Photos by Josh Sears Photography
Stericycle President and CEO Cindy Miller

Sometimes a fresh perspective is just what’s needed to infuse a company with new insights and lay the groundwork for future growth. That’s the strategy that Bannockburn, Illinois-based Stericycle took when it hired Cindy Miller as president and COO in October 2018 after her 30 years of leadership experience in transportation, logistics and operations with United Parcel Service (UPS). Less than a year later, Miller took the reins of CEO from Charles Alutto upon his retirement.

Now, with new management at the helm, Stericycle is looking to build on its three-decade history as a leader in medical waste management, pharmaceutical waste services and secure information destruction by streamlining efficiencies and refining the way business is conducted.

Cleaning up an industry

In the late 1980s, illegally disposed medical waste began suddenly washing up along the Atlantic Coast. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988 to better monitor the treatment of medical waste through its creation, transportation and destruction.

In 1989, Dr. James Sharp formed Stericycle with a business plan that focused on helping hospitals manage their medical waste in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner. Along the way, Stericycle expanded its services to meet the growing demand for safe and secure waste destruction.

“Stericycle was built on handling complicated behind-the-scenes required services that other organizations didn’t want to take on. Medical waste was the starting point 30 years ago, and Stericycle carved a niche away from the solid waste industry. In fact, Stericycle ended up acquiring the medical waste businesses of several solid waste leaders as they focused on their core services,” Miller says. “Beyond medical waste, our growth often stemmed from customer requests for Stericycle to support them with other complex waste streams like hazardous waste and secure information destruction. Today, Stericycle has $3.5 billion in revenues and serves more than one million customers in 21 countries.”

According to Miller, Stericycle’s customers range from large hospital networks to dentists, veterinarians, Fortune 500 retailers, manufacturers and other facilities that generate regulated or complex wastes. To service these customers, the company has established a network of 20,500 employees working in 650 locations around the globe.

Annually, the company manages more than 4.5 billion pounds of specialized waste across its various divisions with the help of a fleet of more than 7,100 service trucks.

Managing dangerous wastes safely

It should come as no surprise due to Stericycle’s line of work that safety is a priority at the company—an emphasis that is stressed to every employee and ingrained in the culture, according to Miller.

“We have a saying: ‘Everyone owns safety at Stericycle,’” Miller says. “I take this statement to heart and have worked since joining the company to elevate the importance of safety across our network. We are currently focused on supplementing our already strong environmental safety program with new efforts to drive a behavior-based safety focus and culture. By heightening the focus of team members and people managers on daily actions and behaviors, we can better ensure our team goes home safe every night.”

Miller says Stericycle is getting more sophisticated regarding its approach to overall safety and its environmental management program. She notes that the company is working to standardize processes and procedures, introduce improved performance scorecards for safety, expand its internal audit program and build its in-house safety recognition programs to better align the company with these initiatives. Additionally, Stericycle has made a commitment to more advanced training and communication to relay these messages to team members.

“Training and communication are critical elements to move the needle on safety, and we’ve expanded efforts on both these fronts. We have implemented new communication tools and programs to support our safety efforts, and our operational scorecards include metrics around training completion,” Miller says. “We are pleased with our results we’ve seen over the last year, which include a double-digit decrease in lost time and vehicle claims. We’ll continue to implement new safety and compliance programs, as this is an area where a company should never settle for ‘good enough.’”

Besides the company’s push to improve in-house safety, Miller says another community-facing safety initiative is being championed by the company: fighting the opioid crisis in the U.S.

In the fall of 2017, Stericycle teamed up with the National Safety Council (NSC) as its exclusive medication disposal partner to help address the opioid crisis in America. The company launched its “Prescribed to Death: A Memorial to the Victims of the Opioid Crisis” traveling memorial and worked to create its “Stop Everyday Killers” ad campaign targeting the misuse of prescription drugs.

"Stericycle was built on handling complicated behind-the-scenes required services that other organizations didn’t want to take on. Medical waste was the starting point 30 years ago, and Stericycle carved a niche away from the solid waste industry.” –Cindy Miller, president and CEO of Stericycle

Most recently, the company joined the NSC as the launch partner for a new toolkit that employers can use to address the opioid crisis within their workplace. Included in these toolkits are Seal&Send medication mail-back envelopes. The DEA-compliant envelopes provide a way for employees to dispose of their unused or expired drugs by filling a pre-addressed envelope with up to 8 ounces of pharmaceutical waste, which can then be safely handled through Stericycle’s disposal channels.

Miller says these toolkits are just one of the ways the company hopes to leverage its assets to make the communities the company lives and works in safer.

“We are proud to be a part of a simple, yet innovative, resource for business leaders who are taking steps to help combat the ongoing opioid epidemic in America. Now more than ever, substance use and substance use disorders are affecting employees, workplaces, families and communities. This free resource gives employers a unique opportunity to identify early warning signs and connect employees to the support they need,” Miller says.

Sustainable solutions

Beyond safety, delivering on measurable sustainability programs is top of mind for Stericycle. Not only is responsible and conscientious waste management important for protecting the environment, it is also a way for the company to better serve its customers, Miller says.

“Today’s leading organizations know that sustainable business practices are no longer a trend. They are a business imperative,” Miller says. “Consumers are focusing more and more on sustainability and environmental responsibility to help them form opinions of, and relationships with, brands of all types. Even in the face of a crisis situation, failing to consider environmental impact can result in more than a regulatory fine and impact brand perception. To protect consumers, the environment, and overall brand health, all procedures and operations—in any industry—must be managed with a commitment to conserving resources and achieving measurable, net-positive results at a reasonable cost.

“I love that we offer customers a wide range of sustainability services, bringing environmentally responsible practices to diverse needs such as product recalls, recycling programs and waste minimization efforts. A holistic waste management approach drives efficiencies through any type of facility, thereby enabling customers to maintain business operations while avoiding costly fines.”

Following the company’s push for better waste management practices, Stericycle boasted the following disposal and recycling highlights in 2018:

  • Medical waste management: 1.8 billion pounds treated.
  • Secure information destruction: 1.5 billion pounds of paper recycled.
  • Hazardous waste management: 1.2 billion pounds properly managed.
  • Sharps management: 56 million pounds of plastic diverted from landfills.
  • Pharmaceutical waste disposal: 85 million pounds of drugs safely disposed of.
  • Maritime solutions: 83 million pounds diverted from landfills.
  • Sustainable solutions: 84 million pounds diverted from landfills.

Miller says that through these efforts, Stericycle exceeded its landfill avoidance goal in 2018. Landfill avoidance increased to 49 percent, exceeding its goal of 45 percent, thanks to the company’s commitment to recycling, reuse and waste-to-energy alternatives. Additionally, she says the company’s medical waste incinerator emissions remained well below federal limits.

A different perspective

Miller says that although the company’s early success was predicated on leveraging acquisitions to grow the company, Stericycle is currently looking inward for ways to grow organically.

“The company’s growth and early success was based on acquisition strategy. With more than 500 acquisitions behind us, Stericycle has an unmatched infrastructure in our core medical waste and secure information destruction services. However, the roll-up strategy did not include integrating the various businesses together into a more formal, corporate and centralized structure. Today, with a new leadership team in place, we are focused on transforming the business for a long and successful future,” she says.

Upon taking over as CEO, Miller outlined five key priorities for the company: portfolio rationalization and refocusing on Stericycle’s core business of medical waste and secure information destruction; debt repayment and leverage improvement to increase the company’s financial flexibility; analyzing the company’s revenue quality and ensuring that the business growth is sustainable; focusing on cost efficiencies from standardization and centralization to improve Stericycle’s long-term profitability; and implementing new enterprise resource planning (ERP) technology to integrate and enable real-time access to data and drive performance management.

She says that the staggered rollout of the ERP system, which is an initiative that Stericycle is beginning in the U.S. and Canada next year, will be instituted in international markets throughout 2021.

“With a global operating platform and standardized systems, Stericycle will be better positioned to drive operational efficiencies, improve daily and strategic decision-making, and better serve our customers,” Miller says.

Miller’s focus on refining operational efficiencies should come as no surprise based on her background. After getting her start as a driver with UPS more than 30 years ago, she worked her way up the organization in various roles specializing in logistics and business operations. Before being hired at Stericycle, she led operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East as the president of the company’s European region and served as the president of global freight forwarding.

It’s these skills and experiences that Miller says she’s planning on leveraging to help guide Stericycle into 2020 and beyond.

“As a manager many years ago, I developed my communication skills and a style of explaining complex messages in a way that both my fellow drivers and boardroom executives understood,” she says. “That ultimately helped me to direct my teams to achieve goals and—sometimes literally—drive results. Today, communicating the challenges, the need for change and our vision for the future are critical for my role at Stericycle.

“I believe in leading with authenticity and transparency with a focus on accountability and remaining constructively dissatisfied. As the Stericycle team evolves with me in constructive dissatisfaction, it will fuel a hunger to reshape our business from within and inspire our team to think and act differently. I am already seeing the change in culture at Stericycle—an impact that will linger long after I’m gone.”

Although the waste industry is ultimately a departure for someone who has built a career with a company specializing in package delivery and supply chain management, Miller says embracing change is a critical part of success. It’s also why she jumped at the chance to be one of the few female CEOs working in waste. If there is anything her career has taught her, she says, it’s that sometimes a unique perspective and more inclusive approach is just what’s needed to take a business to new heights.

“My advice for ambitious professionals who want to rise in the waste industry is that you have to say yes more often than you say no,” she says. “When you say no to an opportunity, you are building your own ceiling. You are self-imposing your own limits. By saying yes, you give yourself a chance at a new growth experience. It also gives you a voice on the project you’re working on. I believe strong leadership in our industry is needed to change the composition and create more diversity in the waste industry overall. It’s not just about women or other groups. It’s about appreciating and learning from all the perspectives at the table. We all need to be wise enough and bold enough to ask: Are we taking appropriate action to help the company move forward by having varied perspectives?”

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.