Staying Scrappy

The scrap industry

One of the nation’s most essential modern businesses began about a century ago when new Americans found ways to make usable, salable products out of bottles, cans and other castoffs they picked up in streets and alleys.

Recycling for profit had its start in the early 1900s, when Italian and Jewish immigrants collected junk to sell. Then, it was a matter of survival – they were barred from primary metals trading. So they found a niche, filled it and embarked on an entrepreneurial life.

“Scrappies” come from every walk of life and every background. It doesn’t matter what you think you’re trained for; real success comes from jumping in with determination. The scrappies know this well – who else could build a business out of finding a second, third or more use for something?

Today, any material that can be recycled is bought, sold and traded, then given new usefulness in other forms – fueling countless other industries. The entrepreneurs who move someone else’s junk are as diverse as their products – and their stories provide great inspiration for startups of all kinds.

Here are some key lessons from the country’s scrappiest industry, on which everything else, literally, is built.

Integrity is Not a Part-time Job

So says Marsha Serlin, CEO of United Scrap Metal in Cicero, Ill. Serlin started by renting a Budget truck with her only credit card and grabbing old cans that she and her kids found in alleys. “I knew nothing about the business,” she says. But she was desperate for money to repay her ex-husband’s $250,000 government debt and put food on the table.

With a background in horticulture, Serlin was naturally green when it came to scrap. She arose at 4:30 a.m. to schlep material to scrap yards, where men stood and stared at the unusual sight of a woman “junkman” hauling material. But the more they doubted her, Serlin says, the more motivated she became.

Keep it Simple

That’s the word from Randy Castriota, CEO of Castriota Metals and Recycling Inc., in Pittsburgh, Penn. “The metals business is so hands-on,” he says. “It’s a very simple business. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon. If you have a magnet and a truck, you can become a junkman. The most important thing is setting goals” and working hard.

Castriota first collected junk with his father, a motorcycle cop, in 1968. They stashed mufflers and tailpipes in their 1956 Ford pickup, earning $15-17 a day.
Today he serves Pittsburgh’s construction and demolition businesses with 513 Dumpsters and 11 trucks. “Do what you love, work very hard, and never give up,” he says.

Evolve with the Times

Today, scrap is all about exporting. With high demand from China’s booming construction industry, U.S. scrappies who’ve left the yard to learn import-export have reaped rewards. Like any other business, scrappies find a niche or unproven market and get in on the action.

“Fail Fast”

Serlin keeps this saying on her desk as a reminder that mistakes will be made, so get through them quickly and don’t dwell on the past.

Look Out for Number One

“You’ve got to be able to build your business by yourself,” Serlin says. “I was not part of the Cinderella group who thought Prince Charming would help me. I never got a penny of alimony or child support. That was the impetus for me to do something on my own.”

Keep Your Balance

Castriota works hard and plays hard. That means three or four vacations a year and attending all his son’s hockey games. “I won’t die on the job, even though I work very hard,” he says. “My wife is supportive because her father was in the steel business. She’s wise about being self-employed.”

Don’t be Afraid to Get Your Hands Dirty

Serlin remembers her first rough days in the business. At the end of the day, she was a mess – ripped jeans, grease-streaked arms, hair askew. “People thought I was raped,” she says. “[Once] I pulled into a McDonalds and the guy said, ‘I’ll call the police for you, lady.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. I’m just working. I want a diet Coke.’”

Build a Solid Reputation

In the scrap business, everything is done on trust – few contracts, lots of phone calls and “my word is strong as oak” deals.

A Final Word

If you find yourself wanting to get “scrappy,” remember the entrepreneur’s creed: Find a need and fill it. Castriota learned early never to say no – like the time a customer asked if he “moved asphalt.” He didn’t. But he said yes and found a way.

“Whatever my customer needs,” Castriota says, “I can fulfill it somehow.”

Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a frequent contributor to StartupNation.

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