Houston-based Waste Management Inc. has grown exponentially since the 1990s, when hundreds of small companies were acquired and cobbled together to make what is now the country's largest provider of waste management services, with 57,000 employees and revenues of $12.5 billion in 2000.

But the process of uniting the roll-ups into one large company has been a bumpy one. When CEO and President Maury Myers took charge in November 1999, Waste Management stock had plummeted from $50 a share to $15. Myers implemented a strategic plan that focused on growth based on operational excellence, not acquisition.

By this past spring, the stock price had climbed back up to $30 a share, and the company was at a critical juncture. “We needed to do something to make sure that everyone in a leadership position was on the same page, knew the directions of the company, and understood the tools that were coming to help them,” says Sarah Peterson, vice president of corporate communications. So she, along with Jim Trevathan, senior vice president of sales and marketing, worked with ProActive Inc., a Chicago-based meeting management firm, to pull off the company's first leadership conference — April 30 to May 2 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas — in just 89 days.

How It Worked

Attendees included district managers, controllers, and sales executives: an eclectic group that represented the company's many districts and divisions across the country. They were a tough sell, says Tony Lorenz, CMM, president of ProActive. “Many of the attendees were previously entrepreneurs who had sold their companies to Waste Management. They were used to doing what they wanted, when they wanted. Now they were being asked to implement new corporate strategies.”

The conference changed people's mind-sets with a deceptively simple theme woven through every aspect of the program: “The Power of One.” In his opening speech, Myers defined “one” as “the power of one company and the value it creates when we work together to leverage the size of our company. One also means the power of one individual and the entrepreneurial spirit at each of our 1,400 operating locations.”

The message was delivered in many ways during the course of the conference. “Sometimes it was subtle, and sometimes it was right out front,” says Peterson, “but this meeting was always about the message.” It began with a live vignette that borrowed from Charles Dickens, with the ghost of garbage past and the ghost of merger past putting the company's history in perspective. “This showed that the company acknowledged everyone's difficulties, and that all the attendees as one felt the pain in different ways,” says Marty Zitlin, senior director, production and technical services for ProActive. “It helped people to move on to the present.” After that, the audience was very receptive to Myers' opening speech, which clearly laid out his vision for Waste Management and everyone's role in achieving it.

An “audience advocate” element used in the opening and closing sessions was a “Living Agenda” video created by ProActive during the conference. Prior to the opening session, attendees were interviewed about questions they wanted to ask Myers, and these questions were aired during the opening keynote. Throughout the meeting, ProActive staff asked participants for their comments and feedback, which aired during the closing keynote.

Workshops, an exposition, and general session speakers all carried through the theme. There were five mandatory workshops, each addressing major initiatives of the company: service, local business strategy, procurement, technology, and safety. The theme of one — not just one company, but the power of one individual to make a difference — wove through workshop videos and presentations. For example, the “service machine” workshop emphasized the power of one person to appropriately handle initial customer service and set up accounts correctly.

A 42-booth expo provided hands-on information and education on new initiatives in such areas as sales and financial planning software. In addition, Waste Management's legal team, ethics team, and communications team staffed corporate booths. “We talked not only about the power of one large company, but about the tools that people could use to achieve that power,” says Peterson.

By the closing session, it was clear that the meeting's message was heard loud and clear by attendees. “Like most district managers, I came here as a fence sitter,” said a district manager from the Midwest, “but I'm not a fence sitter anymore. I'm ready to go home and roll out our new programs.”

The Meeting Lives On

According to Myers, the conference helped to move his strategic plan forward and unite the leadership team. He noted that it had enormous impact on the mission to communicate the value of corporate initiatives, and helped to change the mind-set of attendees.

In fact, the meeting was so successful that it is being duplicated or presented in scaled-down versions in locales across the country.

A “vision video” that ProActive made for the closing session has been made available to the field for local meetings. It incorporates a corporate message on where Waste Management is going and explains various services the company offers, such as recycling. In addition, the home office is providing videos, PowerPoint presentations, and supporting materials from the conference workshops so that field staff can set up mini-meetings in their districts and regions.

“You cannot imagine the enthusiasm from the field,” says Peterson. “The e-mails continue to pour in, asking for materials from the meeting. The demand has been overwhelming — and completely unexpected.”