KUWAIT CITY -- In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, Kuwait was a waste disposal company's dream come true. There was toxic waste and sewage, dirty sand and pools of oil. And above all, there was garbage, mountains and mountains of garbage lying uncollected in the streets.
But it was a dream that nearly evaporated into a business nightmare for Waste Management Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill., a $6 billion enterprise that bills itself as the world's largest waste disposal company, which made it an obvious candidate for the Kuwait job.
In the next few days, the company expects to sign an $11 million, one-year contract to provide garbage disposal services for the center of Kuwait City. It is a story that could have ended very differently, however, and one that offers an insight into the frustrations and confusion of trying to capitalize on the business opportunities of postwar Kuwait.
When the ground war for Kuwait began, Waste Management Chairman Dean Buntrock dispatched his vice president for Iberia and the Middle East, George Villasana, to Saudi Arabia with instructions to make sure the company would be following closely in the footsteps of the advancing allied forces.
Villasana, a short, tough-talking Cuban-American who has been disposing of garbage in the Middle East for 10 years, flew into Riyadh from London as the ground war neared its final stages. By the time he reached Dammam, where the Kuwaiti authorities were based, the allies were in control of Kuwait City.
Waste Management, it seemed, was too late. In Dammam, the Kuwaitis apologetically told Villasana that they already had awarded the cleanup contract to five Saudi Arabian contractors and that no further services would be required.
Undeterred, Villasana came up with an offer he was sure the Kuwaitis couldn't refuse: Waste Management would clean up Kuwait City for free -- with no commitment necessary.
The Kuwaitis thought about it, and a few days later came back with an answer: Yes, if you leave (for Kuwait) tomorrow. "We had nothing, no equipment, nothing," Villasana recalled. "We asked for just two or three days to get our equipment together, but the chance was missed."
Villasana gathered the equipment anyway -- 10 shovels, 20 dump trucks and 50 laborers -- and parked them in a vacant lot in full view of the 22nd floor of the Dammam Oberfoi Hotel, where the Kuwaitis were based.
Finally, on March 9, the Kuwaitis gave in and granted permission to Villasana, his project manager, Crawford Ross, and Saudi manager Adel al-Rashid, to enter Kuwait. On the evening of March 10, two weeks after Villasana had set off from London, the convoy of garbage trucks arrived on the outskirts of Kuwait City and pitched camp by the side of the road.
The team slept that night in tents, cooked dinner over campfires and the following day set about cleaning six neighborhoods of the city assigned to them by the Kuwaitis.
Their extra effort apparently paid dividends.
Within a week, the Kuwaitis had awarded Waste Management an emergency one-month, renewable contract to continue the work. According to Villasana, Kuwaiti officials were impressed because the other companies are small companies, some were good and some were bad, but they just didn't have our experience."
But when it came to pushing for more, Waste Management ran into the same old problem: The longer-term contracts already had been promised to the Saudi contractors, except this time around, Waste Management already had proved its superiority.
There followed, as Villasana put it, "a lot of sleepless nights and nervous breakdowns" as he set about negotiating a contract to clean the city until Kuwait's own cleaning companies were back on their feet again.
On March 19, the Kuwaiti government resigned, which left no one clearly in charge. The Muslim month of Ramadan was under way, which meant nothing could be accomplished by day because the Kuwaitis stayed at home fasting. "We were working all day and they were working all night. It meant we never got any sleep," said Joe Zorn, vice president for field services. "If there were feelings of frustration it was because we were exhausted."