Chris Fall
Chris Fall
Chairman, SCV Chamber of Commerce
President-CEO, Advantage Disposal

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, August 6, 2006
(Television interview conducted July 25, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m. This week's newsmaker is Chris Fall, chairman of the board of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce and president-CEO of Advantage Disposal. Until earlier this year, Fall was Waste Management's manager in the Santa Clarita Valley. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: What's it like to be a trash king? You must be the butt of all sorts of trashy jokes.

Fall: Well, yeah. There's a few garbage jokes floating out there. People constantly ask me, "How's business?" "In the dumps, but it's picking up."

Signal: How did you get into the trash business?

Fall: Literally I think I fell into garbage. It's funny that you ask, but I had been working in a family-run business for about 12 years right out of college. Helped my father in a suspended acoustical business. I was low brother on the totem pole and wanted to do something on my own. I couldn't go out and compete against my father, so I looked into a completely different industry and literally fell into garbage.

Signal: Where are you from?

Fall: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Went to Monroe High School, attended Cal State Northridge and Pierce Junior College. Started out in the San Fernando Valley back in 1995 and had the fortunate opportunity to come out here in the Santa Clarita Valley in about 1997.

Signal: And you got involved right away in the SCV Chamber of Commerce?

Fall: No, I think this is probably my fifth year with the chamber. I have one more year left and then I'll term out.

Signal: On the chamber board, you mean.

Fall: Correct. Thank you. That made me sound like I was expiring. But I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here at the chamber and to watch the chamber grow. (Chamber President and CEO) Larry Mankin came on about three years ago, and he has done some just incredible things here in the valley.

Signal: What was it about the chamber that inspired you to join it? What does it do for anybody?

Fall: That's a question we get asked a lot. I think the chamber affords businesses in the community an immense amount of networking, whether it's the Good Morning SCV breakfast, or our monthly mixers, Business After Hours.
    But it's much more than that. It's members services, it's advocacy as far as legislation and bills that are coming (up), job-killing bills. It's important that the chamber is aware of what's going on and takes a position for its members — and for non-members, for that matter. We're all about business, and we're all about commerce.

Signal: Let's say I'm a little mom-and-pop business on Lyons Avenue and I'm selling, let's say, DVDs.

Fall: You're in the city, which is good. Every penny of every (local sales) tax dollar stays local.

Signal: If the chamber is doing legislative advocacy and all these good things anyway, regardless of whether I'm a member, why would I want to join?

Fall: Joining the chamber (is) all about member services. We have different programs (for example) with Office Depot for dental care. You may have an employee that you really like who wants to leave to a larger company that offers benefits. You can get discounted dental service through the chamber. There's strength in numbers.
    Those are just a few things, but you can also get your business involved in any one of our committees (such as) Governmental Affairs, Transportation, the Environmental Committee. Maybe your DVD manufacturer, you have a product that's hard to get rid of, so you'd want to be on the environmental committee to find out how you do that. In fact, I'm going to talk a little bit about the environmental committee. We just took a tour of Chiquita Canyon Landfill last month.

Signal: You'd been there once or twice, huh?

Fall: I'd been there a few times, yes, but I can tell you in all the years of business, working for Waste Management, they have now, at a couple of their landfills, a falconer to keep the seagulls away. I knew that Waste (Management) had that at a couple landfills, but I'd never seen it in action. I got to see the falconer firsthand at Chiquita, and it was very impressive. It's a unique way to keep the birds away that are a menace when it comes to landfill operation.

Signal: I seem to recall some complaints when Newhall Land had some kind of electronic mechanism that would scare birds away.

Fall: "Bird bombs" is what they're called. They're simple. The birds get trained to that and realize that nothing happens after that, so it doesn't bother them after awhile. They become immune to it. But their instincts tell them to beware of falcons — and that's not something that they can adapt to — so they immediately leave the premises. It is amazing to watch, and I'd encourage anybody who gets that opportunity to take advantage of it.

Signal: Does Chiquita give tours?

Fall: They did, and ... Chiquita Canyon is going for an expansion, so they came to our Environmental Committee to talk about that expansion, and eventually we'll sit before the (chamber) board to try and get support from the chamber board on their expansion.
    Being in the waste industry, I believe landfills that are trying to expand and that run solid landfills without violations and hold themselves to higher standards than state regulators (demand) deserve that opportunity, not just for their own business but for the people who have to get rid of their trash.
    It's very important. Technology needs to catch up to where landfills are these days. Landfills, I think eventually, will be a secondary alternative to more of a conversion-type technology, and if you've been following the city of L.A. and their waste flow and what's been going on there with Sunshine Canyon — I think it was (L.A. City Councilman) Greg Smith who put forward a bill; I think "Renew L.A." is what he called it. It's about getting conversion technology to the forefront so that we're not so dependent on landfills.

Signal: We've got some people here in town who are looking at developing alternative disposal methods that would convert waste into energy. Are you involved in that sort of thing?

Fall: I'm familiar with it. Waste Management had a company called Wheelabrater that's involved in that. I think when people look at the term "waste energy," they picture a big smokestack, and that's something that's not desirable. I think conversion technology these days run very efficiently, very clean. It's very big in Europe, and I think we'll see that technology here in the United States very soon.

Signal: Is Chiquita maxed out now? How much landfill capacity do we need in this valley?

Fall: The little bit I know about in the tour that we took — we had a presentation, and Chiquita Canyon Landfill is truly an expansion in longevity of a landfill. That's something that's either good or bad, depending on how you look at it. I personally like that. I like to see an expansion given extended amount of time. It gives us more time to come up with alternatives in technology to find out different ways to get rid of waste.
    Again, I don't think, in our lifetime, that we're going to see any (new) landfill sited in L.A. County. So again, if you have a place that's running well, you need to take advantage of that before that opportunity is lost.

Signal: Don't they truck in trash to Chiquita from outside of the Santa Clarita Valley?

Fall: Well again, let's think about it. Downtown L.A. — there are no landfills in downtown L.A. They're transfer stations. So that waste has to be transferred to landfills that have capacity. Waste Management has a landfill out in Palmdale that is going through an expansion-consolidation. Again, these are very important to the community. Unless you're willing to start spending $50 to $100 a month on your trash bill — the truck gets somewhere far away, and if anybody — I'm sure they have just recently opened up their Edison bill, it's quite a shock. The cost of utilities are going up, and I think it's a way of keeping costs down to a minimum.

Signal: So the people in the Santa Clarita Valley, particularly in Val Verde, are just going to have to accept the fact that Chiquita's going to have to accept trash from places outside of the Santa Clarita Valley?

Fall: That's not for me to answer. Someone from Chiquita (would) have to answer that question. But again, are folks in Val Verde willing to pay $100 a month to have their trash trucked somewhere else? It's a difficult question, it's a difficult answer, but it's one that has to be addressed, I believe.

Signal: Let's get back to the chamber. What percentage of businesses in the Santa Clarita Valley belong to the chamber now?

Fall: We have about 1,700 members right now. ... Ninety percent of our base is small business. According to the chamber, small business is (defined as fewer) than 50 employees. As a guy who has his own business with, like, two people, I look at 49 employees as quite large, but they do categorize that as small business. About 10 percent (of chamber members are) large (businesses). About 170 employers in the valley are considered (large, with) 50 (employees) or more.

Signal: What are the big initiatives at the chamber today?

Fall: I think Governmental Affairs, headed up by Carl Goldman with KHTS — we took a position on Proposition 87, the oil tax initiative. We took a position of opposing this legislation, which is on the November ballot.
    This legislation would probably add 50 appointees by the state, would have no limits on hiring staff, no limits on spending money, and (they) aren't accountable to the state budget process. The chamber didn't believe that's good, so we took a position against that. I guess my question would be how many people even knew about Proposition 87.

Signal: Well, people seem to know a little bit about Proposition 89, "Clean Money." It would tack a new 0.2-percent tax onto, where else, business. Does the chamber have a position on that?

Fall: That has not come to the board yet. The position that we did take was on Proposition 1A, which is to close the loophole on Proposition 42 ... the gas tax, back in 2002.

Signal: So that money from the gas tax would actually go into roads and that sort of thing?

Fall: Yeah, what a concept. There was a loophole that allowed, in a "fiscal emergency," for the state to basically use those funds. Proposition 1A, to close Proposition 42 loophole, would not only change that legislation, but would actually have the state paying back the $2.5 billion over 10 years (that was diverted from the gas tax). The chamber believed that was a strong enough initiative to take a position on.

Signal: So, "1A Good, Vote Yes."

Fall: Yes, 1A's good, vote yes. Proposition 87, no bueno for everybody out there. That's no good.

Signal: In terms of legislative advocacy, besides taking positions on ballot measures, you all went off to Washington recently. What was that about?

Fall: I'll tell you, what a unique trip. We had about 25 folks from the community, all the way from hospital representation with (Chief Administrator) Roger Seaver; we had representation from CalArts and Denise Nelson; Dena Maloney from COC; Newhall Land was there — just a diverse group, all humming the same message.
    We carried about 12 different projects there that we were looking for funds. That's double what we had brought the year prior. This was really created by Larry Mankin; he had done this at other chambers, and it was very successful. He made sure to brace the board that you're not usually successful in the first one, two, maybe even three years. Last year we were pretty successful. So we went back with a larger "ask," and I think we've done pretty well to date so far. We're still waiting for some October appropriations that we're hoping the hospital will receive.

Signal: What were some of the bigger of those 12 things?

Fall: Well, the hospital had the helipad. CalArts had some HIV education, along with some animation studios over there. CLWA had some water cleanup, Bermite was on the list, and I think we were successful in those two, getting some funds appropriated. The cross-valley connector, the Golden State Freeway, widening that truck lane and an HOV lane. Very important project. I don't think people really understand the importance of widening the 5 freeway through the Santa Clarita Valley.

Signal: If you're going to be trucking all of that trash to Chiquita, you've got to widen the freeway.

Fall: But it's really — you're talking about the ports of call, and how many imports come in through Long Beach and San Pedro that come right up (Interstate) 5 and right through our community. A truck lane is definitely needed, and anybody who comes in through the Newhall Pass heading north, you hit that traffic jam with all the trucks coming in...
    Somebody you know very well, I believe, Connie Worden, had come up and coined the 5 Freeway as the "Western United States Freeway Connecting Mexico to Canada." I never really looked at it that way but it's great terminology, and it's a great way to express the need and how important that is here.

Signal: So were you successful in getting federal money for that one?

Fall: No, we were not. And it's unfortunate, on that particular item, but I think the group, as we debriefed about transportation funds, realized that this is a bucket of money that's drying up. We have to get a little bit smarter about the "ask" and find moneys where maybe there are moneys appropriated. ... I think when you look at CalArts, they were extremely successful because there were funds there that nobody had really gone after — and I'm not real sure what that means, but maybe it means that Homeland Security funds somehow can slip into transportation or something along that line.

Signal: Well, doesn't Congress understand the importance of our "Western United States Freeway"? You can't convince Congress that if you want commerce to happen on the West coast, you've got to provide the infrastructure for it?

Fall: I think they understand it, but again, if the funds aren't there, you can't get blood out of a turnip. I would say maybe on the next trip next year, if I'm fortunate enough to be asked to go, I would probably push for more support up and down the 5, maybe to go on that trip for that particular "ask." Maybe it's the Castaic Chamber of Commerce, maybe we reach a little further into Bakersfield and ... make sure that people understand, up in D.C., the importance of this.

Signal: This was the $286 billion, or whatever, federal transportation authorization that went somewhere—

Fall: It didn't come here. And it doesn't mean that we didn't try, I can assure you that. The team that went up there was very focused on the things that we were looking for. I guess there's an old saying, you can't win em all, right? We did get some funds for the cross-valley connector; we fell a little bit short on the funding gap we were looking for. But that's OK. We did get something, and we'll continue the ask, and again we'll try and be creative the next time we go up.

Signal: If the cross-valley connector is a city thing, and I-5 is a state or federal thing, why is it the chamber that's going to Washington and asking for the money?

Fall: Let me correct. I think when I told you about the folks who went up, the city was there; Victor Lindenheim with the Golden State Gateway Coalition was there, as well. So we did have the full team there, looking for the "ask."
    And again, it's a tough time in D.C., budget-wise, and I just think everybody's trying to get their hands into that transportation bucket and there just wasn't enough there to appropriate to everybody on the "ask." So again, we just have to be a little bit more creative.

Signal: But why is it the chamber's role to do this?

Fall: Again, I think this was something Larry Mankin had done in other areas — but I think anytime you can move goods from point A to point B, that is all about commerce. Whether it's our just Chamber of Commerce or other chambers of commerce or maybe it's the AV Board of Trade that has some interest in that, which I happen to belong to — shameless plug — but you're right. You do need to get more people involved on a specific project that means something to them, and then when you carry that to D.C., the voice is heard a little bit louder.
    I will say that meeting with (Sens.) Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, they were very impressed with the diverse group that came, all with the same spirit and with the same philosophy and with the same "ask." We all understood what we were going up there for.
    And it was just a great trip, and for a little trash guy like me — I'd never been to D.C. I took the Mankin March for the first time. Mr. Scott Wilk from (Rep.) Buck McKeon's office took us on the scenic route back. I'm not sure if he knew it was scenic, but we kind of got a little lost. And it was truly the Mankin Death March. I think we did about 10 or 11 miles.

Signal: Little trash guy like you, huh? You've left Waste Management; you've started a new trash company.

Fall: I have. Advantage Disposal. I want to say something that I think is extremely important: I spent 11 years in the waste industry. I worked for Western Waste originally, USA Waste, and then eventually Waste Management, and the opportunities that were bestowed upon me as I was leaving would never have happened without that education.
    Ultimately I decided to go out on my own to have decision-making capability and ownership, and I think that's important. It was for me, obviously. I think this community likes that "local feel," and that's what I'm really trying to push. And when I say "local," right now it's pretty much me. You call and you're going to get me on the phone and I'll create your work-order ticket for you and I'll dispatch it out and I'll close the ticket and I'll bill it. My wife is helping me. She's learning the software system, so I have a little bit of help in data entry, and I've got two trucks right now. I've got a commercial truck and a roll-off truck, and we'll see how it grows.

Signal: Right now, within the city of Santa Clarita, Waste Management has an exclusive contract for residential waste—

Fall: That's correct.

Signal: And Burrtec has exclusive contract for commercial waste.

Fall: That is correct.

Signal: So where are you doing this? It is just outside city limits?

Fall: It is. I'm focusing on the county, both commercial and roll-off. You may or may not know, the county is looking to franchise their residential service, much like the city has, for the same need of a franchise.
    A lot of people use the term "monopoly." The reason you have franchises are (because of) AB 939. It's a state mandate on recycling goals, as I'm sure you're well familiar with. The county is underachieving on AB 939. So their way of getting an extension with the (state) Waste Board was to put this franchise process together.
    Personally, I would love to see the county go with a nonexclusive-type franchise. What the county needs is enforceability and accountability from every hauler that's servicing their area. They can do this from a nonexclusive (standpoint), which means you'll have to meet the county's parameters, any hauler, and then communities can choose, either through their homeowners association or town council or whatever, who they want in their community.
    I think that's the way it would be best presented. It allows competition to dictate the price. Because the way the county is running it right now, it's an area — the area for Santa Clarita would encompass all along the 5 Freeway from Sunset Pointe all the way out to, if I'm not mistaken, pretty close to Gorman, out to Lake Hughes; but it also encompasses all the canyons, San Francisquito and Bouquet. It also says you can't discriminate your rate. So the person all the way up Bouquet Canyon, by the falls, has to have the same rate as the person in Stevenson Ranch. It would lead you to believe that somebody's subsidizing somebody else.
    I would think that someone in the canyon, which is difficult to service (on) narrow roads — if you've ever driven Bouquet — I lived in the Antelope Valley for 17 years — it's a thoroughfare. It's dangerous to send a trash truck up there. Waste Management currently uses a little burrow truck — it's a smaller trash truck — to get in and out of the areas up there, for safety. That person up there probably should be paying more than someone in Stevenson Ranch, which has the density, has close proximity to the landfill. So it's an interesting process.

Signal: It was only recently that you left Waste Management—

Fall: Yes.

Signal: Why did you leave?

Fall: I think I touched on it — wanting more decision-making capability. The idea of going into business for myself, you have ownership, and obviously I don't think I could ever get that working for somebody else. It's a unique opportunity, and I think I've been truly blessed. I had a number of opportunities; they weren't just in the waste industry. But there is a phrase, "Once in garbage, always in garbage."
    You'll see people who move from one company to another, and again, strange things happen. In 11 years, I've worked with people who now work at Sunshine and now work up at Chiquita, and I now have discount rates lower than gate rates at both of those landfills.

Signal: You were with Waste Management in 2003 when the company negotiated its current residential franchise with the city at a particular rate ($18.64, falling to $16.25 in April 2006).

Fall: Correct.

Signal: So now, 2-1/2 years later, Waste Management has sent a letter to the city saying it needs to charge X amount of additional money retroactively, going back to October 2000. So in 2003, were you involved in coming up with the rate that Waste Management proposed, or was that done at the corporate headquarters?

Fall: No, the accountants were usually involved in putting the pro-forma together. I was involved in meetings, in trying to figure out how many lifts per hour, etc., that you could achieve for productivity purposes, but I don't think it would be fair for me to comment on Waste (Management's) position, not being a Waste (Management) employee. I don't work there anymore.
    But I will say this, that it's extremely difficult to set a rate 2-1/2 years before it commences. It's very difficult to do that unless you have the foresight to know what's going to happen in the future. I'd throw this at you: The real-estate market probably peaked, what, tail end of last year, would you say?

Signal: I'm not taking a position on that.

Fall: I'll say that, because I bought my home early this year and I think I bought it at the very peak of the market.

Signal: If you just bought a home, it's probably going down.

Fall: Thank you for the reminder. But I'm where I want to be, so I really don't care if that happens. But I will say that if somebody came up to you and said, "I have this house for you; I'm going to hold it for you." Two and a half years from now, whatever that market bears is what you're going to pay. I don't think anybody would really want to get into that type of deal.

Signal: Here's the question: In 2003, you came up with a particular rate for 04 and 05 and 06. But now, Waste Management is going back and saying for 00, 01, 02, 03, they want to recover more money. So, when you were at Waste Management in 2003, wasn't the rate right?

Fall: For 03?

Signal: For 03.

Fall: That's probably correct, but as you know, fuel has gone through the roof.

Signal: We're talking about going back to 2000. If you were involved in coming up with a new rate in 2003, how is it that in 2006 it's being decided that the rate was wrong in 2000?

Fall: I understand what you're saying, and I'm going to take the "Craig Duswalt," which is really the 5th, on that one.

Signal: The "Craig Duswalt." That's a new one.
    (Editor's note: Duswalt, a recent "Newsmaker" interviewee, wouldn't discuss any plans he may or may not have for using the Newhall Auditorium for theatrical productions.)

Fall: See what's good about this? You're recycling right now. You're not even aware of it, but you're doing it.
    I don't think it's fair for me to comment. If you'd like to schedule someone from Waste Management, I can probably give you a phone number and get them on "Newsmaker of the Week" and see if they can answer that question for you.

Signal: Did your departure from Waste Management coincide with the time Waste Management was planning to send the letter to the city?

Fall: Obviously if you look at when things happened, yeah. But I had a lot of things happen in my life over the past six or seven months, and I'll share this with you: On New Year's Eve Day, I was awakened by a phone call that one of my daughter's dear friends had died in a car accident. My wife and I struggled with how to wake up our daughter and tell her this information, while subsequently, a few hours later, I received a call and found out that one of my very best friends had passed away.
    It really shook me up. It kind of sent me down a path where I was a little bit in a fog. And I'll just say that God really works in mysterious ways. It was short after that (when) people started looking at me and coming to me and wanting me as an employee. And it was very unique. I had not had that before. I think everything just kind of fell into place.
    I think what you're saying, it's somewhat coincidental that that timing happened. But it was something that just kind of developed, and the opportunity to go out on my own kind of came up, and it was something I couldn't pass up. It was good to know that other companies wanted my services, as well, and I left Waste Management as a re-hireable employee. So I'm sitting here with kind of the best of all worlds.

Signal: Now, in the county area, you're going head-to-head with Waste Management.

Fall: You're right, head-to-head. But anybody could go head-to-head with anyone in the county. That's the one thing I'm not sure folks in the county understand: that it's a completely open market. Anybody can go door-tag and start knocking on doors if you want to get into the residential business. But residential is very capital-intensive. Every single customer has three passes with three trucks. Now, if you look at commercial, that goes down to two. And if you look at roll-off, it's one.
    So I've started my business with roll-off, and I'll work my way into commercial. I really haven't decided how to play what the county's doing with the franchise at this point.

Signal: But thanks to all the networking you've been doing at the Chamber of Commerce, you're well positioned to build Advantage into a big trash company for the Santa Clarita Valley.

Fall: It certainly doesn't hurt to be chairman of the board of the Chamber of Commerce. There's no doubt. But I've always conducted business on relationships, and I think having strong relationships in the community really makes a difference when you're starting a business.
    It's the difference between soliciting an account with someone who doesn't know you, where you really have to kind of break the ice and offer them something that maybe they don't have, to somebody putting their arm around you and saying, "Hey, here's what I've got. Can you help me?" And I've had that. It's been very rewarding to know that people are willing to want to give their service to me. It's very gratifying.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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