Harrie Cohen had tears in his eyes. Out of 200 nominees, Cohen had won the Eco Entrepreneur award at the 2018 Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards ceremony at Cal State in front of his family and employees.
“I cannot put into words how I felt. It was the biggest honor I’ve ever received,” says Cohen, the CEO of Ontario, California-based Inland Empire Recycling, which helps some of the largest corporations in the United States reach zero landfill status.
Cohen immigrated from Holland to the U.S. with his parents, who were Holocaust survivors, at age 7. He remembers arriving in the U.S. with nothing. His mother cleaned houses for a living and his father, Isaac, pruned roses for $1.35 an hour. Within five years, Isaac started a scrap business out of his garage. By 1964, the business moved from the garage to a warehouse.
“He was in the scrap business in Europe,” Cohen says. “He spoke very little English. He started in his garage and slowly built up a business.”
As a teenager, Cohen sorted metal and operated equipment. When his father fell ill, he left college to take over the company, and today Cohen runs the business with his son, Adam.
In 2000, they nearly lost the business after a robbery. Cohen says they could no longer afford to buy scrap from the public anymore, so they “reinvented” the company to only handle industrial scrap—mostly aluminum, but also steel, cardboard and Styrofoam-- from major corporations.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve expanded to handling accounts nationally,” Cohen says. “We’ve really changed what we do.”
Inland Empire Recycling buys scrap from major automotive manufacturers in the U.S. and Mexico and one of the largest retailers in the U.S. with the goal to help companies recycle 100 percent of their scrap.
“Were not typical scrap yard anymore,” Cohen says. “We’re a service-oriented company. We go out of our way to make sure the company is handled correctly and make sure their products are disposed of correctly. We turn many parts plants landfill free.”
When asked what makes his business successful, Cohen says great relationships, a positive mental attitude and a strong work ethic.
"I'm in my office every day. I love coming to work," says Cohen, who travels to China and India to make connections or meet clients. After all, it was a trip to China five years ago that helped him get established in the Styrofoam market today, he says.
The glut of aluminum in the U.S. due to China’s scrap tariffs is just another challenge for Cohen to overcome.
“In years past, it was harder to buy scrap than it was to sell scrap,” he says. “Today, it’s harder to sell scrap than it is to buy scrap.”
“Human beings are capable of overcoming anything they need to overcome if they want to work hard, if they want to put the effort in.”
Thinking of everything his father did with so little and everything he and his son have accomplished, Cohen says, “This country has been the land of opportunity.”
When Cohen was on stage accepting the award, looking down on his children, grandchildren and employees--some who were hired by his father--he accepted the award for all of them.
“If my father could see us now, he would be so proud of what we accomplished,” Cohen says. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”