David Chameli: 'The best way to understand a business is to walk in the steps of the employees'

Heritage-Crystal Clean's GC on ESG, learning a company's ropes first-hand and the importance of mentoring

David Chameli with his wife Kathy at Machu Picchu in Peru Image courtesy of David Chameli

As vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Heritage-Crystal Clean, a leading environmental services company, David Chameli supports the company’s various business units with contracts, litigation, compliance, governance, M&A, IP, real estate, securities, EHS, HR and employment matters while managing the legal department staff and budget.

You’ve said that there is an ESG – Environmental, Social and Governance – revolution underway these days. Why?

Yes, ESG is not a new concept but it is quickly emerging as a standard for many socially conscious investors when they consider the stock of publicly traded companies. For companies, ESG is a mindset and also a way to proactively tell your story across myriad of disciplines – from diversity to sustainability.  Especially with sustainability, this is an exciting time for an environmental services company like ours. For example, we are the second largest re-refiner of used motor oil in the United States. Do you know that many years ago, people used to just pour used motor oil down the drain and throw out filters?

Today, we see the opportunity to re-use motor oil and that’s why companies like ours collect the waste.  We then apply what-I-like-to-call the wonders of chemistry and physics to restore it to clean solvent and base lubricant, and put it back into the stream of commerce. 

You work with a wide variety of environmental and transportation lawyers in your business. How do you assess someone’s expertise?

Environmental and transportation/supply chain law can be very broad and I generally don’t run across many lawyers with experience in both of these areas. When a lawyer tells me that they practice in these areas, I ask them to tell me what statute in the US federal regulations they deal with most frequently. Their answer usually tells me what they know.

But the key to a lawyer’s success is how well they know our business. Although my company’s business is not necessarily complicated, it’s not necessarily intuitive either. If a law firm lawyer doesn’t know, or take the time to know my business, it is unlikely they will ever know how to solve our problems.

By the way, when I joined the company as its first in-house lawyer, I had to learn the ropes just like everyone else. I learned that the best way to understand a business is to get your hands dirty and walk in the steps of the employees who do the work. I did this by riding with our sales and service representatives along their routes and in their day-to-day operations.

Why was it important to do those ride-alongs? And where did you learn to do something like that?

Almost entirely from my dad – he was the most influential person in my life and the work ethic he taught me stays with me to this day. My dad was born in Puerto Rico after my grandfather emigrated there from Lebanon. My grandfather then moved his family from Puerto Rico to upstate New York in 1933 to start a new life. Although my father never completed high school, he was very adept at business.  Over his lifetime, he and his siblings built a chain of hardware stores with my dad’s name on them. Growing up, we were all required to work, and learn, the family business. By the time I was 10 years old, I knew how to cut and thread pipe, repair windows, diagnose plumbing and electrical problems, and unload trucks – all ways that I learned hands-on, problem solving skills.

Much later in life, this lesson repeated itself. I was a lawyer for Sears and the head of our supply chain, retired three-star army general Gus Pagonis, required every corporate employee to work in the warehouses several days a year. He did this so we knew first-hand what it was like to run a business; otherwise he would tell us we were useless to him. It’s amazing when you unload a truck on a dock. You develop an appreciation for everything from employee work conditions to the integrity of the products coming from a vendor. As a lawyer, this was a unique perspective that you get only by actually doing the work.  

When you mentor younger lawyers, do you talk to them about the value of unloading trucks?

Absolutely. First, I think all executives have a responsibility to mentor younger folks as they begin to navigate their own careers. Mentoring helps pass knowledge and experience in a way that school can never do. Mentoring can also help young people learn core skills like problem solving and interpersonal communications. Finally, and almost most important, mentoring can help with career paths and direction during times when choices can feel so confusing. I’ve been fortunate that many of the young lawyers who have reached out to me to understand my career and life as a lawyer have shown a healthy level of curiosity and a desire to learn how to be successful. And I never spare them the opportunity to talk about both my dad and Gus Pagonis and what I learned from both men, including the hard work of unloading trucks.

Changing subjects, a little, I understand you are quite a prolific comic book collector.  What can you tell us about that?

Yes! Pop culture is experiencing amazing mainstream acceptance and my family and I celebrate all of it! Comic book collecting is one aspect of pop culture that has been a hobby of mine almost my entire life. I started collecting comic books when I was eight years old while helping my dad at one of his hardware stores. I used to walk across the street to a convenience store to devour the comic book rack.

My first comic book was Action Comics issue #399 which I still own today. I was captivated by the storytelling and the artwork of the characters. Today, I have about 30,000 comic books in my collection which encroaches into my comic book-themed basement. But I didn’t always have that many. After I finished law school, I wanted to propose to my girlfriend, who is now my wife of 30+ years. I needed enough money to buy her engagement ring. So I made the heartbreaking decision to sell most of my collection with a vow to replace it. One of the books I sold was Hulk #181, which most fans know to be the first appearance of the character Wolverine – and currently a highly collectible book.

For years, I used to tell my wife that Hulk #181 “was sitting on her ring finger” much to her annoyance.  Several years ago, when I turned 50, she presented me with a pristine Hulk #181 and the warning that “I never want to hear you ever say ‘Hulk 181 is on my ring finger’, ever”.  Needless to say,

I treasure two comic books in my collection the most – the one that started it all, my original Action Comic book, and the Hulk #181 that my wife gave me.  And in case you are wondering, I never refer to comic books and her ring finger.

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