Ed Summerlin, National Nickel Alloy Corp., Greenville, Pennsylvania. Interviewed March, 1998. Courtesy of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). Transcription by Carmen Venable.
Summerlin: Jim, I got into the scrap business really just– I was looking for a job. And I had come home from college. I’d gone one year of college, and I was looking for a job, and I just happened to go down to a scrap company that was fairly new in the business. They were in the stainless and alloy business, and it was a company by the name of STALCO, and also went by Stainless and Alloy Corporation of America. And I applied for a job, and I wound up going to work for them. This was in, actually about January of 1957. And they started me out sorting tool steel.
Interviewer: Is that company still in existence today?
S: That company is not in existence. Actually that company became Mercer Alloys, which was really one of the premier companies in the stainless and alloy business for a lot of years. And then eventually principles from that company left and it became– they formed a company called National Nickel. Now over a span of years, I had left and I’d gone to California in the early sixties to help set up a stainless and alloy operation in Los Angeles, which was called Western Trading. And I was sent out by a fellow that owned STALCO by the name of Joe Filner, who was one of the pioneers in the stainless and alloy division. And he sent me and another fellow out to set up this operation, and actually it was something that my wife and I had looked for– we were just newly married. We had a couple kids, and we thought it would be a real experience, and something that we would like.
Actually, I was out there about three months and Joe Filner flew out and he said, “I want you to come back to Pennsylvania.” He said, “Business has picked up there and we need you.”
And I said, “No.” I said, “My wife and our kids like this. This is was something that we thought would be a new and great experience, and we’re going to stay.”
But I was with Western Trading for exactly a year, and I decided to go in business for myself in LA. And I opened up a little business and I was collecting, actually– I was collecting all types of scrap metal. My forte at the time was really in the stainless and nickel alloys. But when you have your own business, you handle everything.
So I went in business for myself, and Joe Filner come out. He says, “Pick me up a day report,” he says, “You don’t want to do this.” He says, “You’ve got to come back to Pennsylvania.”
And I said, “No, I have to try this.”
But he made a couple trips, and why I was in business, and finally he said, “Well, I’m not going to bother with you anymore.” He said, “If you ever decide to come back, let me know.”
So I was in business for about four years, until about ’65, ’66. And the smog in LA started to get to me. And I finally, I told my wife, I said, “We’re going to have to get out of here. It’s not going to be good for my health.”
So we decided to come backside. I called Mr. Filner and I said, “Okay,” and he said, “Alright. Come on back.” And I went back to the old STALCO, which at that time had become Mercer Alloys. For a little background on Mercer Alloys, they were probably the first in the business that was taking residues, like grindings and contaminated turnings, and putting them together. And we had a melt operation, and we were making pig, inspect to supply to the mills and the states and overseas. Japan was a very big customer at that time. It was something that today is getting very popular. The only thing is today, instead of melting it and putting in pig for the mills, we put it together in bulk, and the mill melts it and it comes out as a 304, a 316 stainless, which is the most basic that they’re looking for. And it cuts out that melting charge that we used to have before we could give it to the mill. So I came back and we had been taken over by an LA conglomerate called Whitaker. And they took the operation over probably in late ’69, ’68. And around ’71, ’72, the principals: Joe Filner, Sydney Greenberger, at that time had sold out to Whitaker. They decided to leave the operation and they formed a company called National Nickel. Well I stayed on at Mercer Alloys for about another year, and then I left there and I went into business for myself as a consultant. And this was like ’72, ’73.
So actually, what happened is there was a friend of mine who had been at National Nickel, who was working for a company in Youngstown, Ohio by the name of Columbia Iron and Metal. And Columbia Iron and Metal was a large ferrous processor. It was owned by two brothers: Alex and Lou Miller. And he came to me– the fellow came to me one day. He said, “Hey,” he said, “These people are interested in hiring you.”
And I said, “To do what?”
And he said, “Well, we were thinking of making a trader out of you.”
Well, my background gem has been in the yard. I had come up through as a sorter and I had done everything in the yard that was supposed to be done in a scrapyard. And I had come a foreman, and I had become a supervisor, so this was something new to me. So I said, “Well, I think that that might be a good idea.”
So I went to work for Columbia Iron and Metal, which would be in like, 1974. And I was Columbia for fourteen years, and then of course, National Nickel had been–
Interviewer: What were you doing in Columbia?
S: Actually I was trading. I was buying and selling.
Interviewer: Ferrous, or were they doing stainless as well?
S: Jim, they had hired me– they had a stainless and alloy operation. Which was not a big operation, but we were supplying Alleghany Ludlum with scrap and we were also supplying the old Alltech operation up in Watervliet, New York. They had a yard up there, and we had a yard in Girard, Ohio. And I was at the Girard, Ohio yard, which was large ferrous operation, but we had a nice stainless and alloy operation there. Actually what happened, over a period of years, I was trading, and I became the manager in the operation. Then when the operation kind of broke up and–
Interviewer: Before you go on with that, if I could just stop you for a minute, how does one train or teach someone to be in trading? How does that happen?
S: How does someone train someone to be a trader? Well I think, what I’ve noticed over the years, mostly people are looking for someone with a college education or a good educational background. And they will bring them in, and they put them out on the road, They say, “Here. You go out, and you call on people.” And you basically learn by trial and error, really.
Interviewer: Do they give you, like, parameters of prices you can offer for certain materials?
S: Oh yeah. You’re daily in contact, and you know what the– somebody knows what the market is, and it’s constantly– of course your superiors are going to keep you up on what you should be buying, what you should be paying for the material, what type of material to buy. My background really, probably– I guess I was lucky because my background helped me. I knew what I was talking about when I would go into someone’s yard and see the scrap. I knew the scrap. I knew whether I wanted to buy the scrap or if I didn’t want to buy the scrap, what I should pay for the scrap. And I’m talking to the person. I’m saying, “Okay, you know, this has got contamination in it.”
And they would realize, “Well, he knows what he’s talking about.” But that came strictly from coming up through working through the yard.
Interviewer: So the person that’s going out to learn to be a trader that has no background in handling materials would certainly have a lot more to learn than you had, because you understood what you were looking at to begin with.
S: Well, Jim, what we did, especially in the days of– let’s go back to Mercer Alloys. There are a tremendous amount of people in the industry today that came through Mercer Alloys, and what happened is that they would hire a trader. He came in and we put him through a two or three week crash course in the yard. We showed him how some of the metal sparked, what to look for, and how to identify them. He went out there probably confused, but he had a little bit of knowledge of really what he was going to look at when he went into someone’s yard. And then it was just a case of they learned. And they would come back into the office and they might come out and say to us, “Hey, you know, I saw this stuff,” or they would bring us samples. And it’s the same old thing. Over a period of time they learned what they were buying and what they shouldn’t buy. I think that you have to have some amount of intelligence really to do that, especially in the stainless and alloy business, so that’s what they were looking for, normally. As years went by, we want a fellow that has a good education and then he went from there. And we did a lot of training of those fellows.
Interviewer: Would it be fair to say that that’s one aspect of the business that really hasn’t changed? It’s pretty much done the same way today.
S: It’s done exactly the same way. Exactly the same way. I’m training fellows now even, and the same old way. Although I’m covering more of the complete trading range because I make them go out back and spend time with our sorters, but then also I happen to be around for them for the trading part.
Interviewer: I interrupted you before, and I’m sorry, but you had been at Columbia for fourteen years.
S: Okay, we’ll get back to– I had been at Columbia for fourteen years, and National Nickel was looking for somebody. They needed somebody for trading, to put on the road. So of course, I knew the people there. I had worked with them for years; Ray St. John was there, and Sydney Greenberger. And I thought, “Well, alright. I think I–“
It was a little bit more of a challenge, because it was– they were probably more likely to be in the business to stay in it than what we were at Columbia, because we were a small operation at Columbia. So I said, “Alright. I’m going to give it another shot there.” And I’ve been there now since ’88. And I’ve been very lucky to have been there, because I got back with some people that were really my mentors early on.
Interviewer: Tell us how you knew Ray St. John.
S: How did I know Ray St. John? Ray St. John and I go back to when I was in high school. At that time, and this is in the early fifties, Ray was a teacher in the school that I was going to in Greenville, Pennsylvania. And he also was the football and basketball coach, and I played football and basketball for Ray and he taught me English and History. And I had graduated in 1955, and Ray had coached another year after that, but in the meantime, he was in that short span, unknown to me, he was working for STALCO. So I had gone away for the one year of college, and when I came back, I went and I got– when I got the job at STALCO. I happened to be put in a yard, which was about twenty or twenty-five miles away from where the main operation was. And I worked there for about five or six months, and this was like, through winter into spring. I had finished up the job that I was sent up to do at this yard and I came to– they said, “Okay, you’re coming into Greenville, to the main yard.”
And I’m in the yard, and one day I’m working, and here comes Ray St. John walking out. And I said– this was a small town and I didn’t even realize. I hadn’t seen him since I got back from school. And I said, “Do you work here?”
And he says, “Yeah, what are you doing here?”
I said, “Well, I work here!” And it was actually a funny thing. I said, “I can’t believe this,” that he was working in the scrap business. But he was buying at that time, and he went on to quite a career.
Interviewer: And Ray retired two years ago?
S: Jim, Ray retired five years ago.
Interviewer: Five years ago.
S: Ray retired around ’93. He’s been retired about five years.
Interviewer: What was the involvement with National Nickel and Ireland Alloys? How did that happen?
S: The involvement of National Nickel and Ireland Alloys was that Ireland Alloys, which is the company that owns us at this time– they’re located in Scotland– they were looking for another operation in the states. And Austin Merles and Sydney Greenberger got together, and Ireland Alloys wound up buying out National Nickel.
Interviewer: What year was that?
S: This was in– That’s a good question. This had to be in ’84. Right around ’84 I think it was. Because it’s been right around fifteen years. It was ’83 or ’84, I think is what it was. Because Ireland Alloys, they also own two other outfits here in the states. They own [unintelligible] in Schererville, Indiana, and they own Ireland Alloys Incorporated down in Houston, Texas. Plus they have their operations over in Scotland. And it was a good merger. It even made– it probably made us more diversified at National Nickel.
Interviewer: How have you seen the stainless business change over your forty-plus years in the industry?
S: Well, it really had changed, Jim. The stainless business has changed tremendously over the last forty years. It’s changed really so much over the last twenty years that stainless has become so important for the world. You know, the environment, with the way that everybody is looking at trying to keep it clean, stainless and high-temperature alloys are the only real metal commodity that lends itself to helping along those causes. I think that it’s going to continue to be that way, there’s no doubt. The stainless and alloy division of using these metals in anything that has got to be used to clean up the environment, they’re going to be used, because they’re the main alloys to be used in something like that.
Interviewer: I noticed at the exhibit here at the convention there must be at least a half a dozen companies with various types of equipment to help in identification of metals and I’m sure many of those are used in the stainless business. Were there things like that when you first began, or was it all done by eye and spark testing and acid testing?
S: Talking about the way of testing metals, and going back to the early years, if we go back to the old STALCO days, everything then at that time was in its infancy as far as the stainless and alloys. We were learning everything by trail and error. And what we would do is we would try to find pieces of scrap that were marked– that were mill marked– to get us a standard. At that time the sorting was done strictly with a grinding wheel, and with some acids. Magnet: we were always taught, that’s the most important thing in your repertoire. The first thing you do is put the magnet on the material. That starts you out. Of course at that time there was not as many alloys as there is today. But still, when you got into the aircraft industry, and in the fifties, when the jet age was coming on, they were starting to come out with a lot of the high temperature alloys, which were basically used only in aircraft. It hadn’t gotten out too much in the refinery, and stuff like that. But we were strictly– oh I don’t know, it was nothing sophisticated about the way you did things then. But as everything changed, and the new alloys come out, you could not tell most of them by just trying to spark them and using some acid. You had to go to certain machines and they were bringing them out. Just like now, our people in the yard use what they called a [unintelligble] which is a German-made machine. It’s been around a long time, and it’s like a spectrograph. You look at certain lines, so you’re burning a piece that you’re trying to identify, and then comparing it with a sample that you have on another tray. It’s been a good standby, it’s a unit that we use. All our sorters have one. But now they have [portospecs?] and they have real up-to-date units that aren’t really a production unit, but that’s something that is much more accurate than we had years ago.
Interviewer: Do you find that the stainless and alloy business is more competitive today than it was when you began?
S: Is the stainless and alloy business more competitive today than it was thirty, forty years ago? I would have to say it’s much more competitive. In the fifties and sixties there were really only a couple of us that were in the business. You probably had an S and B, and you had the plants down in Baltimore, and you had stainless processing. Today there’s got to be just in the United States alone ten times that many that are in the business. And yes it’s definitely–
Interviewer: Is the amount of material increased by ten times?
S: Well I think it has increased, but the amount of scrap is decreasing because everybody in the manufacturing sector is trying to make everything as near to shape as possible, the mills do not get as much revert as they used to because everybody is cutting back on the percentage of scrap that they make, because economics.
Interviewer: And stainless, I guess by its very nature, has a long life.
S: That’s right, yeah. That’s the thing that is going to continue to go into the future. More and more things will be made out of the stainless because of that factor.
Interviewer: Does much stainless come from the automotive stream from the automobile shredders. Do they recover much stainless scrap?
S: Yes, quite a bit. Yeah, they do, because there’s a tremendous amount of stainless used in the automotive industry. There’s getting to probably be more. I think they use it in areas now that we never thought of to use it before. Trim was really the basic thing that they used it before, which they still do, but they’re using stainless of some type in a lot of their parts now that go internal. Of course, as the population grows, you’re going to use more and more stainless.
Interviewer: In your forty-plus years, what would say were a couple of the most significant changes in the industry that you have experienced in your career?
S: The major changes in my career since I’ve been in the business, in the industry? Well, one thing has definitely got to be the upgrading of equipment. I’m talking about not just the type of equipment you use for analyzing the metals, but I’m talking about the equipment that you use for processing. We’ve got shears today that are just tremendously more better than what they were when we were using the alligator shears thirty or forty years ago. We’ve got cranes. The hydraulic shears today are so much better than the old cable cranes.The forklifts for working are– I can remember, most of what we did was by hand. We dumped drums by hand, we picked everything up by hand. Today you have forklifts that pick the drum up, turn it over, and dump it out for you. You’ve got conveyers that run the material right into the drums, into the truck, whatever you want. So everything has progressed just as the same way that any technology does in any other industry.
Interviewer: In all your years you’ve obviously put together a lot of deals. What do you think is the best deal you ever put together?
S: Oh jeez, I really don’t know. I’d have to think about that.
Interviewer: Well, while you’re thinking about that, tell me what’s the worst deal that you wish you’d never done? Did you have one?
S: The worst deal? No, I’ve never had, as far as putting together a deal, I’ve never had really a bad deal, no. You know, there’s been a few that I thought, “Well, I may not do that again.” But it worked out anyhow.
Interviewer: Can you think of stories that bring a smile to your face when you think about them, with different transactions, experiences through the years?
S: As far as in the trading side–
S: Something amusing?
Interviewer: Any side of the business, and you’ve been in all sides of it.
S: No. No, not offhand. No. It’s been– there has been amusing things, but they’re– to call them to mind right now, no.
Interviewer: Austin Merles was certainly a major factor in the stainless and alloy business for years and years, and he just passed away last year. Sydney Greenberger was certainly a major player in the business, and he just passed away a few weeks ago. What kind of impact does that have on a company, when you have two such outstanding individuals in such a close proximity to one another, they’re not with you any longer. How does that affect the company?
S: What kind of impact would it have on a company, losing two people like an Austin Merles and a Sydney Greenberger? I think the impact has to be pretty strong as far as the loss, because they were such pillars of strength in the industry. In reality, I guess they were such good teachers that we’re able to carry on with them gone. I would like to think that learning from both of them has helped all of us and National Nickel. I have no doubt that it has. You know, everybody is going to miss them. If we’ve learned form them, we’re going to be okay. And they were good teachers. No doubt about it, good teachers.
Interviewer: What do you see for the future of the industry?
S: What do I see for the future of the industry? I think it’s nothing but very, very promising. Like we talked before, the stainless and the alloys are probably the major metals of the future. The industry is learning to probably use more of the metals, and are learning to recycle the metals better than ever before. Nothing is really going to waste. I think that we have learned that we can put atoms together that maybe at one time used to get shoved back in the corner because we were afraid of them, and it’ll continue to go that way, and it has to. I think one thing that I’ve thought about a lot of times– our manufacturers have to learn to manufacture the goods where it becomes a little easier for us to recycle them. I think that’s something that has to be pushed– “Hey, you cannot put atoms together that cause us to have to shove them aside and not be able to use them.” Now whether that’ll ever happen, I don’t know.
Interviewer: We’ve seen just in the past couple of years a tremendous amount of consolidation going on, particularly in the ferrous end of the business. What has been happening in that regard with the stainless and alloy business?
S: The consolidation that’s going on– really to look at it, I saw consolidation going on back years ago when the conglomerate [unintelligible] bought National Nickel– not National Nickel, bought Mercer Alloys out. They bought it because of the same reasons that the people were buying these yards up today. They have the money to spend. They were looking for someone who was making money, ad so they buy it. But at that time, I saw what happened as you had people that bought it that didn’t know anything about the business. They put a lot of money into it, and then they tried to run it from where they were at and it didn’t work out, which saw the demise of Mercer Alloys, which was probably the premier company in the stainless, alloy, and scrap business at that time, by far. So today we see that a lot of these people with money are going around and they’re buying up companies that they think are worthwhile. They’re trying to take their sales up. Hopefully if they let the people that are successful at running these companies are buying, and continue to run them without interfering too much, everything’s going to be fine. But if you get too big, sometimes I think it can hurt you.
Interviewer: Is that happening in the stainless business?
S: The consolidation? Sure. Sure. Yeah, it’s happening. I think we know, we were reading in the papers all the time that some of the big players are not only buying the ferrous outfits out, they’re also picking up some of the smaller stainless and alloy outfits.
Interviewer: I guess it was announced a couple weeks ago that metal management– the intention was to purchase Charles Bluestone.
S: I think that’s been done. That’s been done.
Interviewer: Do you think that’s going to continue?
S: Probably, yeah.
Interviewer: There seems to be a fair amount of overseas influence in the stainless business here as well. Is that going to continue? [crosstalk]
S: Overseas influence, how do you mean? And [crosstalk]
Interviewer: Your company is owned by a company from the UK.
Interviewer: ELG is certainly one of the largest. Chronomat–
S: Well Chronomat, as you know, has opened up a facility in the states. They for whatever reason feel that it’s a good opportunity over here. They are going to be big exporters, I feel sure, but I think they also want to do business with the domestic mills.
Interviewer: Is the tonnage that our domestic mills are using growing?
S: I think so. Yeah, I think it is. It has to grow because most of our mills are learning that they’ve had to modernize to keep up with a lot of the European mills, which are very modern. And when you modernize it’s for a reason. It’s to produce more and produce it cheaper.
Interviewer: Do we export more stainless now than we did when your career began, do you think?
S: Sure. It probably a lot more.
Interviewer: A lot more. Do you see that [crosstalk]
S: Export continuing? I think it will continue as long as the mills in Europe and in Asia want to buy scrap and need scrap. And they’re going to buy it from wherever they can get it. The United States generates a lot of stainless scrap.
Interviewer: Can you think of things you’d like to share with us that I haven’t asked you about?
S: Well, share something with you– Yes, I would. I’ve been in the business for forty-plus years, and like we talked about, I’ve known some people that have been really great mentors for me, and been really giants in the industry. And we’ve lost a couple of course, which was Auston Merrills and Sydney Greenberger lately. They’re going to be sadly missed. There surely will be other people that take their place. Also, there’s people like Joe Fillner, who is still around and big in the industry, that’s probably been one of the great pioneers of the stainless and alloy industry. And then I’ve got my friend Ray St. John, who I have to say probably had a big influence on my life, just even when I wasn’t in the scrap business. I don’t think that I’d ever change it.
Interviewer: Would you do it again just like you did?
S: Oh, I have no doubt that I would, because I enjoy it. I enjoy it today. I;ve been from the bottom to the top. I’ve been through the whole system, and it’s been– I have to say that I have been a very lucky fellow, because of the way things have happened for me.
Interviewer: Are you thinking about retirement?
S: Not right now, no. Too many things yet to go on. Yeah. No, Jim, I don’t want to retire.