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New Wheelabrator head is bullish on Waste-to-energy future

By Jeff Feingold

N.H. Business Review, March 6 – March 19, 1992

John M. Kehoe, who became president of Wheelabrator in 1990 says recycling is the key to solving the nation’s waste problems.

There’s really only one way to describe John M. Kehoe’s feelings about Wheelabrator Environmental Systems. He’s devoted to the company that he has worked for since 1975 and has headed for the last year and a half.

In fact, Kehoe’s commitment to and confidence in waste-to-energy technology has earned him the title in a number of circles as the “father” of the waste-to-energy in America. He has an unabashed belief in the mission and products of his firm, which is one of the 10 largest independent power producers in the country. And he sees nothing but a bright future for an industry that he says both fills an ongoing need for energy and solves the “social problem” of getting rid of trash in a healthy and efficient manner.

When John Kehoe talks about his company, he speaks with the conviction of a salesman, which in a sense is what he is. His background is in marketing, working for IBM for 10 years in the 1960s after completing a stint as a first lieutenant and paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. After his tenure at IBM, he started two computer firms—”big systems kinds of things,” he says — before joining Wheelabrator in 1975.

“I went from computers to garbage,” says Kehoe.

He joined Wheelabrator, he says, “to get into the new business they were venturing into, and that was called the trash-to-energy business. There were three or four of us, and I’ve been here ever since.”

“Ever since” has been quite a journey The firm, which started with one plant in Saugus, Mass., and is headquartered in Hampton, now has 14 plants throughout the country and employs some 2,000 people. Kehoe was named as its president in late 1990.

Kehoe views his experience at IBM as in shaping his approach to business. “One thing I took from IBM — and I will forever appreciate my experience with them — it was respect for the individual” says Keyhoe. You have to have better service and to do that, you have to a superior product.”

He also brought the same philosophy to waste-to-energy that IBM brought to computers. In fact, he sees a similarity in the products each firm was selling at the time. Both, he says were “big-ticket items.” (At the time, IBM produced high-priced mainframes sold mainly to large customers.) And both involved what Kehoe calls a “systems sale.”

In both jobs, he says, he had to “convince people that what I had to offer them was a long term, 20-year kind of thing”.

And, most important, says Kehoe, both firms showed complete faith in their products.

Wheelabrator decided it would build the plants with its own money, which “showed me that that they had the faith in their commitment by investing their own capital,” says Kehoe. Simarily he says, “IBM went about it by renting their machines. They took the risk and went out and did it. They took all the risk, and I liked that.”

Today, Wheelabrator, a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is majority-owned by Waste Management Inc., which holds 57 percent of Wheelabrator’s shares.

Kehoe says his company’s relationship with Waste Management has been “wonderful. We march to our own drummer, and they have been magnificent as majority shareholders.”

From the beginning, he says, Wheelabrator has shown a commitment to its customers, “and seemed to hold the same tenets to the people who worked for them,” he says. “I guess I liked working for them. I’ve been here for 16 years now.”

The firm also has continued to exhibit what Kehoe says is a “commitment to the environment.”

“We get rid of a nuisance — that refuse that can’t be recycled, we recycle into energy,” says Kehoe. And the company’s plants fill a need for a stable, consistent source of energy — a problem that was much more on the minds of Americans in the 1970s, when the business started, than it is today.

Today, though, the waste side of the waste-to-energy industry has grabbed far more of the attention. And plants like Wheelabrator’s have come under fire, so to speak, prompting criticism of them in some communities where they’ve been planned but aren’t greeted with a unanimous welcome.

Kehoe, though, says criticism of his plants remains rare, because most people in the communities where Wheelabrator has a presence are happy with the company’s performance and actions.

“In cases where we’re the cause celebre, we try to sit down and dialogue with people,” he says. “You’re never going to get, by acclamation, revered and loved by everyone, no matter who you are. We try as hard as we can to be a good citizen and a good neighbor and to do our job in the most environmentally sound way.” Wheelabrator, he says, has a deep-seated “dedication to the environment” that perhaps some critics of the company don’t see.

“Everything we do is to advance our reputation as environmentalists and perform services that reflect our dedication to environmental principles,” says Kehoe. “Our entire business structure is oriented towards being the world’s leading provider of environmental services to not only the public arena, but to industry as well.”

The firm, he says, has helped preserve hundreds of acres in wetlands in areas where it has a presence, including Worcester, Mass. It’s also a “big, big sponsor with The Nature Conservancy of research and development in the (Florida) Keys,” says Kehoe. the company also has launched a number of educational programs in many of the schools in communities near Wheelabrator plants.

The company, he says, has been a “big proponent of recycling” since its start. For example, he says, “We recycle in excess of 125,000 tons of ferrous metals every year out of our plants.”

“We mean what we say, but sometimes we stub our toe, and we try to correct it,” say Kehoe.

Not surprisingly, Kehoe says waste-to energy has a strong future in the United States. The firm now has waste-to-energy plants in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Florida, Maryland, New York and Washington state. It also has two other plants, a gas-fired and a wood-burning facility, in California. Kehoe sees ample room for more waste-to-energy plants, particularly in light of the Bush Administration’s energy plan, which supports the concept of turning trash into energy.

“By the year 2010, they say the number of plants should be seven-fold what it is now,” says Kehoe. “So I see a very bright future.”

To Kehoe’s mind, the other major alternative to turning waste into energy is using landfills, and to him there’s no contest in which is the preferred alternative.

“From a technical point of view, there’s not too much that you can do to garbage that remains in the waste stream after you recycle what you can and should recycle,” he says. “What better way to handle the garbage that remains by recycling it too? You put it into a thermocombustion chamber and make energy out of it.”

The key to the continued success of his industry, and to getting a handle on the nation’s waste problem, is recycling, says Kehoe. “Recycling is taking off, and the more people recycle, the less they’re going to have to burn or bury. And the more recycling there is, the more capacity we have for other communities near our plants. It’s as simple as that.”

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