Andy Leighton interview with B Magazine
There are a number of important political races in our area this year, a few, because of term limits, pitting talented individuals against each other in districts without an incumbent. The following interview is with Andy Leighton, a Democrat who is running for House District 147 in Cape Girardeau. Leighton answered questions from B Magazine and provided a three-sentence self-introduction. To read interviews with other candidates profiled in B Magazine, click here.
Democrat candidate for Missouri House District 147
Leighton: I earned a bachelor of arts in political science from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale where I was very active in student government and local, state and federal politics and elections. Achievements in college led to paid internships in the Illinois House of Representatives (Springfield, Ill.), and in a congressional district office (Carterville, Ill.), as well as in Washington, D.C. This experience led to employment in the private sector as a manager of community and industry affairs working on local and state regulatory policy and writing comprehensive solid waste management plans; I am also currently the vice chair for public relations for the Cape Girardeau County Democratic Party.
How old were you when you had your first job?
Leighton: At 12 years old, my first cash-paying job was doing yard work and shoveling snow for neighbors.
What is an important lesson you learned early in your career?
Leighton: An early, valuable lesson about work is that opportunity abounds for the observant. As a teen, I would notice an overgrown lawn, leaves piling high or unshoveled snow and realized they were an opportunity for work. Following this example, I was able to find customers for my first employer after college, a waste management company, by noticing broken ground at potential construction sites, as well as by searching city building permits and reading stories in the Southeast Missourian, looking for new or expanding businesses and following up on those leads.
This process of searching building permits was how I found the general contractor for the Emerson bridge project.
How did you finance college?
Leighton: My college education was financed through a combination of student loans, a variety of student work positions and seasonal summer jobs, help from my parents, and personal savings.
One of my student work jobs was as a custodian. I once asked my supervisor why I almost never saw him on my floor, even though I had observed him visiting with others on their floors (or heard their stories). He said, "I go to the custodian's storage closet first and there learn everything I need to know about his work ethic." There was truth in that statement. My first day upon opening the closet door, it was obvious that the last person working the area had few cares about cleanliness or order. Cleaning, organizing and inventorying the closet was the first step toward tackling the rest of the job: What do I already have? What more do I need? Where/how do I get it?
Describe the different steps in your career and why you made the choices you did.
Leighton: While studying public administration, I became interested in solid waste management, an industry that was just starting to address issues of large-scale commercial, industrial and residential recycling. We moved to the Chicago area and lived with family temporarily until I landed my first professional career job with Waste Management, Inc. (WMI). We could not believe our luck! At a time when the company had instituted a hiring freeze, they hired me as a recycling coordinator for the Midwest Region Office. I worked closely with a man who had started on a truck throwing trash and worked his way into part ownership of a family-owned business, which eventually sold out to WMI. He is the smartest, hardest-working person I have ever worked with -- a consummate professional and my mentor.
At first, we traveled together all over the Chicago metro area presenting our program to city councils, community and industry clubs, schools, etc. We toured major manufacturing facilities and met with executives in the boardrooms of some of the biggest names in business selling WMI's full range of services to reduce, reuse and recycle. Soon, I was on my own and traveling to places like Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Terra Haute, Indiana, selling services to a wider audience. However, it was not long before a troubled economy in the early 1990s combined with a company growing quickly through mergers and acquisitions (M&A) caught up with me in the form of downsizing. This is when I learned that sometimes bad things happen to good people.
Eventually, I was hired by a friend from WMI to work for Allied Waste Industries, a young upstart company at the time that through a series of calculated purchases ultimately took control of WMI. I was hired by Allied as a recycling coordinator and did much the same as with WMI, but soon became manager of community and industry affairs. My most memorable responsibility was one time having to call the director of environmental affairs for the City of Chicago and explain (before he found out from someone else) that our waste transfer station was operating outside of its permitted limits due to high winds on the Northern Illinois plains, slowing things way down at the landfill. Our entire two-acre lot was stacked 15 feet high with tightly-packed trash. He said, "Thanks," and that was it. What could anyone do? Better stacked on our lot than blowing in the streets and alleys.
In January 1996, with two boys under four years old, we made the difficult decision to leave our jobs in the city where we both seemed to be on a fast track to professional success and moved back to Carbondale to be closer to my in-laws. I took a job with Browning Ferris Industries (BFI) in Marion, Illinois, as a recycling coordinator trying to bring the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) to southern Illinois. After only six months, the paper recycling boom went bust. BFI was not alone, but it was among the biggest employers in the industry to bet the farm on waste paper prices at an unsustainable $100 per ton in part to pay for its expansion into rural markets. This is when I learned that smart people sometimes make poor decisions based on flimsy evidence. Fortunately, I was able to quickly return to work for Allied, which had acquired Lemons Waste Hauling and Lemons Landfill in Dexter, Missouri. That decision landed my family in Cape Girardeau in October 1996.
By July 1997, Allied had bought that same BFI hauling company in Marion, and my career was back on the fast track with a sales territory extending from Poplar Bluff to Lawrenceville, Illinois, on the Indiana border northeast of Mt. Vernon. By July 1999, Allied bought out the entire BFI company nationwide, and I was once again out of a job due to M&A. It was time for a change.
With the start of 2000, I had the good fortune to get hired by Advanced Business Systems, a company founded in the 1960s by Jack Mehner and then transitioning to his younger brother, Mark. They treated me very well and taught me how to sell business phone systems. In the end, I was not a successful phone system salesman in the post-Y2K environment, so I moved on to Southwestern Bell working as a service representative at its Cape Girardeau call center. My training class was the last one hired before 9/11/01. Just as we graduated onto the sales floor, the ringing phones went nearly dead for several weeks as the entire country pondered what had occurred and what was coming next. Southwestern Bell (SWB) was growing by leaps and bounds through M&A and promotional efforts to "win back" former landline customers. When business picked up, we were working 10-hour days, six days a week.
I tried my hand at selling life and property insurance with Reliable Insurance based in Sikeston. The heart of my territory was in the older sections of Cape, north and south of the university. My customers were predominantly African American, and I learned a lot about their culture and the importance of family in it. Many of my customers lived in homes housing multiple generations, and many times, it was grandmothers insuring not their own lives, but the lives of their grandchildren. It said a lot about the risks they felt their families confronted.
In early 2008, I was contacted by a man from Cook Sales in Cobden, Illinois. They build and sell portable sheds on a lease-to-own basis and were looking for a collection's manager. He liked my resume, which he had found on Indeed.com. It was a big promotion, and given our nation's failing economy, it could not be declined. This job brought out everything I had ever learned in previous jobs, but especially knowledge of phone systems from Advanced Business Systems, customer service and sales contact management from AT&T and property insurance from Reliable. Even my background in transportation from the trash-hauling business was useful. In my five and one half years with the company, our department became the key to growth the company had always wanted. The company's reputation for service improved. Happier customers stayed on their contracts longer and more ended up owning their sheds. In no small measure, our work there strengthened the company's position to borrow much-needed capital to expand and invest in infrastructure. I can honestly say that on my first day, it was apparent that chaos reigned in the department, but within a few short months, order was restored, and on my last day, I left a well-oiled financing machine.
Life is full of lessons. Some of them come easy, and others are hard learned. Leaving Cook was a hard-learned one.
Even though the post-great-recession economy was improving, it took many months to find work, and it was not comparable. I was finally hired after taking a leap of faith in the hope it could be turned into something better, and eventually, it did. I accepted a position as an evening-shift supervisor working for an environmental services firm recently contracted by a medical facility. It was a very humbling experience, but good to be back to work and, of course, it reminded me of the lessons learned as a student worker in college. In time, I came to know the administrator who oversaw the contract. An opportunity arose to tell him more about my background, and that conversation quickly led to a position as a medical biller, which is where I have been since March 2015.
Tell about one of your favorite books about business, leadership or government. Why should others read it?
Leighton: "Undaunted Courage," by Stephen E. Ambrose, is the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s to discover the source of the Missouri River and a path to the West Coast. It is a remarkable story that begins with detailed planning and organizing; describes amazing acts of courage, faith and endurance; and ends with a nation inspired.
How would you describe your management style?
Leighton: I think of my management style as transformative. I do not accept the concept that work is performed a certain way because "we have always done it this way." An organization, like a person, must change its ways, adapt and innovate over time or get bested by its competitors. With change comes resistance, so proper training is essential to success.
And your vision of your personal public service?
Leighton: Public service is a civic duty and privilege. Elected officials should always work in the public interest as it states in the Preamble to the United States Constitution: in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
Personal interests must take a back seat to the public interest.
What would colleagues say is your biggest strength? And weakness?
Leighton: Colleagues have said my greatest strength is integrity. Brevity is not a strength.
Tell about a specific time you faced adversity.
Leighton: In late 2004-05 we lost my father and both of my wife's parents inside of six months. By the end of 2005, I was out of work, and prospects were not looking good. Since lack of adequate finances can strain any partnership, our 17-year marriage was starting to go in the wrong direction. Failure was not an option. It never is. You get up. You put one foot in front of the other. You talk to family, friends, colleagues. You find the hand up you need, and you keep going. Something will come along. It always does.
In the legislature, there will be many obstacles to achieving one's goals. There will be allies to secure on committees. Then more allies to secure first in the full House Chamber and then the Senate Chamber. Other allies will be needed in the administrative branch. Some of these same allies on one issue will be bitter opponents on other issues. You just keep going.
What can state government do to best help businesses and workers?
Leighton: My number-one priority as a state legislator will be to support Medicaid expansion, which will benefit both employers and workers in multiple ways. First, it is projected to bring $500 million in federal dollars into Missouri every year to help support health care across the state. Missouri is one of only 16 states that has not expanded its Medicaid program. The program is so popular that not one of the 34 states that did expand it have decided to get rid of it.
We are losing our federal health care dollars to neighboring states. Healthier workers are more productive and do not miss work.
Why do you want to serve in government --- right now, at this moment in time?
Leighton: The recent birth of my twin grandchildren helped sharpen my focus on public service, especially elected office. We have serious problems that need immediate solutions, and the members of our current delegation to the general assembly are blind to them. Even worse, they treat these issues as if they are punchlines. The pandemic has shone a bright light on the indecisiveness and lack of leadership in our current majority legislators.
What message would you tell young people who are just starting their careers about how to be successful?
Leighton: Dream big -- our nation is confronting many troubling issues, which is not new, but new solutions are needed, meaning that opportunity abounds. Keep your chin up and your mind, eyes and ears open. Listen more than you talk. Adapt, adapt, adapt.