Built to Last

Features - Cover Story

The Weber family builds Garden Street Iron & Metal on solid foundations in Ohio and Florida

Subscribe
July 28, 2010

The Weber family, including Earl Weber Jr., Earl Weber Sr. and Rob Weber, pictured at left, run Garden Street Iron & Metal. The family has been in the scrap recycling industry since 1958 with the founding of its first yard in Cincinnati. The company expanded to Florida in 1989 with the purchase of an existing yard in Fort Myers. Brothers Rob Weber and Earl Weber Jr. have very little recollection of a life before being in the scrap business. They credit their father, Earl Weber Sr., with allowing them to learn the industry inside and out starting at very early ages, laying the foundation for a family business that has grown impressively in the past several decades.

Each of the Webers is quick to credit the others—as well as additional key managers and employees—for the success of Garden Street Iron & Metal, the company founded by Earl Sr. in 1958.

Modesty and humility are character traits that appear to flow throughout the Garden Street culture, and they are traits that start at the top with the story and the day-to-day approach taken by Earl Sr.

FROM THE GROUND UP

Garden Street Iron & Metal Inc. was founded in 1958 by Earl Sr., his father and his brother as a side line to their scrap metal trucking company, which was located on Garden Street in Cincinnati.

Earl’s interest in scrap metal led him and his wife Margaret to purchase the scrap portion of the business from Earl’s dad and brother in 1962. At the time, Earl and Marge had four small children. In the company’s early years, Earl and three employees handled operations, while Marge handled accounting tasks.

GARDEN STREET IRON & METAL
AT A GLANCE

Officers: Earl Weber Sr. and Marge Weber, founders and co-owners; Earl Weber Jr., manager of Ohio operations; Rob Weber, manager of Florida operations. Key Cincinnati employees—Dave Holbrook, yard supervisor, nonferrous and export sales; Mike Chard, supervisor of Fernald location; Sarah Weber (granddaughter of Earl Sr. and Marge), bookkeeping, office manager. Key Florida employees—John Hoving, HR/environmental compliance/DOT compliance and scrap theft/law enforcement compliance; Linda Weber (wife of Rob), bookkeeping and helped design the Fort Myers office building; Patrick Witt, bookkeeping for iron and metal as well as for the paper facility, plus back-up satellite feeder yard manager; James Vizzini, general manager of the Naples location; and Victor Harbor, general manager of the paper recycling plant

Locations: Cincinnati and Fernald, Ohio (Garden Street Iron & Metal Inc.); Fort Myers, Naples and Cape Coral, Fla. (Garden Street Iron & Metal of Southwest Florida Inc.)

No. of Employees: 100-plus

Equipment: 4,600-horsepower 98x115 auto shredder in Fort Myers; several ferrous balers and shears and several two-ram balers; a paper and plastic sorting system is being installed in Fort Myers; about 20 trucks and tractors, numerous trailers, chasses and containers

Services Provided: Retail and industrial scrap purchasing, processing and shipment; paper and plastic recycling (Florida only)

The four children’s frequent second home was the scrap yard. Earl Jr. recalls that by the time he was 7 or 8, his mother would threaten him with having to stay at home on Saturday rather than going to the scrap yard as a form of punishment./p>

The time Earl Jr. and Rob spent at the scrap yard was far from play time. They went to work sorting scrap, running the scale, keeping the facility clean and maintaining and repairing equipment.

By the time Earl Jr. was 12 and Rob was 9, the duo were shopping for equipment and making purchasing decisions for the company. “When they were 12 and 9, I sent them on an errand to a trailer sales company to buy seven trailers,” recalls Earl Sr. “The company owner sees young kids wanting to buy trailers, and I’m sure he was skeptical. But they checked the tire size and the brakes and showed that they knew what they were talking about. It blew their minds that I trusted my sons to make that decision.”

Before they were old enough to be licensed drivers, when the boys could reach a destination by bicycle, they often conducted business on behalf of the company. “Cincinnati Truck Parts offered used trucks for sale,” recalls Rob. “We would go down there around that same age (12 and 9) and we’d climb around and shop. Initially, they mistook us for vandals, but eventually the salesman rode along with us in a Loadstar International 1700 so Dad could buy it.”

When asked if he ever had misgivings about assigning crucial responsibilities to his sons at a young age, Earl Sr. replies with a question: “When are they going to learn, when they’re 40?”

The experience is valued by Earl Jr. and Rob as well. “Rob recently said to me, ‘Boy I’m glad you showed us when we were younger—I don’t have to learn this now,’” says Earl Sr.

Earl Jr. says, “We’re still more subject to hire someone to work the office so we don’t have to. I’m better with a hammer and chisel than I am with a pencil. And when you’re a kid, it was a lot more fun to run a crane than to sit in an office.” He adds, “At age 12 I was driving a tractor trailer and I was a full-fledged cable crane operator at age 15.”

The company’s early years provided all three of them not only with valuable operations experience, but also with a sense of being comfortable interacting with the most modest of scrap peddling customers and performing the dirtiest and most tiring jobs a scrap yard can offer.

SPREADING OUT

Establishing a niche within the competitive scrap metal industry in and around Cincinnati required the combined efforts of Earl Sr. and Marge and Earl Jr. and Rob as they assumed more responsibility.

By 1965, however, just seven years after the company started, Garden Street had outgrown its original site and relocated to a 2.5-acre former coal yard in Cincinnati. Also, Earl’s desire to expand and diversify led him to enter into wood pallet and box reconditioning.

Earl eventually purchased a 28-acre site about 20 miles west of Cincinnati in Fernald, Ohio, with that location housing the pallet and box operation until the recession of the early 1980s, when the Weber family closed the pallet company. The property was converted to a scrap yard in 1990 to make better use of the 48,000-square-foot drive-in warehouse.

A STORMY SEASON

In other parts of the country, the record number of hurricanes and tropical storms that were strong enough to be named in 2004 may have been forgotten, but not in Florida.

The 2004 hurricane season “presented Garden Street’s greatest challenge to date,” says Rob Weber, Garden Street Iron & Metal, Fort Myers, Fla., of what his company experienced in August and September of 2004.

“Hurricane Charley generated so much scrap that for 45 days following, all we could do was buy and stack the material,” says Rob of the storm that hit central and south Florida in August of 2004.

“Garden Street developed a great trust within the community by paying pre-hurricane prices for the scrap,” says Rob. “It was the largest gamble ever taken considering that it took nearly a year to process and ship.” Also, after Charley parts of Florida were affected by three more hurricanes or tropical storms: Frances, Jeanne and Ivan—which raked Florida once, made a circle over warm Gulf Stream waters and then hit Florida a second time.

“We had just completed processing that material from 2004 when, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma hit south Florida,” recalls Rob. “This time we were better prepared as we had just installed a new large ferrous baler and also purchased a portable logger to handle the influx of scrap.”

Hurricanes produce considerable volume for a business like Garden Street Iron & Metal, but Rob Weber and his father Earl Sr. are quick to say that by no means do they root for such storms to occur. “I hope I never see another one,” says Earl Sr.

“Scrap dealers see the tragedy as much as anyone,” he continues. “People pull in here with a pickup truck carrying all that they had. One lady dumped a load of aluminum and Christmas ornaments fell out from the middle of it, and she broke down and cried,” he recalls. “I don’t buy into wishing for a hurricane at all; I never want to wish for that tragedy.”

The yard has since grown. The company acquired properties adjacent to the Cincinnati location as it continued to grow. But by 1995, the Webers concluded that they had outgrown the location and acquired a 10-acre parcel of land in Cincinnati. “This location had three rail spurs and provided the necessary space to accommodate a large ferrous baler and a 1,000-ton hydraulic shear that were purchased shortly thereafter for processing ferrous materials,” says Earl Jr.

The growth has continued in the ensuing 15 years, as Garden Street has continued to purchase adjoining parcels of land when they are available, with five purchases having been completed.

HEADING SOUTH

The ongoing growth in Ohio is impressive in its own right, but it is more impressive when considering that there has been a parallel growth strategy unfolding several hundred miles south in Florida.

In 1987 Rob moved to Fort Myers, Fla., initially in search of a non-scrap-related business that the family could expand into. After a year of working in other fields, Rob says he realized that what he wanted most was to stay in the scrap business. Rob initially accepted a position running a scrap yard for another owner. In 1989, though, the Weber family purchased the Fort Myers company, incorporating it as Garden Street Iron & Metal Southwest Florida Inc.

That same year, Earl Sr. turned the day-to-day operations over to his sons, with Earl Jr. managing the Ohio locations and Rob managing in Florida. Earl Sr. traveled between the two states for the first year or so, with Marge casting a deciding vote to relocate to Florida.

REMAINING GROUNDED

The vast majority of Earl Sr.’s time is spent working in the yard. “I like to be out where the action is,” says Earl Sr.

His enjoyment of operations aspects have transferred directly to Earl Jr. and Rob. “I’m pretty much a hands-on kind of guy, with my uniform on loading a truck or a barge or putting in a piece of equipment,” says Earl Jr.

Rob says, “There’s no question in my mind one of our reasons for being so successful is because if my shredder operator, crane operator or diver doesn’t show up, I’ll run the darn thing, and I can. There are no layers between ourselves and our front-line people, which also means we wouldn’t ask them to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves.”

If any of Garden Street’s employees question what it takes to be successful in the scrap business, they need only watch 79-year-old Earl Sr. put in a full day of work.

The author is editor-in-chief of Recycling Today and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net

SOUTHERN EXPANSION

In 1989, two years after Rob Weber moved to Fort Myers, Fla., his initial goal to start a non-scrap-related business instead resulted in the incorporation of Garden Street Iron & Metal Southwest Florida Inc.

Garden Street’s operations in Florida have grown, but not without challenges.

The company’s Fort Myers location was being investigated by the EPA as having allegedly been contaminated by a previous tenant. The status prevented any expansion at the site for nearly 10 years, until Earl Sr. provided a plan that was accepted by the EPA to place a concrete cap over the entire property.

In 2000, after completion of the concrete capping project, a 37,000-square-foot drive-through warehouse was built in Fort Myers to provide customers and employees with what Rob calls “a more user-friendly facility.”

Garden Street Florida has also spread beyond its Fort Myers base in the Sunshine State. In 1992, it acquired the assets of one local competitor that had locations in both Fort Myers and Naples, with the Naples yard remaining open as a feeder facility.

In 1997, Garden Street Florida purchased and opened its third location, a feeder yard in nearby Cape Coral that focuses on nonferrous metals. And in 1998, the company diversified and expanded again with the purchase of a paper recycling operation just a few blocks away from its Fort Myers scrap yard.

The Fort Myers location remains the center of operations for Garden Street in Florida, and the Webers have continued to invest in it since resolving the issue with the EPA.

In 2006, the company purchased 10 adjacent acres that had formerly hosted a lumber pressure treating facility “that had its own set of environmental issues,” according to Rob, in the form of contaminated ground water.

The land was purchased so that it could host an automobile shredder, so environmental considerations were present throughout the acquisition process. “Having a positive working relationship with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) proved invaluable during the permitting and installation of the new 4,600-horsepower 98x115 auto shredder,” says Rob. “The DEP recognized the successful past history of working with us and the important key part that the shredder would play in burning off the contaminated water generated by three on-site remediation wells. The shredder installation was completed in June of 2008. Since that time, DEP analytical results have proven the success of the clean-up process.”