Don Zulanch, Cohen Recycling, Middletown, Ohio. Interviewed March, 1998. Courtesy of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). Transcription by Carmen Venable.
Zulanch: I’m fifty-seven years old and I feel like I’ve been in the business my whole entire life. My father moved from New York when I was four years old and he was in– as a peddler in New York City, you know, just picking up scrap iron and doing the small entrepreneurship in New York. We moved here in 1944, and it seemed like, from then on, my whole life evolved around the scrap business. I have two careers. I had one as a small elementary school, high school, college student working for my father throughout, you know, for the first twenty-two years of my life, and then the second thirty-five years of my life I’ve worked at a large multi-yard, regional processing yard in Middletown, Ohio.
Interviewer: What was your father’s company’s name?
Z: My father was in Dayton, Ohio. It was called Max Iron and Metal. And we were very small. It was almost primitive, the way we think about the scrap business now. When I first started we had one truck and no crane and no shear. We had a torch and we cut the iron by hand, so after we cut it of course we had to get it on a truck, and did it by hand, and after that we had to move it, so we drove it over to a foundry. And then my dad was the type of person that ten minutes after the load was dumped at the foundry, he’d be at the foundry’s door trying to collect his money so we could go to lunch. I mean, that was more important to him- going to lunch- at the time, than thinking about buying equipment or shears, so, it was never to be that we were going to have a big yard or a large shears or huge cranes, because, you know, we did lunch every day, and it worked for us at the time.
Interviewer: Did your father tell you how he got into the business? Was it just one of those evolutionary type things, or–
Z: Yeah, I think my father always wanted to be a– work for himself. That was important to him. He just wanted to do his own thing and I guess he had a partner in New York and they decided to open a little recycling type of thing as we know it today, where he would go out into– go to a customer, a factory, pick up some turnings, a drum of brass, a thousand pounds of copper and bring it back. And they’d sort it, go through it and sell it, and again, that would get them through the week. And that’s all they though about, is just getting through the week and making payroll on Friday. We never talked about putting money away or–
Interviewer: Do you remember what it was like during the war? How was business different, how [crosstalk] changing?
Z: Well, again, I really didn’t come into play until probably in the fifties, 1955, ’55, so you know, I’m post-wars. I’m the new era of being in the business for thirty-five, thirty-seven years. So my recollections of hard times were just trying to meet all the obligations that we had, making payroll and we had four, five, six people. And it was a small– what you now would call just a small, small family business. I had a brother, I had a father, and myself, and we worked very hard, and that’s where I learned the basics to be successful later on in a big business, because I actually did run a crane and run a truck, which I don’t now, but I did that. And I know what it is for the people in the yard to do all this type of equipment, and running machinery, because I did it on a very, very small scale with my father and my brother. My brother did it also. And it worked for us at the time. I thought at the time, this was just everything I wanted in life. And then as I progressed from a small yard and with a brother and father, I looked for other things. But in my whole career as a college graduate and doing well in school, I’ve only been in the scrap business my whole entire life except for one year. I was in retailing in between my father working for Cohen Brothers, so I’ve done just one thing my whole entire life, and with absolutely no regrets.
Interviewer: The original– your father’s business, it closed down?
Z: Well, it’s kind of a sad story. My brother at the time was thirty years old when I left, and he passed way. He went to California- he left my father also -went to California, ended up in San Diego. They wanted to be adventurous. They had two little daughters. He worked for a scrap company in Sand Diego, and a year after San Diego, he got sick and passed away at thirty years old. My dad then was alone and I went back and worked for him for a couple years. Then we closed the business up. He retired and soon after retiring- it was his whole life- he passed away also. But again, I think I made all the right choices in my career in the scrap business because I wanted to stay in it and I felt good about it, and I though all through the years I progressed that I feel like I’ve worked for two family organizations. One is my own, and that was the first fifteen years of my career, and one it the Cohen family, for thirty-five years, and again, I feel like I’m part of that family, and they’ve made me a part of their family business.
Interviewer: Again, the equipment that you used early on were just a shear and a torch?
Z: Yeah, well we started with just a torch, then we said, you know, we’ll buy a little shear and we can just cut some pipe, and then conduit. And then we figured three guys are loading a truck with fifteen tons. It took us two days to do it. We bought a little crane. Must’ve had a good day that day or bought something from the government that, you know, we made some money and we bought a crane. So ended up with a little shear, a little crane, a little truck. It was a little operation. I mean, at the time I just thought it was massive, but looking back, it couldn’t even exist in today’s environment.
Interviewer: There were no other employees or just [crosstalk]
Z: No, there were a few. My mother was kind of a book keeper, my father stayed in the office and yelled out for what us to do. I had my brother, myself, and three or four other people. And we’d go out, and we’d all of us get on the truck. We’d run over to a factory and we’d schlep turnings– steel turnings with a shovel into a truck. It’d take us all day, and we’d run back, we’d sell it to a large scrap dealer in Dayton, Ohio for forty, fifty, sixty bucks, and then we’d use that and buy some metal and just keep going. And that’s the way we ran our operation. Never thinking of what we would do in the future, what kind of equipment we would need, any improvements, we just never though of that. All we though about is just “Let’s get through the week, let’s get through the month.” We had a good, you know– he sent me to college, he sent my brother to college, all on this small little business that he did on a daily basis. Have no regrets.
Interviewer: How did you finally go into the Cohen business? Or, not go into the Cohen business, but how did you finally get that relationship going?
Z: Well, in 1968, as I said, my dad and my brother were running the business, and it just got to be that there was three families growing and the business wasn’t growing. It was the same business with three families, and I had two kids, my brother had two kid–
Interviewer: [phone rings] excuse me.
Z: Should I shut it off?
Interviewer: Nah. [phone ringing] Go on.
Z: Okay, you asked me how I evolved into the Cohen business. In 1968, I left my brother and my father, on a very friendly– we were still a family, a family unit, but same business was going on for three families instead of just the two prior to my brother coming in and I had a friend that said, “I have a cousin, a distant cousin, in Middletown who’s got a medium sized organization, no children in the business now, and one yard, and why don’t you go down and talk to them?” At the time, there was no resumes, there was no, thank god, psychological tests, which I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job. There was just a handshake and Wilbur Cohen said to me at the time, 1968, “Let’s try it for six months,” and no obligation on either part. And that was the last thing he said to me about my package. I’m still there after sixty-eight, thirty years, with the same. Since then the company has revolved into many– several different yards, different operations. Sons in the company, good people. Again, we work together, and they have made me a part of their family. They’ve absolutely made me a part of their family. Treated me just the same as, probably better than, some of the family members.
Interviewer: Are there any, obviously there must be, some highlights over the last couple years? Any lowlights, or anything you want to share on either? Either highlights, or even some lowlights that may have occurred. Either– I know some people who were– actually they were senior to you that were involved in wartime activities and what’s happening in Korea, and I don’t know if you have any to add.
Z: Well, I think the lowlight, you know I don’t want to get too sentimental, is when I did close my father’s business up after my father and brother passed away. It was kind of the low point of my life. My family unit changed immensely. Just in a matter of one year, my brother passed away and my father’s yard closed up. It was all different. My mother was around, I needed to be with her and support her. So I got through those periods with no problem. It took several years to manage that. I guess the highlight is that I can look back and say that I’ve been successful in what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in the scrap business, I knew the scrap business, I loved it. I raised two daughters, both went to good schools, both have careers, grandchildren. I think in that way I’m successful. That my family has done very well because I’ve given them those chances, and I’ve been afforded those chances because of the Cohen family and what I’ve done for them. And the Cohen group grew tremendously. When I first started working there, Wilbur Cohen was the President. We didn’t have a Chairman of the Board. I mean, it was only two people, so he wore several hats. But we shared one office, and I’ll always remember that he was on one side of the desk, I was on the other, and probably we’d sit there eight hours, the phone would never ring. It was a small business. We probably had–
Z: 1968. And it was a small business. We had this one yard. We never thought we’d have multiple yards or millions of dollars of equipment. It was just was, you know, if the phone rang, one of us would answer it, and we’d listen to the other’s conversation. And I did that for about a year, and then after about a year or two we built another office. And then we built another building, and it evolved very quickly from then on. But again, he was a premier guy in the industry and so were his children.
Interviewer: Was there any brokerage work being done with– was it strictly–
Z: Well, when I went with Cohen Brothers it was a little brokerage work. Again, we would gather up– we would prepare with a larger shear. We had now a Harris 500 shear all of a sudden. We were big in the industry, so we would do some brokerage work. We would have some foundries that we would buy from other dealers, smaller dealers. And then the brokers would buy from us some cast iron, and we would [inaudible]. So there was limited amount of brokerage. Not like there is now, in trading, on the high tech, and on the web, and all those things. But there was a limited amount of brokerage, correct.
Interviewer: What do you contribute– that growth that went through a very strong growth period at Cohen Brothers.
Interviewer: What was it that sparked that?
Z: Well, the Cohens were different than my family. Again, my family lived week from week, month to month, year to year, and we measured our success by how we did that week. The Cohens were prudent enough that they would plan for the future, and if they made a thousand dollars, they’d put seven hundred away, and over the years they were able to buy equipment and buy yards, and buy whatever they needed to be successful. And it’s a very capital intense business now, where it wasn’t when I was younger. All we needed was a truck. We didn’t need a three million dollar baler, He put money away for the future. He was very visionary. He could see in the future what he needed to be successful, and we did it. And we built a lot of good relationship with mills and plants and brokers and people, and it was the relationships that helped us tremendously also.
Interviewer: What was the competition like? I mean, it’s always a very competitive industry–
Z: Yeah, but you know what? We didn’t know– it wasn’t that competitive at the time. I mean, it was kind of regionalized. We had Middletown and a little bit of Dayton, and the people in Dayton had Dayton and Cincinnati, and it was kind of fragmentized. It wasn’t as competitive. People really didn’t come into Middletown. We were busy enough just in Middletown and they were just busy enough in Cincinnati. They didn’t have to worry about doing more in our town, or bothering with us. And then again, we had relationships with other dealers and brokers, where we didn’t want to disturb those things and we all worked together and it just seemed to work very well. It’s, as you are alluding to, it’s a lot different now because people need that extra tonnage. They need that extra area. They’re pushing all over and there are no boundaries. You just– it’s boundaryless now.
Interviewer: Do you recollect what equipment was used at the beginning years of the [crosstalk]
Z: Well, of course, we had a high tech Harris shear. We had a very very small Harris baler, and we had cranes. No hydraulic cranes, they were all cable cranes. And we had a few of those. Again, with a baler, a shear, and three cranes, and a few trucks we were really on top of the world. We could do anything we wanted to do. There was nothing at the time that we couldn’t do with the amount of scrap that we were handling. And of course it was a fraction of what we’re doing now but there was enough equipment to go around and enough people, enough expertise that we had that- what I brought, what Wilbur had, and then a few years after that his older son Ken Cohen came into the business- so we had a good management team.
Interviewer: Did you do any non-ferrous in the beginning? Or strictly ferrous?
Z: No, we did non-ferrous and ferrous. Wilbur’s father ran the non-ferrous. He was a gentleman that really could hardly see, could hardly walk, he smoked a cigar, but he walked around and told everybody what to do and where to put the metals. And he would hire young kids off the street, you know, eighteen, nineteen years old, this gentleman at the time was seventy, seventy-five years old and again he could hardly see or talk, but he would explain to them how to package this material. And that was the training. That was all the training that we had. We didn’t go to training classes or send our employees all over the country. We– this man with a cigar, with one patch on his eye, would tell everybody how to package the material. And again, he had to tell them because he couldn’t see if they were doing it right or not, we just assumed that they were doing it right. We went from the old, old [inaudible], seventy-five, eighty years old at that time, to a young kid like me coming into the business in my twenties, and we had– we thought we had all the bases covered. And we probably did, because we really grew from that. You know, we still consider our company as young and modern. Wilbur Cohen is seventy-five, I’m fifty-five, Ken Cohen is fifty, but we consider ourselves very young, very modern, very aggressive. And that’s how we run our business. We still are visionary, we still are looking for the future, we’re still buying equipment, and that hasn’t changed from the day that I came thirty years ago with the Cohens. It’s the same exact thing they were doing, only we’re buying bigger equipment, more expensive equipment, and managing multiple yards instead of just one yard, or one piece of equipment at a time.
Interviewer: Any thoughts for the future? Have you– there will be people looking at this who are younger and thinking about the business. Anything to pass along and add?
Z: Well, it depends on, you know, it’s a lot of hard work, and you’ve got to be shrewd and you’ve got to be smart. And you’ve got to want it. It’s not a glory job. I always tell my kids- I have a daughter, thirty-one, and a daughter, twenty-six- I don’t think they still understand what I do. I tell them I’m in the scrap business and they always smile. Or when I apply for a credit card and they’re with me, and I put down scrap business, or they had to put it on their college– they always smile. I don’t know what they’re smiling about but they dress very nice, they drive nice cars, they have beautiful homes. I know they can smile all they want, I’m proud of what I did and I think for young people, if they want to feel successful and be successful and work hard and make a lot of money, this is the industry to do it, because you can make as good as you are. You can make whatever you want to make, and I just never took a back seat to anybody in what I do or how I live, because of the industry I’m in. It afforded me all these opportunities, and my family also.
Interviewer: I guess you had the support in a small community of people who were doing this kind of job, and I guess that is important too.
Z: Yeah, at the time, I really didn’t bond with people like at the conventions now. And you know, thirty years ago we didn’t go to conventions, and then twenty years ago Wilbur went to the conventions, and so it evolved around, you know, I start out not knowing anybody in the industry. Just knowing the accounts that we serviced, to now knowing everybody, being chapter president, being on the board of directors. The whole thing evolved and exploded in the last few years. Now with consolidations and big mergers and mega-corporations and listed on the stock exchange, where is this going to go? I mean, it’s not– and I don’t think my girls today would smile and laugh if they saw someday on the stock exchange. They would be– they were always proud they just didn’t understand it. But now if they look it up and they see on the New York Stock Exchange someplace that we’re listed or a company we’re affiliated with listed, they would more understand what this industry really is. And that’s what it’s evolved to. Relationships and top management seminars and leadership development for young people. You’ve got to get involved. If you just stay in your own world and you stay some place in Iowa, and you’re in a small town and you never know what’s going on, you’re never going to grow or be in a competitive environment. But that’s the environment we’re in. I didn’t need that years ago, thirty, forty years ago. We just did our own thing and nobody bothered us, but that’s not the industry now.
Interviewer: Was it always industrial accounts or did you have– peddler or traded retail business?
Z: We had a very, very small peddler trade. We were off the beaten path, and we had two or three industrial accounts that we had serviced. Some of them were easy and some of them were tough, again, but it was a steady business so we always knew every Tuesday we would pick up steel turnings and every Wednesday we’d get some brass borings. We knew that we had our base covered, so that was fine. If we picked up– if a peddler came in with some sheet iron or something like that, again, we didn’t have a baler, there was no way to have value added. We couldn’t upgrade it. We had to pick up the same sheet iron on the ground, put it on a truck, and take it over to a larger dealer that could do something with it, make a bale out of it. But no, I think we fairly was a small industrial scrapyard at the time. Now we’re multipurpose with everything.
Interviewer: [inaudible] any recollections with your father’s business or again some earlier anecdotal stories with the Cohen Brothers, I guess we’re almost finished.
Z: Yeah, I just think that, you know, if my father wasn’t in the scrap business, I don’t think I would’ve been in the scrap business. Because at the time it just wasn’t glorious. It just wasn’t the thing to do. And I had friends when I graduated college that went on to be CPAs, and I took the path to put on a pair of jeans and load a truck. It just didn’t make sense at the time to me or to them. And I had friends that went on to law school, and here I put the same pair of jeans on and went back and loaded the truck again. And they were wondering why I would do something like that, but in looking back, those friends are still behind a desk, looking at figures, making just a decent salary. And the attorney has moved sixteen times to different jobs in different cities in different places, and I’m still doing very well loading trucks only I’m doing it on the computer now, and I’m having a lot of other people do it with a lot of big, heavy equipment. And I know I made the right choice, and I encourage, strongly, we need young people in this industry. I mean, us old timers, again I don’t feel like I’m old, I can probably out-dance most of the young kids now, but I encourage– we need the young blood coming in. The smart people, the shrewd people, and the honest people. And I think they’ll do fine, not a question in my mind. This is the right place to be.