Pulling back the curtain on the uncommon man
Take a drive through Tampa at 5 a.m., and gaze upward to the Bank of America building’s 31st floor. You’ll see the lights from Clean Earth Systems Inc. already blazing. Company CEO Steph Pettit ’89 is reviewing invoices, answering emails, and preparing for the next challenge today’s economy will throw at him. It’s a work ethic that has enabled Pettit to become BU’s largest donor ever — with gifts totaling more than $12.5 million.
But Pettit is more than just a shrewd businessman. He’s a son, husband, father, and mentor. He’s an inventor, workout fanatic, music lover, and hockey player. He’s as comfortable discussing supply chain issues with his suppliers as he is hanging out at home watching television with his wife, Allie.
That disciplined yet humorous, fun-loving personality is what makes Steph Pettit an uncommon man.
One of five children of Sue and Howard Pettit, Steph was born in Florida, moved to Ohio at age 6, then to Middletown, N.J. But he wasn’t the “cool kid” you’d imagine him to be in elementary school.
“My given name is Stephan, but my parents always called me Steph when I was younger,” says Pettit. “When I started school, I told my classmates my name was Steph. That didn’t go over well, and I was teased quite a bit for having a ‘girl’s’ name. At that point, I asked my mother to call me Steve so the teasing would stop.”
And “Steve” he remained throughout elementary school before he reverted to Steph in high school.
At his wedding reception last June, his new bride couldn’t figure out why some of Steph’s friends from elementary school were calling her husband ‘Steve.” “I didn’t know about the history of “Steve” until our wedding day,” Allie says. “It caught me by surprise.”
Pettit gravitated to sports, playing football, baseball, and basketball at Middletown South High School. But football was his true calling because of the physical nature of the sport.
“I could have gone to an Ivy League school, but when I came to visit BU, I fell in love with the place.”
Academically, Steph began as an economics major but realized the “fun” factor wasn’t there. “It was too dry,” laughs Steph. “Some of my buddies told me about mass communications and the wide range of skills you could develop. So I switched majors, although I still took many business classes.” It proved to be a wise decision.
After graduating, he took a job at Earnest & Julio Gallo Wines in Orlando and later Tampa, but his upward movement in the company slowed after three years.
THE EARLY DAYS
“I was working at Earnest and Julio Gallo Wines, and suddenly things changed for the worse, and I knew it was time to leave,” Pettit says. “A former teammate at BU asked me to go in with him on a company (Clean Earth Systems) selling boxes for hazardous waste. After a year, he wanted out, figuring the business had only five years left in its life cycle and wasn’t a million-dollar idea. We’re nearing our 30th year, so I made the right call staying with it. Not bad for a poor kid from Jersey.”
Early on, Pettit’s sales skills saved Clean Earth.
“My first year, I knew nothing about environmental products,” Pettit says. “I was a sales guy and was good at it. By myself, I sold $550,000 worth of products. I lacked real knowledge of what I was selling, didn’t understand whom I was selling to, or know much about the industry. Those first three or four years, I had just one item on our inventory list. Now our product line features 200 plus packages.
“When I look back, I’ve been fortunate that I made all the right moves,” continues Pettit. “Educated guesses paid off. But my luckiest break was that none of the companies buying our product failed. If they did, we would have gone
GROWING THE BUSINESS
A company selling just one item has the life span of a snowball on the equator. Steph knew his product line had to expand for Clean Earth to endure and grow.
“I’m left brain, right brain,” says Steph. “There’s the analytical side and then my creative side. If I walk into a room and see a package, my brain immediately begins wondering can I make that into a hazardous waste container.”
“The first-ever corrugated hazmat drum was one of my best inventions. It was so different from anything anyone else had done,” Pettit continues. “It took eight years of off-and-on work to perfect it. We then had to get the U.S. Department of Transportation to approve it. The approval came six months before the Ebola outbreak hit. We were the only company with this kind of product, so the timing was perfect. Our plant in Tennessee couldn’t make the containers fast enough. I, and some of our team members from here, went there to help. It was a crazy time.”
Owning and operating a business is never easy. During a pandemic, the stresses multiply by a factor of a hundred. An outlet for that stress is essential.
“I am in the office by 4:30 a.m. and go work out by 8 or 8:30 a.m.,” says Pettit. “I can accomplish as much in four hours as I would in five or six during the day because the phone is not ringing, no one is sending follow-up emails, or needing to speak with me,” says Pettit.
As his staff reaches the office, Pettit goes in the opposite direction to a workout facility a few blocks from the office or to a quieter gym near his home. While walking into either of the workout facilities, Steph greets everyone by name and with a smile. Seamlessly he shares a story about each person he sees.
“Exercise is my stress relief,” says Pettit speaking effortlessly as he pounds away on a treadmill. “I never stopped working out after college. It’s not about having big muscles anymore. Now I stretch, use the treadmill to build endurance and speed, and use weights for toning my muscles. I also dropped some weight going from a high of 240 pounds when I played football at BU down to a range of 195 to 205.”
“Per week, I work out four to six times and will play two days of hockey,” says Pettit. “I’m in the Over-50 league now since some of the young guys take things a bit too seriously. They don’t realize I have to go to work the next day.”
After a 60- to 90-minute workout, he’s in his SUV for the short drive home to clean up, then back to the office by 11 a.m. While the company could function without his direct guidance, he stays on top of what’s happening. This day a meeting with representatives of International Paper highlights his morning schedule. Supply chain and transportation issues at a facility in Virginia are snarling production. By the close of the hour-long meeting, everyone is satisfied that the issues can be overcome.
IN THREE WORDS
Can you describe someone in just three words? This task is more difficult than
anticipated for Pettit’s wife, daughter, employees, longtime friends, and business associates. He’s described as giving, loving, and kind, again and again, starting with his wife and moving on to his daughter, employees, longtime friends, and even business associates.
Allie, whose love for her husband can be seen in her face as she talks, never met anyone like him.
“He is the most gregarious, loving, and giving human being I have ever met in my life,” says Allie. “He will give you the shirt off his back. And I think it goes back to his childhood and the way that he was raised. He feels that he needs to give back to other people. And I think that’s just remarkable. Not enough people do that. He has impacted and changed people’s lives.”
His daughter Ashley had difficulty settling on how to describe her father in three words.
“Humanitarian is the first thing that comes to mind,” says Ashley. “Also, amazing and awesome. There are so many adjectives to describe him, but the one thing that can sum it up altogether would be that he’s the ultimate humanitarian.
What he does as a father, a husband, a son for his family is above and beyond good. And then what he does for Bloomsburg students is just amazing.”
Allie’s parents, Howard and Cathy Moore, like the “funny” Steph. “He calls me ‘Princess’ and I call him ‘muscles,’” says Cathy. “His sense of humor is amazing. He is not afraid to poke fun at himself, which not many people are able to do.”
And it isn’t just family that sings Steph’s praises. Amy Chapman started at Clean Earth 10 years ago and has worked her way up to vice president of the company.
“When I moved to Tampa for the job, I had no family here and knew only one person,” says Chapman. “Steph is very generous, and if you need anything, he’ll make it happen. I call him ‘Papa Steph’ because he’s been that kind of person when my dad isn’t around. He is that person that will help people no matter what.”
Friend and business associate Gary Peters, owner of Peters Packaging, has known Pettit for more than 20 years as a manufacturing representative for Clean Earth. “First and foremost, generous, and not just in terms of money,” says Peters. He’s generous with opportunities, with his resources, with the things he’s been blessed with, and that’s just such an extension of him.”
“The second way to describe Steph is how driven he is because he’s really a force of will, determined to be successful. He also wants others to succeed and fulfill their dreams. He is determined to keep moving forward in his life and to bring people along with him.”
Longtime employees Diana Holzhauer, company president, along with Jenna Cameron, Beth Carey Silverman, and Alli Turner, all regional managers, total more than 90 years of combined service with the company. They describe Steph in a slightly different way.
“He’s the Energizer bunny. He never stops. It’s mental. It’s like his diet. He’s
extremely structured. Very routine-oriented,” says Holzhauer. “He’s regimented even when he goes away. I think he eats the same lunch every day. He is the most routine-driven personality I know.”
“He’s also very loyal,” says Carey Silverman. “He has given a lot of people, an opportunity that a big corporate company wouldn’t necessarily do if they didn’t have certain credentials on paper.”
“Steph is charismatic, kind, and the most giving person I have ever met,” says Kourtney Thompson, sales representative for radio station 97X
in Tampa, where Steph’s company is a sponsor. “Plus, he is all about the community and giving back to others.”
“He’s completely engaging and makes you feel like he has known you for your entire life,” says Jenna Kesneck Pulido, assistant director of branding and programming at 97X. “His passion and work ethic are characteristics that I have admired since the day I met him 10 years ago.”
“He wants others to succeed and wants to help other people fulfill their dreams,” Peters says. “And so, to see him feel a sense of pride or sense of accomplishment that was rewarding to see as his friend, as somebody that cares about him.”
IT’S NOT ABOUT STEPH
Being the center of attention is a natural high for some individuals, terrifying for others. Crowds can turn the most engaging person inward. Steph, though, relishes the chance to work a room. Not for the attention, but to give the focus to someone else.
“When he walks in a room, he lights it up,” his wife remarks. “Everybody smiles. He can make anybody laugh. At the drop of a hat, he will say something that can brighten somebody’s day. And I find that to be great quality.”
Alli Turner from Clean Earth says, “He’s really good about checking out a room when he goes out, zeroing in on something and bringing people to talk nonstop about their life. Amazing how he does that. I mean, he’ll work the room and make them feel good about themselves. It’s a gift.”
“He’s humble. He doesn’t try and seek out anyone’s approval. He’s just himself and is humble about it,” says Cameron. “I’ve never seen anyone live life to the fullest like he does,” says Cathy Moore. “He may have nice things, but he is simple, down to earth, and will go out of his way to help someone less fortunate. His story is the true American dream story.”
If you didn’t know Steph, you could easily confuse him as a rock and roll artist with his tattoo-sleeved arms. One arm is dedicated to music, the other to sports. Walking into what will be his music room, you’ll find a wall of more than 80 guitars facing you.
“Everyone in my house is or was musical, including my mother,” says Pettit. “It was a big part of who I was as a child.”
Reconnecting with that part of his life years ago, he does have a favorite among his extensive collection. “My Gibson Les Paul, Custom Sunburst is my favorite,” says Steph. “It is the first guitar I purchased when I decided to start playing
again about 15 years ago. It is the same model that Slash from Guns N‘ Roses plays.”
That passion for music has also unknowingly benefited the Tampa region. For the past 20 years, 97X has hosted a two-day alternative music festival, the Next Big Event, in early December. In 2021, Twenty One Pilots and Weezer headlined
the shows. Clean Earth Systems has been the festival’s title sponsor for 10 of the 20 years.
Bryan Kelly, sales manager from 97X, says, “Steph’s sponsorship of our event is built from who he is as an individual ... passionate and giving. This event for our region is only possible through his and Clean Earth’s support. He is very passionate about music. The look on his face watching the performances is the same as those who have purchased tickets. It defines who he is as a person and how he can help.”
Nearly everyone keeps something about themselves close to the vest, Pettit included. But his wife says parts of Steph that people don’t know make him uncommon.
“He loves to go out and have fun, but he’s a homebody deep down,” Allie says. “We can stay at home together for 48, 72 hours and sit outside, play Monopoly, do a puzzle, or work around the house. It’s ‘our time.’”
“He’ll help me with anything. If I want to bake or cook, he is hands-on in the kitchen,” she continues. “If we are making dinner, he’ll do the dishes. And, this is funny when I tell people, but Steph loves the laundry room. Steph is my laundry king! He does all the laundry.”
And according to Pettit’s in-laws, when he retires, they know where he could stay busy. “He needs to work in a laundromat. He folds clothes like he is in the military. Very meticulous.”
While dating, Pettit went old-school before proposing.
“Steph asked our son Nicholas for Allie’s hand in marriage since we were out of the country,” said Howard Moore. “That’s not done much these days.”
Daughter Ashley says sports have always kept her and her dad close. “Growing up, it was all about sports, and I played pretty much every sport, every weekend. We were all doing a new sport,” Ashley says. “Our favorite sport, hard to believe here in Florida, was ice hockey. He also loves chess. I’ve never beaten him in a
game yet, but I’m getting better, and one day, I’ll win a match.”
While eating healthy is a priority for Pettit, he does have a weakness … snacks. In his office are boxes of candy, chips, popcorn, and other assorted goodies. At home, well, let’s say there’s more.
“Steph has a whole cabinet of snacks,” says Allie. “I couldn’t believe it when he showed me the snacks. He loves popcorn. You’d never know looking at him that he eats food like this, but he does.”
When the TV comes on in the Pettit household, it’s not a business news channel on the screen. No, you’ll find the couple watching Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Zoolander, The Sopranos, and the Simpsons. Pettit even had a cameo in the Zach Braff movie “Wish You Were Here” playing a science teacher.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Today, Clean Earth Systems employs nearly 25 people in the Tampa office, with about 75 more at its warehouses around the country. But like all good CEOs, Pettit keeps an eye on the future.
“We will continue to invent containers and expand our product lines and locations,” says Pettit. “Ten years from now, I would like to semi-retire. I love what I do, and I can’t imagine ever selling out or wanting to no longer come to work. Maybe I’ll work just three days a week instead of six or seven.”
More than 25 years ago as Clean Earth was settling into a new office, a handwritten sign was left behind by the previous tenants. Steph adapted the words as his company’s motto.
‘A business succeeds, not because it is big or because it is long-established, but because there are people in it who live it, sleep it, dream it and build future plans for it every day!’
No truer words have ever described this uncommon man.