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Globe 100 | No. 1 - Clean Harbors Inc.

Mr. Clean

Two high-profile oil spills, and a lot of mundane work, boosted revenue and gave his company a chance to shine

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By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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Clean Harbors Inc. employees, in their distinctive red hard hats, were everywhere among the army of people racing to contain the damage after last year’s gulf oil spill: at a command center on Dauphin Island, Ala., ironing out logistics; in skiffs on Mobile Bay, training locals to deploy a floating barricade; on a barge in the middle of the Mississippi River, ready to clean oil-coated incoming vessels.

A few months later, the Norwell company would send more of its red-hard-hat-wearing workers to Michigan, where a ruptured pipeline was spewing crude into the Kalamazoo River. The two spills, so close together, would make 2010 one of its busiest years — even by the standards of an environmental services company that has dealt with some of the nation’s worst disasters, including Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.

The high-profile work from last year’s oil spills helped boost the firm’s 2010 revenue by 61 percent to $1.7 billion, and sent its net income soaring nearly 256 percent. That placed Clean Harbors in the number one spot on the Globe 100 list of the state’s best-performing public companies.

“Michigan [alone] would have been our biggest spill,’’ said Clean Harbors chief executive Alan S. McKim. “So we had two of our biggest spills that the company ever worked on at the same time.’’

Yet it isn’t the headline-grabbing jobs that have made Clean Harbors a success. McKim founded the company as a four-man oil-tank-cleaning operation in 1980, and through a series of acquisitions has built Clean Harbors into a firm capable of handling all types of dirty work. Today, the company manages roughly 7,000 workers in offices and emergency response centers across the globe — including about 1,000 employees in Massachusetts — and the bulk of its income comes from customers who pay for the routine disposal of waste and chemicals that need special handling.

The jobs are varied. There are the daily tragedies to deal with, like crime scenes and accident sites that need to be sanitized, or busted meth labs to dismantle. Or the recurring drilling support work that Clean Harbors does, like treating waste water for reuse in the search for natural gas. And then there is the stuff the company burns for disposal, including drugs seized by law enforcement.

Every day, McKim said, armed guards and workers from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrive at a Clean Harbors facility in Texas to burn off cocaine that has been confiscated.

That versatility gives Clean Harbors its edge in the industry, said Larry Solow, a research analyst with CJS Securities Inc.

“They do a lot of stuff,’’ Solow said. “Nobody has the scope across areas that they do. That’s certainly a big advantage.’’

Steve Candito, president of National Response Corp., a New York-based oil spill management firm, said his company often relies on Clean Harbors because it works in so many places and has an extensive roster of resources.

“They have offices in some remote locations,’’ Candito said. “And if they don’t have their own people, they can bring [workers] in from a sub-network.’’

For his part, McKim said he is sometimes still taken aback by how much his company has grown since he started it at the age of 24. (“I was so young back then. I didn’t really have a great business plan,’’ he recently confided.)

Still, that hasn’t stopped his growth plans. In the next three years, his goal is to double company revenue to $3 billion by expanding the work Clean Harbors does with energy and industrial companies. His strategy will be the same simple approach that has brought the company this far: “You focus on customers, and you figure out what their needs are, and you expand into those needs,’’ he said.

That’s essentially what Clean Harbors does every time it responds to a disaster like the massive flooding in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina.

“When people are stranded on rooftops and you’ve got a boat,’’ he explained, “you help them.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.

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