Colmar--A Long Shadow

Features - Scrap Industry News

Scrappy Thomas Inc. reaches new heights by building on its solid reputation.

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March 28, 2006

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Ron Lewis and Brian Lewis

Scrap recycling company Scrappy Thomas Inc. may have started humbly with one man and a truck full of "junk" some 50 years ago, but in the years since, the company has established a reputation for quality service and has sustained three generations of the Lewis family.

A.J. "Scrappy" Thomas began his career in the scrap recycling industry quite casually, combing the area surrounding Mulberry, Fla., collecting discards from miners and community residents. That’s also where he happened to pick up his nickname.

Finding success with the peddler’s trade, Scrappy decided to branch out, establishing a scrap yard known as Scrappy Thomas Inc. with his wife Viola and his son-in-law Ron Lewis. Today, Ron, his wife Carolyn and son Brian operate the company, filling the roles of president, secretary and vice president, respectively.

It was a logical choice to name the company after Scrappy. "My grandpa became a bit of an icon around the area," Brian says. "Once they heard that name, they never forgot it."

Scrappy and Viola left the scrap business in 1996, though Viola is still active in running the family’s cattle ranch. Scrappy passed away in 1999, but the legacy he established continues, as Brian and Ron preserve the company’s reputation for service and integrity, a tradition that Scrappy helped to establish with the founding of the company in 1956.

TIDES OF CHANGE

If Scrappy was still around today, it’s hard to say whether he would recognize the company that Scrappy Thomas Inc. has grown into.

"Peddlers are less than one-fifth of our business," Brian says. "Most of our customers are industrial accounts. It’s a complete change from when my grandfather established the business."

Brian continues, "We’ve seen major expansion in the last three years." The company has added 10 employees in the last year alone, nearly doubling its staff to 25. Despite the company’s staffing additions, Brian says, "We are still understaffed and undermachined."

In addition, Brian and Ron are looking at acquiring a second facility, because the company’s current location does not include rail siding, though it has access to rail siding about two miles down the road from its yard.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is Scrappy Thomas’ dedication to customer service. "We are a hands-on, family-operated business," Brian says. "My dad and I like to take care of things ourselves as often as possible. We provide personal service and will go out of our way to make sure our customer is taken care of." He adds, "My dad and I have a relationship with each customer."

Ron, Brian and the staff at Scrappy Thomas also treat each person they encounter with the same level of respect, because, as Brian says of the company’s customers, "The guy driving the forklift today will be the guy making the decisions tomorrow."

A Little Help

Scrappy Thomas Inc. has experienced substantial growth in the last three years, nearly doubling its staff and adding a variety of processing and material handling equipment to its Mulberry, Fla., yard. But, Brian Lewis, the company’s vice president, says all this growth was initiated with its first well-timed equipment purchase: a Colmar 6200-800 stationary shear/baler.

"When markets were tough, we had no real cash flow at the time—nothing substantial enough to make a $1 million purchase," Brian says. "Colmar was a good tool in our expansion. They offered us financing when everyone else way shying away from the scrap metal industry."

Scrappy Thomas bought its Colmar shear/baler in December of 2002. Subsequently, the company has added two Colmar industrial loaders and is thinking of purchasing a fourth machine from the company, a portable 5000 baler.

Why does Brian find himself turning to Colmar so often for equipment? "The price is right," he says. "They have also stepped up to the plate for me several times."

Because Colmar USA, which is based in Wheatfield, N.Y., has its origins in Italy, the company experienced some growing pains as it established itself in the United States. Parts were not always available as quickly as Colmar or its customers may have liked.

"Every company has its growing pains," Brian says. "We have tried to understand that and have been willing to grow with them."

Obviously, it’s a partnership that appears to be working for Scrappy Thomas.

This personalized approach to customer service may account for the growth the company has enjoyed recently, but the booming secondary metals market surely hasn’t hurt.

A QUESTION OF TIMING

Scrappy Thomas, like many scrap recyclers, experienced tough times throughout much of the 1990s and early 2000, as secondary metal markets struggled in the doldrums. "Early 2000—and most of the 1990s—was really kind of slow, dead," Brian says. "It just didn’t seem like we were moving forward through much in the ’90s," he says of the company’s lack of growth during that decade.

Fortunately, Scrappy Thomas was able to purchase a Colmar stationary shear in 2002, helping it to take full advantage of the upswing the market would embark on shortly afterward.

"We got into the equipment market just in time," Brian says. "We got equipment reasonably priced, which really allowed us to buy additional equipment on top of that as scrap prices increased."

In addition to the stationary shear from Colmar, the company also operates three mobile shears, five scrap handlers, two front-end loaders, five roll-off containers and two tractor trailers, most of which have been acquired in the last four years.

However, Brian says his timing hasn’t always been so good.

In the early 1990s, Scrappy Thomas tried to get into the recycling of trash generated by the company’s industrial customers, an idea that didn’t meet with success. The company was doing some hauling for its industrial customers at the time and realized that they were disposing of material that could be valuable. However, Brian says this attempt took place before Florida began mandating countywide recycling goals of 30 percent for all solid waste and 50 percent for steel, aluminum, newspaper, plastic and glass. (The law was amended in 2002 to a "significant portion" of newspaper, aluminum cans, steel cans, glass, plastic bottles, cardboard, office paper and yard trash.")

"We just couldn’t get any cooperation from any one government entity," he says. That lack of cooperation, coupled with the market uncertainty at the time, meant Brian’s idea never took flight. "The markets were hard and soft at the same time. The bottom could fall out, and here you had all this money invested in equipment," he says of his decision not to pursue the idea at the time.

Despite more robust markets, Brian says he’s not interested in revisiting his earlier idea presently. "I have more work than I can handle now and still maintain some sort of grip on the situation."

Instead, Brian is focused on doing the work he enjoys, which he calls the "hunt for treasure." He describes his forté as stainless and nickel alloys and goes to auctions, which he especially likes, in his pursuit of material.

When it comes to these materials, "Knowledge is your best weapon," Brian says, and an understanding of how the material was originally used can give him an advantage. "Everyone knows copper and brass, but very few people know stainless and nickel-based alloys. There is a vast array of nickel-, molybdenum- and cobalt-based alloys," he adds.

While Brian certainly seems at home in the scrap industry, he wasn’t always certain that he wanted to be part of the family business.

MAKING HIMSELF AT HOME

"I didn’t know what I wanted to do right out of school," Brian says. He took two years of electrical engineering courses before leaving school and joining the staff of Scrappy Thomas.

The flexibility of working for his family’s company allowed him to pursue his interest in karate. "I traveled all over the world for karate. That’s how I met my wife," Brian says. He was an alternate on Team Florida with the USAKF (USA Karate Federation), and his wife Janet was the captain of the women’s team. The couple married in 1994 and have two daughters, 16-year-old Jennifer and 9-year-old Ruby.

Right now, Ruby may only be interested in riding "the blue machine" or "the yellow machine," but, Brian says, she still gets upset if he mentions selling the business. Perhaps that means Ron and Brian can rest assured there will be a fourth generation of the Lewis family ready to take the reins when they retire, carrying on traditions established by the company’s namesake and upheld through the generations.