Our Heritage: Next Generation II

Roundtable Discussion, Institution of Scrap Iron and Steel. Recorded January 1986. Courtesy of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). Transcription by Speechpad.

Man: …[inaudbible 00:00:06] and Boy Scouts used to have these scrap drives during the war, and my dad had a little knowledge of the scrap business. And that’s what I did.

Carl: Although I was born into the business, the same as just about everybody else here, we specialized right in the beginning. We used to buy the scrap from demolition jobs only. And we used to buy it lump sum, which meant taking a look at a building while it’s completely closed and figuring out how much scrap was in there. My father tried to teach me the business, and he’d sit there and he’d scribble this down on a matchbook cover. And damn it if he wouldn’t come up with an approximate weight of iron and metals that would be in that business. I’ve never really been able to figure out how he did it. You know, it was just a feeling that he had, and experience. And he was from this school…you know, he liked to work on 1% only. You buy something for a dollar, put 1% on it, and sell it for two dollars. And that was his 1%.

Louis: When I first go into the business, which was about 1933, all of my older compatriots would say, “Look, when your generation grows up, they’re gonna know cost, and they’re gonna know accounting, and don’t be concerned about it. You will have then a nice, profitable business.” Truthfully, today, I don’t know where they threw the book away, but I’ll tell you, it’s worse today than it’s ever been in the history of our business.

Leon: I guess the stories all over the world are the same. You have to be born into this business to stay in the business. There’s a few people who go out of it, but very few people come into it. Well, they come in as very young boys, and they stay in the business all their life. But what we have noticed in Europe, that when the father stayed in the business, the children don’t stay in the business anymore. At least fathers of employees, or children of employees, they don’t stay in the business. They go out because the father’s making money and they can go to university and take up another job. And this we have a very big problem in Europe to find people today, trained people, for this business, whether it’s non-ferrous, ferrous, everything. This is our big problem and now with the unemployment rate, everybody should think that we could cope with this problem, which is not true. People just don’t want to get their hands dirty.

Joseph: I didn’t get into the business till after World War II, but prior to that time, I had the habit of going down to my father’s place. At that time he was scrapping ships, and one of the stories that probably tended me to lean towards the industry was the fact that we were inspecting ships one day, he asked me to go along with him, and I’ve walked over I don’t know how many ships, and he was telling me how he calculated the ferrous and non-ferrous, and the usable goods. And he looked out across the water and there was this ship, and he asked the young naval lieutenant who was with us what the name was, and the man said, “That’s the Nansemond.” And my father said, “I don’t recognize the name, but did she have a name before it was the Nansemond?” And he said, “Yes, that was the old Pennsylvania.” My father said, “I knew it. I could tell by the sound of it. That’s the one that I came over to this country as an immigrant and landed with $15 in my pocket. I would work hard, but I had a memory that remembered the ship that brought me over here.” He said, “When is this ship coming up for bid?” And the man said, “Well, it’s gonna come up very shortly.” When the bid came up, he won the bid and he scrapped the ship that he came across as an immigrant.

Leonard: I represent a family too. And I think I represent a generation that many of us went to college. And we all got out of college full of vim and vigor and new ideas and thought we were gonna change things around. Well, it took me about a year, because I don’t catch on that quickly. Others got few months that maybe the old man did the right thing all the time, because he certainly did.

I.D.: I can remember in 1932, of course I was still going to high school, and I used to work at summers in the plant, we had a payroll of $100 a week. I remember any local peddlers would come in, had to unload their trucks by hand. We had one crane, we laid it off, it was a steam crane at that time, and we had one girl in the office, nine dollars a week, and copper was, I think, around three cents a pound. And now we have 200 employees. And then I went to college and got out in ’37. And Lenny was in the same year, you know, I thought he got out much earlier. He looks older.

Leonard: I was younger.

I.D.: He looks a lot older. But, anyway, I remember getting really first-hand experience in the scrap business because right after that we bought a plant in Allentown…Northampton, Pennsylvania, which is outside of Allentown. And it was a cement mill. This is the cement mill that made all the cement for the Panama Canal in 1900, and it was 10,000 tons of steel there, and we bought it and wrecked the whole plant. And I stayed there and lived there for about a year and a half, and that’s where I really learned the business. Because I was in charge of the job and, everyday, I handled the torch, I operated the crane, and I did the payroll, I did the whole works. So I really hand my hand on everything. It was a great opportunity for somebody to do every end of the business. And now when somebody operates a crane on my plant he thinks he’s such a big specialist. It’s no big deal. I mean, any jerk can learn how to operate…if you can drive an automobile, you can drive a crane, but they think they’re such specialists. I learned more then than I did in four years at the University of Pennsylvania. I don’t know what Leonard learned at Penn, but I learned more in Allentown in a year and a half.

Joseph: There’s one story that I think that everybody here should appreciate, will appreciate. We were not only doing ship scrapping, but we also scrapped a few airplanes. And I went down to Midland, Texas with another man by the name of Burgerman. And we went to inspect a number of B-29 airplanes that they had stacked up in a field out there. So we went down plane by plane, each of them had a serial number assigned to it, and I got to see one airplane. Went and looked at the number, and the number was right, but I looked at the name and the name struck a bell with me. It was the Enola Gay. So we finished the inspection and I went back to see the sales contracting officer at the base, at Midland, Texas Air Force base, and I said, “Do you know what you’ve got out there in that pile of ships that you’re disposing of?” And he said, “Yeah, I know. I’ve got so many ships.” I said, “Look at this number.” And he looked at his number. He says, “That’s on the list.” I said, “But it’s the Enola Gay. Don’t you know that that is the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? That’s a historical ship. You ought to go back and tell Washington about it, that you’ve got the historical ship.” And he said, “I think I will. It really bears out, what you say.” The next time I saw the Enola Gay it was up in the ceiling of the National Space Museum.

Bernard: When I started in what was a family business, my father had been a plant superintendent. He passed away in 1940 and I started with my uncle’s firm in the early ’40s. And that time we had jumped ahead of the industry, we were very diversified like people are trying to be today. By diversification in those years, we handled rubber and bones and hides and just about anything else you could think of, rags and non-ferrous and so forth. And coordinating with what Carl Freidas said, we used to buy a lot of our materials by lump, and that is that when a fellow would come across the scale with a truckload, he would have everything on there. He’d have rags, non-ferrous and ferrous and everything else. And then, we used to try to arrive at one price for the whole truckload and then move it into the different parts of the plant where we could separate it. I, at one time, had to stop that lump business because we had a farmer that used to come in and he would bring two goats along with the loads of stuff, and frankly I didn’t want to climb on top of that truck and estimate what was in that truck very long. So we then insisted that the material had to be separated before it was brought in.

Fred: Leon made reference to the fact that they’re having a hard time getting the younger, educated children of people in the business interested in the business, but the truth of the matter is I have often sat and said to myself, “You know, if my dad or maybe all of our dads who started out in these businesses, had to put up with all of the conditions that exist today, there would never have been a scrap business.” But by the same token, the youngsters that are coming into this business today, if they don’t have a college education, if they’re not capable of understanding everything that’s being thrown at them as far as regulations and everything else that goes on, whether it be on city, state or federal levels…

Man: And computer practices.

Fred: Right. They’ve got to be capable of doing this because it’s a different world we live in today, whether we like it or whether we don’t. We have to comply. And complying means understanding. And if you don’t understand all these…and they come out every day. I mean, my son-in-law came back from a meeting just recently and said something to me about MSDS. I said, “Is it a disease or what is it?” You know, it is a disease, but it’s another regulation, and another regulation. And honestly, of course I grew up in the business like everybody else. I consider myself a post-World War II scrap person because I was in the service. I came out. I went to work the next day and I’ve been at it ever since. But, you know, all of these things have come about in just the last decade. And they really hit us with all sorts of regulations that we never thought we’d be confronted with today.

Man: Environmental, sure there’s a big problem in environmental. And I think us, when we get older, and we’ve been through all the ups and downs in the business, we just don’t want to tackle the environment. Leave it to the younger people. And I think the younger people…they’ll have to cope with it.

Louis: We’re fortunate that we do have these seminars that we can send the younger generation, or whoever we want to, whether it be a maintenance man or whoever it be an executive, to pick up. We had to do that on our own. I can remember the days when we started and I had a philosophy that I didn’t want anybody to do in our yard that I couldn’t do myself, which meant that I could run a shearer, I could run a crank, but that was a difficult…that was a hard one.

Bernard: How about loading cars?

Louis: I did push the wheel. I pushed the wheelbarrow. I pushed the wheelbarrow and I put the bad stuff on the bottom and the good stuff on the top. I knew all of those things, Bernie. But today it’s a new world.

Bernard: I think the education training seminar or program that the institute has has helped not only the young people coming up, but also the owners, the fathers and father-in-laws, if you will, helped them train because I’m not so sure that all of you would have the patience to train your children in the business as much as they can get from the institute’s education training seminars. I think that they’ve been highly successful and been a tremendous tool.

Fred: Unfortunately, I got two son-in-laws coming in the business. And both of them have law degrees, both of them are very well educated. One of them even practiced law for a couple of years, and he’s just starting. He knows nothing and really he’s just now beginning. But I’ll say this to you, if it were not for Steve, who’s there now, I would probably be cited for every violation of all these things that require reading the fine print. That’s just not my bag. I’ve operated this thing. I’ve shot from the hip. I mean, I feel that I instinctively know what’s going on around there. Now with the computers and with all the stuff that goes on, if it weren’t for them I’d be ape.

Man: I’ve always said to our organization that of all the assets our companies had, tangible or otherwise, the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel has been the most valuable one. It’s been because we’ve become aware of the world outside of Atlanta, which we never would have become aware of before. We’ve become aware of different type of activities, different type of methods to attack various problems. We are aware of the various pollution problems. By being aware of them, we can avoid some of the problems. We don’t buy certain items that before we didn’t hesitate to buy. With residuals and drums for instance, we don’t buy anymore. But why? It’s not because what we read, because of what we heard here in these various committee meetings and various board meetings, and during the conventions where people’s horrible problems they’ve had with the government or with some agency. If we hadn’t been aware of it through the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel, we would have found out in no time what kind of trouble we have gotten into, dollar trouble, and even to the point where you’d even have to close down.