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Derek Tan of Waste Connections Drives Success With Meaningful Connections

Article-Derek Tan of Waste Connections Drives Success With Meaningful Connections

As a region controller for Waste Connections, Derek Tan had a different impression of what his work would entail prior to starting. Quickly realizing the importance of building meaningful relationships in the workplace, Tan fills Waste360 in on what makes this piece of the puzzle so important for success.

As a region controller for Waste Connections, Derek Tan had a different impression of what his work would entail prior to starting. Expecting his work to focus heavily on the behind-the-scenes aspects of the company, he was surprised to be welcomed to the company with a hands-on trip in a collection vehicle to a sorting facility.

Though he does have a heavy hand in financial statements and performance, what has really struck him is how important it is to be interactive with each employee he is accountable for.

Taking care of his staff and peers is what helps to drive success throughout the company. Rather than focusing on the business and number elements of the work, he has been able to put his attention toward building meaningful relationships that not only make his job worth working but also support a prosperous work environment to amplify group prosperity.

This 40 under 40 award winner recently shared with Waste360 about the work he is doing.

Waste360: How did you come into your current role?

Tan: Prior to starting at Waste Connections in 2013, I was working in audit and assurance services at a Big 4 public accounting firm in Seattle, Washington.

My start with Waste Connections was a fluke as a recruiter reached out to see if I had any interest in a District Controller role that has both hands-on accounting and finance experience.

I recall interviewing with Jason Pratt (former Waste 40 Under 40 Winner) and was blown away by the emphasis on servant leadership culture, business partnership with Operations, Sales, and Maintenance, and being a “mini CFO” in the field. 

My path with Waste Connections included relocating coast-to-coast from Seattle, Washington, to Albany, New York, and Vaughan, Ontario. When the merger of Progressive Waste and Waste Connections occurred in June 2016, I relocated to Vaughan, Ontario to support the integration of both companies as a Region Division Controller.

Over my nine years with Waste Connections, I have been in five different roles and have learned more than I could imagine each step of the way.

A month prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was promoted into the Region Controller role and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Waste360: Can you tell me how you gained experience in Canadian accounting standards and practices prior to your current position?

Tan: Although I have worked in both the United States and Canada in my professional career, my Accounting roots began in Vancouver, Canada.

After graduating from the University of British Columbia, I worked at Deloitte as an auditor to gain work experience relevant to achieve my Chartered Accountant designation.

In preparation for the UFE (now CFE) exam to become a Chartered Accountant, I spent two summers at the University of Saskatchewan attaining my Masters of Professional Accounting degree.

While the program was geared towards preparing students to pass the UFE exam, my curiosity about various accounting topics led me to take a hard left turn toward academia.

I spent two years pursuing, but not completing, a doctorate in Accounting at the University of Massachusetts, dabbling in both behavioral accounting and capital markets.

Fast forward to today, I am a CPA in both Canada and USA.

The combination of public accounting experience and technical accounting through academia, built my foundation to become a Controller.

Waste360: How does it feel to be responsible for Waste Connections’ financials across the whole country?

Tan: Waste Connections is a decentralized company that puts ownership and accountability of the local financials at the district level.

While I am responsible for the financials across Canada, I am privileged to work with so many inspiring and devoted Controllers across Canada that ensure we deliver our results collectively.

In addition to reviewing monthly results and forecasts, I travel once every few weeks and spend time with the local management team to drive financial performance and see how I can remove any barriers in their way to achieving their goals. 

Waste360: How do you remain confident in your skills to remain successful?

Tan: I am confident in my skills because we hire the best Controllers – and when you spend the time and effort to hire the best, managing high-performing employees is easy (and fun!).

Waste Connections has a servant leadership culture that means if I take a genuine effort and interest to know my team members on a personal level, accountability, trust, and commitment will be the long-term result.

My role is to support every employee, and therefore, if our teams have the tools and know the expectations, my job is to serve each of them and get them from here to there.

Waste360: What interpersonal skills do you possess that you think to contribute to your greatness in this role?

Tan: The unique nature of Waste Connections culture that places an emphasis on partnership with other departments is what makes the Controllership position fun.

I recall before starting at Waste Connections, I figured my first week would be diving into debits and credits, understanding the billing system, and reconciling balance sheets.

Contrary to my expectations, I was on a ride along in a roll-off and front-end truck, spent time trying to sort material at the MRF (I failed miserably!), observed how materials get moved from the Transfer Station to Landfill and tried to answer customer service calls.

While the core job responsibilities are behind a desk, there was an emphasis from the company to spend time outside of your office and build connections.

Waste Connections believes that conversations lead to relationships, which builds trust and ultimately the results follow.

Speaking from my own experience, long-term sustained results do not happen overnight, and neither do relationships. By spending time outside of my office, I was able to slowly build relationships with team members through numerous conversations.

The more conversations you have with someone, either at work or personally, the better the relationship becomes and the easier it is to have tough conversations. 

Early in my career at Waste Connections, some of my leaders would end each conversation by asking what they can do for me. I have incorporated that in all of my conversations – by following up and providing that support to team members, that builds relationships, trust, and results much faster. 

Waste360: Can you tell me about a time you were challenged in this position? How did this lead to the possession of a new skill or a more trained skill you already possessed?

Tan: As I mentioned earlier, I transitioned to the Region Controller role a month prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only was I balancing a new role, new direct reports, new reporting deliverables, and a global pandemic, I had to build these relationships with our team members remotely. I didn’t even know what Zoom or Teams were prior to March 2020!

How would I build these relationships through a webcam instead of face-to-face?

I knew I had to be intentional with all of my conversations. In the past, I would be in conversations, and while somebody is talking, I would be thinking about a response or a solution. The pandemic made me become more patient and focused on becoming fully present in a conversation.

Instead of thinking of a solution, I would observe body language, tone, and content, and then when someone is done speaking, analyze all the information and take a few seconds to respond.

My wife reminds me I have a long way to go, but it is a skill that needs to be practiced frequently.

Conversations during the pandemic have centered around the health of our team and their family members and demonstrating that I was actively listening strengthened my relationships and made our team more connected than ever.

My Dad told me when I was young to listen more than I speak – that wisdom has aged well!

Waste360 Staff: What do you enjoy most about your job?

Tan: The people! Every Sunday evening, while some folks are dreading the upcoming work week, I’m having trouble sleeping because of my excitement to work with the team.

The waste industry is constantly changing with new technology, waste streams, and updated regulations, and there is always an opportunity to dive into projects and work collectively.

One of Waste Connections' values is to be a great place to work - being able to travel again to celebrate safety milestones, work anniversaries, and holiday parties with our 3,000 employees in Canada is a privilege and honor.  

Waste360 Staff: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Tan: There is no such thing as an individual award as this recognition is a direct reflection of the entire Waste Connections team.

Therefore, it is an honor to be named one of the top 40 under 40, and even more so because some of my mentors at Waste Connections have received this award as well.

This is true Servant Leadership at work as they prepared me to be the best that I could be and now I want to ensure I return the good deed to more of our young leaders across Canada as they develop in their roles.

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