Kenneth Benjamin Kazarian studied business at three different schools but never graduated from college. Academics did not really interest him. He learned more about business at his family's garbage dump than he ever learned in school.
Kazarian's college career ended when he was 21, on the day he was scheduled to take his final exams. The man who was supposed to fill in for him at the dump called in and quit minutes before his shift was to start, and "I had no choice but to stay there and miss my final," Kazarian said. "And I never went back."
It is a decision the 37-year-old president of BKK Corp. seldom regrets, even though, in the last two years, the BKK landfill in West Covina has been embroiled in an emotional controversy over leaking toxic waste.
"I was never a big fan of school," he said. "I just grew up thinking that when I get old enough, I'll just go into business with my dad. It was something I enjoyed. I was never forced to do that."
Adversaries Respect Him
Burly and affable, Kazarian is often charming in a down-to-earth way. A highly visible figure in a visceral business, he is surprisingly well respected by many adversaries.
"My impression is that he is a person who is dedicated to solving the waste problem," said Forest Tennant, a West Covina city councilman and former mayor, who has often found himself on the opposite side of the fence from Kazarian. "He has studied very hard and appears to be knowledgeable. He's accessible, you can get hold of him, and he's easy to talk to."
Tennant has been dealing with Kazarian and the problems of the BKK landfill for most of the 10 years he has served on the West Covina City Council. What to do about the dump, which once was one of the largest hazardous-waste landfills in the state, has been a question that Tennant and his fellow council members have struggled with for years.
"Nobody wants it. Nobody wants it here. Everyone would like it dug up and moved away," Tennant said. "And that's never going to happen. I think that if I was Kazarian, I would have closed up, packed my bags and ran a long time ago. Money is not worth it when you're involved in that kind of controversy."
Family Firm Since 1963
The BKK landfill has been run by Kazarian's family since 1963. His grandfather handed the presidency to his father, and his father to him. The board of directors of BKK Corp. consists of Kazarian, his three younger brothers, and his father, Benjamin K. Kazarian Jr., who is chairman.
Over the years, the family has fended off complaints from residents, feuded with the city of West Covina, taken on the regulatory agencies, and heavily contributed to political figures on almost every governmental level to protect its interests at the landfill.
Besides the dump, BKK Corp. also owns a trash transfer station in Torrance, a hazardous-waste trucking division called Falcon Disposal, a toxic-waste treatment facility in San Diego that now operates as a transfer station for hazardous household waste, and property in Wilmington that is the proposed site for a waste treatment facility.
Kazarian was made president of the corporation in 1984 when his father stepped down. His three brothers help administer the landfill and run the corporation's other entities. Kazarian spends most of his time running the landfill.
"It consumes more of my time than anything else," he said. On a typical day, he may spend half of his time at the corporation's headquarters in Torrance, and the rest at the landfill.
But often, Kazarian said, he does not know where he is supposed to be from one day to the next. "It's really sporadic. I'm a creature of my calendar," he said.
"The landfill is a very important part of the corporation because we are a waste management firm. Administration-wise, it probably consumes most of our time."
When he is not running the family business, Kazarian loves to race cars. It is a passionate hobby. When he was younger, before he married at age 21, he used to drag race. "All of that kind of quit when I got married," he said, laughing.
For the past five years, Kazarian has been racing in off-road contests. In 1984, he won the first indoor off-road race at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.
"He's got a natural ability," said Mickey Thompson, a promoter and off-road racer whose championship races are held all over the country. "I've known Kenny for 25 years. He's a very smart driver. He drives extremely hard, but he's extremely smart. Whatever it takes to win, he'll do it."
Kazarian's grandfather, Benjamin K. Kazarian Sr., was 10 years old when he came to this country from Armenia in 1910, following in the footsteps of Kazarian's great-grandfather, who had come to the United States with his family in search of religious freedom.
The family settled in Los Angeles. The sons eventually went into the trucking business, hauling manure. From there, Kazarian's grandfather took over the lease on a dump where trash was taken for burning.