From a would-be dental student to president and CEO of one of the world’s largest waste management companies, the only constant Stephen J. Jones embraces in life is change.
“At every stage in my life I’ve kind of said ‘this is interesting,’ and I go for about three years and I say ‘what can I do now,’” says Jones, 55, who for the past two years has led the Morristown, N.J.-based Covanta. “The CEO role is complicated, so I don’t think this one will be a three-year cycle.”
If you live along the East Coast, there is a good chance your household trash is combusted and turned into energy at one of Covanta’s waste-to-energy plants. With annual sales of $2 billion, and more than 40 facilities and 4,000 employees worldwide, Covanta’s services touch all aspects of the waste stream, from municipal and commercial trash collection to recycling to environmental remediation.
A seat in the corner office was not on Jones’ radar when the son of a union pipefitter from Horsham became the first in his family to go to college, entering Bloomsburg University as a biology major with the goal of becoming a dentist. A tussle with organic chemistry, however, convinced him to pursue what would be a lasting passion: business.
“I liked the whole theory of economics and looking at why products are priced a certain way,” says Jones, who graduated from Bloomsburg with a bachelor of science in economics in 1983. “I thought it was interesting to think through how supply and demand impact products.”
Two other Bloomsburg experiences had a significant impact on his life: Joining Sigma Iota Omega (SIO) and spending a semester in Liverpool, England.
“I learned leadership skills at SIO,” says Jones, who became the fraternity’s president his senior year. “Being able to set objectives and track progress against those objectives, were fundamental skills I learned as part of the Greek system.”
For the Pennsylvania youth who had never flown before, going to Liverpool in his junior year whetted an appetite for international experiences that remains to this day. A mix-up at the start of his travels also taught him a valuable lesson in self-reliance. “I went over on a weekend to the wrong place — to the University of Liverpool instead of Liverpool College,” says Jones. “The woman running the dorm let me stay for the night. The next day I found where I was supposed to be.”
“Studying abroad and traveling through Europe expanded my world. I found I was very comfortable internationally,” he says. “I gained the confidence that I could go almost anywhere in the world and be able to take care of myself without getting into too much trouble.”
After graduation, Jones was recruited by Verizon for its management trainee program. While at Verizon, Jones completed an MBA program at Temple University and later earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. A freshly minted lawyer with an MBA, he began working in mergers and acquisitions at Dechert LLP, one of Philadelphia’s largest law firms.
The long days and all-nighters led him to seek interesting work that would be family-friendly. So in 1992, he moved to Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. It was at Air Products that Jones met his wife, Melanie, a chemical engineer. The couple is celebrating 18 years of marriage and has two boys, Zac, 17, and Alex, 14.
Jones was in-house counsel on deals involving “tonnage gases” — the manufacture of tons of particular gases used in industry. His early work at Air Products involved hydrogen, used by oil refineries to reduce sulfur content in fuels, and oxygen, used by steel mills to fire up blast furnaces.
After six years, Jones was ready for a new challenge, and Air Products promoted him to business manager for all West Coast hydrogen activities. He went from helping finalize deals to looking for new ones — a role he relished.
“As an attorney, you’re playing defense; you are looking for risks,” Jones said. “On the commercial side, you’re playing offense. You’re looking for new opportunities and not worrying too much about risk because someone else, the attorney, gets paid to play that position.”
From there Jones became vice president and general manager of the Industrial Chemicals Division, negotiating deals throughout Europe and Asia. In 2009, he became senior vice president and general manager, Tonnage Gases, Equipment and Energy.
While the Great Recession of 2008 was slowing the U.S. economy, China was still booming and Jones and Air Products followed the market. In 2011, he and his family moved to the company’s headquarters in Shanghai.
“It brought me back to the time I spent in Liverpool,” Jones says of his three years in China. “Deals in China live and die by forging relationships, especially since it’s difficult to pursue dispute resolution by way of courts if things fall apart. If you had the right relationship with someone you could get the deal done.”
“I was all over China because the petrochemical plants are built out in the more remote provinces,” says Jones. “I would sit at a restaurant and people would be amazed since they had seen only one or two westerners before.”
Soon after his return to the U.S., Air Products underwent internal changes. Activist investor Pershing Square acquired roughly 10 percent of the company with an eye toward shaking up management. It was clear to Jones that based on these changes taking place he would never rise to be Air Product’s CEO and that it was time to move on. He voluntarily left Air Products in the fall of 2014 and by January 2015 was named Covanta’s CEO and president.
While the transition from industrial gases to waste management may seem great, they have more similarities than differences, says Jones. Both industries deal with the operation of large, complex facilities. Air Products had even operated waste-to-energy plants in the mid-1990s and, ironically, when the company left that business, Jones had sold some of the plants to Covanta.
At Covanta, Jones still has plenty of opportunities to become emerged in international business. While the company’s footprint is in the U.S., growth is primarily international. Currently, the company is building a plant in Dublin, Ireland, capable of processing up to 600,000 metric tons of waste annually — turning the trash into electricity for 80,000 homes and heat for 50,000 residences.
“We have a lot of inexpensive land in the United States, which makes it cheaper to use landfills,” says Jones. “But if you’re an island nation like Ireland or the U.K., you hit the tipping point quickly because you don’t want to use your limited space for landfills.”
However, one area of domestic growth is in “profiled waste,” serving companies that want to reduce their environmental impact and eliminate the waste they send to landfills. Concern over global warming is also playing a significant role in demand for Covanta’s waste-to-energy plants. “It’s good public relations for companies to engage in activities that show they are environmentally responsible.”
Landfills release methane, a key contributor to global warming, as well as posing other potential problems such as groundwater contamination or fires. In 2011, only 19 percent of large U.S. manufacturers had environmental sustainability goals, says Jones. That level increased to about 80 percent by 2015. Based on this change, demand for Covanta to handle waste from these companies is growing by about 15 percent a year.
Covanta’s combustion process reduces trash by 90 percent and the ash that remains has uses as well. Precious metals such as gold and silver can be mined from the ash. And in addition to being clean enough to provide “top cover” for landfills, Covanta is testing technology that can further process the ash to produce different types of construction material — aggregate which can be used in roads, a glass cut for sandblasting, and a sand cut which can be used on beaches to help prevent erosion.
In conversation, Jones frequently returns to the role played by Bloomsburg University and its value for students like himself — first-generation college students who worked their way through school. Jones spent his college summers working in the pipefitting union on construction jobs.
“Bloomsburg is a good value proposition, and I don’t know if you can teach common sense, but I found the student body at Bloomsburg to be down-to-earth and very practical,” says Jones. After donating to the university for years and participating in events at the Terry and JoAnn Zeigler College of Business, Jones recently reconnected further by accepting a seat on the Board of Directors of the Bloomsburg University Foundation.
As for what allowed him to navigate a series of successful careers — any one of which could have been a lifetime job — Jones said it comes down to empathy and keeping yourself open to new situations.
“It’s important to understand human nature and interact with people. Today, it’s even more critical to be able to get on the phone or have dinner with people and work through issues,” he says. “Understand and think about what the other person is trying to get out of their situation and work to common ground.”
For those starting their career, the master of embracing change cautions not to specialize too early. “Make sure you stay broad earlier in your career; don’t box yourself in too early. I tried to create options in my career so I could keep expanding my opportunities and that’s easier to do if you don’t specialize too soon.” •
Jack Sherzer is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg.