Jim Wilkoff, Wilkoff & Sons, LLC, Cleveland, Ohio. Interviewed September 2019. Transcription by Speechpad.
I entered the scrap business full-time in 1972. My grandfather had started in the scrap business around 1910 prior to World War II and was active in the business from, like, 1910 to, like, 1917, at which point he retired. And seven years later when his sons were getting…finishing high school and finishing…you know, going to college, he decided he should have a business for them to go into so he opened up a scrap company in 19…about 1924, 1925, I’m not exactly sure which year, which was…became as Wilkoff & Sons Company. So my grandfather and his…he has three sons. The oldest one joined him in 1924. And then his youngest son, who was my father, joined him in 1939 out of college. So they ran the company from…as a separate company, meaning scrap iron company and copper and brass company, from 1924 to 1940, at which point my grandfather and his 3 sons set up as Wilkoff & Sons Company, which became a full-service scrap yard. I stayed… My grandfather, stopped being active in the early 1940s and his sons ran the companies from that point on, and I joined my father and uncles in 1972.
I was the only member from my generation to join the company. All my other cousins were girls, and at that point girls didn’t go into the scrap business. I think it would be much different if they were doing it today, but in those days it was strictly a man’s business. Our company was certainly a family business. I did not actively do anything until I was in junior high, as I think I’m pretty sure at the end of eighth grade I started working here summers. I would come in, school would get out in the middle of June, and I’d work at the yard from the middle of June until Labor Day when school went back. I’d work in the yard with the men and they would…you know, they taught me how to sort metal and how we handle scrap. I did that for…all through junior high and high school.
During my college years I also worked in the yard for the company. I would come in and I would work with our supervisor, and he would show me how the work…shipping and receiving worked, and the inventory process, and learning more of exactly who our customers are and what we were doing. So most of my activities through the end of college were in the plant. I really had very little, if anything, to do with the office except I would come in during the day and eat lunch with my uncles and my father.
After college I moved to New York and was not associated with the company at all for six years. And when I was 29 years old I came back to Cleveland and joined my father and uncles and became active in the management of the company. The scrap business was always “in my blood.” It was a family business. I loved it. It was a lot of fun. I liked the trading aspect of it. I liked the physical aspect, that we were actually handling metal. When I moved to New York I really was thinking of going into finance. You know, I went to the University of Pennsylvania to the Wharton School, which was pretty typical for a lot of… I met a lot of other sons of scrap dealers at school and a lot of them then proceeded on into the scrap business and some of them didn’t.
When I moved to New York I was really thinking of going into finance, but for various reasons when I was in New York I did end up getting a job with Philipp Brothers, which was the largest international metal trading firm in the world at the time, which was a fascinating job. I was there for three years, and I decided that I was going to stay in the metals business. And for various reasons we came back…it was actually family reasons. My mother got sick, so we came back to Cleveland to work with my father, and that’s really what brought me back to Cleveland. It was not that I was dreaming about running a scrap company as I grew up, I was thinking in much more grander type of things to do rather than joining the scrap industry.
But I did come back, and I loved the aspect of being part of a company and being an important part of a company versus working for a big corporation where I was just one person, and what I did was fine and if I didn’t do it, you know, no one was affected by it. So I did like that. And so the final decision was to move back to Cleveland and join the company. I joined the company in 1972, so I was 28 years old at the time, or 27 years old when we moved back. So I had been out of…I had been away from Cleveland for, like, six years at that point working for other companies. When I came back into the scrap industry, scrap was still considered, you know, it was definitely recycling. We did not perceive, as an industry, or as a company, of handling anything that was bad or hazardous. We perceived it strictly as doing something positive, buying discarded items and processing them, separating them, turning them into quality scrap and selling them to consumers to make new scrap.
In the mid-’70s, with the whole issue of environmental and the EPA, we now were faced with regulations and completely overwhelmed everyone with what to do, because now we were handling what the government called hazardous material. And none of us were set up to handle it, nor were our yards set up to handle it except the way we did. At the very beginning in the early ’70s and ’80s it was almost a panic. People were setting up new companies so they wouldn’t have liabilities. People didn’t know how to report things. It became a little more sane by the time we got into the ’90s where, you know, there are items that are hazardous, but that are practical. And my best example of that, and I can remember very clearly meeting with the person from the EPA when he came to our yard and told me that we had material all over our yard that was chrome contaminated and that that was very dangerous, and that we’d have to stop handling it. And we were sitting at lunch, and I said to him rather sarcastically that, “The spoon you have in your mouth is made out of stainless steel. Now it’s either hazardous on my property or it’s hazardous in your mouth. You have to let me know how we’re gonna handle this.”
And that type of realization came over the industry and they realized the material had to be handled correctly so it did not become hazardous, but in and of itself, if it were hazardous, it should be handled as a hazardous item. But if it wasn’t, it just had to be handled properly so people don’t get affected by it. The guy from the EPA that was at our yard, he just looked at me and he said, “Well, I guess you’re right, that the spoon in my mouth is not gonna kill me.” But it did change what we did, the way we handled things, the way…the items we handled. We definitely stopped handling many items. We stopped handling cadmium. We stopped handling mercury. We stopped handling lead materials and decided that…left the processors that were set up to do that handle those items, and we concentrated more on the items that we felt that we could handle safely.
This is also true with radioactive material. We, in the…I don’t know, around the early 1990s we put in a tremendous amount of equipment to look for radiation, and to make sure that it stays out of the flow of material. It’s just an issue that we have to deal with, and it’s an expense that everyone is facing and dealing with. So the environmental laws changed what we did and how we did it. And I would say that overall the laws have been very, very effective in cleaning up our environment, whether some of the people complain that there’s still pollution around from the metals industry, but it’s probably been reduced by some tremendous amount like 80%, 90% over the 30 years from 1970 to 2000.
The industry, when I came into it, was still an industry made up primarily of small, regional…not even regional, but local companies. The big changes that occurred in the ’60s with the change in the highway system was tremendous to the scrap industry. So what happened is that the, up until the early ’80s, the industry was made up of a lot of very nice family sized businesses located in each metropolitan, and actually rural area. That changed drastically from 1970 to probably 2010 as you had tremendous amount of consolidation. But getting to the question of what I enjoyed the most was because it was made up of small and medium sized companies, we had a couple of trade associations, which were very…that were a place for all of us to get together and meet. Our company was active and I personally was very active in these trade associations and meetings, and used to go to them regularly and met people all from all over the country and became a speaker. I was part of group that ran metal sorting and metal identification seminars throughout the country for all the different scrap dealers. That was probably… I made lots of goods friends from people all over…from every city in the country, and I really enjoyed that.
Technology has been a big factor for our industry and for our company. In the early 1940s we had the first baling press in the city of Cleveland, which became a very, very profitable operation for us and lasted for about 10 years until everyone…every mid-sized dealer had a baling press and the advantage that we had from the new technology had dissipated. The next tremendous breakthrough was in handling the equipment, lift trucks and very mechanical type of equipment to move material around, to pick it up, hoist and that. That was all after… When I was a little boy I can remember coming to the plant as, like, a 5, 6-year-old and they got the first lift truck and they weren’t moving anything around with carts anymore. I don’t know if any of our employees today would know how to move anything without a lift truck.
The next big thing that happened in the scrap industry, and the metal industry, was the introduction of hydraulic shears and hydraulic crushers and shredders. We did not get into the shredding, but we definitely did get into the shearing business we now could safely shear material rapidly. These were all new technologies, you know, versus everything prior to that was…they did have shears, but they were mechanical. It was very… As a young boy I used to wonder how people weren’t getting hurt on it, but they, you know, they knew how to operate them. When we got into the early ’70s, spectrograph technology came into play and we were one of the very early proponents of adding handheld spectrographs to our operation. Virtually half or our employees each have a spectrograph at this point. And that type of technology will improve equipment, and will improve quality, not equipment, but will improve quality of the material that we can process and the material we can supply to consumers.
The changes there are not gonna be dramatic. They’re gonna be evolutionary over the next, you know, 10, 20 years. I don’t think that they are going to make any big changes, but they’re just gonna keep improving and the scrap industry will keep using them. The technology changes in the ferrous business have been much more than in the non-ferrous business. The non-ferrous business, the items are very specialized. They are not regular. They aren’t handled in tremendous quantity. They aren’t… So it’s more mechanical processes that are setting up. And what people have done over the last 20 years is they grew their operations. They were able to set up operations to be more efficient. You know, we had crushers 40 years ago. We have better crushers now. We can handle more and more efficiently.
So there will be evolutionary changes. At this point I don’t think there’s gonna be any real big changes. The big thing, you know, that everyone talks about is the concept that metal could be separated and sorted, not by hand but by machine. To some extent with the right feedstock of items it can be done, but for mixed scrap there’s just too much of a variety so I’m not sure that…there’s always gonna be a human aspect to sorting and processing metal. But it’s certainly easier when what our employees have to do now, the amount of work they have to put into process the same amount of scrap, is probably 20% of what even employees had to do 20 years ago. So what we’ve done is made it easier as an industry to process scrap, not that we really are doing it that much better, we’re just doing it more efficiently and safer and more environmentally correct. You know, lots of environmental things with oils and how you collect them and process them and, you know, dispose of them, all of that has been a very positive for our industry.
Scrap recycling and the outlook, it’s been a very interesting process, evolution again. Right after World War II one of the trade associations we dealt with, one of their big policies were scrap is a mine above the ground. It cost a fraction to mine scrap metal versus ores, so environmentally it’s better. So the world has understood that. Now where recycling comes in is completely different. The public perceives of recycling as getting rid of the aluminum cans and plastic bottles and stuff that they generate at their house. That industry has come and gone. Prices are strong and demand is strong, and when the Chinese came into the market a lot…more of that material was processed.
The great majority of scrap that is processed is really industrial scrap, and really only industry and consumers know it. Whether the consumers really realize how valuable it is, I’m not sure. They sort of look at the scrap industry as, “Okay, you know, if we can’t buy it elsewhere we’ll buy it from you.” They don’t really understand or want to understand the value that the scrap industry adds to the metals industry. The plants that sell their scrap really don’t look at it as anything except, “Oh, you’re getting rid of some material for us and you’re giving us money for it. Let’s see how much money we can get for it.” And the consumers are looking at it and saying, “Yeah, this is nice, but, you know, why should I buy scrap unless I have to?” So it is, although the general public thinks recycling is great it is still not looked at real positively by the people that generate the scrap, the people that buy the scrap, and the public doesn’t really understand, you know, what we’re really doing.
What’s happening with the whole concept of household recycling, we aren’t in that industry, I really don’t know it. I know that a lot of stuff is “recycled,” and it still ends up in landfills but, you know, that, you know… Then the waste companies are still performing a function, it’s just that it’s not as positive as everyone, you know, as they want you to think it is but scrap is… You know, I’m proud of having a career in the scrap business, and it’s been very productive. And I think we, you know, we do do a service for not only the economy but for, you know, society in general. One of the big, big changes, which, you know, from my personal point of view, is not positive, but I understand it, is that there’s been a tremendous concentration in the scrap business in companies that become very, very large. But the nature of the scrap business is there’s always gonna be a place in the industry for middle and small sized companies, but the big companies have become dominant in certainly many areas, in many fields. And that’s, you know, that’s certainly good for those companies. It’s not necessarily good for the industry, but, you know, things evolve and situations change and you have to just keep changing with them.