You could say I entered the business in 1994, at age 15, when my father started the company. I was his entry-level processor, cleaning radiators and AC coils. I’m the oldest of three girls, so I jokingly say I’m his son. I didn’t join the company full time until much later, in 2013, and I haven’t looked back since.
Did you ever pursue a different career? I did. I lived in California for 13 years and worked in corporate America, first at Northrop Grumman Corp. and then at The Walt Disney Co. I worked in leadership and organizational development, talent management, and strategy.
What enticed you to return to Texas and join the family company? It wasn’t an overnight decision. Years before I returned, my dad asked if I’d be interested in buying the business someday, and I said, “Dad, you’ve built a great company, but I want to pursue my own career aspirations. You can sell it.” After I climbed the corporate ladder, though, I started asking, “What’s next?” I knew I wanted to own and run a business. Many people reminded me of how lucky I am to have a family business to join and take to the next level. I didn’t want to ride on my parents’ coattails, so I asked what I could bring to the table that would add value to the company. I had a lot of business experience, and I had an undergraduate degree in psychology and business as well as a master’s in industrial organizational psychology. That’s when I decided to go to grad school, to marry my experience with more business education, and then bring what I learned to South Post Oak. While working, I earned an MBA from Pepperdine University in December 2012. By March 2013,
I was back in Houston and working in the family business.
What do you like most about the recycling industry? People think this is a simple business, but it has many more layers to it than it appears to have from the outside. It isn’t rocket science, but you have to know a lot—how to trade commodities, how to deal with advocacy on the public policy front, how to develop a business strategy and manage the finance and marketing pieces, and so much more.
What do you like least about the industry? We operate in a very competitive market in Houston, so we always have to work at differentiating ourselves from our competitors. I also find it a challenge how much we have to be involved politically and how much regulatory bureaucracy we must handle. That creates more layers of internal administrative work. I just wish there was less of it so we could focus more on creating jobs and adding economic value.
How would you sum up your business philosophy? Work, play, give. As a business owner, I want my personal vision to drive my business vision and not the other way around. I’m all about holistic living. The work part is about having the right culture, the right processes in place, adhering to a high level of service, and working smart. If we have a great work environment, we will produce a great product. But fun is important, too. I work hard, I want to be successful at business, but I also want to enjoy life, and I want my colleagues to enjoy where they work. I want to hear laughter in the yard while they’re working hard. I want to hear them connecting with our customers. I want us to have fun together during downtime. The give element is tied to my belief that part of my purpose is helping people recognize the best version of themselves and giving to the communities in which we do business.
What are the keys to success in the recycling industry? You have to understand the market, manage margins, have a business model that will sustain you through volatile periods, and know your customers.
What lessons have you learned about business in your career? I’ve learned that the people who are most effective are those who are informed, clear about their goals, yet flexible and patient.
How do you personally gauge success? In business, success is whether we’re growing and achieving our goals in a sustainable way. Personally, success is being well-rounded and balanced while achieving my goals.
Which of your traits do you like the most? My persistence and optimism. If I fall down, I dust myself off and keep going. And in terms of outlook, I choose to see the good and assume good intention, even when that might not be the most logical way.
Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve? I’m still learning this industry every day. I’ve also learned that every strength overused is a weakness, so I’m trying not to will things into existence. Too much persistence can become pushy or aggressive. Instead, I’m working on letting things be. Have a plan, but if something doesn’t happen the way I intended, that’s all right.
Tell me something about yourself that would surprise people. I used to be an aerobics instructor and personal trainer. I did that through college and grad school.
You’ve been a great supporter of and participant in ISRI in recent years. Why do you think that’s important? As an industry, we have strength in numbers, and we can have more impact by supporting our trade organization. I also believe you get out of anything what you put into it. While we all have to be careful not to get overextended, it’s important to be actively involved in the trade association to reap the most benefit and have the greatest impact.
What’s your favorite movie? My absolute favorite is Collateral Beauty with Will Smith, which focuses on love, death, and time.
Favorite food? I love food, period, but I’m a big seafood person.
Favorite drink? I enjoy wine, especially port. I never used to eat chocolate—I didn’t even like it—until I started drinking port. They go great together.
Favorite places in the world? In North America, I love the Pacific Northwest; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Washington, D.C. Abroad, I really enjoy Italy.
Favorite TV shows? I’ve been a fan of Scandal for drama and House Hunters International to see how folks live in other countries. I also like The Profit on the business side.
What are your hobbies? I love to travel. I enjoy it so much that I actually like planning trips. For a lot of people, that’s like going to the dentist. My new hobby is taking golf lessons. There’s no other area of my life in which I just want to be decent, but with golf, I’ll be happy just to be decent.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Aside from wine, it’s my spa time. I indulge in more than my share of spa time because I enjoy the experience.
What makes you mad? A lack of drive and a lack of follow-through.
What constitutes a perfect day for you? A perfect day is whenever I’ve done something to feed my mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional levels.
What would you say to the next generation of recyclers? This industry can appear simple, but it’s a great place to continue to learn, be challenged, and grow. To be successful, be curious, ask questions, connect the dots, and look for new ways to do things.
January/February 2018 One-on-One with Brandi Harleaux, South Post Oak Recycling Center (Houston)