From his early days growing up in Braintree, Mass., Alan McKim, MBA'88, had a passion for the environment and a drive to make a difference. This passion led him to create Clean Harbors, Inc. in 1980 with one truck and four employees who transported and safely disposed of hazardous wastes for local businesses. After 43 years as CEO, McKim has transitioned to Chief Technology Officer and Executive Chairman of the board after growing the publicly traded company to 20,000 employees and hundreds of locations worldwide.
Obviously, McKim has learned a thing or two over those years, and he recently shared his candid story, lessons learned, and honest advice with the first-year Full-Time MBA Career Management class. They all read his new book, Doing the Doing, which was sent to them in their admitted student packets.
“It was wonderful,” McKim says about his visit. “I loved having the opportunity to answer their questions and see how they see things from their perspective. They're curious, and it's refreshing.”
Many of the things he shared were connected to technology and how to leverage it because he thinks business is so different today because of it. Since going public in 1987, he's overseen more than 75 acquisitions, constantly seeking innovative solutions to environmental challenges. “Without technology, we couldn't have done it. It's an enabler,” he says. Under his leadership, the company expanded into a wide range of services, including emergency response, industrial cleaning, and waste recycling.
He started learning about how technology could drive change as a Northeastern Executive MBA student, which he did while also running his company. “Education helped change me as a leader… Lifelong learning is the key to career development,” he says. He didn't have an undergraduate business degree when he started the MBA program, and initially, he felt he didn't fit in. He quickly learned that he had a different perspective that added to the classroom experience for the whole cohort. “We all came from different walks of life and were in it together.”
Senior Director of the Graduate Career Center Susan Antonelli says, “Our students often tell me they're intimidated when they start their Northeastern experience, just like he said he was. He showed them how to overcome that feeling and find success. He impressed me so much because he was so vulnerable and real.”
McKim also believes that environmental protection and economic success are not mutually exclusive and that his company has led the way in proving that sustainability can be profitable. He shared several details about the company's involvement in government regulatory efforts and their duty to be good stewards of our planet.
“Getting the chance to interact with someone who has built a successful enterprise centered around safeguarding our environment was both exciting and insightful,” says Marjan Monfarednasab, MBA'25. “Our session with Mr. McKim was not only enlightening but also a clarion call to the need for sustainable practices, innovative solutions, and forward-thinking in today's dynamic environmental landscape.”
McKim says he really misses being part of the day-to-day at Clean Harbors after recently transitioning to his new role. “(It's) my baby, and it's hard to let it go.” He spent his entire career at one company he built from the ground up, so he has a strong bond with his employees, many of whom have been with Clean Harbors for 25 years or more. He acknowledged that, because of his commitment to the company and its people, he sometimes struggled with work/life balance.
“I related to him when he described how during crisis or due to his increased workload, (he struggled to achieve work/life balance),” says Tanvi Khera, MBA'25. “I, too, struggled to find a balance when I was working as a Project Manager. I was amazed to hear about his experience and how, being a CEO, he managed that situation.”
Education helped change me as a leader… Lifelong learning is the key to career development.Alan McKim, MBA'88
Now, he's focused on his passions much more. For instance, he likes to think of himself as a mechanic and a builder, so he builds cars in his spare time. His favorite: his 1962 red Corvette. And the day before coming to class, he caught an 868-pound tuna that took four-and-a-half hours to bring in. He also enjoys serving as the Vice Chair of Northeastern's Board of Trustees and has been on the board for about 10 years.
McKim also discussed his story with a large group of students involved in the 360 Huntington Fund, a wholly student-managed fund that started as a club and is now also a credit-bearing experiential learning course. The students shared how they make decisions, some of their strategies, and their fund's performance with McKim, who was clearly impressed.
During that session, a student asked him about his best career advice. He quickly said, “To come to Northeastern for your MBA.” He shared that Daniel McCarthy, who he met through a neighbor at that time, encouraged him to apply and supported his application, which he says changed his life. It also changed the school's trajectory since McKim met McCarthy's nephew Richard D'Amore, DMSB'76, thanks to him.
The rest, as they say, is history.