POWERBOOK 2012: Leveraging our regional wasteLancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority CEO Jim Warner described as a visionary leader
To hear Jim Warner tell it, he is the conductor of an orchestra who barely knows how to play any of the instruments.
But to hear others describe Warner — CEO of the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, the public entity in charge of the county's integrated solid waste management system — he is a visionary who understands how to effectively execute projects that benefit the community and maximize the organization's assets.
"He doesn't talk unless he has a thought. He thinks things over, and he is forceful and direct," said David Nikoloff, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County.
Warner serves on the EDC's board of directors.
"He shows up, does his job, thinks ahead and looks at how to run an organization better," Nikoloff said.
The authority, known as LCSWMA, has no taxing powers and receives no government backing on its debt. When it takes on one of Warner's ideas to broaden its reach, the risk is the authority's to bear.
For example, in an attempt to create a regionalized approach to waste management, LCSWMA has put itself in a place to assume responsibility of Harrisburg's debt-laden incinerator, which inadvertently landed the capital city on the world map.
Negotiations are ongoing with Harrisburg's state-appointed receiver.
Buying Harrisburg's waste-to-energy facility not only gets the Dauphin County community out of a bind, but it also increases LCSWMA's waste capacity and its flexibility, Warner said. The Lancaster system would increase to 900,000 from 600,000 tons per year with the acquisition.
LCSWMA had been eyeing an expansion of its facility in Conoy Township before Warner's entrepreneurial instinct took over and the authority saw Harrisburg as the better business strategy.
"We don't look at ourselves as having a narrow focus," he said.
The reality is anything but that, looking at LCSWMA's history of partnerships and innovative projects that have become industry standards.
"(LCSWMA) is one of the best in the country," said John Skinner, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, or SWANA, a Maryland-based association for industry professionals. "They have a fully integrated system with energy recovery, household hazardous waste, landfill gas recovery. They take full responsibility for their waste."
LCSWMA helped lead the charge in maximizing the recovery of energy from waste, Skinner said. Warner, who is the immediate past president of SWANA, is well respected among his peers for his ability to facilitate, he said.
"Jim is just a leader," Skinner said. "If he is successful at this (Harrisburg deal), he will turn that problem into a regional solution. That is exactly what we want our members to do, think outside of immediate operations."
Given the organization's track record with Warner at the helm, Nikoloff said, he wasn't surprised at all when LCSWMA showed interest in Harrisburg.
"It's about assessing our assets in relation to the opportunities they present," Warner said. "The stronger I can make the organization, the more influence we have to make positive change."
LCSWMA recently found an opportunity to partner with Maryland-based Perdue AgriBusiness on a planned $60 million soybean-crushing plant adjacent to the authority's incinerator.
Perdue wanted a site with renewable energy, and LCSWMA can provide that via its trash-burning plant.
In conjunction with PPL Renewable Energy, LCSWMA installed a 3.2 megawatt wind project at its landfill in 2010. The wind turbines, located along the Susquehanna River in Conestoga, provide 25 percent of Turkey Hill Dairy's annual electricity needs to power its manufacturing operations.
"Most entities would not pursue it, because it's not waste management," Warner said.
LCSWMA generated a 7.5 percent return on its investment with that project.
The authority also has undertaken a solar energy project at its transfer station complex to reemphasize its commitment to sustainability and developed a landfill gas plant that converts methane gas to generate renewable energy.
At the end of the day, Warner said, he sees himself as a public servant first. He just prefers to lead from the front, rather than follow.
And the authority's Harrisburg Pike facilities blend in with the community so well that travelers could mistake them as being part of nearby Franklin & Marshall College rather than collection areas for waste materials.
Guided by Warner, the authority's community sustainability efforts have garnered widespread interest.
"Everyone in the industry knows LCSWMA. I'm very proud of that," Warner said. "We don't study things to death. We make them work and we make them successful."
About Jim Warner
Education: Bachelor's in secondary education from Millersville University, 1980; master's in geoenvironmental studies from Shippensburg University, 1984
Family: Married to Kerry Sacco
Current residence: West Hempfield Township, Lancaster County
First job: Recycling coordinator in Gloucester County, N.J., 1985
Current job: CEO at the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, a job he has held since 1996. Warner has been with the authority since 1987.
Last book read: "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand
Guiding philosophy: "I like to empower people and let employees be innovative. That makes for a better organization. If there is a way we can make the organization stronger and the community better, we're going to discover and make that happen."
Editor's note: This story was modified from a previous version to correct the first paragraph.