A regional force

Features - Cover Profile

Potomac Metals, Sterling, Virginia, has made its mark as a growing scrap metal recycler in the mid-Atlantic region.

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February 10, 2020

Photos by Parker Michels-Boyce Photography
From left: Eric Zwilsky, Mark Zwilsky, Jeremy Wong and Sarah Zwilsky

Potomac Metals certainly has made its mark in the scrap metal recycling industry in the mid-Atlantic region. Over the past 23 years, the family-owned company has expanded to nine sites across Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. In that time, it also spun off a sister company, Potomac eCycle, Manassas, Virginia, that provides electronics recycling services, and it has diversified the services it offers. Founder and CEO Mark Zwilsky has plans to continue expanding in the region, too. He says the company is adding a new scrap yard in Richmond, Virginia, in the spring of 2020 as well as expanding its processing capacity at its headquarters in Sterling, Virginia.

Since opening the first site in Sterling in 1996, Mark says Potomac’s growth in the region has been gradual.

“About a half a mile from Sterling, we bought our second place,” he says. “We just [added new yards] over and over again until now we have nine scrap yards and one electronics recycling facility. Every year, we’ve hired more people, opened more locations, bought more trucks, bought more equipment.”

In the future, Mark says he wouldn’t mind adding new yards in other nearby states. However, he does not intend to move beyond the mid-Atlantic region—he says he likes to keep his yards within a few hours driving distance from Potomac’s headquarters.

“I don’t mind expanding, like to Richmond or someday to Pennsylvania. But we’re interested in remaining regional,” Mark says.

Starting the business

Mark has been working in the scrap recycling industry for more than four decades. After studying heavy equipment operating at a local technical school, his first job within the industry was operating a front-end wheel loader for a scrap yard in Rockville, Maryland.

“I didn’t know anything about the scrap industry until I got my first job operating a piece of equipment at a scrap yard,” he adds. 

Mark says he got to be pretty good at operating various pieces of equipment around the yard. Eventually, he started to work his way up in the industry.

“I was promoted to become a low-level buyer, buying scrap metal across scales at a facility. Over a period of time, I got my next promotion to operate a mobile truck with a scale mounted in the back where I would drive out to hundreds of locations for the company to buy scrap,” he says.

Mark continued to work for various companies in the scrap industry for the next two decades, but in the mid-1990s, he considered starting his own business.

“I had always worked for somebody, and I thought I could do things differently,” he says. “I wanted to try to build something for myself and my family.”

And he did. Mark and two business partners—his father, Klaus Zwilsky, and a colleague in the scrap industry—founded Potomac Metals in the mid-1990s. Klaus, who also worked as a metallurgist at the time, offered Mark a $75,000 loan to start Potomac Metals out of a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in Sterling. The company officially opened its doors in 1996. The business is named after the Potomac River, which is only a few miles from the company’s first facility in Sterling.

Mark says the first few years in business were tough; everyone would work very long hours to keep the lights on.

“The first few years, we would sometimes work six or seven days a week and 12-hour days,” he says. “I didn’t finish high school, so learning the academia side of the business, like how to moderately work on spreadsheets and how to budget well—those were new experiences for me, and I certainly made some mistakes along the way. 

“My father and I had an initial goal for the business: to make Potomac Metals your No. 1 local area recycler," Mark adds. “We wanted Potomac Metals to be the Greater D.C. area’s first option when recycling scrap metal. We did not envision it growing into the 10 facilities we operate today.”

Nonferrous niche

Potomac Metals collects and processes a variety of scrap—aluminum, copper, brass, automotive scrap, lead, stainless steel, steel, high-temp alloys and titanium. Mark says nonferrous metals are the company’s “mainstay.”

“We deemed that there was a void of companies that primarily focus on nonferrous metals, so nonferrous metals have been a good niche for us in the Washington, D.C., area,” says Eric Zwilsky, a vice president at Potomac Metals and Mark’s son.

Mark says the company had purchased a good deal more wire in recent years, which prompted the investment in the wire chopper. 

Nonferrous processing became even more of a focus for Potomac two years ago when the company added a wire chopping system at its headquarters. Jeremy Wong, a vice president at Potomac Metals, says the company had some constraints when considering this purchase. “Everything we process has to be done indoors,” he says. “We’re constrained on the footprint of what you can get in our building.”

Ultimately, Wong says the company determined that the MTB Cable Box wire chopping system was a more portable option and would fit the company’s needs best. Potomac Metals purchased the Cable Box at the end of 2017 through Buffalo, New York-based Wendt Corp., and the system was up and running by February 2018. The wire chopper has allowed Potomac to make clean chops from No. 1 insulated copper wire (ICW) and insulated aluminum wire and to separate the wire from its plastic covering.

In the past two years, Mark says the company has processed about 1.2 million pounds of wire per month on average.

“I had always worked for somebody, and I thought I could do things differently. I wanted to try to build something for myself and my family.” – Mark Zwilsky, founder and CEO, Potomac Metals

Wong adds that the wire chopping capability has helped Potomac to be more competitive. “It’s allowed us to have a little bit of an edge because we process the material ourselves,” he says. “It gives us a few more options, a few more homes to put material. If markets change, we have an option to adjust and do something else with the material if needed.”

Smart processing

Potomac Metals does most of its processing at its headquarters in Sterling—the site has two Badger two-ram balers from Cordele, Georgia-based Harris, two truck scales, a customer drive-through, a material handler and other supporting equipment. While the company currently has eight other satellite locations that ultimately send material back to headquarters, Mark says he takes pride in the fact that the feeder yards also process material, and all of the company’s employees know how to produce finished products.

“A lot of companies like us use satellite yards as feeders to send everything back to headquarters and process everything at the main facility,” he says. “One thing we do a little bit different with our other yards is our guys actually process and finish the material at each facility. They all have full baling capabilities and shears. [Employees at satellite yards] have been trained how to prep the material—they know how to make a finished product.”

Additionally, Potomac Metals began offering brokerage services about three years ago. Eric says he had noticed that an increasing number of customers were requesting brokerage services, so he thought adding them could be a good fit for the company. “We just kind of started it on a whim,” Eric says. “With our warehouse and our nine facilities, we’re able to take some pretty big positions at mills. So, we’ve been able to add some of our customers’ loads on our orders.”

Mark says about 90 percent of the material sent to headquarters from its satellite yards is in the form of a finished product that can be shipped out. He adds that the headquarters facility typically only processes feeder yard material that must be processed with the wire chopping system. 

Potomac also uses a fleet of box trucks to go direct to customers to collect materials. Mark says about 20 to 25 percent of the material the company purchases is collected by these trucks. He adds that serving customers on their sites ties back to Potomac’s philosophy of transparency.

“We want people to look at Potomac Metals as a company where they know they can always get a fair price, their weights will be correct [and] we try to pay people quicker than anybody in the industry,” he says. “We try to remain as transparent as possible. I think it’s helped us to grow our business.”

This year, Potomac also is expanding its headquarters facility in Sterling.

“At our current warehouse, we’re running out of room,” Eric says of the 70,000-square-foot building. “It’s a good problem,” he adds. “We have too many bales of scrap to go out, and we can’t move them out fast enough. We can’t process material fast enough.”

By the spring of 2020, Eric says the warehouse at the company’s headquarters will have more than 100,000 square feet of space. Potomac Metals also is adding a two-ram baler and a drive-through truck repair center at the location.

Additionally, Potomac Metals plans to finish construction of its 10th site, based in Richmond, in the spring of 2020. Opening the Richmond site has been slightly different than opening any of its other locations, Mark says. All the other locations are about a one-hour drive from the Sterling headquarters, while Richmond is more than two hours away. However, he adds that the company chose to open a site in Richmond because of its growing community and its proximity to numerous industrial and commercial accounts.

The Richmond site is 4 acres with an 18,000-square-foot building. Mark says the company plans to hire 15 people to work at this facility.

“It seems every year we’re doing something to expand,” Eric adds. “Two years ago, we added a wire chopper. This past year, we worked on putting up a new warehouse and now we’re opening in Richmond. Our hopes are to do something new—do a new venture every year.”

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