Making decisions at GDB International Inc., New Brunswick, N.J., has never been a one-man show, says President Sunil Bagaria.
Bagaria, who has a master's degree in polymer engineering, certainly had plenty of industry knowledge when he began trading plastic scrap from his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment in the mid-1990s.
Even in those early days, though, Bagaria, who hails from a family with a plastics industry background in his native India, tapped into the knowledge of some of those family members as he began building a company that now recycles multiple materials and employs some 180 people.
Looking back at 15 years of company growth and diversification, Bagaria is quick to credit the many people who have helped make GDB International what it is today.
A Ready Market
In the mid-1990s, the plastic scrap recycling sector in the United States was still, in some ways, trying to gain momentum. "Back then, plastic scrap was almost like a headache or a problem for manufacturing companies," recalls Sunil.
"Back home in India, our family had been in the plastics business for 30 years," he continues. "That's why I came here and got my degree in polymer engineering, which gave me an edge in identifying the right types of scrap."
Having customers in India willing to buy scrap was crucial, but the task of supplying them properly was far from easy. "In plastic recycling, you're either a hero or a zero," states Sunil. "If there is any cross-contamination, then what you have shipped is of no use. My background helped me make sure we were shipping the right things."
Within two years, Sunil and his brother Sanjeev (now CEO of the company) began shipping material to companies beyond the family business. He also started hiring people who would help his company (named GDB International in honor of his mother) to grow.
During part of the 1990s, Sanjeev also lived in New Jersey and helped forge relationships and lines of business that would be critical in GDB International's growth. "Sanjeev is the key reason, why our company has a presence in over 70 countries," says Sunil.
The brothers' second outside-the-family hire, after an office assistant, was Howard Schamach in 1995. "Howard had worked with a recycling company with whom we were doing some business," recalls Sunil. "It was a leap of faith, as they say, because we were just beginning to grow as a company."
Taking the leap seems to have paid off for both Sunil and Howard, as Howard now presides as senior vice president of the $100 million-plus company that the duo has helped build.
Howard is among a cast of people, including several Bagaria family members, who Sunil cites as key individuals who have "blessed" the company and helped it grow for more than 15 years.
"Sunil treats me as his brother," says Howard, "and he treats all employees as brothers, sisters, sons or daughters. I've seen it and I've lived it. He'll do without so someone else can have something."
Replies Sunil, "Our company would be nothing without the people and without our suppliers and customers. If we're not doing 100 percent for them, then I am a failure."
As GDB International has grown, Sunil, Sanjeev and their colleagues have been able to spread that philosophy beyond the plastics recycling sector and into several additional markets.
"Plastic was our foundation—our first product and still the core of our business," states Sunil. "But many of our customers began asking us about other materials, which is how we began recycling paper and then paint."
For a plastics recycler to begin handling paper (or vice versa) is a fairly common occurrence, but the venture into paint recycling has provided a distinctive niche market for GDB International.
"Paint we sort of stumbled upon in 1997," says Sunil. "Sanjeev went to a warehouse looking for plastic, and this warehouse owner said he has a lot of paint that was left behind. Sanjeev vowed to take it off his hands, so we took it out of his warehouse and brought it to a supplier's location who had some room," recalls Sunil.
Thus began GDB's learning process for how to handle paint and how to establish markets for clean, recycled paint.
"Paint is made by large companies, and like in any manufacturing process, things can go wrong," Sunil comments. "It's a batch process, and if something doesn't go right, they have scrap paint. Or for retailers with customer returns, they then have to dispose of it, and that volume can really add up."
GDB has subsequently established a paint collection and reprocessing center near St. Louis, in Nashville, Ill. "We pick the paint up at manufacturing plants or the distribution centers of retailers," explains Sunil. "We empty the paint into vats and the metal cans or plastic containers are recycled. The paint and allied products are currently marketed and resold to customers in almost 70 nations. Product like this made in the U.S.A. is desirable in many of these nations."
Continues Sunil, "Our Paint Division is one of the largest exporters of surplus, off-spec paint and raw materials in the United States. With Sanjeev's vision and guidance, GDB has become the leader in post-consumer paint recycling."
Adds Sanjeev, "With a focus on recycling and reusing paint, GDB keeps millions of gallons of paint out of the landfills of the United States every year with its recycling centers in the U.S., China and Mexico."
On the paper side, customers in India have asked for materials as diverse as cigarette paper or gift wrap paper. "We were able to source rolls of this material and bring value to their scrap rolls," says Sunil. "Now we have 3,500 metric tons of paper in the New Brunswick warehouse."
The New Jersey warehouse also is home to nonferrous metal scrap that GDB now buys and trades. "Many of our plastics, paper and paint customers generate metal as well, and certainly it's an established business," says Sunil. "I had a friend, Rajesh Dhir, with metallurgical knowledge who came on board and moved to New Jersey in 2003. He has helped lead our efforts in that sector."
Sunil and Rajesh knew each other from their engineering college days in Pune, India, and arrived together for university studies in the U.S. This long-term relationship and trust between friends facilitated a strong growth of the scrap metal division, says Sunil. "Rajesh was instrumental in actively expanding metal suppliers and selling domestically and overseas," says Sunil, adding that he "feels indeed blessed to have Rajesh standing by my side to take some burden off my shoulders."
Rajesh has expanded the metal division along with colleagues Mani Palani (export marketing) and Mohinder Bajwa (domestic sourcing).
Mani and Rajesh added staff in India and China to expand international marketing, says Sunil. "Rajesh tapped in to another school friend, Baljinder Sandhu, who is managing the sourcing in Midwestern region," says Sunil. "Parminder Bajwa is leading the sourcing in Canada and the Northeastern States," adds Sunil.
Rajesh calls Mohinder a "road warrior," and says suppliers praise his hard work and dedication. His colleague Adam Trusz "is tracking the pulse on scrap metal, ensuring supply and marketing is aligned well," adds Sunil.
"The export business requires rigorous documentation and payment collection process, which is where Hemant Thaker plays an instrumental role, along with Pradeep Sudalyandi, protecting GDB's financial interest," Sunil continues.
Sunil and his colleagues travel the world connecting these markets, with Sunil estimating that Sanjeev has travelled to some 60 countries. Still, Sunil says he has never lost touch with his family roots throughout that journey but instead has extended them.
Putting Others First
"Both of our parents never went to school; they came from a small town from a very big joint family of over 50 people," says Sunil, who also shares his belief that "our parents play a big role in who we become."
Sunil says his parents moved to a large city when he was a child. "My mother raised four sons and all have post-graduate degrees," he comments. "Sending us to college was a sacrifice for them. My mother made sure, though, that we got the message that if we didn't study, we would regret it. She'd point to laborers performing tasks and tell us that's where we would end up."
While Sunil says his mother encouraged her sons to believe they could achieve great things, "She also preached to be humble." Adds Sunil, "She would tell us that humility was a necessity in the journey, no matter what destination you arrive at or how well you do in life."
One of the ways staying humble manifests itself in how Sunil manages GDB is to be fully cognizant of the needs of others—whether employees or customers.
"If you have a dream, there always are people helping you achieve your dream," states Sunil. "Then it becomes your responsibility to help them achieve their dreams—and to do that while putting them first."
He summarizes the philosophy by saying, "If you're in a position to help, you're helping the people who are helping you. My dream of building this company can't occur without their help. What is there to think about?"
More than anyone else, Sunil credits his older brother, Dr. Surendra Bagaria, a cardiologist in New Jersey. "He came to this country in 1984. Under his tutelage, we went from a sleepy town in India to being starry-eyed at JFK airport and then learned what we need to do in America. He would take time away from his practice to help me figure out what I wanted to do," says Sunil. "In fact, it is only because of Surendra's dream and vision and his financial assistance that the company has reached a stage where it is now."
The company has celebrated moving into a new 101,000-square-foot building in 2011 (see sidebar "Moving In and Up" on page 36) and has ambitious plans for the future. But he also is willing to look back on what has already been achieved so he can thank the people who have helped along the way.
"We are fortunate, we've been blessed with the people who work with us, with great customers, and I've been blessed with a great family," says Sunil, adding, "The foremost thing we've asipired to do is to do business in an ethical way."
He also states, "The company is named GDB, my mother's initials, to honor her. We are who we are—all of us brothers—because of our mother. There is no other way around it."
Sunil concludes with an additional dedication to his and Sanjeev's famliies: "Last but certainly not least, none of this would have been possible without the unrelenting support of our families. We must take the time to appreciate and thank our families, who play an equally important role in our success."
The author is editorial director of Recycling Today and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.