1996 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"You have to grab the ring of opportunity when it’s there in front of you; otherwise, someone else will."
Dean Buntrock was born in 1931 in Columbia, South Dakota, an agricultural town that at that time boasted a population of 250. Buntrock's father served as the town's mayor for 25 years and also ran a farm equipment dealership. That's where Dean learned first-hand to satisfy the customers, manage operations, and, most important, manage people. He credits the years he spent working in his father's business as his "business school education."
At the age of nine, Buntrock swept floors in the store before school. As he grew older, he took on additional responsibilities, including waiting on customers. When he was 13, he drove a truck and hauled grain for the area's largest farmer. His mother liked to encourage her son's entrepreneurial spirit and drove him into Aberdeen to sell the chickens and potatoes he raised. At the age of 16, he became a salesman for his father's business.
In addition to the family business, Buntrock's childhood focused on education and the church. "The values that were most important to my parents," he says, "were tithing, saving, respect, and using all your God-given talents to pursue excellence." During grades 4 through 8, Buntrock attended a one-room Lutheran parochial school, which had a total of 30 students. His high school graduating class had eight.
He attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota and majored in business and history, but midway through his junior year, Buntrock's father developed a serious heart condition and he returned home to manage the family business until it could be sold. Once that was accomplished, Buntrock joined the Army and served during the Korean War. Upon his discharge, he returned to St. Olaf and completed his college education in 1955.
Shortly after his marriage, Buntrock's father-in-law, a partner in a garbage business in Chicago, died. Buntrock went to work in the business and, in 1968, formed a partnership with two other waste companies. That merger formed Waste Management, Inc., which went public in 1971. For the next 20 years, the company saw double-digit growth. "You have to grab the ring of opportunity when it presents itself," he says, "otherwise it will pass to someone else. At that time, there were other companies much larger than ours that had the same opportunities, but they didn't recognize them or care to make the commitment it took for growth and risk." Today, Waste Management operates in 21 countries. Buntrock retired as CEO in 1997.
An ardent supporter of education, Buntrock says, "Education is the greatest gift we can give our youth. It gives them the tools they need to carve out and direct their careers and achieve whatever goals they set for themselves. I was fortunate to have parents who valued education and made it central to my life. I hope that I can encourage today's youth to value their education as well."