Coming Off the Bench

Apr 23, 2020, 17:01 PM
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March/April 2020

By Kent Kiser

After 14 years of ISRI volunteer leadership and decades as a trade association volunteer, Gary Champlin is ready to step into a historic role as ISRI’s chair.

Coming Off the BenchIn 2014, as ISRI’s newly elected secretary/treasurer, Gary Champlin, general manager of Champlin Tire Recycling (Concordia, Kan.), was preparing to attend ISRI’s summer board meeting. He asked then-ISRI Chair Doug Kramer of Kramer Metals (Los Angeles) what to expect as he took his seat as the newest ISRI officer. Kramer—having a little fun—advised him to dress appropriately, sit and be quiet, keep all the water glasses full, and bring hand towels in case they’re needed.

Clearly, “a sense of humor will go a long way” when serving as an ISRI elected leader, Champlin says, but Kramer’s comment also works as a metaphor, he points out. “When he said dress appropriately, he was telling me to respect my elected position. When he said to sit and be quiet, he was saying to listen: You don’t have all the answers; this job is bigger than one person. And as far as the water glasses and the hand towels, he was saying to be ready to serve this great association and industry.”

This year, after six years of preparation as an ISRI officer and with decades of other trade association service behind him, Champlin will step into ISRI’s top volunteer leadership role
as ISRI chair.

Champlin is making history as the first member from a tire recycling company to lead the association. Champlin Tire Recycling doesn’t only recycle tires, however—it’s also a scrap consumer. It manufactures its Back Atcha brand of outdoor furniture from recycled tire rubber and 100% recycled natural high-density polyethylene plastic, which it purchases from materials recovery facilities and melts, colors, and extrudes. Regardless of whether he has hands-on experience with a scrap commodity, Champlin says, he’s committed to representing the entire recycling industry—just like the metals recyclers who have come before him.

Deep Roots, New Branches

Champlin’s roots as an entrepreneur go back nearly a half-century. As a kid in Concordia—a small town he likens to Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show—he would pull a red wagon door to door, selling produce from his grandparents’ garden. “I learned a good work ethic at a young age, which has served me well in life,” he says.

He also learned the value of work in his family’s tire wholesale and retreading business. “In family-owned companies, when you’re old enough to be responsible, your parents put you to work,” he says. At age 12, he was cleaning the company’s bathrooms and retail area as well as sweeping the workshop. By age 14, he was pumping gas and changing car tires. At 16, he ran a service truck to farm customers and trucking companies, all while attending school and participating in extracurricular sports such as football and track. His earliest recycling memories are from his years as a Boy Scout, when his troop would collect newspapers and aluminum cans to raise money for trips. “We were pretty good at it,” he recalls.

Champlin’s higher education kept him on the path toward business—the agricultural business. His family managed an apple orchard in addition to its tire company, and he decided to pursue a career in horticulture. In 1981, he began taking classes in that discipline at Cloud County Community College in Concordia, with plans to transfer to the University of Michigan and relocate his family to Ann Arbor, Mich., in winter 1982. The day he planned to depart, however, Concordia was hit with 12 inches of snow. With that delay and some family concerns, they “just didn’t go,” he says. He returned to Cloud County Community College and earned an associate’s degree in agricultural business in 1983.

After graduating, Champlin went to work in the family business until, at age 20, he accepted a job in sales with a food brokerage company. Though he knew nothing about that industry when he started, he learned quickly, he says, and he was the company’s salesman of the year in two of his four years there. His success put him on a path toward becoming a regional supervisor, with a possible move to Kansas City, Mo. Instead, he felt a pull to return to his family’s tire business, Champlin says. His years away had given him a different perspective and allowed him to see the company’s potential in a different light. In 1987, he chose to return. “It was the right decision, and I’ve never looked back,” he says.

At that time, states were passing laws regulating the collection, transportation, and processing of scrap tires. The Champlin family business did not recycle tires, but as one of the larger tire dealers in Kansas, it was familiar with the challenges of scrap tire management. “We thought, ‘It’s an issue for us, so let’s get into the business and make it an opportunity,’” Champlin remembers. He; his brother Corey; their father, Ron; and friend Scott Woellhof founded Champlin Tire Recycling in 1992.

The firm began as a tire collection and transportation service and started processing scrap tires soon after opening. For its first two years, Champlin says he focused most of his time on the family’s core business. By 1994, the tire recycling enterprise needed a full-time general manager, “and I’ve been doing that ever since.” Today, Champlin Tire Recycling is among the largest tire recycling companies in the Midwest, with expertise in manufacturing outdoor furniture such as park benches and picnic tables out of recycled rubber and plastics. The company has processing facilities in Concordia and Pittsburg, Kan., with 46 employees and nearly 270 pieces of equipment.

Strong Association Ties

By the time Champlin Tire Recycling became an ISRI member in 2004, the Champlin family already had decades of experience serving in trade associations. Ron Champlin, Gary’s father, was a charter member of the Mid-America Tire Dealers Association (Topeka, Kan.). Ron served as president of that group and later received its Service to Industry Award—both distinctions Gary earned a generation later. Gary was a founding member of the Kansas Organization of Recyclers and the Kansas Landfill Association, both based in Topeka. “I’ve sat on association boards and executive committees for the past 28 years—up to five boards at the same time, including ISRI,” Gary says. “Our family believes that together, we can accomplish what cannot be done alone.”

Given his deep association history, it’s no surprise Champlin became an ISRI volunteer leader “right out of the gate,” serving out the remainder of the term of a Tire & Rubber Division director who had to bow out soon after his term started. Since then, he has held numerous ISRI leadership posts, including chair of the Tire & Rubber Division, member of the Leadership Committee, at-large member of the ISRI national board of directors, chair of the Safe Operations Committee, and member of the Recycling Industry Operating Standard™ board of directors.

Despite his eight years of ISRI volunteer leadership by 2014, Champlin wasn’t the likeliest of candidates when ISRI’s Leadership Committee nominated him for the association’s national secretary/treasurer position, he says. He was a member of the association’s smallest chapter and smallest division. What’s more, his competition for the secretary/treasurer office—Matt Kripke of Kripke Enterprises (Toledo, Ohio) and Andy Wahl of Newell Recycling (East Point, Ga.)—had longer ISRI leadership track records and broader name recognition in the association and in the recycling industry. “They ran me against two very qualified individuals who had great exposure within ISRI,” Champlin says. “I was definitely running in an underdog position.” Instead of shrinking from the challenge, Champlin says he campaigned aggressively, contacting voting members on ISRI’s board as well as nonvoting “influencers” to boost his profile and promote his candidacy. “I rarely asked for anyone’s vote, but I did ask everyone to give me strong consideration,” he says.

Champlin views his election as a sign of ISRI’s maturity as an association—it could broaden its self-perception enough to embrace a national leader from a smaller, lower-profile commodity niche. “I truly believe ISRI was ready, and I just happened to be the peg that filled the hole,” he says. He has ascended through the national officer posts of secretary/treasurer, vice chair, and chair-elect over the past six years. This year, he will make ISRI history when he takes office as the association’s 17th national chair.

When asked why he has invested so much time and effort in ISRI, Champlin has a ready answer. “I believe that the strength of the trade association is what moves our industry forward,” he says. Such involvement also yields benefits to his company, he points out, with the greatest being “the ability to learn and adopt many of ISRI’s safety and environmental tools.” In addition to sending employees to meetings of the ISRI Safety and Environmental Council, Champlin Tire Recycling became a charter member of ISRI’s Circle of Safety Excellence™ and is working to get its operations certified to the RIOS™ management system standard. Serving as chair of ISRI’s Safe Operations Committee allowed him to “cultivate safety relationships and bring them home,” Champlin says, because “there’s no priority more important than the health and well-being of our employees, vendors, and customers.”

Another reason Champlin gives for his ISRI involvement is this: If you’re involved, you can shape your industry and be the master of your destiny. “Where else,” he asks, “could the general manager of a small company in a small town participate in forming policy at such a level,” policy “that could have a positive impact on our industry and that could affect our business at home? Nowhere else.”

Of Leadership and “Garyisms”

Champlin distills into pithy quotes he calls “Garyisms” the lessons he has learned about leadership while climbing the ISRI national officer ladder these past six years. First, he says, “No single opinion captures all of the views of an issue.” The greatest attribute of a leader is the ability to listen and be sure all views are heard. Another lesson is that “it may be harder to change a mind than to change a heart if you engage from a position of mutual respect.” He also has learned that “what joins us is much greater than what could possibly separate us,” he says.

In addition to applying those lessons, Champlin says he will draw on the leadership abilities he has developed throughout his business and other association activities. He points in particular to his ability to listen to opposing views and build consensus among diverse parties. He’s clear-eyed in recognizing his limitations, however, acknowledging that the ISRI chair position is greater than any one person. “It will take the entire pool of ISRI leadership, knowledge, and talent for me—and the association—to be successful,” he says. Critical to ISRI’s future is identifying and encouraging the next generation of volunteer leaders to get engaged, he notes.

The Path Forward

Champlin says he’s “a little nervous” but confident to step into the spotlight as ISRI chair. Rising through the secretary/treasurer, vice chair, and chair-elect positions has prepared him well for the top job, he says. He’s excited to get to work with ISRI’s leaders and staff, knowing “the depth of knowledge and talent will bring about success,” he says.

How will he gauge success in his two-year term? First, he wants ISRI to further develop its safety resources and services available to members. “That is one area in which ISRI can demonstrate great value to members, no matter the size of the company,” he says. By helping members operate safely, “we raise all ships” and improve the safety performance and reputation of the recycling industry as a whole.

Champlin also plans to expand ISRI’s international presence to “keep markets open and materials flowing,” he says. “That gives our members greater opportunity in this ever-changing industry.” He also acknowledges the industry’s challenges in recruiting, training, and retaining qualified employees. ISRI can play a role in those areas to “enhance the industry’s current workforce and expand it for our future.” There also are opportunities for ISRI to promote Design for Recycling® in ways “that will greatly benefit our members and this industry,” he says.

Some of his focus will be on ISRI’s infrastructure, Champlin says, drawing on ideas from the years he served on ISRI’s Strategic Planning Committee. He plans to move further toward restructuring ISRI’s governance as that committee recommended: by facilitating the merger of smaller chapters to form fewer, larger, regional ones; by transitioning members in the two national commodity-focused chapters into their geographic chapters; and by strengthening the commodity divisions. “We’ve already started down this path and have chosen to allow it to develop organically,” he says. To continue this “important work,” he plans to form a One ISRI task force. He also expresses excitement about recruiting members to form state legislative committees to better address state and local issues. “Since all politics is local, I feel that really could drive membership,” he says.

A Supportive Team

As Champlin reflects on how he reached this important juncture in his career and what will allow him to succeed as ISRI chair, he’s quick to credit the support of his wife, Debra, and his business partners, his brother Corey and friend Scott Woellhof. “They were key to the decision” to seek ISRI national office, he says. “It was truly a commitment from Champlin Tire Recycling as a whole, not just me.”

He also is quick to thank outgoing ISRI Chair Brian Shine of Manitoba Corp. (Lancaster, N.Y.) for his leadership example during his administration. He says he looks forward to working with Shine—and the other ISRI national officers—over the next two years. ISRI is fortunate to have a deep bench of national leadership talent, he says, pointing to current Vice Chair Brian Henesey of Rocky Mountain Recycling (Commerce City, Colo.) and Secretary/Treasurer Colin Kelly of Schnitzer Northeast (Everett, Mass.). “ISRI’s work won’t be done after my term, and it’s reassuring to know that the association has a smart, talented slate of officers right behind me,” Champlin says.

Buoyed with that support from family, co-workers, and fellow ISRI leaders, Champlin is poised to start his term and embark on his mission to leave ISRI even better than he finds it. “I’d like to see the guiding principles—that ISRI is the Voice of the Recycling Industry™ and One ISRI—continue to strengthen and live well beyond my term as ISRI chair,” he says. He’d also like to help ISRI make progress on balancing its annual operating budget, he says, because “a financially strong ISRI will help the recycling industry strengthen, grow, and be sustainable into the future. If that’s my legacy, I’ll be very happy.”

Kent Kiser, former publisher of Scrap and assistant vice president of industry communications for ISRI, is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


A Champlin Primer

Born: March 4, 1963, in Concordia, Kan.

Family: Married Debra Lintz in 1999. Six children—Shanell, Scott (deceased), Matthew, Kelly, Summer, and Kaylee—and 12 grandchildren.

My greatest personal achievement has been… successfully leading our family business into its third generation and helping to prepare and develop the business for the fourth generation and beyond. Plus, being a grandfather to 12 grandchildren—and counting—has been the reward of a lifetime.

My business philosophy is… never promise what you can’t deliver, and do everything you have committed to, even if changing circumstances would lead you to do otherwise. Your word is your bond.

Something about me that would surprise people is… that my wife, Debra, and I were married on a Friday and started working together the following Monday. She had a great résumé. Our working relationship lasted 15 years, until she retired from Champlin Tire Recycling. She still helps me with all the big decisions. Debra’s passion is helping others, from being a court-appointed special advocate for children to coming out of retirement to be a hospice nurse. I tell her often that I do what I do to support what she loves to do.

Also, even with no formal training, I really enjoy singing, exclusively at church. I’ve performed solos at mass in front of over 600 people.

In my free time, I like to… spend time with my wife, Debra; our children; and our grandchildren, preferably at a Kansas lake, or in the winter somewhere south with sand and diving involved.

I’d like to improve my… ability to be in the moment and enjoy more of what life has to offer. We pass through this life only once, and it is a blessed person who can focus on what is truly important.

I get mad when… I fail to meet the goals I have set for myself. That said, as I grow older, my goals are more realistic—but don’t hold me to that.

A perfect workday for me is… when heading home, I realize I have left nothing to do for tomorrow. That has never happened, but it’s fun to imagine.

A perfect personal day for me includes… doing any outdoor activity with my family and friends. I’m an avid hunter, fisherman, hiker, and gardener. Seeing a couple of movies with Debra is also pretty perfect.

If I didn’t work in the scrap industry, I’d probably be… a horticulturalist. For three years while I was in community college, I took care of an apple orchard with about 600 trees, and I thoroughly loved it.

When my term as ISRI chair is over, I… will keep attending meetings and sit in the front row with my industry friends, keeping their water glasses full and hand towels at the ready.

Gary Champlin brings decades of trade association and recycling knowledge to his new role as ISRI’s chair.  

  • 2020
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