Paul Benz, a businessman who showed his appreciation to his adopted hometown
PEN IN HAND
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to tehachapimtnlover@gmail. com.
Well-known Tehachapi resident Paul M. Benz, 76, the founder of one of the largest local companies, passed away peacefully at his home on Sept. 23 after battling terminal illness. For the past 45 years, Paul had been a force in the Tehachapi community. Paul first arrived in Tehachapi in 1975 when his fledgling company, Benz Sanitation, got a city of Tehachapi contract to haul household garbage. The city’s own maintenance department had been responsible for trash pickup within Tehachapi’s limits, and it had become increasingly impractical for the city’s small maintenance department to be responsible for roads, water service, the sewer system, city facilities AND also garbage service, on top of everything else. So the city put refuse hauling up for bid, and the contract was awarded to a small company that was already operating in Mojave: Benz Sanitation. In those earliest years, Paul drove the company’s only garbage truck and was also the mechanic. His wife, Joan, to whom he was married for more than 57 years, answered the phone for the fledgling company. At its peak employment a few years ago, Benz Inc. had grown to include 160 employees on the payroll companywide. Paul was able to achieve this success despite having dropped out of high school and going straight to work as a teenager. Paul was born in 1944 in Glendale, Calif., to Paul and Vera Benz, the youngest of their five children and the only boy. Paul was known as a child to be high energy and a bit of a rascal. He was never a good student and left high school as a sophomore to get a job and work toward his future. His mother, Vera, was unhappy about this choice, but his father, Paul Sr., knew young Paul was not going back to the classroom and he made sure his only son worked. Paul held jobs at a gas station, at a feed store delivering hay, and started his first business, which was a gardening service, where his clients included actor James Brolin and the singer Del Shannon. In partnership with his Uncle Louie, Paul started Benz Sanitation and got a county contract to service Mojave first, then later the city of Tehachapi contract. Over the years, several ancillary businesses grew up around the core refuse hauling business: septic pumping, portable toilets, storage containers, etc. When Tehachapi’s main locally-owned propane service was sold to a big corporation, Paul decided he might try his hand at the propane business to serve local customers. Others advised him not to. Undeterred, Paul bought some residential propane tanks and a delivery truck, and hoped to be able to build up to 100 accounts. Eventually Benz Propane was servicing more than 8,000 accounts in the area. That is some background about Paul’s business endeavors. But I’d like to talk about the man himself. I first met Paul Benz when I began working fulltime for the Tehachapi News, just after I graduated from Tehachapi High. The Tehachapi News publisher, Bill Mead, sent me over to talk to Paul and write about some new state-of-the art trucks that Benz Sanitation had purchased. I told the ladies at the front desk (Joan and another woman) that I was there to see Paul Benz, and they sent me into his office. The man I encountered was rather brusque and intimidating, and seemed to be scowling. “What is it that you want?” Paul asked me immediately. I told him, and then he told me to have a seat. As I asked him relevant questions and carefully listened to his answers, he could see that this kid with a notebook and camera was genuine and had some practical knowledge, and he warmed up to me. “If there’s anything else I can help you with, let me know,” he said as I left. There were many things I asked him and Benz Inc. to help with over the next 40 years, and Paul never said no. I’ve been involved in historical preservation efforts, Nuwä cultural events, art projects, charity farm dinners, and much more, and any time I asked Paul for help or sponsorship in some way, he always said yes. The Benz family support and generosity for Tehachapi community events is legendary. Paul had a deluxe barbecue trailer built that would be taken to home football games and was available free of charge for fundraising events. Paul was heavily involved in starting the Tehachapi Search and Rescue program. He contributed hugely to the Tehachapi Rodeo Grounds (now called Tehachapi Event Center). Activities and events of all kinds were sponsored by Benz. Paul’s proudest and biggest contribution has been the Benz Youth Sports Complex, a 40-acre park located off Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road. It always bothered him that Tehachapi youth sports didn’t have their own facility — local teams would have to ask permission from the school district to use their facilities, which weren’t always available. So Paul purchased property and took the lead in creating playing fields that are leased for $1 a year to local youth soccer and football programs. The Sports Complex broke ground in 1997, and the first year of kids playing on the grass was 1998. All though Paul and Joan raised all four of their children as Tehachapi kids, and three out of the four of them still live here today, none of them were young enough to still be in youth sports at the time the park was created. The Benz Youth Sports Complex was created for the community’s children. Over the years I would often encounter Paul, and assorted family members or Benz managers, sitting in the big rounded booth at the friendly and delicious Gracian’s Grill on East Tehachapi Boulevard. It’s the closest restaurant to the business, and he would often eat there. I frequently bring in a niece or nephew and my daughter, and Paul was always kind to the children. They put a smile on his face and made his eyes twinkle. I know that not everyone feels the way that I do about Paul Benz. He could be a hard-nosed businessman in what is typically a rough, competitive business. He didn’t get where he did without having a variety of struggles and conflicts. “I don’t like making enemies,” Paul told me once, through furrowed brows. “I’d rather get along with everyone. But when you’re in business, you’re bound to step on toes and make some people mad,” he said with his typical gruff voice, gesturing toward his buildings and equipment yard. Despite his own lack of a formal education or management training, Paul embraced new technologies and business innovations. He was the first to bring wheeled trash carts to Tehachapi, though it caused a big uproar and protests at the time. But after any strong Tehachapi winds, there would be garbage, and both metal and plastic trash cans and their lids scattered throughout town. By converting customers to big wheeled carts with attached lids, Paul put an end to all that, and allowed trash to be picked up mechanically by a single driver, with no more employees suffering injuries from having to lift overburdened trash cans, many of them old with the bottoms falling out. Paul also built an MRF (Materials Recovery Facility), referred to as a “Murf,” in Tehachapi years and even decades before other cities had one. Tehachapi was way ahead of other cities in sorting and recycling garbage. Paul, the tenacious high school dropout with the head for business, could see that recycling was both needed and would eventually be required, so he built the MRF. Paul and Benz Inc. got into a dispute that involved charges and civil litigation with the cities of Ridgecrest and California City back in 2012 regarding waste hauling contracts. Benz eventually agreed to settle to “put an end to the drama,” as Paul’s son, Paul J. Benz, explained and paid a large fine. While it was reported at the time that Paul was somehow required to step away from his businesses, that was not accurate. Paul J. Benz, known as Pickle, had been taking over the day-to-day running of the company since 2010, but his father Paul was never required to separate from his business, and he never did. When Benz Inc. sold their assorted businesses to Waste Management, beginning in 2017 in a deal that was finally completed in 2019, Paul was still overseeing the business that he grew from practically nothing into a customer service powerhouse. Paul Benz loved his family, his friends, his longtime home of Tehachapi and his country. He was born during World War II, and in many ways he was a man of an earlier era in American history, when a scrappy blue collar worker could rise from humble beginnings to become the boss of a large and successful company. I’m proud to have been his friend, and I’m grateful for the many things he did for Tehachapi over more than 40 years. Have a good week.