Turning garbage into gold

How a secretive childhood fueled one entrepreneur's success.

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Zach Wieder loves garbage.

Though still on the south side of 30, Wieder (a pseudonym) is founder and CEO of a successful East Coast green-manufacturing company. Founded in 2001, Wieder’s company converts waste materials into hip, desirable, ecologically sound products. His profits have tripled since 2004. He posted $3.5 million in sales in 2007, and expects to grow by 300% this year.

Wieder’s impressive numbers conceal a fascinating psychological narrative. Mind you, this was not immediately apparent: Even media-savvy entrepreneurs who make their living from trash don’t usually just open their inner dumpsters for inspection.

My psychoanalytic radar went up when Wieder – who’d initially seemed as gung-ho as a racehorse to speak with me – blew me off several times at the last minute. I was curious: why couldn’t he connect, and why were all our plans being abruptly scuttled?

Initially, this didn’t compute: I’d heard that one of the cornerstones of Wieder’s success was his ability to conscript the media as an ally. A few years earlier, he had prevailed against all odds in a devastating legal attack that a juggernaut competitor waged against his fledgling company. With none of the resources needed to combat such an overwhelming assault, his little startup was staring into the abyss.

Like Giants quarterback Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLII, Wieder added his own chapter to the converting-defeat-into-victory playbook. His success had much to do with masterful media manipulation. During his legal battle, Wieder succeeded in mustering grassroots support through a blitz of media appearances and by marshalling arguments on his company’s website.

Wieder’s media campaign yielded consumer sympathy, product allegiance, a rapid surge in sales, and renewed investor confidence. Eventually, his behemoth competitor backed off and settled. Score one for the underdog.

Where David used a slingshot and a rock to slay Goliath, Wieder used communication; instead of hunkering down in barricaded silence, he spoke out. In short, Wieder boldly and imaginatively used a desperate situation to catapult his company into the stratosphere.

Which brings me back to the incomplete phone calls. I wanted to know what Wieder might be communicating by his apparent difficulty in speaking with me. As a busy executive, his apologetic claims of a crammed schedule were doubtless entirely real. But I also heard another signal. Was it ambivalence? Hostility? Anxiety?

When we finally connected, I learned that in addition to being extremely busy, Wieder was also subtly, and unconsciously, clueing me in on a family history of not talking about things.

Born in an Eastern European country, Wieder emigrated to the West as a young boy with his parents, both medical doctors. Coming from a socialist regime, he was mesmerized by capitalism, and especially by the wasteful extravagances of Western consumer culture. He remembers stumbling upon a cache of discarded TV’s and stereos in the basement of his family’s apartment complex.

“We never even had these back home, and here people just throw them away,” he remembers thinking.

In Wieder’s personal mythology, the moment crystallizes the genesis of the source-code for his business model and worldview – waste as a metaphor for turning something negative into a positive.

Wieder watched his parents struggle to relaunch their careers. Both had to retrain and recertify in order to practice as physicians in their new country. His mother, a nephrologist (a specialist in treating disorders of the kidney, organs that process body waste), had to work delivering food in a nursing home. His father landed a job as an assistant medical researcher.

I asked him to tell me more. After a moment’s silence, Wieder recalled that as a 10-year-old snooping around his father’s research lab, he found a box of photos of a child’s body after an autopsy. He found the experience exciting but also frightening, combining the thrill of doing something forbidden with the risk of being caught, and the trauma of seeing something horrifying.

That same year, Wieder’s parents had another child who died soon after his birth. They told Wieder what had happened, but after that the little brother who never came home was never discussed.

Children try to absorb the inconceivable through imaginative distortions grounded in what they know. In other words, Wieder probably conflated the accessible memory of the disemboweled child in the photographs with the doleful mystery of his missing brother.

As Wieder related this buried piece of history, a door from his boyhood seemed to open. He told me of other major events in his parents’ lives – deaths and divorces, private worlds of grief and loss – that he had only learned about much later, and then only indirectly, from friends of his parents.

Growing up, Wieder was assiduously insulated from everything below the surface of his parents’ world. This reminded me of a patient from my clinical practice. To help me conceptualize that fellow’s central problem, I came up with a private name for him: “The Man Who Eats With His Ass.”

Underneath his outward zeal for all things healthy and organic, this man was passionately intent on destruction. He would shovel the world – jobs, relationships, and ambitions – in through the back door, only to expel it all before it could be of pleasure or use. He couldn’t digest or metabolize important experiences. Not surprisingly, he felt persistently unfulfilled and unable to grow. Life for him was a big waste.

I think Wieder devised different and vastly more adaptive responses to the dearth of meaningful communication he experienced in an otherwise supportive and loving home. Perhaps most importantly, he learned to speak. The first major lesson he learned as a young businessman was that giving free voice to his business difficulties brought salvation, elegantly reversing his family’s paradigmatic silence.

In listening to Wieder describe milestones in the evolution of his business, a pattern emerged: “lucky,” “flukes,” “accidents,” “unforeseen disasters,” “one surprise after another.”

Remember the last-minute cancellations to our phone calls. I would say his early experiences of interruption, disappointment, and loss, coupled with the exhilaration of learning that he could magically convert negative to positive, are now embedded characteristics for him. I also believe that his success was fuelled by the childhood wish of bringing back his unknown brother.

And that helps explain how Wieder created a business that functions like a kidney, extracting nutrients and reprocessing waste for the good of the whole system.

Alexander Stein is a psychoanalyst and consultant in practice in New York City. He is also a training analyst and faculty member of The National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and a principal in the Boswell Group.

Disclaimer: This column is designed for educational purposes only. Due to the individual nature of each situation, Dr. Stein cannot offer advice or suggestions beyond what is presented here. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for personal therapy, or construe it as the offering of a diagnosis or remedy.