After protests outside their Lebanon plant and activist allegations of corruption, the CEO of Averda gives his first ever interview to a media organization. Little known by name in Lebanon, Averda is a waste management company founded in 1993 by Lebanese engineer Maysarah Sukkar. It is the parent company of Sukleen and Sukomi. Maysarah’s son, Malek, has been a top manager since the company’s inception, and today leads the company as it continues an expansion abroad that began a few years ago. Contracted by the government to collect, treat and dispose of Beirut’s waste in the early 1990s, Sukleen and Sukomi – which even Sukkar refers to collectively as Sukleen, a play on the family name – the companies quickly took on more municipalities in Lebanon and have been handling waste in the capital and all of the Mount Lebanon governorate (except Jbail) for around 20 years. Previously media shy, Malek Sukkar sits with Executive to talk about the waste crisis and his reaction to Sukleen’s many critics.
E How do you respond to accusations that have been leveled recently in Lebanon against Sukleen and your family in context of the escalating garbage crisis?
The nicest way I can describe this is that we understand the need to find someone who can be held responsible. We are not responsible, but we are the easiest people who they can try to [blame]. We understand the frustration but [what Sukleen is being accused of] is unfair and unfounded.
E Have any of the organizations or parties with interests in this controversy reached out to you asking for your response or comments on this matter?
No. It is shocking, but no.
E Were you surprised that the emergency plan which was announced on September 9 has not seen the beginning of implementation within the seven weeks that have passed until the first literal garbage flood on October 25?
Honestly, I am surprised because I thought that the change of which minister handled the file would be based on some sort of agreement that had been reached in the Council of Ministers. I am not privy to what happened [with regards to] the actual execution but I am surprised by the delay because this is a critical service. It is not a nice-to-have service like superfast WiFi versus regular WiFi. Taking care of our garbage is a bare necessity and this has always been my worry as a human being, not as someone who is involved in this file.
E Can you be more specific about why the situation worries you personally?
I remember a story from Harvard Business Review from some years ago. It said that there is always a danger that your strength becomes your weakness. The Lebanese government relies on the resilience of the people. Every Lebanese has three different power sources and several different water sources. The resilience that this has built up is what I am afraid people will develop [because of] the waste issue. The scene that we [saw on October 25] of the floating garbage may become something that we are used to, and that would be the absolute worst outcome. We got used to mobile telephones where calls cut after about 20 seconds or so; we got used to not having electricity. People still get angry but there is a used-to-it-ness and it is my worry that the longer this thing takes to get sorted out, the more this resilience gene might come out where people would say we can also survive without waste management. That, to me, is the worst possible outcome.
E Do you think that the emergency plan has the potential for dealing with the issue at least for a year or two?
The emergency plan is fairly straightforward. What it [calls for] is a devolvement of the waste services [to municipalities] and for doing that over 18 months. That is a wise process because you can’t go from zero to 100 all at once. From a high-level view I think this makes sense. What I think worries people is the question if there is something that will happen within these 18 months, or will this be a period that will require another 18 months and then another 18 months [of emergency management]. This is probably the tougher question. Only the municipalities know because they will have to pick up the baton and run with it.
E You have not participated in the tender bids that were preceding the announcement of the emergency plan. How large a role did the Lebanese operation play in the overall activities of Averda up until the summer and the closure of the Naameh landfill?
Everyone in our organization is so proud of the work that has been done in different countries, but Sukleen and Sukomi are the mama. All that is good in the whole company has come from these two entities, all the genes and the DNA, the will, the pride and the resilience, talking in a positive sense. When we started this process in Lebanon in 1993, we came to a country that had been decimated and a population that had not been in a corporate setting for about 20 years. When you asked for someone who could use a word processor or for a specialized accountant, you couldn’t find them. From when we started, the gene was built one brick at a time. We created a school for training almost every skill set and we took the view that we were a meritocracy. It was a very small family [involvement], there was my father and myself and not a lot of Sukkars in the organization. We believe that you are as good as your performance, not as good as your last name. We put a lot of training performance-based management systems in creating the gene of the organization and this gene self-propagates.
E You have recently been much more responsive to questions about Sukleen when compared with a lack of answers that we observed over many years previously. Why the long-standing reluctance to talk?
We have no political aspirations, neither my father nor me. We always thought that if you speak to the press in Lebanon, you are making a bid for parliament or becoming a minister. Also, a lot of times when we answered in the past, we answered with 17 pages of documents and numbers and no one ever read them. And because we are highly technical people, we always assumed that whatever response we give, it will be twisted in the media, so let’s not say anything. In hindsight this was a humongous mistake.
E What has changed in this regard?
The attacks in recent weeks have been so personal, so wrong, that your blood boils and not answering has become impossible. Our doctrine now is that we answer, not by being rude or aggressive but by being factual and our facts speak for themselves. We believe in everything that we have done and we say that.
E From your perspective now, what is your strategy in going forward not just in responding to crises but in representing to larger audiences what Averda is?
I think for the first time in the history of the company we have a marketing budget and within that budget a very specific media marketing strategy that we are now applying.
E Which is to do what and why?
We do a lot of great things; we do life-changing things and to many people it is a shock when they see this. It shouldn’t be a shock and, to be honest, the people whom we hurt [with our silence when we were accused] probably more than our own family are the people who work in this great company. If you work for Sukleen today in Lebanon, you are not proud. They have made you feel small. The attacks we have received are not something that will make you feel that you can walk into a bar and wear a Sukleen t-shirt. So one of the reasons why we have taken what is for us a bold step is that these people who have been doing this work for decades deserve a response they can take to their friends and their neighbors and tell them, ‘what you are saying is not right. This is the truth.’ Working for this company should be a moment of pride, not a moment of shame. Having learned from the Lebanese condition, we will go forward with a positive view of media relations.