Joseph Alpert, J. Solotken & Co, Inc, Indianapolis, Indiana. Interviewed September 2019. Transcription by Speechpad.
Yes, I’m Joseph Alpert, A-L-P-E-R-T, at J. Solotken company. That’s J-period, S-O-L-O-T-K-E-N in Indianapolis, Indiana. The company was founded in 1914 by my maternal grandfather. My maternal grandfather immigrated to the United States from Russia at the age of 12, because he was going to be drafted into the Russian army for 20 years of service. So, his parents put him on a boat to the United States, knowing that they’d never see him again. Anyway, he came to the United States, could not speak English. He had an older brother living in Greenfield, Indiana. Originally, he lived in Greenfield but then he got a job as a delivery boy for the Dapper Woods Kosher meat market, and that’s where he met my grandmother, because her family had the Kosher Butcher Shop, one of the Kosher Butcher Shops in Indianapolis. Now we don’t have any, unfortunately.
At any rate, so he got a job there and he met my grandmother, and he started peddling, and he had a horse and wagon. We always joked that, “The horse ate before the children,” because that horse was his livelihood. He was also active in the Jewish loan society, as a member of the Jewish loan society in the 1920s. They had…and a friend of his also had a horse and the horse died. So, the Jewish loan society wanted to provide that replacement horse for my grandfather’s friend. They deliberated this, that, and the other thing and the regular horse which cost $45. But they managed to find a horse with one eye that only cost $25. So that’s what they did. I mean, these Jewish immigrants as you can imagine, that they were in my view, were hard working people. My grandfather, his story goes that he would work from 4:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night and then he would go to school to learn to speak English. He did learn to speak English, but he was far more comfortable speaking Yiddish, than he would speak in English.
So, at any rate, while I was in high school, my grandfather Jacob Solotken was a very poor driver. He would wait until an oncoming car was almost on top of him and then he’d decide to turn left. So, my parents had decided that I would be his designated driver as soon as I was able to get a driver’s license and whenever I was not in school, I could be his driver. So, I remember taking him to Chicago one time, and at that time, this was in the mid 1950s. I’m 80 years old, and I’ve been working here at the scrap yard. It’ll be 50 years, on October 1st of this year. I remember taking my grandfather to Chicago one time, and they would go to a restaurant called the Roosevelt Café which was strictly Kosher and everybody spoke Yiddish.
I remember learning some profanity, Yiddish profanity, because they would refer to one another as various Jewish slang words that I will not repeat because it’s not for mixed company. At any rate, I came back to Indianapolis and I asked my father, who was also working here at the time, and his name was Harry Alpert. Actually, he was my grandfather’s son-in-law. So, at any rate, I asked my dad then, “Dad, everybody refers when I go to Chicago with Grandpa to the Roosevelt Café, everybody refers to Epstein, Epstein this, Epstein that. What’s Epstein’s first name?” And my dad said to him, “Mr.” And so they’ve referred to this Mr. Joseph Epstein as Mr., because he financed the various small scrap yards within 100 or 200 mile radius of Chicago. His company was called the Continental Paper Grading Company but they were also in the rag business.
In the 1920s, my grandfather had very little money. So, he would get whatever he could get for next to nothing. And one of the products was rags that they would sort. In the ’50s, we had 150 women sorting rags over conveyor belts. They would dump the loose rags on the conveyor in the basement or in the first floor of the building and went up on a conveyor to the third floor. Then it went on a horizontal conveyor. These women were standing on either side of the conveyor, and they would pick out leather gloves, khaki gloves, wool gloves. They would pick up men’s leather hats, ladies’ felt hats, and nylon stockings, rayon stockings, cotton shirts, men’s wool shirts, ladies’ skirts, what have you.
They would sort all these different rags and then ship them to Mr. Epstein in Chicago. That was in the ’20s, but later as my grandfather grew and learnt to develop the business, we were exporting rags to France, Italy, and Spain, where used clothing had a market, unlike what they had here in the United States. Because in the 1950s, I think in the Eisenhower administration, they passed “The Wool Labeling Act,” which said, “Any used wool in a garment had to be labeled as used wool if it was made into a garment sold in the United States.” This as a result of the sheep farmers who wanted, of course, to protect their interest, and so, from that time on the market for used clothing here in the United States became extinct, and my dad as well as my grandfather would export rags to these European countries.
Eventually that dried up too because the The Salvation Army and the Goodwill Industries and the Volunteers of America were able to get the clothing free. It was donated to them. Even to this day, as you may know, The Salvation Army and the Goodwill Industries, they will refurbish used clothing and sell it in their stores here in the United States. So, my dad decided the rag business was done. In 1956 the J. Solotken Company eliminated rag purchasing here. So, dad expanded into wastepaper, and dad at one time was very, you know…it was dad who worked here for 57 years, even though he had a law degree from the University of Indiana, where he finished number two, [inaudible 00:09:12], which is, like, The Phi Beta Kappa of law school.
He finished second in his class in 1936 and my grandfather really didn’t want him to come to the scrap yard. But dad was practicing law in 1936, and he had clients but none of them had any money to pay him. So, my grandfather invited his son-in-law, Harry Alpert, to come to the scrap yard and thinking it would be just three to four months. It turned out that my dad Harry Alpert worked here at the scrap yard for 57 years until he was 89, and he died at the age of 91. So, the fact that I’ve worked here for 50 years, is no big accomplishment as far as my family is concerned, but I’m still working every day and enjoying it very much.
Well, I graduated Indiana University in 1960 and then I went into the army and was in the transportation corps. I was at Fort Eustis and then I was at Fort Story, Virginia. Then I came out of the army, and I thought I was gonna go right into the business but dad said, “You’re not ready.” So, then I applied to graduate school and I got an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I graduated from University of Pennsylvania in June of 1963. But once again, I thought I’d be ready to come to the scrap yard.
My dad was…when I was 40, I thought he was nuts, but when I got to be 60, I realized he was a genius. At any rate…so, my dad said to me, “Son, before you’re gonna come to the scrap yard and become a boss, you’re not gonna be a boss. Go get a job.” I always say my dad was the Bobby Knight of scrap, because I could make one mistake, and I’d hear about it 20 times in the next year. And if I get 15 things right, that was just accepted. That’s the way it should be. I should do things right. So, at any rate, I then went to New York, and I went to work for a company called Philipp Brothers, who in 1963, they were larger than General Motors. Philipp Brothers had offices in like 50 different countries. They had sales of over 8 billion in 1963. And like I said, that was more than General Motors had at the time. I tell people, I would have worked for them for $1 a year and I would have been well paid. Philipp Brothers was…like I said, they had offices in many different countries, and they were Orthodox Jews who were Holocaust survivors.
So, we had a minyan every noon. They had 350 people working in the New York office. But, like I said, their headquarters was Zug, Switzerland. The President at the company was a gentleman by the name of Philip Jesselson. And he was very philanthropic, he donated to a lot of the New York charities in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Anyway, the company Philipp Brothers, Sunday was a regular work day. Saturday, of course, they were closed. But on work days, they would come in at odd hours of the day, including on Sunday, because at that time, there was no emails like we have today. Everything was by telex, like an international telegram. So, if they wanted to send a message to Tokyo, where they had an office, they would compensate for the time difference. So, it would be during normal working hours in Tokyo. They might have to come in at 3:00 in the morning, which they did in order to communicate because naturally things went very fast there at Philipp Brothers.
Philipp Brothers, like I said, had over $8 billion in sales in 1963 and scrap was like 5% of their total business. But even though it was 5% of their total business, they were the largest merchant in scrap. But they also handled ores. They owned copper mines, they owned zinc mines, they owned lead mines, they owned tin mines. And they would buy…it was fascinating. I tried and applied some of these same principles to our company here in Indianapolis today. They would buy let’s say, the production of a zinc mine in Peru and they would then ship that zinc to Turkey. They wouldn’t get paid in the Turkish currency, they would get paid in something such as new steel, which then they would ship to Korea. Then they would ship that, and then, they wouldn’t get paid in that currency either. They would get paid in merchandise. So, they might have a series of four or five transactions that would build upon one another, each one making a profit but maximizing their profit by utilizing their merchandising skills, to move material to the most needed spot to have very large profits.
So, like I say, even today in the scrap industry, it’s not uncommon to have material processed and then you have it made into a form that you can upgrade or what I would call have a second tier of profit if you’re fortunate enough to be able to market a form of scrap to a higher echelon user. So, like I say, I worked there for three years, then I went to work… I wanted to handle scrap at Philipp Brothers. They didn’t want me to do that. In the beginning I did, I was working in the traffic department at Philipp brothers, but then they wanted to promote me into trading. But what was I gonna be trading? Fish meal, which was a by-product. They’d ground up anchovies that they were taking from a company in Peru that fish meal was ground up into animal feed. It’s a protein substitute that is used…sent to farm animals. At any rate, they wanted me to do that and I didn’t wanna do that. So, I ended up changing companies going from Philipp Brothers to Manufacturers Hanover Trust. And there, I got hired by a fellow named Russ Pope, who I thought was gonna be president of Manufacturers Hanover Trust.
I’d forget about going back to the scrap yard because I thought he would be president of the bank and I would be his right hand man and I’d be set for life. That was great, until he got fired. Once Russ Pope got fired, they wouldn’t let me change. They wouldn’t let me empty a wastebasket. Well, about that time, I got engaged to my wife, Barbara. We met on the Memorial Day of 1967. We got engaged the following December of December of ’67, and we got married on July 4th 2068 [SP]. Then I wanted to come back to the scrap yard. I still had a problem. She didn’t wanna move to Indianapolis. She loved the East Coast. She was from Trenton, New Jersey. Well, she said, “Well, in a year, I think I’ll be ready to move to Indianapolis.” Well, actually it was a year and three months that we moved to Indianapolis in October of ’69. So, I started working at the J. Solotken Company on October the 1st of 1969. That’s why I know it’ll be 50 years on October 1st of 2019 working here. So, at any rate, I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve had such great teachers. My dad, of course was, I consider my closest mentor, and it was just wonderful. Well, like I say, it was wonderful, except I couldn’t work for him.
So, I ended up working for my uncle Leo Selig, who was actually my dad’s…let me think, Leo Selig who worked here for 52 years as well, started in the rag department. He was my great uncle, because he was married to my grandmother’s sister. Like I said, they were all Russian immigrants who knew more Yiddish than they knew English. Although Leo Selig, he spoke fluent English. He started the metal department at the J. Solotken Company. Like in the beginning, they had…so I’m talking after ’30s, they had so little money. We bought rags and paper and even rubber and sisal. I remember yarn, and rope, and what have you like that, and this was various types of used material that they could afford.
Little by little, Leo Selig, my grandfather’s brother-in-law, they were married to sisters, developed a metal business. So, I found it easier to work with Leo Selig than to work for my dad, because he would chew me out and tell me what I did wrong and it would be forgotten. Whereas my dad would chew me up and bring it up to me 20 times over the next 6 months. So, at any rate, I was, like I said, fortunate to have my father first of all, and then Leo Selig as an advisor and mentor. But even I’ve always been…I love the Institute, what is now, The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, many people who’ve been able to withstand the ups and downs of the recycling industry have… I think it’s true in any business, you’re successful if you have repeat clientele, you know, if you’re in it for the long term. I would say that would apply to most businesses.
I tell people, “Your reputation precedes you wherever you go. And if you cheat somebody, it will come back to haunt you.” So, even in the past week, I bid on some aluminum scrap that I knew was contaminated with iron. But looking at it, it was in a big pile. Looking at it from the top, the iron was just minimal, but when I received the load and it was dumped in our yard. The iron was like 30% and I thought the iron was gonna be 5%. So, obviously, I made a bad quote, and I made a bad buy. Well, we honored the purchase, we paid the agreed price. It meant that it was a loss of over $1,000 on a $7,000 purchase. I paid $7,600. I should have paid around 5,800 maybe 6,000. But I gave the guy the price and it was my mistake. You know, he says…and this was our second or third time doing business with him over a period of five or six years and I’ve always wanted to do business with him because I know he would have scrap on a regular basis. We honored the price, we took the loss because, like I say, I could have probably said, “Screw you, I don’t wanna… I’m not gonna pay you for what I quoted you because what you showed me was not representative of what you were selling at any rate.”
So, even my associates here thought I was nuts for doing that, but somehow or another, I felt that it was my mistake. I should honor the mistake and make good on the offer. So, we ended up paying for the scrap that…and we still has but nobody wants to touch it and process it because it’s gonna be a headache to process and remove the iron, which we have to do before we could sell it as processed scrap. So, at any rate, there are other names that I can recall that were…I don’t know how much you know, but in the ’50s there was what we call, The National Association of Waste Material Dealers. Then after that, that was like a trade organization made up of the rag people and the paper people and the metal people and everything, but that organization probably had 200 member companies. Then after that, there was The National Association of Secondary Material Industries. I think that was in the early ’60s or late ’60s.
At any rate, the trade association kept growing and growing and growing and we’ve benefited because of that, because now we have a stronger voice in Washington. And even today, they’re wanting to label certain forms of scrap as waste. And when it’s designated waste, it receives all sorts of punitive legislation that are of course adverse to the recycling industry. And our current trade organization, ISRI, of course, is very, very successful in representing the members in Washington.
But getting back to my story of how these trade associates, it was, National Association of Waste Material Dealers, then it was, National Association of Secondary Material Industries. Then it was, National Association of Recycling Industries. Along as those organizations were maturing, there was also the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel. Eventually, they merged, I think 12 years ago, to form what is now known as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a merger of what is ISIS and NARI.
Before we had Robin Wiener, we had Herschel Cutler, maybe you’ve heard the name Herschel Cutler. He was president of the trade association for maybe 20 years and Robin Wiener was his assistant. So, she had a good teacher as well that led her to the position she now occupies. So, I mean, for me as you might imagine by now, the scrap industry is a passion. My wife, and we’ve been married 50 years now and she says she wants me home but not for lunch. So, I keep coming to the office, buying and selling scrap and going through the plant, and, “Oh, we should do this and we shouldn’t do that, and this, that, and the other thing,” and I’m living the dream.
The scrap industry, I think is analogous to the field of medicine. In that, when I was a college student, I went to the family doctor. He looked at me and he asked if I had a chest pain, if I had a headache, if I had a stiff arm? He could treat me for everything. Today, you go to a specialist who can examine your pancreas, who can examine your…a different doctor would examine your foot, your elbow, your ear, every conceivable. The same as in the scrap industry. We now have specialists within specialists within specialists as the industry has matured. For instance, they’re even in the Baltimore area. You know, Baltimore is a large port. So there are companies in the Baltimore area that specialize in naval scrap. A company that I’m familiar with, it was recently acquired by another company in Philadelphia, was called Ansam Metals A-N-S-A-M. I visited their yard at the same time I went to the museum of…the Jewish Museum of Maryland. At any rate, they had specialized equipment for processing naval scrap. You can imagine, if you dismantle an ocean-going vessel, it could be a two or three year project, to cut down the scrap to not only to reduce the size but to separate all the various metallic components by nature of whether it’s, like, there’s something called Admiralty brass. There’s something else called Naval brass that are similar but not identical. In that they have they have nickel, they have copper, they have zinc, they have aluminum, all alloyed together, okay?
But if you go in to Chicago, there’s nobody doing anything like that. On the other hand, you could go to Arizona where there’s companies that dismantle aircraft. So, to capture the various…you can imagine how many different metals there are in a U.S. large military plane, like an air cargo plane for the United States Navy or Army. I mean, so there are companies that are specializing within specialties. There’s companies in the New Jersey area that recycle catalytic converters which contain precious metals and that’s all they do. I guess, say, so, to me, I think there’s a similarity between medicine and recycling. And they’re specialists and specialists. There’s companies that…oh which specialize in titanium.
So, here in Indianapolis, there’s the Rolls-Royce Corporation who builds jet engines. And we’re getting all the scrap from Rolls-Royce, where they’re building jet engines. Well, in the manufacture of jet engines, you have numerous alloys. There are what we call high temperature alloys that are heat resistant. So, you know, in a jet engine, you’re gonna have metals that have a very high melting point because the…as they say, “You’d rather be in the ground wanting to be in the air than to be in the air wanting to be on the ground.” So, they have various parts in a jet engine that has to have…and they check it in parts per million for impurities, companies that recycle these high temperature alloys. Now, we here we are the next level down. We can check down to 0.01% for in various alloys, high temperature alloys, such as Waspaloy, Hastelloy, Inconel. These contain…like I said they’re used in aerospace and they contain Nickel, Titanium, Cobalt, and Tungsten, and then traces of Niobium and other metals like that. And here at J. Solotken Company, we can identify these impurities down to 0.01% but the people we sell to who are doing actually the melting of that material. They will check down to parts per million for impurities.
I mean, like I say, and this is just an evolvement of the scrap industry in the past 20 years. You ask how has it changed in the past 20 years? It’s changed remarkably so because we have these instruments that…we call them handheld analyzers that can read down to, in our case, down to an 0.01 factor of various impurities and these high temperature alloys. So when I… 20 years ago, we didn’t have availability of that. We checked by checking the spark. In other words, you put a certain metal on a spark, and you could identify based upon if it gives a short red spark, it would indicate a high nickel content. If it gives a long spark, it indicates the absence of nickel and it would be an abundance of iron. Many of these metals will contain iron, but the iron of course lowers the value of the various types of scrap.
We have greater membership today in the Trade Association. We have more and a larger voice in Washington, that is fabulous. So, we’re just, like I say, “I wish I were born 20 years earlier.” But nevertheless, I mean, it’s just such a fabulous experience that I’ve been able to… Before I forget, I wanna mention two names that were very pioneers, I would say, in the scrap industry in particularly the metal portion of the business. A gentleman by the name of Sydney Danziger. He was from New York and he…first of all, he never went past the fourth grade, but he wrote a letter on my bar mitzvah. He was a friend of my grandfather, and he wrote a letter that I still have on my occasion of my bar mitzvah that… By the way, I wanted to be a rabbi when I was about 12 or 13 years old. But, when I saw the abuse that the rabbi who I admired so here in Indianapolis, his name was William Greenfield, he was a conservative rabbi and he helped write the prayer book that we used at the time.
Anyway, he knew more English literature than my professors at Bloomington, where I studied English literature. He knew more English literature, and I used to caddy for him, the rabbi. And he was a terrible golfer but I didn’t mind caddying for him, because I wanted to be with him. Anyway, he took all sorts of abuse. So, when I was watching that, as a high school student, people I thought should just respect the rabbi for the name he has and I would see people talk in abusive language. That really bothered me and I couldn’t turn the cheek to continue as a rabbi. So, when I…you know, it was about a two year period of my life. Anyway, that’s how I knew that I wasn’t gonna be a rabbi. Anyway I forgot where I was going but…oh, you asked about the environmental issues.
So, the fact, the matter is, we still have these issues where people consider scrap waste, and we have to speak up and tell our congressmen and senators that, “Yes, the recycling industry is a very sound industry offering many jobs and it’s helpful to the economy.” Unfortunately, we were selling a lot of our scrap to China. And because of the Tariffs and the Trade issues that the current administration is actually promoting, as you may know, tariffs that the Chinese are retaliating. And now, we used to export here even from Indianapolis, we’re not on a port, we would export. About 20% of our sales were for export. Now, less than 5% of our sales are for export. And as that has impacted us here in the Midwest, it’s even greater on the East Coast, the West Coast, and the South, or any port. Any of the ports like Baltimore, even to this day, when we do export, we export from Baltimore.
In other words, we ship it to the ramp, the ramp in Chicago, they transport the export container by rail, from Chicago to Baltimore. And it leaves Baltimore for export to China, to Vietnam, to Taiwan, to Malaysia, and to India. So, we’re still exporting, but China was consuming like 40% of the scrap metal that was exported in the ’90s and even in the 2000 to 2010. Even as late as 2015, we were exporting. And naturally, the more consumers, the larger your marketing opportunities are, the greater your ability to execute sales and the more better business you will enjoy.
So, as what the next stage will be, I think China will no longer be a major player as far as exports, and all the other nations, these all the other nations that I mentioned combined, they don’t consume nearly the scrap that China was consuming. So to that issue, the scrap industry is currently under duress. So, we’ve had issues in our history. Our company 105 years old, but not just our company our industry have issues continually cropping up. And the resilience is the remarkable thing and how we overcome obstacles and persist. And like I say, it’s fabulous.
The other name that really you should know, a gentleman by the name of Sigh Wexberg, [SP] worked for…before it was ISRI. First of all, he was a journalist and he helped when I was writing my master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania. Sydney Danziger, who I mentioned earlier, and Sigh Wexberg, who both lived in New York City while I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. I would go from Philadelphia to New York, and they would give me time and help me with my master’s thesis, which the subject of my master’s thesis was, “Eliminating an Unprofitable Department in a Scrap Metal Business.”
And so I got a master’s degree in accounting, and particularly cost accounting, because that was where my interests lie. And at any rate, that was two names but they were…I can mention, Teddy Gruen was another. G-R-U-E-N, Teddy Gruen was… I mean, these names most of the people living today, if I mentioned their names, they don’t mean anything. But these were hard working Jewish immigrants that were just…they were just so resilient and ingenious, for figuring out a way to make a living. Like I say, I have been fortunate to have such great mentors. I guess I am still living the dream. One other thing, you know, I’m dealing with the grandchildren of people I started with 40 years ago. The grandchildren don’t question me, as I tell them, “This is tainted scrapped. It’s not gonna enjoy the best price because it has some iron attachment or it has this or it has that.” The grandchildren don’t challenge me the way that their parents and grandparents did. So, another reason I come to work every day because I have so much freedom.
There are a number of people in their 80s that are still active in the business. One person you may know, I know, is Stanton Moss. He’s in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. At any rate, he’s 84 years old. We do a lot of business with him. He has his own company called the Stanton Moss Company. We used to meet at the Work Hotel in Philadelphia. It was called the Non-Ferrous Metals Association. Stanton was active in that, and like I say, he’s still, even at age 84, he’s still very active. On the West Coast, you may have heard of Alpert & Alpert. They’re a company that is… They have an office I think in Tokyo and they’re all over the place and they’re also…well, one of their founders was President of Mary. My uncle Leo Selig was President of NASME, and it was National Association of Secondary Materials Industries at any rate.
So, I used to strap around with those guys just to carry their suitcase. I just wanted to be there and listen as they would yell and scream at one another in Yiddish. I remember going to Paris, Illinois, maybe 45 years ago, and they had a small scrap yard there. The owner’s name was Dave Abels, A-B-E-L-S and he had a pile of iron there. People from Chicago or Indianapolis or wherever, would come and look at his pile. And he didn’t wanna know from price per pound or anything like that. “Okay. Here’s a pile of iron. What are you gonna offer for this?” So, the guy, the buyers from Chicago, would go and look at this pile of iron. They’d go in and they start loading this pile of iron. At the bottom of the pile of iron were two World War 1 canons that were 20,000 pounds each. They were there and you paid for them but you couldn’t pick them up and take them with you. So, how many times he sold that same pile of iron without it moving? You know, I mean, obviously, I don’t know if that’s funny but there were people that were, unfortunately, looking to make a quick profit and didn’t have the scruples or the morals. So, that was a story that I heard about when I was, you know, in my early 20s.
So, I’ve got a citation from Mike Pence. He was Governor of Indiana before he became Vice President. So, we had 100 years celebration for the company and he gave me an award called the “Sagamore of the Wabash,” which it recognizes [inaudible 00:46:51]. Why I was singled out for that, I don’t really know other than I kind of put my name up for that. So, I have another certificate here from the state of Indiana where I’m recognized as a member of the “Sagamore of the Wabash.” So, you know, what can I say, I just… I’ve got my children and grandchildren all over the walls here and my wife loved to decorate my office when we moved. We moved on to a new building in 2010, I may have told you that. So, we have a new building that we occupied beginning in March of 2010. Formerly, we were on the west side of Indianapolis from 1936 to 2008. We bought this and renovated this property for 18 months before we moved in in March of 2010.