The recession hit Rockaway Recycling, Rockaway, N.J., hard. To remain in business, owner Thomas Buechel had to lay off all seven of his full-time employees. This episode also made it clear to Buechel that he needed to do things differently, he says.
In response to the recession, Buechel heavily invested in technology to run and to promote Rockaway Recycling.
"When the market crashed in 2008, we changed our business model to connect with the customer more than before," Buechel says. "We have created an easy-to-use website that lists our prices.
He continues, "So many people think that this industry is going to avoid technology and that peddlers won't find out the prices of scrap; but, whether or not they call around to scrap yards or try different scrap yards out, they do find out the prices."
In addition to the website, Buechel also developed iScrap App, an application for iPhone and Android phones as well as a website that connects users with local scrap yards and provides access to their pricing information. "I was originally going to only use it at my scrap yard until I realized that so many scrap yards across the country would be able to benefit from connecting with their customers even more," Buechel says. (For more on iScrap App, scroll down to see "Mobile Connection")
He says, "From installing a computer system to help streamline material that goes in and out of the yard and advertising through our website and the iScrap App, we have been able to completely change things around."
Rockaway Recycling uses Scrap Dragon from Transact, St. Petersburg, Fla., to run the yard. The system incorporates cameras as well as signature and ID capture, and Rockaway will be adding an ATM next year to handle customer payments.
Thomas Buechel learned his positive attitude and the scrap industry from his father, Tom, who sold the business to his son in 2008.
Tom started the business in 1977 after working in various accounting positions for companies like Arthur Young & Co. and Amerada Hess. "While working around gas stations, he saw that scrap guys would buy brake rotors, car batteries, starter/alternators, catalytic convertors and other auto parts from the stations and gained interest," Buechel says. "He bought a flatbed truck and started running scrap metal."
At the age of 7, Buechel began working for his dad at the scrap yard, sweeping the floors. "My dad found the most interesting jobs for me to do, very often the worst work there was," he says. "I did not realize then that his idea was to train me from the bottom up, doing the most arduous and difficult work to enable me to know exactly how to work."
Even after he went away to college at the University of Connecticut, Buechel drove home on the weekends to work at Rockaway Recycling.
At the age of 24, Buechel bought the business from his father, who still lends a hand on occasion.
The company remains a family business, however, as Buechel's sister, Virginia, joined Rockaway Recycling after graduating from college this summer. Her role involves social media and advertising.
Buechel so valued his professional education from his father that all new yard employees start at the bottom, he says. "It's my job to bring in more work," Buechel says. "It's their job to process the work that comes in."
Buechel says these technology investments are designed to help Rockaway Recycling attract and retain customers. "While prices are all over the place, we want to make sure that we are always gaining new customers and rarely losing them, so when the economy turns down here and there, we are able to keep ourselves going," he adds.
Rockaway Recycling's use of technology coupled with the staff's attention to customer service keeps customers coming back to his yard, Buechel says. "At Rockaway Recycling, my employees know all of our customers' names, call them sir, make sure that they know that we offer a bi-monthly newsletter to update them on prices and send out and hand out coupons, and we continue to strive to earn their business."
Customer service is a priority at Rockaway Recycling because 60 percent of the company's business is retail trade, Buechel says.
The staff at Rockaway helps to walk customers through the buying process and even shows them how to disassemble some products so that they can make more money, he says. "We are also careful to make certain our customers receive the correct weight and price. We have maintained our company motto, which is 'Fair weight, fair price,'" Buechel adds.
Rockaway Recycling does this by turning away customers whose material is heavily laden with dirt, he says. The company fulfills its end of the deal by having its scales calibrated every three to six months by the New Jersey Division of Customer Affairs Office of Weights and Measures and by cleaning its scales every other day. Pricing also is posted at every scale for customer reference, Buechel says.
"The beauty of this business is that it is subject to so many interpretations and techniques. Our primary goal is to continue to service our customer base with expertise." Buechel says that informing and educating Rockaway Recycling's customers to help them maximize their returns helps to differentiate his scrap yard from area competitors. He adds that the staff at Rockaway tries "to go the extra yard to make scrapping fun, profitable and beneficial for all involved."
Buechel adds, "A repeat customer is better than a new customer in my mind. We haven't lost many customers because of our service." Buechel describes his company's relationship with its customers as "crucial and integral to business."
To ensure repeat customers, Rockaway Recycling uses various mail promotions, such as the recent "Cash for Copper" card, which entitled customers to receive an additional 5 cents per pound on wire or copper pipe they sold to the company.
Rockaway Recycling also uses social media to keep connected with its customers. "Our social media is so strong compared to so many scrap yards that don't understand the importance of connecting with customers."
In addition to these digital tactics, Rockaway Recycling hosts customer appreciation days at its scrap yard, such as a recent breakfast and barbeque. The company donated $1 to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital for every item of food or every beverage consumed at the event. Buechel was expecting 300 to 400 customers at the November event. The company's July 4th customer appreciation day raised nearly $2,000 for the children's hospital.
This connection with the community also has helped Rockaway Recycling develop relationships with local trade associations, such as the New Jersey Electrical Contractors Association and the New Jersey Plumbing-Heating- Cooling Contractors Association.
Buechel says he recognized the need to expand his business beyond retail trade in 2008. As Rockaway Recycling added industrial accounts, it also added scrap processing equipment. "For years, we only had down-stroke balers and a box truck, but in 2009 we started to expand," he says. "Over the last three years, my Yard Manager Jim Hoesly and I have added a heavy-processing business." Buechel adds, "Everything leaves our shop mill ready."
Rockaway has a container roll-off service that Buechel describes as "always busy" as well as box trucks that make local and long distance pickups of ferrous, nonferrous and electronic scrap. He credits Rockaway Recycling's roll-off business with helping the company survive the recession. "We did jobs just to get a couple of bucks. The business has blossomed since then."
He adds, "Being in the tri-state area is great. We have a lot of competition and a lot of scrap, and it always forces us to stay on our toes. We have been working hard to attract and keep as many customers as we can. We know that we cannot get every job and win every customer over, but we go to work each day looking to change something, gain new relationships and always stay positive."
Buechel says he plans to expand Rockaway Recycling's capabilities in the future, which will include handling catalytic converters and electronic scrap. "We want to conquer as many things that make sense without overextending ourselves."
He adds, "I like having a plan. I think things through from every angle, and I have never been hurt by jumping into things."
Rockaway Recycling, Rockaway, N.J., relies heavily on its retail scrap business. To inform customers of pricing, Thomas Buechel, owner of Rockaway Recycling, developed iScrap App, www.iscrapapp.com.
"We needed more than just a website to establish a stronger bond with our customers," Buechel says. "The iPhone was exploding, and apps were hot; I wanted to jump on that bandwagon."
He describes iScrap App as "an app not only for the iPhone and Android but [also] a mobile version and an online version so customers can find out scrap yard pricing, locations, materials yards buy and more.
"The goal of the iScrap App is to have scrap yards stay connected with their customers all of the time," Buechel continues. "While many people have gotten caught up on the pricing option within the iScrap App, the most important part is having your customers be able to contact you where ever they are."
Buechel says he was originally going to use the app for Rockaway Recycling but realized that other scrap yards could benefit from connecting with their customers.
Since Rockaway Recycling began using iScrap App less than a year ago, Buechel says approximately 70 percent of the company's retail customers say they use the app.
IScrap App is working with some of the largest scrap yards in the U.S. and has acquired 200 scrap yard customers in the last eight months, he says. For $30 per month, iScrap App will provide a scrap company's yard information.
The application has been downloaded by more than 40,000 people since it was released, Buechel says, with an average of 6,500 downloads per month. IScrap App's website, www.iscrapapp.com, has had 40,000 to 50,000 visitors.
IScrap App markets the application, which is free to download, to scrappers for its yard customers.
Rockaway Recycling, Rockaway, N.J., has held a number of fundraisers to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, including an iScrap App event this spring at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) 2011 Annual Convention.
The ISRI event helped to raise more than $3,000 for St. Jude, while subsequent events held at Rockaway Recycling have raised more than $4,000. (iScrap App is currently looking for sponsors for its iScrap App for Kids fundraiser at the 2012 ISRI Annual Convention.)
Buechel is moved to donate to charity by his parents, particularly his mother, who enrolled him in Boy Scouts as a child. He went on to become an Eagle Scout.
"Everyone can make money," Buechel says. "At the end of the day, that is all well and good, but what did you do?"
As he puts it, St. Jude is of interest to Buechel because, "When I see kids that don't have the opportunities I did as a child, I feel the need to help."
In lieu of favors at their recent wedding, Buechel and his wife, Kara, instead donated $9.04 (to symbolize the month and day of their wedding) for each guest in attendance to St. Jude.
He says Kara also has influenced him to be more giving. "My wife always puts others before herself."
In 20 years, Buechel says he and Kara would like to be able to start a charity. "We want the scrap yard to be the way we are able to live, but we want to be able to go out and help people, too."
The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.