Weyerhaeuser Corporation, and suddenly owned another plant in Idaho – Panhandle Recycling specializing in cardboard curbside recycling in Coeur d’Alene. (He sold it in 2002.)
About a war later Weyerhaeuser wanted to divest of their debt ridden Canadian operations, and Bell bought that, too – a multi-services, standard recycling facility in Westminster, outside of Vancouver, B.C.
And not long after that, Bell took another leap forward. Or was it backward?
Suddenly, he found that he had spun out of control in what mattered most to him. “We had two young girls, and I was ruining my family,” he said. The company had acquired a fourth location in Charleston, W. Va. – one of the largest suppliers of recycled cardboard on the East Coast.
“That addition in 1998 just about killed me,” Bell said. “I realized that a deal would come up, and I’d want to close it. It was like a drug. Traveling to Coeur d’Alene, to Canada, to West Virginia – it made me realize I’m addicted to deals, and I needed to step back.”
He gave “all the credit” to his wife, DeeDee, for sweeping changes in both their business and family structures. “She got me to do something about it.”
He sold Idaho, West Virginia, B.C. operations, and kept only Antarctica. Bell also sold a down-town Bellingham recycling plant he had acquired, and previously had sold off much of his original properties to other local recycling companies. “I had to refine my thinking about what I wanted to do when I grow up.”
That s when he narrowed the company’s scope. “I like the niche market,” Bell said. “Very few people want to go to very cold, dark, out-of-the-way places. Middle of the Yukon, Antarctica. Or to send a crew there, because of too many logistics. They want Hawaii.
Nowadays, Best Recycling centers on its core business, the annual clean-up of Antarctica, and a select few other extraordinary decontamination projects as they present themselves. Plus, a brand-new venture that could well revolutionize the controversial field of fracking in the oil industry.
A couple of oilfield clean-ups during the last 18 months has “…spawned the next growth of Best Recycling.,” Bell said. “In fact, it spawned the start-up just two months ago of a new spin-off company with an ominous-sounding name, Black Ops Thermal.
When Best Recycling scored a contract to deal with an oil contamination from a spill half-a-century ago in the Yukon, the company deployed newly-obtained, patented equipment and techniques. A precise, innovative operation utilizing helipads in the operation and a projected oil exercise in North Dakota turned Black Ops Thermal into a reality, built on patented and continuously-developing infrared technologies that essentially and simply cook the soil to purify it, on-site. No hauling, no disposal, and a resulting recycled clean soil.
An expert in thermal engineering, Roger Richter – “the genius behind it all,” Bell said – came on board in January this year, and the pair have targeted oil companies and fracking sites to revolutionize their processes by eliminating the need to haul contaminated materials to a landfill. They are in negotiations with companies in North Dakota, Colorado. Wyoming, and Texas for contracting their technology.
This is far afield from taking care of pets. A biologist by degree, Bell involves himself in engineering by proxy- mostly by encouraging development and innovation, and by wheeling—and, oh, yes, for certain—dealing. He detailed how he “tried several things and failed,” including running a waste treatment plant, and how he met DeeDee, who grew up in Boulder, in Denver where she owned a women’s clothing store.
After traveling with Recomp, moving to Bellingham, and climbing out on the private business limb again, Bell appears to have limitless boundaries for inventive ventures and adventures. Boldly going where no deal has gone before….
Other satisfactions arise in his conversation about work and life events, as well. He seals the deal on family and faith, on management methods with co-workers, on mentoring teen-age boys into young man status, on political issues facing business and environment, and even on managing allegiance to his adopted Seattle Mariners while his team of the past, the Colorado Rockies, falter.
“Managing workers is addictive, too,” he said. “In our first operations in Coeur d’Alene, the biggest lesson I learned was to listen to the people who worked there. We set up a white board, and just listened, allowed them a voice, wrote up their ideas on the white board. We found out that way who to keep, and who would become a headache.”
“We came up with a plan that worked. They bought into the vision because they were part of the vision.”
He bought the plant for about $250,000. “The relationships were good, and it was profitable. That cardboard plant turned out to be worth every penny,” he said. “The next one was a big risk.”
He described the Canadian operation as a $600,000 enterprise mired in debt. “I fought tooth and nail to cut the size of the plant. Too many people. too much space. Two floors. It was a zoo.” It was losing an average of $78,000 a month when Best Recycling took it over, and after the first year it was profitable by more than $130,000 a month.
That turnaround typifies Bell’s approach to strategic growth. “First, one of my pet peeves is inefficiency. We streamline operations. And, I’ve never grown the company so big that I can’t beat the competition, because overhead is low and I know the exact margins.”
The conversation winds down. “Time to brag,” Bell said, pulling out a tablet. He dialed up a You Tube presentation, and a brilliant voice filled the office space. “My daughter, Sydney,” he said. She’s 19, attending Northwest University in Kirkland, and developing her considerable music talent. The Bells’ younger daughter, Lauren, is 16.
As a father of two teenaged girls. Bell formed a personal mission around boys their age. “I believe in the philosophy of keeping your friends close,” he said, laughing, “and your enemies closer. No boys in our house!”
The mentoring sessions that began with Squalicum High School students center around an occasional poker game. More addictive dealing. “It’s a huge part of my life. It’s a way for me to get to know them, and them me, between hands. Some are kids without dads, so I’ve gotten some fathers involved to help take these boys under their wing. They keep coming back. We had 32 at our most recent poker game.”
He delighted at the mention of several long-time participants, long after schooldays have ended. “One, every time he makes a career or life decision he gives me a call. One is struggling with his girlfriend. One graduated three years ago, but called to meet me today before he goes back to college. This is a real ministry.”
Good thing Bell has no inclinations toward sharing on the down low. “Between poker hands you can gather a tremendous amount of intelligence,” he said. “Who’s dating who, who’s breaking up with who….”
Recently, Bell started yet another facet of personal ministry. He and some partners have developed a tablet application, Ora.net, that provides a network of various ways to enter into intercessory prayer with users. He participates regularly with a Christian men’s group.
He rose, and took note of this particular day, all sun and blue sky and sparkling bay waters. The view, and the ideas that flow from it, confluent in their driving of inspirations for Ken Bell, sprinkled consistently throughout a two-hour visit:
“I love the Port, because the Port is a business, and I love business…. I’m constantly thinking about what goes where in managing waste, and not just kicking it to the curb and thinking it’s gone. When everything goes away, everybody’s happy.” At Best Recycling and Black Ops Thermal, there is no curb.
Brrrr-bringing the waste out of Antarctica
Best partners with Nat’l Science Foundation, Lockheed Martin to recycle at the South Pole
Recycling in Antarctica. That’s a ‘Wait, what?” concept.
With an official population of zero, and daily temperatures far, far below that, Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest, highest, and fifth-largest but least-populated continent. So where do trash, recyclables, compostables, hazardous materials – the stuff of recycling – come from?
Wherever and whatever the thousands of scientists from more than two dozen countries generate, or ship in. And, by international law, it must come out. The Antarctica Agreement of 1959, signed by 12 countries then and around 50 now, requires it.
That’s where Best Recycling steps up, in partnership with Lockheed Martin and the U.S. National Science Foundation, recycling and repurposing about 60 percent of the South Pole’s waste and surplus equipment stream – an extraordinary amount of tonnage.
Operating out of Bellingham, Best Recycling holds a 13-year contract that certifies Best as responsible for an annual purging of materials from the continent through at least 2025. Best also has worked in concert with managing organizations prior, Raytheon and the Antarctica Support Associates. The parent organizations are responsible for the totality of operations, year-round.
Ken Bell, founder and president/CEO of Best, explained the scenario during a two-hour interview session recently. “By the standards of international law, anything that goes into the country must come out, 100 percent. And, we (waste stream managers) can leave no mark on Antarctica when it’s gone.”
Bell earned the low bid for this annual task on behalf of his employer at the time, Denver-based Recomp, worked it a year while living here on assignment, and then bought the project from Recomp and started his own firm in 1994. The job had to be rebid every three years until last time around, and Best’s advanced technology plus fiscal efficiency earned a long-term agreement two years ago.
Best grew this project into a reputation for out-of-the-ordinary niche work, and later managed the waste or surplus materials from remote sites. Like, the removal of a former Naval Air Station on Adak, an Aleutian Island with a rich WWII history. Or, waste assessment and other consulting work for North Pole research in Greenland.
A Best Recycling crew of 22 goes down to the South Pole during August, packages for delivery through February when the ship leaves for a three-week sailing to California, takes a month to offload and clean up, and then travels the world until starting the cycle over again.
The typical haul amounts to as much as 500-600 containers and bulk recyclable material. Each container weighs about five tons. That basic waste varies between 1.5-3 million pounds. Hazardous waste, 30 tons. Clean Wood is composted; food waste, incinerated. Recyclables include scrap metal, cardboard, and paper, and electronics mostly.
The workers earn between $600-$1,100 a week, depending on their expertise and length of service. “We’ve found that people go for an experience, and then decide it’s too cold, dusty, isolated, etc., and leave. So we offer a bonus of 25 percent of salary for lasting the entire season,” Bell said. Full-time staff can earn $65,000-$90,000 a year.
“We cut costs of the operation in half with our efficiency plan,” Bell said. “We cut staff in half. We reduced the number of trips needed and the number of containers handled. Inefficiency is one of my pet peeves.”
Bell left for his annual trip to the “Big A” on Oct. 2, and he’ll stay there until early December, monitoring. His family, not allowed on the continent, will meet him in New Zealand for a one-week break. The experience, which he has chronicled in photos on the company website, exhilarates him. “I’ve loved it,” he said.
“It’s become more complex with time, and every year there’s a different challenge. It might be weather, or logistics, but always something to overcome.” An example occurred last year when the ship leaving Port Hueneme in Oxnard, Calif., got slammed into the dock by a 100-mile-an-hour gale force wind. Everybody had to get off the boat, and it left just half full. The trickle-down effect of that was substantial upon arrival.
A remarkable aside to the recycling of Antarctica is a yearly auction con-ducted by Best Recycling that sells off all surplus heavy equipment. It has raised from $200,000 to $500,000 over the years, with 95 percent of the proceeds returned to the Antarctica Support program. Once, the auction featured 19 F-100 aircraft filled with bulldozers, Sno-Cats, vehicles, and more.
This year the auction will take place with new technology that allows bidding over the Internet. Because the equipment sits secured on a U.S. Navy base, enveloped by very stringent security, it has limited the number of buyers who can get into the auction site.
Best built applications from scratch, utilizing Bellingham marketing group RedRokk. Buyers now can bid through a smart phone or tablet live in real time, linked together. A bid will last every 30 seconds until bidding stops.
The auction has a website (www.antarcticauction.com), and Best Recycling displays a fire truck that has a hand-knitted penguin doll in the driver’s seat. “My wife DeeDee knitted it for me,” Bell said, “to take with me as a companion.” P.S.—Penguin not included in the sale of the fire truck.
(courtesy of Business Pulse Magazine – Fall 2014. See the entire issue HERE)