SUNDAY APRIL 30, 2017
 
Blog TORO MAN
ECO-CAPITALIST TOM SZAKY
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Tom Szaky is the perfect machine embodied. As the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a company that generates $20-million a year by turning your garbage into useful products, Szaky is fuelled by self-motivation, taking joy in whatever work comes his way simply because it comes his way. Capitalist, ethicist, scientist, whatever, Szaky has his hand in every aspect of his company, because TerraCycle — and by extension the planet — need him to do it.

"If I was only dealing with Excel spreadsheets as an analyst, I wouldn’t be happy," Szaky tells TORO in an interview. "There's nothing wrong with being an analyst, that's just not my personality."

Born in communist Hungary and raised in midtown Toronto, Szaky's exposure to dueling ideologies informed his manic entrepreneurship. "There was no opportunity for business in Eastern Europe," Szaky says. "The mentality was to be a doctor — both my parents are doctors — and make a good salary." But when Szaky came to Toronto and studied at Upper Canada College, his perception of enterprise shifted. "A lot of my friends came from families who had started with nothing, and then built these massive empires," says Szaky.

"I thought, ‘Holy shit, I can actually do this.'"

And he did. After dropping out of Princeton ("I dreaded studying only one topic"), Szaky made like any good visionary and started his own company — selling worm poop. Yes, TerraCycle began as a New Jersey-based compost corporation, founded on gumption, Szaky's life savings, and the modest investment of one seemingly clairvoyant venture capitalist.

Now TerraCycle employs 120 people, is stationed in 23 countries, and partners with corporations like Walmart and Home Depot. It's a big company, though plans for expansion are unconventional. "The money comes, but it's never been a motivator," Szaky tells us. In fact, Szaky purposely caps TerraCycle's annual profit at one percent, a modest reward for a company of its size. "What makes me excited is the creation of something with scale," he says. Money, in other words, facilitates a tangible, exterior benefit to people of the world.

Corporate ethics is, of course, one of TerraCycle's selling points. Along with helping the environment, Szaky and his team wholesale green-tinted optics and brand expansion. However, there is a moral tension in TerraCycle's platform. At once, the company claims that "helping the environment is good in itself," and "helping the environment is profitable," philosophies that can demean each other’s intention.

"There is a major disconnect amongst all major companies," Szaky says. "TerraCycle has to explain to corporations what they will get in return for our services. I wish we didn’t have to do that."

Szaky's company solely inhabits the middle of the enviro-profit Venn diagram, a necessary compromise. "Most of the time, in corporate life, the right thing to do loses money — but think about how many companies don't even aim for the middle."

A lot of TerraCycle’s sustained success rides on Szaky. His effusive personality and 10-speed brain, by osmosis, charges the company around him. Talking to Szaky is odd, because he’s just as sharp as he is in the symposiums you can watch on YouTube. His speed and enthusiasm is relentless, and he embraces tough questions, probably because he’s thought about answering them for his entire life.

Szaky’s also confident that TerraCycle can become a $100 million company in five to seven years, and self-satisfaction is not the impetus. "It's all about how much change we can create," Szaky tell us, with heightened purpose. He knows he created something beyond himself, something that is nevertheless his responsibility. Szaky's even had meetings with his legal team about how TerraCycle would deal with his death.

"We’re supporting a lot of families," Szaky says. "There’s real money at play, so it's responsible to think it through."

At 31, Szaky has plenty of time to see his dreams materialize and marshal in another round of innovations. (In the next year, TerraCycle is hoping to release processes whereby dirty diapers and used chewing gum can be recycled into new products.) Still, he says he wants to one day leave his company, buy a cottage, and become a fulltime artist.

"I hope that TerraCycle isn’t dependent on me, and can live and thrive without me."

But can Szaky live and thrive without the TerraCycle? Anything's possible.

Related >> TORO Man: A celebration of all that can be done by the stronger, dumber sex

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