Everyone’s friend

Building and maintaining close industry relationships has helped keep George Chen and G&T Trading going for 24 years.

Photos by John O’Boyle
George Chen, owner, G&T Trading International Corp.

George Chen began his career in the scrap recycling industry as a fiber procurement manager for Cheng Loong Corp., a corrugated linerboard manufacturer in Taiwan. He initially worked in Taiwan, but the company sent him to the United States in 1982 to try to find new U.S.-based suppliers of recovered paper. He says he and his wife, Tammy, eventually settled permanently in New Jersey in 1986.

“I still remember how nervous I was during my first two years in America. My wife and I came together, and we did not know English very well. We learned together,” Chen says. “Luckily, my Taiwan paper company’s boss was very nice and decided to let me stay in the U.S. permanently so that I could concentrate on finding the source of suppliers from the East Coast and West Coast.”

Chen retired from Cheng Loong in 1997, but his retirement didn’t last long. That same year, he decided to take a risk and started G&T Trading International Corp., a paper scrap brokerage business, in Clifton, New Jersey. “When I made up my mind to retire, I planned on opening G&T Trading immediately,” he says. “I love international trade businesses, and with my 18 years of experience, I had made a lot of friends in the recycling industry who really supported me. I thought, I can build my own company [and] take a risk and chance.”

The recovered paper market was not strong in 1997, but Chen says he felt confident in his new business. He had the support of many within the recycling industry, he says, and his wife had also encouraged him to start the business.

Experts on exports

For nearly 25 years, Chen has grown G&T Trading by focusing on exporting recovered paper from the East and West coasts. The firm trades mostly old corrugated containers, or OCC; old newspapers, or ONP; mixed paper; and double-lined kraft, or DLK.

Chen says G&T Trading’s major end markets are in Southeast Asia, including Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. He adds that China had been one of his major end markets until about five years ago, when that country began to implement restrictions on recovered paper imports.

As a trading company with five employees that handles more than 4,000 containers (or about 100,000 metric tons) per year for export, Chen’s team describes G&T Trading as having a “close-knit, family- oriented environment.”

“Since we are a small business, we work closely together and communicate with each other often,” says Sandy Zhang, the accounting manager at G&T Trading, who is also Chen’s daughter.

Zhang and her colleagues, Vice President of Operations Billie Lam and Operations Manager Tina Wain, who also is Chen’s daughter, all say Chen’s passion for the recycling industry is very evident through his hard work to grow the company and the industry.

“What makes G&T Trading stand out is, quite simply put, George Chen,” Zhang says. “It is rare to see someone who is so passionate about the recycling business as much as George [is]. He has a can-do attitude, and nobody works harder or is more loyal than him.”

She adds, “If you have ever met George, you will know him for his cowboy hats and outfits, his infectious smile and laughter and his corny jokes.”

Personality aside, Chen says providing good service helps to set his trading firm apart. “People know G&T Trading and trust my service,” he says. “Plus, I have a very close relationship with the shipping lines, so that when the shipping lines have a problem, I still have space. And any challenges with service, my staff tries to overcome all the problems to do the best job for the company to help my suppliers to move the paper to the mills.”

Building relationships at industry association meetings and events also has helped G&T Trading to grow. Since G&T Trading started, Chen says he has been involved with the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ (ISRI’s) Paper Stock Industries (PSI) chapter and with the New Jersey Paper Recycling Association (NJPRA). Members of those associations say Chen is eager to network with other professionals.

“The first time I met him, he came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m George Chen. I’m everyone’s friend,’” says Bill Lehman, business development manager for recycling at Houston-based Waste Management and a member of NJPRA. “That was his mantra with introducing himself. And he is everyone’s friend. He’s just that kind of guy.”

A helping hand

Throughout most of his career, Chen says he has served in leadership positions with PSI and NJPRA.

“It was so hard in the beginning of [the] business, so I decided to join ISRI’s PSI and the New Jersey Paper Recycling Association to build up my business network,” he says. “I also volunteered to help the organizations because I studied public relations at Shih Hsin University in Taiwan,” Chen adds.

His colleagues who are involved with PSI and NJPRA say Chen played a big role in helping to grow the membership of both groups when he served in leadership positions with the associations. Chen served as PSI’s president right in the middle of the Great Recession from 2008 to 2010.

“He was at the helm of PSI in one of the most difficult chapters of PSI’s history,” says Kevin Duncombe, president of California-based Western Pacific Pulp & Paper Co. Duncombe also served as PSI president from 2010 to 2012.

He says the chapter’s leaders worked very hard to provide the industry with education on ever-changing market conditions in those years. That effort paid off, and Duncombe says Chen was able to hold the organization together and even grow it to 125 members during his presidency.

“He increased membership at a time when it was tough to get anyone to join anything. George really worked hard and was very successful at convincing people to be a part of something. I mean it sincerely—George held it together.”

“What makes G&T Trading stand out is quite simply put, George Chen. It is rare to see someone who is so passionate about the recycling business as much as George. He has a can-do attitude, and nobody works harder or is more loyal than him.” – Sandy Zhang, accounting manager, G&T Trading

From 1997 until 2020, Chen was president of NJPRA. Waste Management’s Lehman says Chen was instrumental in strengthening the regional association during his tenure as president, regularly organizing speakers and presentations for its members.

The group’s members “are feathers in George’s cap,” he says. “There was a point where the New York Paper Dealers Association kind of went by the wayside due to poor membership, but George was instrumental in keeping the New Jersey faction going. We took a lot of the New York membership into New Jersey. George was definitely involved with making that happen and keeping it running. We were running before COVID, doing very well. [Chen] was able to keep membership as high as it was. We would always have 50 to 60 people there.”

Beyond helping boost membership in industry associations, Duncombe says Chen helped lobby with ISRI against the black liquor tax incentive in 2009 (tax credits available under the “Alternative Fuels Provision” of the 2005 highway bill that were intended to support the use of alternative fuels that benefited paper mills using virgin materials and created a financial disincentive to paper recycling). He says Chen also helped to update PSI’s bylaws and grade specifications.

Duncombe adds, “George will fight hard for whatever cause he feels is necessary. He is a voice for paper exporters at ISRI meetings.”

Pictured from left: Tammy Chen, Tina Wain, George Chen, Sandy Zhang and Billie Lam

An industry advocate

While Chen has stepped back from his leadership roles in PSI and NJPRA, he remains active in those associations.

In July 2019, he volunteered to join ISRI’s Adina Renee Adler, who was then assistant vice president for international affairs, when she met with Indonesian government officials, inspection agencies and domestic recyclers and consumers in Jakarta, Indonesia, to better understand the nation’s policies surrounding paper scrap imports and speak on behalf of the association. By helping serve as an advocate on the trip, Chen says he hoped that it would help him gain new knowledge on Indonesia’s processes and procedures for paper scrap imports.

“Having this knowledge and understanding would help me engage in international trade in Indonesia better,” Chen says.

When Chen and Adler went to Indonesia, the nation recently revised its recovered paper import standard.

“The government wanted to direct preshipment inspection companies to inspect materials for a 0.5 percent prohibitives tolerance,” Adler says. “At the time, Indonesia could only source 40 to 45 percent of recovered fiber from domestic sources, so they were heavily dependent on international sourcing to meet demand needs.”

Adler and Chen met with officials to encourage Indonesian government officials to use ISRI’s scrap specifications as its guide for contaminants and outthrows in imported recovered fiber and to review the implications of the nation’s proposed strict contamination policy. During the conversations, Adler says she provided officials with ISRI’s perspective, and Chen provided his trading expertise.

“George was instrumental in providing a technical perspective on the infeasibility of the proposed inspection regime while also noting the market demand in Indonesia for the high-quality materials processed in the United States,” Adler says. “We talked about all of the issues in the trade of recovered fiber. With the questions they had on understanding the marketplace, George would speak up and talk about the realities. He talked about unique issues with the preshipment inspection process and cargo loading. I was so glad to have him there.”

As of June 2020, Indonesia confirmed a 2 percent contamination tolerance for all scrap imports, which ISRI labeled as a win for the industry.

Adler, who is now ISRI’s vice president for advocacy, says she is grateful for Chen’s support in working to advocate for the U.S. scrap recycling industry’s perspective to Indonesian officials.

“I learn with the help of [ISRI’s] members,” she says. “George supported our industry as an advocate and made sure the team was also well-educated. That’s the role he played at the meeting.”

“I thought it was a very successful trip, as it allowed me to present all the new information to the members of the paper recycling industries,” Chen says.

Opportunities ahead

Chen says he is optimist about opportunities to expand G&T Trading this year. He says recovered paper markets in Southeast Asia have been strong so far in 2021, particularly for OCC.

“Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have strong demands of OCC and other recovered paper,” Chen says.

But export markets also present challenges as of mid-May. Chen says he would describe the export market as more of a “buyer’s market” for the time being. He says India has decreased its buying of recovered paper in recent weeks because of the pandemic. Indonesia also has slowed its buying in conjunction with the Ramadan holiday in late April and May.

Additionally, securing ocean shipping has been very difficult this year. Chen says many shipping lines continue to cut recovered paper bookings, and vessels have been delayed. Despite the current situation, he says he’s not too pessimistic about overseas shipping.

“Due to our long relationships with many shipping lines, G&T still continues to get support from them, but the bookings were limited in May. Sometimes I still need to call the shipping line salesperson for help,” Chen says. “COVID-19 [has been] very challenging for G&T Trading. But we try to control the steady and very regular shipments to all the countries.”

He continues, “Right now, G&T’s major job is to keep the regular tonnage going through and [have] great relationships with the shipping lines. For 2021 and 2022, we’ll continue to do that, and we will try to gather more market share for each country for recovered paper.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at msmalley@gie.net.

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