Nidhi Turakia, Allied Alloys LP, Houston, Texas. Interviewed by Zachary Paul Levine, April 2019. Transcription by Speechpad.
Nidhi: Sure, so I’m a second-generation business owner. My father started in 1981 as an immigrant from India. He’s actually a pharmacist by qualification but he ended up jumping into scrap metal when he realized that pharmacy here is completely different than pharmacy in India. So I grew up in it. And right from college in 2003 my dad asked me to join. I was very hesitant but ended up being convinced. So here I am.
Zachary: Okay. And when you say you grew up in it, what does that mean?
Nidhi: So, during high school and middle school all my summers were at the scrap yard. I mean, whatever help he needed I was there to help him. And I actually found it really interesting seeing the heavy equipment, the physical movement that takes place in the scrap metal, you know, recycling industry.
Zachary: And so what kind of things did you do as a kid?
Nidhi: I did documentation, accounting, a little bit of logistics. It was interesting because my horseback riding lessons were right behind the scrap yard. So it was like a win-win situation. And I was able to get paid.
Zachary: Did you ever get to ride your horse through the yard?
Nidhi: No, that was not allowed.
Zachary: I figured. Do you remember… Were you conscious of when your father got into scrap or were you alive when he got into scrap? Had you been born yet?
Nidhi: I was born but I was young. I was born in 1981. So I had no idea until probably high school exactly what it is that he did. I think during middle school it was just like, Okay, he’s, you know, in a metal business, but you don’t really grasp the dynamic of it. I could tell you my father’s story. So he met another person that was in scrap metal. And back then, I mean, they would go from telephone booths to telephone booth and just rip out the yellow pages that had, you know, any name of a scrap dealer and then called repeatedly. And his biggest account to this day it took him seven years to get through that door. It was just sheer persistence and being able to call and then you go and visit. You buy one load. And back then he didn’t even have the funds to purchase that load, you know. So he’s making it happen through floating and borrowing money back then. But it’s an interesting history.
Zachary: How did he… And we’ll get to your story too.
Nidhi: Sure, that’s okay.
Zachary: Who did he borrow the money from?
Nidhi: You know, I think he borrowed it from the gentleman that he met. I mean, that’s what I remember. So this gentleman that he met was in already scrap metal but my dad was able to kind of join him as an employee and take it to the next level. He was one of the first people that ever bought and sold brass from America to India. Yeah, so he’s definitely hit some milestones, and, you know, has broke ground doing what he’s doing. He was also one of the first Indian gentlemen to be in it. So it was definitely a hardship because back then, you know, it was controlled by a lot of Jewish families, right? So there was definitely some hardship to get through that door.
I think when he started knocking on doors, you know, people were hesitant in dealing with somebody that they didn’t know. And then, even to this day, we don’t want to deal with strangers, right? It’s all relationship-based. So for him I think it was just persistence. And the fact that he did it with this integrity and honesty, that he just was like, “I’m not going to borrow money from you. Like this is now going to be financed on my own, you know,” when he was able to get to that level.” Like, “I’m a man of my word. So if I say I’m gonna do something,” he was able to do it. So I think that stood a lot. Even to this day one of our suppliers that he met back in the ’80s goes around and tells everybody, “The only Indian gentleman I’m going to deal with is Mukesh Turakhia, you know. But it’s so bad because I’m from Texas and this guy lives in Beaumont and he’s telling me that Indian agents are always knocking at his door and he’s just standing there with a shotgun, like, “You guys need to leave because I’m telling you repeatedly, I’m not going to deal with anybody except for him.”
Zachary: And is part of… What’s his deal?
Nidhi: He’s a stand-up guy. I mean, he’s, lovingly… We call him in this industry, like a don. I mean, people just know him everywhere. And being that we’re from India he has a really strong presence in that country. I mean, he still goes back four to six times a year. So I’m able to go back now two or three out of those trips. So yeah.
Zachary: So did he initially… At what point when he started getting into this did he start selling scrap to India?
Nidhi: I want to say it was shortly after, I want to say, ’84. I want to say ’84. So about three or four years afterwards. And then he was able to purchase the yard right outside of Houston in ’87. So that ran all the way until 1999. And then we dissolved it and we started a broker company because he was like, “I’m ready to retire.” But then three days later he’s like, “Can’t stay home.” So here we are again. And then in 2006 we were able to help and invest in Allied Alloys which is where I’m at today.
Zachary: So yes, so you did this in high school. And then what did you study in college?
Nidhi: I did a double major actually. I did economics and Spanish. And then I minored in business administration. And I had hopes of being a lawyer. So I sat for the LSAT. I did the whole, you know, prep for the law school and just jumped in. My dad gave me a deal where he was like, “If you don’t like it in a year you can go back to law school but a year’s not gonna kill you so just come try it out.”
Zachary: Did you go to law school [inaudible 00:06:21] at all?
Nidhi: No. I ended up getting my MBA actually.
Zachary: Okay. And the whole time in Texas?
Nidhi: The whole time in Texas, never left. Good question. So when I started I definitely was known as Mukesh’s daughter. There’s only two daughters. And he just like, “You’re the son that I never had. Like you are my son,” you know. And so lovingly in my language he calls me beta which means son instead of betee which is, you know, daughter. And so I started off as being known as Mukesh’s daughter. But I think it took a turn when I started attending these shows and becoming more involved personally, in the organization. So now I sit on the board of ISRI Gulf Coast, and I’m a council member for ISRI National. And then it kind of took a turn to where I think just four years ago my dad was at a convention but I didn’t attend. They’re like, “Oh, you’re Nidhi’s father.” And he was like, “I’ve never ever heard that in my life,” but he was proud.
Zachary: Sure. Sure he was. Oh my God, that’s kind of beautiful.
Nidhi: He was like that… Yeah.
Zachary: It’s really beautiful.
Nidhi: Breaking into it in America. No problem in India, of course. But breaking into it in America was tough.
Zachary: Yeah. So like it was just sheer tenacity and just showing up and just being there.
Zachary: What about the scrap industry in India? Was there much of one to speak of in the sense that we think of the kind of the scrap industry today, was there much of one to speak of 30 years ago in India?
Nidhi: There was, but not as large and not as spread out as it is now. Back then, and still, Jamnagar, a city in India was the hub for brass, still is, you know. But now it’s just spilled over to where India is purchasing everything. Thirty years ago I couldn’t say that. I mean, just four years ago I think the shredded packages like zurich and zorba and some of these other packages were introduced to India because China was the main player. China was the main consumer for a lot of non-ferrous. And I think India’s just kind of taken a market share that nobody expected.
Zachary: Why do you think that is?
Nidhi: It’s a country of entrepreneurs. I mean, if you’ve ever visited India you just can see driving through that everybody has a pop-up shop and they’re doing whatever it takes to make money, whether it’s, you know, selling SIM cards or CDs, but it’s a country of entrepreneurs. So it was only a matter of time. I can’t say that the government had a role in it. I can’t speak on that because I’m not sure about that history. But I definitely think it’s because of the entrepreneurial spirit. Today it’s probably about 60% stays within the states whereas we’re within America, and the balance of it, I don’t know, probably about 20% goes to India. And then the others are for Japan and Taiwan and some other Asian countries. The one country we do not export to is China because of the restrictions and the AQSIQ, it’s just really hard to get there.
Zachary: What’s AQSIQ?
Nidhi: It’s this license that you need and there’s a seven-year line for even getting that permit. And I don’t know why you need it. But we just decided that there’s other parts of the world that we’d rather target. Because of the product that we handle is not ferrous so we were not as hard hit on the Section 232 as some of my, you know, fellow colleagues in this industry that do only ferrous. So we were okay. I can’t say immune because it’s a cycle. I mean, everything touches everything in this industry. And so in terms of the labor, I think, that helped India merge as a main player because China’s labor was going up whereas India’s was staying steady. And both countries are so heavily populated that labor is not a scarce, I’m sorry, it’s not scarce.
Zachary: It’s not a scarce resource. Like no, not at all. And so do you guys have an office in India also?
Nidhi: We have joint ventures. So I have a few homes in India where we just have a JV going and I visit there enough to… Almost like family now. I mean, I literally call some of my consumers uncle and auntie, you know. So it’s been definitely a relationship-building process [inaudible 00:11:06]. So I started training in logistics and went all the way to HR and then eventually hit trading. I think that really helped, is being able to touch every single part of, you know, my company, and seeing how it all integrates and plays together. So I think that helped. And that got me to kind of where I am now because I can still jump in when there’s help needed in some other area. But networking, networking was a huge key. It’s really hard for you to be known if you don’t attend these shows because this is where you’re meeting people constantly.
So we all watch the LMA market, which is the London Metal Exchange. And based on like nickel for me, nickel is trading at, that’s the main one that I usually follow, that determines on how I’m going to buy and sell throughout the day. If nickel drops I’m going to kinda pull out or push my numbers back a little bit. And so it constantly changes. I mean, the best way to describe it is not one day is the same ever. And those images from the New York Stock Exchange kind of still is the same in our industry. I mean, for my company we have a traders’ pit. And we’re not yelling. But that’s what we call it, is the traders’ pit, you know. They’re constantly moving as the market’s moving.
Zachary: Everybody’s much more polite.
Nidhi: Exactly, exactly.
Zachary: What causes the price of nickel to go up and down?
Nidhi: There’s so many factors. It could be oil. It could be the oil and gas industry. It could be politics, what’s happening around the world, tariffs, logistics, freight. I mean, there’s so many factors where it just spikes up, it spikes down depending on what’s happening around the world. And that’s very interesting actually. Because I think in the ’80s and ’90s it was what is America doing? Because we didn’t have all this knowledge at our fingertips. But now everybody in this industry is following world economics whereas before nobody really was. It was, “How is Chicago trading or how’s Pittsburgh trading,” but that was about it.
I sorted material, I’ve graded material. I still do, right? So I go out there if there’s a downgrade on an incoming low, that’s, you know, not as for the spec that we purchase, you know. I’m taking pictures, making sure that my supplier understands. I’ve done everything except for operate heavy equipment. I was not allowed to because my dad was like, “Your life is too precious.” So I’ve done everything out there except for that.
Zachary: So you haven’t operated the claw or the [crosstalk 00:14:00] yet?
Nidhi: No. I want to. Now it’s in my blood.
Zachary: Everybody says that. What does that mean?
Nidhi: You almost in a sense become addicted. Like your day doesn’t go well if you’re not making a deal, right? If you haven’t bought and sold a load on metal like my days just feels unproductive, right? So it’s in your blood in the sense that this is what you kind of live and breathe. A lot of people don’t understand but we work around the clock, especially the business owners. It never ends because you’re dealing with so many different time zones and countries. And it’s just always you’re on your toes.
Zachary: How many people work for you?
Nidhi: I have right now… It’s always around 100. I think I have about 96.
Zachary: Wow. What do they all do? Where are they all from?
Nidhi: Oh, wow, it’s an extremely diverse, diverse company. I would say out of the 96 about 35 are what I would call office staff, right? So whether it’s documentation or logistics or accounting or HR, you know, we handle the bulk of the paperwork and, etc., the emails, and the balancer in my yard. So they’re crane operators or forklift operators and shipping and receiving. So it’s extremely diverse. And they come from all different backgrounds.
So because I’m in Texas and we’re on the Mexico border, there’s a lot of Hispanic population at my company itself. I think anyone in the Houston or Texas area, majority of them will be coming from Mexico and Latin America. So I have a lot of immigrants. I do. Most of the people that we hire, they come in and they start at the ground, what we call, let’s say, starting on the floor. But it’s very rare that they approach me and say, “Hey, how can I move up the ladder?” which is something that we’re trying to change. It’s a culture change which is not gonna happen overnight. But we promote within so if I do see that you’re excelling I’m gonna say, “Hey, why don’t you be a lead man?” And then the lead man will change…you know, will turn into supervisor. But most of them are actually happy being out on the floor.
Zachary: That’s great.
Nidhi: So the entire going green, right? That sentence just formulized like, what, seven years ago, maybe eight years ago? It definitely has impacted how we operate. There’s many more regulations and restrictions in place whereas before there was not. And we do have to work around that or adhere to it and we try our best to. But on a global scale I think recycling still has a little bit of a negative perception because the general public really doesn’t understand how important it is to recycle. And that’s something that we were talking about at one of the four meetings today. It’s like you walk through the airport and everybody gets confused, “Where do you throw the plastic bottle?” And we’re trying really hard to segregate and if needed or, you know, to make that easier for the general public. But it’s all about perception. It really is.
We’re different in the sense that we’re not a peddler business so we don’t actually purchase from the public. So my impact would be a little bit more in the larger scale. Whatever I’m purchasing is business to business, it’s a B2B. And then we’re feeding that to the major stainless steel mills in the world like Outokumpu and North American Stainless and Jindal. So I think our impact is a little bit larger than… And honestly, I don’t even know how I would be able to measure that because it’s easier for somebody that’s purchasing from the public. They can say, “Okay, this geographic area we have 90%, and they’re coming to us.” But for me it’s really hard to do that.
Oh, wow. I think it’s limitless. I mean, this is an industry that is going to be here always. I mean anything… I’m looking around the room, and everything’s made out of something that’s going to be recycled eventually. So I think the future is limitless. I think being at this show and seeing how the younger generation’s becoming more involved is amazing. So I think it has a very strong future. I think we’re gonna be able to take it to the next level. But we’re making history. It’s been amazing.
The Women in Recycling Council that I’m actually co-chairing was just formed in October. So we’ve come a long way between October and April because we have three events here at this show just for this council. So I think the entire mentality for the veterans and the trailblazers is changing. And I think they’re honestly ready to welcome.
Zachary: What’s the Women’s Recycling Council?
Nidhi: So ISRI National asked us to form a council to promote women in this industry and to help them gain exposure and knowledge, you know, by maybe teaming up with a mentor. It’s things that we’re still trying to think about. But we want to change the view. It’s not a boys club anymore. Honestly, Zachary, I mean, it should be even. It should be a fair playing field. It should be 50/50. I’m looking down there now and it’s 70/30, if that. So we were talking about why companies should hire women. We bring a lot of positive impact to any organization. So I think it’s going to be really important to see how ISRI in this industry starts shifting. And a lot of the older gentlemen are starting to get into retirement, right? The baby boomers are like my dad and so they have to pass the torch on. We’re just hoping that you would consider a woman when you are thinking about who to pass it on to.
I think, yes. I think they are attracted by that challenge of… I mean, I was. I’m like, “Oh, I’m in the men’s world. Wow. Like let’s see how far this goes,” you know. I mean, I’ve enjoyed it. But I also had some really good mentors along the way. But here’s the thing that we’re trying to implement is formal education. This is not taught in college or university. I did hear one college is starting a program but it’s not really recycling. I think the course is called sustainability. But that is something that I hope ISRI is going to be able to work on because they’ve already started K-12. Now we just gotta reach that other…