Citizen Terry

No waste goes to waste on Terry McDonald's watch

Terry McDonald
Terry McDonald

Standing in a cavernous St. Vincent de Paul warehouse on Chad Drive, executive director Terry McDonald and I survey stacks upon stacks of identical cardboard boxes, each one the size of a watermelon crate. It’s quite a sight. The stacks tower toward the ceiling and stretch horizontally wall to wall, and their Lego-like arrangement creates the shadowy alleys of a deserted city at sundown.

All told, the boxes contain more than one million pounds of used books.

McDonald tells me matter-of-factly that St. Vinnie’s receives about 30,000 pounds of books a day. The discarded books are sorted and priced and placed and sold, each one turned for a small profit that eventually circles back as some form of help for the community’s needful — as housing, clothing, food, jobs.

A forklift whizzes past. Over at the sorting station, two women are busy scanning the endless river of literature that pours forth, dumpster-style, onto a conveyor belt. It’s the best dream Henry Ford never had: turning industrial mechanization into assembly-line philanthropy.

In just this way, McDonald says, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County processes, on average, around 25,000 pounds of books a day — sorting, pricing, getting them on the shelves.

I do some quick math (30,000 in, 25,000 out) and point out that, eventually, McDonald will find himself completely swamped by used books. “Yeah,” he says. “I’m going to have to start working a little harder.” He pauses a moment, then adds: “It’s a great problem to have.”

This, then, offers a clue to the exhaustive approach McDonald has taken toward running St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) for the past three decades: It’s a great problem to have, and I’m going to have to start working a little harder.

Specifically, McDonald looks at the Sisyphean mountains of garbage piling up in our consumer society — discarded appliances, ratty mattresses, tattered clothing, all that crap typically tossed into the dump — and he sees nothing but opportunity.

In McDonald’s world, no waste goes to waste — not even the mite dust that falls from recycled mattresses, which St. Vinnie’s bags up and ships to a company in Washington ($110 a pound) to be converted into allergy test kits. At one point, McDonald admits, “I was saving human hair” in the hopes of finding a use for it.

Play the Game

Under the leadership of Terry McDonald, St. Vincent de Paul has become a veritable powerhouse of benevolence throughout Lane County. The list of the organization’s contributions are staggering when you stack them together: more than 1,100 units of affordable housing, including a townhouse complex of 40 units that just opened in Junction City; emergency services ranging from rent and utility help to donations of food, medication and clothing; homeless services including the Egan Warming Center and the Eugene Service Station; vocational rehabilitation and help to veterans; actual manufacturing, including a glass foundry, mattress recycling and, yes, the creation of upcycled retail fashion. Then there’s all those St. Vinnie’s thrift stores seemingly everywhere, with book selections that rival most used bookstores.

In its 2015 annual report, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County’s total assets — land, buildings, cash, equipment, etc. — are listed at more than $72.6 million, up from $58.9 million the year before. Total revenues were $32.5 million, up from just under $25.5 the year before, with retail earnings alone at $16 million. And the money flowing back to the community in 2015 totaled nearly $30 million in services (up from $26.2 million in 2014), with more than $7 million going to housing alone.

Such growth would be noteworthy in any corporation, much less a nonprofit whose sole mission, as listed on its tax returns, is to “provide assistance to the needy.”

“We take a very entrepreneurial approach to things,” McDonald says. “We treat this as a business. We treat our people in need as our stockholders. Business needs to provide dividends. It’s basically a full-circle economy.”

No corporate CEO or Wall Street banker ever spoke more frankly about the need to maximize profits through growth, expansion and renewed investments. In this instance, however, the relentless progress and profiteering of the machine is being diverted downward, right at its sweet spot, back to the people at the bottom of the food chain. In this world of one-percenters amassing more and more dividends at the tippy-top of the economic pyramid, such a radical redistribution of wealth is what disingenuous politicians, with varying levels of star-spangled failure, have been promising for years now.

“I don’t get involved in politics,” McDonald tells me. “I do get involved with how you’re going to deal with capital and how you’re going to get involved with resources for the benefit of the community. I can only do so much. What you can’t do is ignore the fact that this is going on,” he adds, noting that, over the past 25 years or so, more and more people in this country have been shoved down from the “robust middle” into poverty.

“The best you can do is change who holds the capital and protect assets for the benefit of the many,” McDonald adds. “I have been cheerfully trying to find as many ways as I can to create a capital base that can be used for a social good, as fast as I can.”

Hearing anyone, much less the head of a nonprofit, speak so frankly about capital is unusual these days, and refreshing. Capitalism has become such a loaded word — less a simple designation than a linguistic cudgel synonymous with abuse and corruption. And since we’re speaking of capitalism, why not just say it? Terry McDonald is an unrepentant capitalist. I mean that with all due respect. His take on economic redistribution reminds me that capitalism is not a political system but an economic one, and that there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it such. Thinking, and acting.

Rather than struggling against the imperial impulse of capitalism and bemoaning its juggernaut of harm, McDonald is turning it into a boon. And St. Vinnie’s does this by positioning itself like a grease trap at the bottom of the free market deep-fry, ready to capture all the runoff nobody seems to want. This is trickle-down economics at its finest — garbage into gold.

Capitalist Junk Man

Waste is an unusual natural resource, if one can call it natural at all. It’s certainly renewable. Dumps aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And McDonald seems to have a particular genius for applying good old Yankee ingenuity to the trash heap. In essence, he looks at the dump and yells: “Thar’s gold in them thar hills.”

“I’m a second-generation junk man,” McDonald tells me. McDonald’s father, Harold Colin “Mac” McDonald, was the first director of SVdP in Lane County, working there from 1955 until his death in 1984. Terry was brought on board in ’71, taking over as executive director after his father passed.

McDonald, who graduated from the University of Oregon with degrees in history and political science, says that what he really wanted to be when he grew up was a Byzantine historian. But, as a young man lending a hand at St. Vinnie’s while “trying to figure out what to do with my life,” McDonald stumbled upon his true calling.

“I fell in love with the nonprofit world,” he says. It was here, working in the local chapter of a Catholic charity originally founded in Paris in 1833, that McDonald discovered an outlet for his talents as well as a way to address his concerns for the dispossessed of society. “If there’s a need and nobody’s filling it, somebody has to,” he says. “Unfortunately we’re not running out of people to help.”

Of specific interest to McDonald was the rather unromantic task of figuring out how to “peel the waste stream, kind of a sector at a time” — in other words, digging into every kind of garbage and discovering a renewed value for it. Not only that, but figuring out ever-new ways to package and market the stuff.

“Nothing can have value without being an object of utility,” Karl Marx observed, and here it might be fruitful to point out that this grandpappy of capitalist critique was actually rather in awe of capitalism, which he admired for its dynamic ability to reach into every nook and cranny of the social fabric. McDonald’s approach to salvaging waste provides a rather beguiling twist on Marx’s observations about our economic system. In short, McDonald finds utility in exactly those objects most of us deem to be utterly lacking in use, and he finds value in those places where value seems to have fled.

Terry McDonald at St. Vincent de Paul’s new housing development in Junction City. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

“You start looking at the waste stream differently than you used to,” he says of taking an entrepreneurial approach to other people’s garbage. Where corporations eternally seek spanking-new products to package and peddle in the ceaseless flow of consumer goods, McDonald enters the game at exactly the point where planned obsolescence renders those consumer goods pointless.

In this way, SVdP has expanded into unforeseen markets of opportunity: creating skateboard wax from used candles, turning busted-out trailer parks into low-income housing complexes, upcycling used mattress stuffing into new dog beds, establishing a glass foundry, carving used vinyl records into designer earrings, and on and on. The idea is not to re-sell junk but to recreate it as a viable retail item.

“The point in all of this is you build these little businesses on top of each other,” McDonald explains. It’s all about positioning, he says; like any business, and unlike most nonprofits, you create markets by discovering new products and putting yourself in a position to provide those products. Capitalism is an octopus, a multi-tentacled beast of supply and demand and visa versa, and McDonald plays the game as well as anyone, Starbucks-style, expanding into wider and wider spheres of influence.

“You continue, building off businesses,” he says. Obviously, these businesses generate a retail profit that is channeled back into social services, but they also help by tapping into another natural resource, often underused: human beings. “All of these things create jobs — 15 stores and a bunch of these little businesses and close to 600 employees.”

Along with the 15 retail outlets, St. Vinnie’s has warehouses scattered around Lane County — totaling some 200,000 square feet of space, with another 50,000 square feet of warehousing in California. Such holdings reveal the reach of this local chapter of a worldwide organization that McDonald is revolutionizing in its approach to helping the poor.

Hope Springs Eternal

There are so many great Terry McDonald stories. Folks who work with the guy are fond of relating anecdotes, equal parts respectful and humorous, about his gritty work ethic and his willingness to get down in the trenches and grab the proverbial shovel. I’ve heard tell of McDonald launching himself into one of those huge crates in order to start unloading the books at the bottom.

“If you want to find Terry you’re going to find him on the book line, because he’s sorting books,” says SVdP’s director of economic development Sue Palmer, a former Register-Guard reporter who covered McDonald during her days at the paper. “That engenders not only loyalty but a feeling that we’re all in this together, doing this great work. His willingness to take part feeds the soul of the organization.”

Palmer says she’s seen McDonald sit in a meeting for an hour and simply listen to the conversation among his staff. “He’ll let people exhaust themselves talking,” she says, after which he’ll distill what he’s heard and cut to the chase, usually with some immediate plan of action.

“He’s a no-bullshit guy,” Palmer says. “If you want to know what’s really going on, Terry will tell you.”

That’s been my experience too, in the handful of times over the past couple months that I’ve interviewed and tagged along with McDonald: No bullshit. In fact, some of the best stories I’ve heard about McDonald are told by McDonald himself.

One of my favorites, then: With two facilities in California and one here Eugene, St. Vinnie’s of Lane County has become internationally recognized for its mattress recycling program, which McDonald helped establish as the first such commercial operation of its kind. Altogether, SVdP recycles more than 170,000 mattresses and box springs every year, and in 2013 alone the organization salvaged some 9 million pounds of trashed beds from landfills around the country.

Of course, deciding to recycle mattresses is all well and good, but figuring out how to take apart used beds proved a bit arduous. To this end, McDonald first purchased a shredder and tried shoving the mattresses through as is. It worked well enough, he says, but they couldn’t separate the materials afterward. “We’re gonna filet these things like they’re a fish,” was his next impulse, and to this end the recycling team employed a water knife, which used a high-pressure water jet to cut through materials like a laser.

“Didn’t work,” McDonald recalls, after which they went at it with an air knife. “Ditto,” he says. “Then we tried a plasma torch. Lots of smoke and fire. Bad idea.”

Same with a pneumatic grinder. “You can get some amazing fires if you try that,” McDonald says, smiling.

“Then we tried a rotary cutter,” McDonald recalls. “Fortunately, we didn’t cut anyone’s arm off.”

At one point in the process, McDonald realized he’d burned through $250,000 trying to get it right. “It was an absolute failure,” McDonald he says. “Sometimes the pain is really extreme. Sometimes you just make a mistake. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The pain often helps you learn.”

Finally, a simple box cutter was used to slice into the mattresses. “That has worked very well,” McDonald says.

“We just toughed it out and figured out how to get to the other side of it,” McDonald says of the eventual success of the mattress recycling program — the first of its kind in the U.S.

Such relentless and single-minded determination seems more befitting of our early American captains of industry — those monomaniacal oil magnates and railroad tycoons of old — than the head of a modern nonprofit known primarily for its thrift stores. “I tend to move along,” McDonald says.

Mergers and acquisitions, amalgamation and capital: This, then, is the process by which St. Vinnie’s seeks to reroute resources back to society’s most disenfranchised and underserved — a sort of reverse profiteering that beats the neoliberals at their own game. And this in a do-gooder realm where, more often than not, you encounter the kind of caterwauling and endless liberal pieties that focus more on the suffering than the sufferer.

The recounting of the mattress story brings to mind another image from the not-too-distant American past. In McDonald’s words I can almost see Charlie Chaplin, that lovable tramp from our first Great Depression, trying to wrestle down a box spring as it flips him ass over teakettle again and again. In McDonald’s hands, SVdP is turning Chaplin’s slapstick of failure — a flailing fight for dignity against the inhumane ravages of the industrial process — into a success story worthy of Horatio Alger.

Just imagine what would happen if our political leaders were as honest and confident about the pains it might take to get us back on track — about the failures that lead to success.

Business as Unusual

“I would say that this organization learned that business is business,” Palmer says of McDonald’s leadership at St. Vincent de Paul. As head of SVdP’s Cascade Alliance, part of Palmer’s job is to spread the gospel of entrepreneurship and market expansion to nonprofits around the country — a mark of just how successful the St. Vinnie’s model has been in Lane County.

“It’s very difficult for them to understand that there’s a social service side and a business side,” Palmer says of bringing other nonprofits up to speed on the idea of running their organizations with an eye on capital accumulation. “Groups get the business confused with the mission,” she adds.

Palmer, who at one point describes SVdP as “a giant rolling ball of chaos,” says that the quality of nimbleness is a huge part of what McDonald brings to the organization. “It’s the art of the possible every day,” she says. “The thing you thought you were doing today, you’re not doing today.”

Paul Neville, another former Register-Guard reporter whom McDonald brought on board to run PR, puts it this way: “You learn that when Terry says, ‘You want to take a ride?’ you say ‘yes.’ It’s going to be something interesting.”

“It’s willingness to turn on a dime,” Neville says of what makes SVdP such a successful enterprise, “to see opportunities and seize on them and act on them almost immediately.”

There’s no doubt that nimbleness sometimes looks like impatience, and certainly McDonald strikes me as the sort of man who doesn’t suffer fools lightly, including this fool.

Speaking with McDonald, I had the distinct impression that he was ready to leave as soon as he was done, as though I were beholding a hummingbird buzzing at the feeder. He was focused and kind, but I sure as hell didn’t want to hold him up.

“If you are a person who likes to stay stuck in a problem,” Palmer observes, “and you just want to repeat the problems and why things won’t work, that is not a good recipe for a good interaction with Terry. ‘Let’s work the problem,’ Terry says.”

When I tell McDonald how often folks mentioned this idea of nimbleness when talking about him, he smiles. “I had not realized I am so transparently impatient,” he says.

Which brings me to my other favorite McDonald story: Twenty years ago, in spring of 1996, McDonald received a phone call from then-Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey. “Homelessness had become more and more of a situation where we were going to have to do something about it,” Torrey recalls, and to that end the city had earmarked money to address the crisis. “And it wasn’t a small amount,” the former mayor says of the funding.

The problem was figuring out the best use for funding that was earmarked to get emergency services to folks on the street. “Terry McDonald, I bet, would have some ideas,” Torrey recalls thinking, and so he picked up the phone and pitched the idea to the executive director. Could he come up with a business plan that Torrey could submit for approval to the city council? By tomorrow?

McDonald said yes. He hung up the phone. The next words out of his mouth were: “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” But typical of his shoot-first, ask-questions-later philosophy of doing business, McDonald immediately set to work, scrabbling together a plan and getting it to Torrey the next day. Hence was the Eugene Service Station brought into existence.

“We though we’d serve 20 people a day,” McDonald says of the ESS, a sort of all-purpose day shelter on Hwy. 99 where folks can come in from the cold for a meal and shower, wash their clothes, access a computer and seek employment and housing advice, among other services.

“Over the years it has worked very well,” Torrey says of the ESS, which served more than 6,400 adults in 2013 alone. He says he has nothing but admiration for McDonald, praising him for the innovative approach he’s brought to running St. Vinnie’s.

“He took that organization and he found ways to meet the mission and at the same time create opportunities for financial resources,” Torrey says of McDonald. “If he had elected not to go into St. Vincent’s and went into business instead, I’m convinced he would have been extremely successful, both as an employer and as an individual.”

Torrey continues: “He must spend nights awake thinking about things.”

It’s easy to see where Torrey gets the idea that McDonald is some sort of insomniac given to ceaseless brainstorming and project building, even though the impression McDonald gives in person is less mad genius than the kindly hardware store operator out of a Frank Capra movie — that small-town chamber-of-commerce guy, plaid-clad and bespectacled, who is quietly wise and unpretentiously connected to every rhythm of civic life.

“Terry would never say this, but I think that he understands that often he’s the smartest guy in the room,” Palmer says. “He’s a bibliophile of the first order. He has a hell of a library in his house.”

Certainly I’ve found McDonald to possess a formidable and far-ranging intelligence. He’s capable of moving at the drop of a hat from a discussion of the anti-democratic impulses of Plato and Nietzsche to the inner mechanics of the old Polaroid with which we took his cover portrait. But there are plenty of really smart people in the world who are perfectly ineffectual in applying their vast knowledge to anything but a good barstool conversation. “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “falls the shadow.”

McDonald refuses to live in the shadow. For him, the space between thought and action, between theory and practice, is sewn tight, leaving little room for the sort of bureaucratic folderol that gums up our national politics. “I don’t have time for that, planning,” McDonald says.

This is what I find most striking about McDonald’s character and his business acumen, which at times seem inseparable. Unlike so many people confronting the apocalyptic realities of the modern world, McDonald neither resists nor rejects our sorry state of affairs but, instead, accepts it for what it is, and goes from there. At a time when apathy, cynicism and paralysis are becoming not the exception but the rule, McDonald has decided to simply get shit done.

“I like to move fast,” he says when I ask him if he’s ever considered political office. “I like to get stuff done and that’s not how it works in politics. If you’re lucky, you’re in consensus mode or you’re in a destruction mode, like today.”

“Terry knows a thousand different ways to get to the destination,” Neville says. “I’ve learned a huge amount from him. This is a life lesson in practical applications. It’s one thing to sit around and write editorials about what people should do,” he adds, referencing his previous experience at the Register-Guard.

“He’s a visionary,” Neville says of McDonald. “He is a master at strategy and scheming for good, and if this man were a ruthless profiteer, he’d be worth billions. That’s true — he would.”

So in a broken country where a petulant, selfish, yammering corporate prick like Donald Trump can tap into the angsty admiration of the very people he systematically screws over in order to garner a presidential nomination, here we have a man who puts the ultimate lie to our hypocritical myths of heroism: McDonald literally plays Robin Hood to Trump’s opportunistic skullduggery, seeking to unscrew the poor by ruthlessly profiteering on their behalf.

The Art of Helping

Neville praises “Terry’s gift for hiring people who come from a broad variety of backgrounds, including people who’ve served time for felonies. They’re the best employees we have,” he adds.

“One of the things that’s really pretty delightful about working for Terry is he recognizes talent all up and down the organization,” Palmer says. She explains that when it comes to bringing talent aboard at SVdP, “Terry sees a diamond in the rough.”

SVDP’s in-house artist mitra chester. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

Convicts, reporters, fashionistas: Perhaps the most inspired and downright unprecedented move McDonald has made, in terms of hiring, is bringing aboard Mitra Chester as SVdP’s own in-house art and fashion designer.

Housed in St. Vinnie’s former headquarters on 7th and Seneca, Chester has an entire floor of operations to herself. It’s here that she takes the scraps of yesterday’s fabrics — used strapping, shredded denim, old burlap, samples of high-density foam, shrunken wool blankets — and turns them into next season’s hip apparel.

“He took a chance on me,” Chester says of being hired by McDonald in October 2013. “That’s something no one has ever done before, just up and hire an in-house artist. Neither of us knew what that was when we started.”

What began as a part-time position has blossomed, over the course of three years, into a one-woman industry operating under the rubric of St. Vinnie’s. Chester isn’t just recycling used clothing; she’s creating new lines of designer goods, from record-vinyl earrings and hip dog collars to cut-off shorts and wallet cuffs.

This is the way the McDonald pattern replicates itself throughout the culture of SVdP: Talent meets opportunity and turns itself toward the twin engines of profit and service. Kind capitalism. Business as unusual.

Chester says that, on a more personal level, she values the lessons she’s learned, and continues to learn, working under McDonald’s leadership. “Over time he’s grown to be a mentor to me, and someone I respect more than almost anyone on this planet,” she says. “I’m in awe of the human being he is. He’s present and authentic with all people.”

Chester says she particularly admires the combination of courage and humility with which McDonald runs St. Vinnie’s. “He’s definitely a businessman,” she says, “but his business is helping people and saving the environment. And he does what he does not for attention.”

And here Chester offers her own Terry story: “The first thing he said to me is, ‘Mitra, don’t be afraid to fail. Even if you try ten different things and only one of them succeeds, you’ve learned from all 10 things.’ That was a hugely empowering thing for me to hear at that time in my life. That’s something that pushes me along every day still. It takes away this fear of trying things,” she says.

“I’ve never met anyone like him before in my life,” Chester adds. “He’s a real human being, man.”

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