Karen Coley & SBC Waste Solutions: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Coley.
Karen Coley is the CEO of SBC Waste Solutions, a leading waste management company based in Chicago with a focus on sustainable and eco-friendly practices. As a woman-owned company of industry experts with over 35 years of experience, they became a WBENC-certified business and mentor to young women in business. Karen is committed to delivering innovative and trusted waste management solutions that make a difference in the industry. As the majority owner, Karen prioritizes providing outstanding customer service while ensuring the business operates conscientiously and puts the environment first. SBC Waste Solutions continually looks for new ways to reuse recyclables and make the recycling process more accessible for customers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My world revolved around corporate event planning with Verde Events. It was unique and bustling with activity. However, I often caught myself spotting inefficiencies, especially in waste management. It was this observation and the urge to make a change that led me to dive into an entirely new field. With the support and expertise of the most passionate players in the industry (my partners), I ventured into the waste management domain, striving to fill the gaps I had observed while in the hospitality industry.
It helped that I grew up in a family where having a work ethic was in our DNA. My father was a CFO of a metals company that flew a Ford Q1 flag and won the first Malcolm Baldrige Award, and my brothers were in the truck manufacturing space. So, the thought of building a fleet of trucks was always on the to-do list! My mother was the entrepreneur of the family. She was the eldest of 14 and put herself through nursing school, raised six kids, and was President of the School Board. She also got her real estate license, led our town’s biggest fundraiser, and started an antique business. There was absolutely nothing she couldn’t do and do very well, so wearing many hats came very naturally.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
There was a moment when I realized that the waste Industry’s Bill Belichek, Tom Brady, and the Gronk were all “free agents.” If I could pull them together as SBC Waste Solutions and coordinate the financing of a very expensive start- up business, we could create something very special. So we hunkered down, pooled resources, and dove into savings accounts. A new garbage truck in 2017 was almost $400k, and we worked out of an unheated trailer in a gravel lot for the first 2 years. Five years later, we have beautiful offices, a fabulous fleet, and yard. Plus, our shop and equipment shop are over 20,000 sq ft.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Stepping into waste management, predominantly a man’s world, was a roller coaster ride. Skeptics were everywhere. But every challenge and every doubt only fueled my drive. With a stellar team backing me, we faced hurdles head-on, turning them into stepping stones. Our collective passion was the driving force that steered us away from naysayers.
The industry can be ruthless. We had competitors steal four trucks in the middle of the night. We have been turned away at dump and transfer stations because our competitors do not like to see a woman-owned company succeed. There are some really unethical and ugly people in this industry riding very low. But we take the high road.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We could not be prouder than we are of our team and what our company has achieved. We earned the WBENC certification in 2020 and are proud to say we are one of the very few WBENC-certified companies in the Midwest. We truly believe Teamwork Makes the dream work!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What’s intriguing about SBC is its identity. It’s a woman-led entity in a mostly male-dominated sphere. This distinction has opened numerous doors for us. For instance, collaborating with Broadview’s Mayor Katrina has been monumental. The endorsement from an all-female board was a great cherry on top!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
We literally forgot to get our business license when we moved into the Village of Broadview. It was a stupid mistake, and we owned the error. We could not use our building until we got our license. We were so darn excited we missed a step! Even though we started our relationship with Broadview off like this, we worked hard to turn it around. So, the lesson was to slow down and make sure you are missing important steps!
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
First, I was advised to be very methodical in business. To stick to the plan. Well, if that were the case, I would not be where I am. Second, Running a successful business is certainly about Process and Planning. But the best businesses are agile and responsive. Third, Build a team that thinks on their feet and are quick (and willing) to deal with change.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Three pillars have kept me going on my journey: Empathy, which helps me truly understand and resonate with people. Flexibility, is vital in a dynamic business landscape. Grit is an invaluable trait that pushes one to conquer challenges head-on.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s essential to breathe, take a step back, and look at the bigger picture. Embrace breaks, lean on your team, and always stay curious. Keeping these in check will ensure you remain on top of your game without nearing burnout.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Over time, I’ve noticed some CEOs develop a kind of tunnel vision, becoming fixed on their perspective and sidelining valuable feedback. It’s paramount to keep our minds receptive and always ready to evolve based on fresh insights. God gives us two ears and one mouth, so we listen twice as much as we talk!
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Many leaders get caught up in metrics, strategies, and numbers, often overlooking the subtle yet potent aspect of running a business: company culture. Cultivating a positive, inclusive, and inspiring culture is the secret that binds everything together, driving both motivation and success.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be Fearless. SBC started during my breast cancer treatment. Be afraid of NOTHING. That is the best and only advice you need.
- Expecting the Unexpected in a Male-Dominated Industry because I wish I’d been more prepared for the skepticism and resistance. Understanding that these challenges are opportunities for growth would have been invaluable at the beginning
- Initially, I tried to do it all. Learning the importance of trusting and delegating to my team earlier would have streamlined our operations and empowered my staff much sooner.”
- In the waste management sector, staying ahead technologically is key. I wish I had known the importance of investing in the right technology from the start to streamline operations and enhance efficiency.
- I wish someone had told me about the importance of integrating environmentalism into every facet of the business, not just as an afterthought or a marketing tool, but as a core value. This means looking beyond traditional recycling and waste disposal methods to innovative solutions like waste-to-energy and comprehensive recycling programs. It’s about making a commitment to the environment in every decision, from the vehicles we use to the way we educate our customers about sustainable practices.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Bring back the American Work Ethic. Companies must hire fairly, pay fairly, and have the entire company share the success. We need to move quickly to support family and Faith in this country. Communities need to stand up against crime and safety of our neighborhoods. We need to clean up the divisive political evils. America needs to shine again.