This week's episode has to be the oohiest, gooiest, grossest, most disgusting 'Undercover Boss' ever. But it's also the greenest, according to Bill Massa, president and CEO of Synagro, the nation's largest wastewater treatment corporation.
Although his company processes waste, he says the work is anything but. "Most people make widgets. We clean environments. We have a very important impact. In the old days, this would have been dumped in the ocean or gone into landfill. We're recycling and reusing. It's a dirty job, but we're a very green company," he told AOL Jobs.
Synagro's green status provided for Massa's truly original cover story. He posed as a former chemical plant supervisor looking to change his ways, and his coworkers were told he was on a reality program that takes people whose jobs have damaged the environment and trains them to work at environmentally friendly companies. That explained the camera crew following him around.
But just because the work is green doesn't mean it isn't gross at times. On one job, Massa helped unclog a centrifuge that separates liquid from solid toilet waste. He noticed a number of small plastic tubes caught up in there. "What in the world are those things?" he wondered aloud. "Those are tampon applicators," his petite, blond supervisor told him. He was flummoxed.
"As the oldest of four boys and the father of two sons," I'm just not familiar with those things," he laughed.
Waste not want not
Massa's first job involved working at a wastewater treatment plant in Knoxville, Tenn. He worked with an efficient, competent operator named Cindy who runs the entire plant by herself. She processes all the waste from the toilets in the area, which eventually ends up as sludge fertilizer for nearby fields. They sample the sludge and test it for bacteria levels, and go to great lengths to make sure that everything is shipshape, a term Massa appreciates as the result of his service as a U.S. Naval officer, where he spent a good deal of time on a nuclear submarine.
Cindy ran from task to task, and Massa became concerned when he found out she smoked. She said she was trying to quite, and that she values life, especially since her daughter was treated for a brain tumor at St. Jude's. When Massa revealed his true identity, he arranged for the company medical plan to cover all expenses for employees to quit smoking, and encouraged Cindy to take advantage of it. He also donated $10,000 to St. Jude's in her name, and set up a $5,000 education fund for her young grandson.
Next up, Massa worked with a bulldozer operator named Melvin, at a water treatment plant in Shawnee, Kansas. Their job was to clean out a lagoon where waste materials are collected, and load the solids on a truck so they can eventually be taken to farmers to use as fertilizer. Melvin spends a decent amount of time away from home at Synagro's various sites.
Massa was surprised to learn that some of these lagoons, or ponds, have alligators in them. And that's not the only hardship -- ironically, there are no port-a-potties on many of these sites, and workers have to drive away to use the facilities. In the end, Massa arranged for there to be bathroom facilities at all the Synagro sites, and he sent Melvin on an all-expenses paid vacation to Hawaii so he could spend some quality time with his wife.
Recoup the goop
For his third assignment, Massa worked in the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant in Baltimore, Md., converting the waste to pellets that Kirsta, Massa's supervisor, said she used in her garden when planting trees. Massa was particularly surprised when he found they didn't have recycling programs for employees' paper, bottles, and other recyclables in the break areas. After all, Synagro is all about recycling!
Krista told Massa she's a single mom, raising two boys ages 12 and 13, and they both want to be professional football players. After his big reveal, Massa arranged for Krista and her boys to attend all the Baltimore Ravens home games, and the Super Bowl if they make it. He also instigated a company-wide recycling program.
Finally, Massa worked at a wastewater treatment plant in Sparta, Wis., with Rick, a pressure hose operator who showed him how to clean a holding tank that hadn't been cleaned for years. There are different means of storing treated biosolids, and this particular facility stores it in a 2.2 million gallon sludge tank. Cleaning it can take weeks, and, since that facility was four hours away from Rick's home, he would only see his family on the weekends.
Rick said he travels all over the country performing specialized pressure hose duties, and seldom knows where he'll be working from one day to the next--he didn't even know if he'd be home for his birthday. He was considering leaving Synagro because of this. Massa wanted to keep this hard worker on the job, so he arranged for him to have all the high tech equipment necessary to stay in touch with his family, and also arranged to pay for a huge, blow-out birthday party for Rick.
Synagro is growing
Synagro is one of the precious few companies that has continued to actually expand and hire. Their growth rate is rising, increasing by larger percentages every year. They currently have more than 860 employees in facilities operating in 34 states. One thing you can definitely count on is that humans will always produce waste -- and someone, somewhere, somehow has to process it.
Massa hadn't even been with the company a year when he went undercover, and the experience brought him up to speed quickly. He says he's now able to better appreciate not only the service his company provides, but also the employees who make that service possible.
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