Alan McKim’s environmental startup, Clean Harbors, was generating $50 million annually in its seventh year. But McKim was dissatisfied. He recognized that he wasn’t keeping up with the phenomenal growth of his company. And so, more than a decade after he dropped out of Northeastern, he re-enrolled to pursue the education that would help convert his entrepreneurial instincts into business acumen.
Along the way, he also developed a crucial relationship with Northeastern professor Dan McCarthy, who became his mentor, as well as a member of the Clean Harbors board.
“I didn’t know how to read a financial statement,” said McKim, who serves as founder and chief executive officer of Clean Harbors. “I desperately needed education because I knew this company was going to continue to grow, and it was outgrowing me.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Northeastern and Dan McCarthy, I can guarantee that.”
In recognition of his success, Northeastern graduate Alan S. McKim was honored as the recipient of the university’s Distinguished Entrepreneur Award on Tuesday night, as part of Northeastern’s celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week. The award was launched in 2017 by President Joseph E. Aoun to recognize the university’s commitment to entrepreneurship.
The results of McKim’s ambition and commitment have been transformative for his company, for his alma mater, and for McKim himself. Clean Harbors is the leading provider of environmental, energy, and industrial services in North America, with anticipated 2019 revenues of $3.5 billion. McKim, vice chair of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees, has become a namesake of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. He and fellow entrepreneur Rich D’Amore donated a record $60 million to Northeastern in 2012.
“Over the years, Alan has supported the university with his time, his treasure, his passion,” said Aoun, who was focused on exploring McKim’s story throughout the event at the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex auditorium. “What I realized early on, when I saw him talking to people, is that he was instrumental in inspiring other people to do the same.
“You are inspiring people because you are genuine. You are passionate.”
And, above all else, McKim is humble. His humility was the reaffirming theme of an event meant to celebrate him. Many times over the years, McKim admitted, he wondered whether he was preventing his company from growing. On three occasions, he brought in an outside president or chief executive officer to provide his company with professional management. From each outsider he absorbed lessons and perspective that helped him to lead Clean Harbors through its moments of crisis and to ascend yet again.
McKim has made a lucrative career of exceeding his own expectations and figuring it out along the way.Clean Harbors began in 1980 as a four-man concern with $15,000 of capital that specialized in cleaning oil tanks. It has grown to serve 300,000 customers in more than 600 locations, including most of the Fortune 500 companies. Its key acquisitions include the 2012 purchase of Safety-Kleen, an expensive purchase which threatened to bankrupt Clean Harbors, according to McKim. It was such experiences that taught his management team how to manage the takeovers that have helped spur the growth of Clean Harbors.
“We built out a team whose sole goal every day was integrating companies,” McKim said of his company’s mergers and acquisitions. “We are really good at this.”
Clean Harbors is best known for responding to all kinds of environmental and man-made emergencies. After the Sept. 11 attacks, 300 Clean Harbor employees were at the World Trade Center site to decontaminate workers at the end of their shifts.
The quality of McKim’s employees and the relationships he has developed with so many of them have helped him maintain his passion for four decades. Clean Harbors responds to 6,000 emergencies annually in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
“Our workforce are really heroes,” he said. “When you think about 3,500 employees cleaning up the  oil spill in the Gulf [of Mexico], working 12 to 18 hours a day, they really develop that camaraderie of being part of the family. What we see is that people love being in this industry, they love the great work that they do cleaning up the environment.”
After graduating from high school in suburban Boston, McKim enrolled in Northeastern’s part-time criminal justice program—but dropped out after one semester. In need of money to support his young family, he went to work for Bob Dee, a small-business owner who specialized in cleaning up oil spills. McKim was a 24-year-old father of two when he launched Clean Harbors, and his family remembers those late nights in the early years when he would come home covered in oil.
In 1986, while his young company was thriving, McKim was counseled by Northeastern professor John Griffith—the father of McKim’s best friend—to return to Northeastern. McKim was admitted to the Executive MBA program, which accepted his business leadership experience in lieu of a bachelor’s degree.
McKim took his company public—a source of some regret, he admitted—while transforming Clean Harbors into an industry leader in virtually all of their current endeavors, including the treatment and disposal of hazardous waste. Several of his senior managers have been with the company for three decades—all based on merit—even as he has pushed himself and his firm to take on the newest technologies.
“I’ve been a disruptor of my own business in many ways,” he said, smiling.