Dean Buntrock was born in 1931 in Columbia, South Dakota, a farming town that had only 250 people at the time. Buntrock's father served as Columbia's mayor for 25 years and ran a farm equipment dealership. Buntrock learned first-hand from his father how to satisfy customers, manage operations, and, most importantly, manage people. He credits the years he spent working in his father's shop as his "business school education."
At the age of nine, Buntrock swept floors in his father's store before school. As he grew older, he took on additional responsibilities, including waiting on customers. When he was 13, he drove a truck and hauled grain for the area's largest farmer. His mother encouraged her son's entrepreneurial spirit and drove him into Aberdeen to sell the chickens and potatoes he raised. At 16, he became a salesman for his father's business.
Besides the family business, Buntrock's childhood focused on education and the church. "The values that were most important to my parents were tithing, saving, respect, and using all your God-given talents to pursue excellence," said Buntrock. From fourth to eighth grade, Buntrock attended a one-room Lutheran parochial school, which had a total of 30 students. His high school graduating class had eight.
He attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota and majored in business and history, but midway through his junior year, Buntrock's father developed a serious heart condition, which caused Buntrock to return home to manage the family business until it could be sold. He then joined the U.S. Army and served during the Korean War, and returned to St. Olaf after the war to complete his college education in 1955.
Shortly after his marriage, Buntrock's father-in-law, a partner in a garbage business in Chicago, died, and Buntrock joined the garbage business. In 1968, he formed Waste Management, Inc., a partnership with two other waste companies that went public in 1971. Over the next 20 years, the company saw double-digit growth. "You have to grab the ring of opportunity when it presents itself; otherwise it will pass to someone else," he says. "At that time, other companies much larger than ours had the same opportunities, but they didn't recognize them or care to make the commitment it took for growth and risk." Waste Management grew to operate in 21 countries. Buntrock retired as CEO in 1997.
An ardent supporter of education, Buntrock says, "Education is the greatest gift we can give our youth. It gives them the tools they need to carve out and direct their careers and achieve whatever goals they set for themselves. I was fortunate to have parents who valued education and made it central to my life. I hope that I can encourage today's youth to value their education as well."