From David to Goliath Sprint Star Brings New Look to Waste Management

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Culloton Daily Herald Business Writer

About 15 years ago Ronald T. LeMay decided to quit smoking and start running.

Six months later and 45 pounds lighter, he finished his first marathon - 26.2 miles - in three hours and 20 minutes.

"I enjoy testing myself physically, intellectually," LeMay, 51, the new chairman, president and chief executive of Waste Management Inc., said in an interview this week.

LeMay, who used to run 80 miles a week, says his schedule has put a stop to his marathoning. That first race, though, "was a way of testing whether I could stop smoking" and demonstrating "the discipline to do something that I never could understand," he said.

"Before I did it, (it) was incomprehensible to me that someone could run 26 miles," LeMay said. "That intrigued me. That's the sort of thing that motivates me. Things that look to others, or to me, like they're improbable, if not impossible and inexplicable. That's the kind of thing that I'm drawn to."

LeMay, the former second-in-command of the telecommunications company Sprint Corp., has found himself another challenge.

He's not just changing jobs or even switching industries.

He's switching perspectives.

As head of Waste Management, instead of leading the upstart challenger, he will be guiding an embattled market leader.

Westwood, Kan.-based Sprint is often portrayed as the telecommunications industry David, flinging stones at Goliaths like AT&T and MCI.

Waste Management is the world's largest waste services company but is retrenching after building a tottering, far-flung industrial empire in the late 1980s.

LeMay's new office was still nearly bare halfway through his first week with his new employer. He admits he is still learning about Waste Management and its industry, but says there will be no problem with the role reversal.

"I've spent the last seven or eight years taking on the market leader in AT&T. You do that by trying to ascertain what the market leader's strengths and weakness are and understanding how to attack. So, I think I'm in a good position to think about this the way competitors to a market leader would think and formulate plans that envision the plans of attack by our competitors."

Waste Management founder and Chairman Dean L. Buntrock, a giant in the waste industry, has handed his company to someone who has not considered being a garbage man since he was a child enthralled by big garbage trucks in Arkansas.

LeMay was born in Paris, Ark., and raised in Little Rock by a "very strong, loving" family, he said. His mother worked as a bank officer and his father as an insurance salesman. LeMay's dad also was an accomplished athlete who pushed his son to excel in sports, LeMay said.

LeMay played basketball and baseball on a scholarship at Southern Arkansas University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. …