In November 2016, Waste Management's leadership team turned down a new path when James C. Fish Jr. took on the role of the company's new president and CEO, marking the end of David Steiner's 12-year run as the company's chief executive.
While the change signified a fresh beginning for the waste industry giant, it also left a hole in the leadership team as Fish stepped away from his duties of CFO. After a two-month interim period, the company elected Devina A. Rankin as acting CFO in addition to her existing positions as the company's vice president and treasurer. This election not only temporarily filled the role of CFO, but also filled another important role in the company: female representation in the C-suite.
Waste Dive caught up with Rankin to discuss her journey into the waste industry, her tactics for handling multiple high-level positions and her feelings on being the only woman on Waste Management's executive leadership team.
WASTE DIVE: Would you mind giving a bit of background on how you got involved in the waste industry?
RANKIN: I've been at the company for [a little over] 14 years now, and before that I was actually in public accounting. Out of college I had a degree in accounting and was a CPA. I went into public with Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young, and one of my first large assignments out of school was actually coming to Houston to be on Waste Management engagement as part of the team that was helping the company get through the reconciliation requirements needed as a result of some of the accounting issues that had come up with the merger of USA Waste and Waste Management. So that was my introduction to the business.
I would say it certainly wasn't a bright spot in the company's history, it was a difficult time for the company, but what I saw from the beginning was the resilience of the business ... How this could be happening and affecting the way that Wall Street was looking at Waste Management, but our customers were still being served every day and our employees were still doing great work on the front line and the business kept going and kept generating strong results, strong cash flow, strong earnings. That resilience I think was kind of the first indication to me of what a great business this was ... It was just a unique opportunity to become a part of the team directly and I knew people who were here and it seemed like a great place to continue the next part of my career.
When [Jim] Fish took on the role of CEO, were you anticipating being elected as acting CFO of Waste Management?
RANKIN: I knew that there was a diligent internal and external assessment of CFO candidates and I knew that I was a part of that assessment and it wasn't clear whether we were going to move forward with an acting role or be in a position to name a permanent CFO. Because of the continued need of the business to really finish the search process and see it all the way through, and then also allow Jim to move on to his role of CEO in a more full way and allow him to embrace the responsibilities of a very significant position, we thought that it was in the best interest of the organization to move forward with the acting role while we continued the process.
You said you've been involved with Waste Management for a little over 14 years — how have you seen the role in of women in the industry transform over that time?
RANKIN: I don't know that it necessarily has been transformational during that time. I can tell you that during all of the years I've been at Waste Management, there have been a number of strong women in the leadership of the organization. We've been lucky enough to have strong female leadership in different functions across the organization, whether it be communications or IT or finance or operations. What I've learned and observed is that hard work and innovative thinking and being a part of the effort to continue to drive improvement in the business is rewarded, and gender doesn't really play a part in that assessment.
I noticed that you are now the only woman in Waste Management's C-suite. What is that like? Do you feel like you have a strong voice on the leadership team?
RANKIN: I think many of us are accustomed to being the only woman in the room. I don't think it's the waste industry specifically. I think women in business often find that they can be the only woman at a table for various conversations so over the course of your career you learn how to make your mark and have your voice heard. And you do that by demonstrating your value, demonstrating your worth, working hard. So I don't think of my role as a member of the C-suite at Waste Management in terms of being the only woman, I just look at it in terms of being one of several women in this organization who's in a leadership position and working hard to lead by example and be a positive influence in a collaborative organization.
"I think many of us are accustomed to being the only woman in the room. I don't think it's the waste industry specifically."
Acting CFO, Waste Management
For women out there who wish to get more involved in waste or in finance, what advice do you have for them if they're hesitant?
RANKIN: I was actually reflecting on advice that I've been given over my career that's made the biggest difference recently. While no one boiled it down to a tagline or words, I would say that by observing people — mostly in my immediate and extended family — I really focus on the fact that if you work hard and be kind, good things happen. I really do think that when you think about women and what women can bring to the table in business and finance, we're just as capable, we're just as smart, we're just as hungry for opportunity. If you do those two things, work hard and be kind, I really think you're going to be able to create opportunity in your career no matter what the demographics of the workplace that you join look like when you get there.
With your new role as acting CFO, what's your biggest goal that you wish to accomplish?
RANKIN: I would say continuing down the path of the company's core strategy and being someone who leads by example with regard to our need to continue to identify improvement opportunities in our core operations, efficiency, driving customer service, really looking at the core elements of the company strategy and being a leader who emulates that in what I do every day.
Do you have any hesitations about the workload of acting CFO in addition to vice president and treasurer?
RANKIN: Hesitation, no. I would say I expect that this will be a short-term combination of the roles and I know that it's Jim's hope that we can get the acting CFO consideration resolved in fairly short order. I have a healthy respect for each of the roles, both the CFO role and the treasurer role, and I do know that there will be a little extra heavy lifting during this time but I have no doubt that we'll be able to work through it and I certainly have a great team of people who I work with each and every day who are going to help me along the way as well.
If the permanent role of CFO was offered to you, would you continue to move forward with that?