John Doherty

Making a career out of NYC trash

January 10, 2012: 10:53 AM ET

Department of Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty discusses his early days sweeping streets on Broadway and his 50-year climb up the ranks.

John Doherty

John Doherty, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Sanitation

FORTUNE -- There's much more to New York's trash than meets the eye. Just ask John Doherty, commissioner of the city's Department of Sanitation. He knows more about keeping the city clean than probably anyone else alive, having risen through the ranks within the department since starting as a sanitation worker in 1960. Now, he's in charge of its nearly 8,000 uniformed workers and thousands of vehicles including collection trucks, street sweepers and salt spreaders.

The city has changed considerably since the 60s, and so has its refuse. There's much less paper, Doherty says, with the popularity of e-readers and email, and you can't ship garbage on a barge to Staten Island anymore. He talks to Fortune about jumping rats and how to keep employees motivated after a particularly daunting snowstorm.

Fortune: You've been at the New York Department of Sanitation for over 50 years. How did it all begin?

John Doherty: Well, I got married on a Saturday, and on Monday I had to report in for work. It snowed that Wednesday, and the next thing I knew, I was on the end of a shovel pushing snow out into the street.

After six months, the promotional exam was coming up and I said, "Well I'm going to take it." And the guys said, "Ah, you crazy kid, you'll never pass," because half the mark in those days was seniority. I knew I wasn't going to get promoted then, but I continued to take tests after that and get promotions.

But there were times that I thought about leaving.

What kept you there?

After I was on the job a year, I had my first child. I was new at the job, so I went in to work my 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift. We didn't have cell phones, so they called the office and the foreman came out and said, "John, you got a baby boy." It was about three or four in the morning. I said, "Oh. I'll go see my wife as soon as I get done working."

Then I said, okay, I have a wife and a child here. God knows when the rest of them are coming -- there were three more after that -- and I got a good, secure job and I got medical benefits for them, so I stayed. More

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