Just 86 seconds into an interview with Ken Santowski, he turns the conversation away from his business, Chicago Logistic Service, to spend the next 22 minutes talking about his passion, recycling.
It's a natural diversion. Santowski's business and passion are closely related. And his passion informs us about the type of businessman he is.
Chicago Logistic Service is a specialized transportation company based in Elgin. It makes deliveries and pickups, does installation and deinstallation of high-tech equipment, medical equipment and various electronic equipment. If you need something like a load of new computers or copiers delivered, anywhere in the country, that's right up Chicago Logistic Service's alley.
"Unfortunately, during the height of the pandemic, when New York was just pleading for hospital equipment and stuff like that, we were actually delivering hospital beds to those same hospitals that had refrigerated trailers in the loading dock next to us that had 40, 50 bodies of people who were dying every day. That got to be a little bit heartbreaking for our guys, because it was …," he said, his voice trailing off.
Because CLS doesn't include a salesperson among its 17 employees -- mostly drivers but some warehouse and office staff included -- it wins clients by word-of-mouth. CLS earns a lot of repeat business, said Santowski, the company president and founder. These days, because of the general labor shortage around the country, he's also a truck driver.
"We try to do our best," he added. "We're not perfect. We're not the cheapest, we're not the most expensive. We're kind of right there in the middle of the road. We just tell people just try us and we think you'll be happy with us."
The company earns about $4 million a year in revenue, though it saw a drop of about 26% when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Santowski is open about saying CLS received PPP funds from the government and emphasizes that he used the money to keep onboard all the employees who felt comfortable being at work in spite of the coronavirus.
Santowski founded CLS 25 years ago, but he discovered his passion 30 years ago while working at United Van Lines. Back then everything was packaged in Styrofoam. Santowski would toss the Styrofoam in a dumpster, but the wind often blew it out of the dumpster and down the street.
First Santowski's boss told him to go pick up the Styrofoam. Then he told Santowski to figure out a better solution.
So Santowski did. He discovered a company that would recycle Styrofoam and started bringing the filling to that company. And then he kept going.
Since starting CLS, he has used its facility at 1333 Davis Road in Elgin to accept recyclable materials from other businesses and from individuals. The site accepts various materials -- packing peanuts, Bubble Wrap and foam sheets, 55-gallon drums, CDs and DVDs, cassette tape cases, clothing and textiles, for free, at a drop-off facility inside the building vestibule, according to the CLS website's recycling page.
Light bulbs and batteries are accepted, with an appointment, and they come with a fee because of the cost of recycling. The same goes with electronics, such as TVs and monitors.
He recommends first-timers contact him rather than just drop off items. He can help them figure out the best way to recycle their waste. Sometimes he can suggest a closer or better alternative for the caller. For instance, if a business or individual wants to dispose of hazardous waste, he will direct them to state facilities in Rockford, Gurnee or Naperville.
Fluorescent light bulbs go to a company in far Northwest suburban Volo to be recycled for a fee that Santowski passes on to the business or individual bringing him the light bulbs. Batteries go to Elgin Recycling. Electronics he takes to EWorks in Elk Grove Village.
Even election signs are recycled. Some are reused if possible. Others are sent to a company in West Virginia that makes solar panels to be used in Third World countries and provide power where electricity is not available.
Double-checks recycle vendors
Santowski even does the due diligence to verify that recycling companies can document that they actually recycle, he said. He has vetted some only to find they "weren't on the up and up." He crossed them off his list.
CLS partners with Environmental Defenders of McHenry County and serves as the group's warehouse base of operations. Santowski also helps with recycling events in McHenry and Kane counties.
"Fast forward 30 years, this is what I do. I do a lot of environmental work for no money because it's very difficult to make money in the recycling world unless you're dealing in millions of pounds of stuff. It's not feasible," Santowski said.
He estimates his passion costs him $10,000 a year, between labor, warehouse space, truck costs, fuel, etc. He doesn't write it off his taxes, not wanting to make the deep dive into the details required.
"I'd be spending another $10,000 just trying to figure out how to save $10,000 on my taxes," he said.
But he's never wavered on recycling. That has always been worth his effort for 30 years now.
"So you have to have a big heart and kind of an open wallet to pay for this stuff to get it done," Santowski said. "But I feel it's worth it. Hopefully, my kids and grandkids will appreciate it."