The United Nation

Features - Cover Profile

United Scrap Metal, Cicero, Illinois, prioritizes employee training and development in pursuit of its goal of continuous improvement.

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May 7, 2021

Photos by Jamie Link Photography

Some workplace cultures are endured by employees; others are celebrated. Brad Serlin, president of United Scrap Metal, headquartered in Cicero, Illinois, says his company falls into the latter category.

“The company has grown substantially over the past 43 years by living our mission and making a positive impact in the lives of others,” he says. “This applies to our internal team members, customers, consumers and community. Our core values of trust, commitment, loyalty, passion and performance are foundational to our business. There is also a vision for our future, which is motivating for all team members as they continue on their career path.”

The “United Nation,” which is how the company’s 525 team members refer to United Scrap Metal, is comprised of six yards. In addition to its Cicero location, United has facilities in Philadelphia; Richmond, Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina; St. Louis; and Indianapolis. “These are set up as large, self-sufficient regional operations that service business and industry while shipping mill direct,” Brad says.

From a modest start

In aggregate, the company has 800,000 square feet under roof on 175 acres processing 410 million pounds of nonferrous scrap (205,000 tons) and 200,000 gross tons of ferrous scrap annually, Brad says.

The bulk of United’s customers are manufacturers and service centers, which account for more than half of its incoming volume, he says. The utility, demolition and construction sectors supply the rest of United’s incoming volume.

From left: United Scrap Metal President Brad Serlin and founder and CEO Marsha Serlin

United’s Cicero location also operates a recycling center that purchases material from the public. This retail trade makes up a small percentage of United’s overall business but accommodates the needs of many local customers, Brad says.

The company’s material mix is more heavily weighted toward nonferrous metals by design, he says. When his mother, CEO Marsha Serlin, founded the company in 1978 with a rented truck and $200 in her pocket, she understood that a gaylord of copper could be worth more than a truckload of steel. “It’s lighter, less capital intensive and more profitable,” Brad says of nonferrous metals.

By 1980, United was operating three trucks, and by 1981, the company added a 10,000-square-foot building on a rented acre of property, he says. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, United expanded the footprint of its Chicago-area operations in addition to acquiring RPS Industrial Metals in Franklin Park, Illinois, in 1997. That same year, United added wire granulating capabilities with the purchase of a turnkey system partially funded through a grant from the Illinois Department of Economic Opportunity while building an additional 40,000 square feet of processing space in Cicero, which remains its largest location to date.

While United’s focus is on nonferrous metals, Brad says, “Our growth and positioning have required the development of the ferrous side of our business.” The company strives to be a “one-stop shop” for its customers, and he says that requires United to be proficient in all scrap metals as well as in nonmetallic commodities. 

Much of the company’s geographic growth has occurred since 2012, when it added its Philadelphia location to meet the needs of one of its key suppliers, he says.

“Expanding our footprint wasn’t easy as the unknown is never comfortable, though we felt like it was time for a new challenge,” Marsha says. “We believed organizational change agility had traditionally been our strength, so why not take the business to the next level outside our regional comfort zone.”

Starting in 2014, United added one location per year through 2018, opening greenfield sites in Richmond, Charlotte, St. Louis and Indianapolis, in that order, with existing anchor customers for each location. The company’s smallest site is 10 acres, while its Cicero location is 75 acres.

All of United’s facilities process material with the goal of shipping their finished products mill-direct, Brad says. “None of these sites are transfer locations.”

Team members from Cicero have relocated to the new sites to ensure the company’s core values are represented, he says, and each location has its own sales team.

Brad says the transition into these new markets has been “seamless” with the help of the relocated team members. “The most valuable commodity at United is our people, the investment and belief in our team.”

Empowered employees

During the job interview process, United asks potential team members about their desire to relocate.

Because only two Serlin family members are involved in the business, he says, opportunities like these create ideal growth prospects for team members. United prioritizes traits and attributes when hiring, Brad says, often going outside of the industry. A number of former high school and collegiate athletes and coaches work for the company. The structure and discipline they embody are desirable attributes to United, as is their public service, he says.

In fact, the company asks how prospective hires have given back to their communities in the interview process.

“We want to make sure they understand the importance of giving back,” Brad says. “It’s incumbent on our business to be part of the solution and involved in the community. That has really helped to galvanize our team.”

While potential hires from within the recycling industry have contacts and knowledge, they are only part of the equation for success with the company, he says. “It’s their traits and attributes that make them successful.”

The company looks for people who are “hungry, humble and smart” and have the ability to connect with people, Brad adds. It also incentivizes employees to refer job candidates.

United works with an external recruiter and employs two recruiters in its People Development department. One female colleague worked her way up from operations into the role, Brad says, and has a deep understanding of what these positions entail.

Brad is proud of the prominent role women play at United. He says women make up 30 percent of its workforce, with many in operational roles.

United Scrap Metal uses a team interview process and has job candidates shadow an employee for a day. Brad says, “At that point, we may decide someone is a better fit for another side of the organization.”

He adds that United prioritizes employee retention. “We want this to be their long-term home. We are proud of the fact that we have a lot of team members who took their careers to a level they never imagined,” Brad says.

To that end, the company created United in Leadership about 10 years ago. Brad says employees from United’s various locations and with different job functions participate in the yearlong program. “It’s rewarding to watch them grow through the program.”

Marsha adds, “I’m proud of our team and the perseverance [they’ve shown] over the years in all facets of their lives. It’s their traits and attributes that make them successful.”

Watching them grow personally and professionally is incredibly rewarding for a founder.”

Metrics minded

In addition to prioritizing the professional development of its employees, United keeps a close eye on its performance metrics.

“We work hard to avoid complacency or being satisfied,” Brad says. That means striving for continuous improvement across the organization by monitoring operating metrics and posting performance goals, with Brad noting, “What gets measured gets done.”

He says the volume and grades moved daily are highly visible and drive inventory turns. “Inventory turnover creates a natural hedge,” Brad says, providing insulation against a declining market.

“Our approach is a continued emphasis on timely processing and accelerated movement of inventory,” he continues. “We have never speculated or held material as the market will always have the edge on us. The game plan is minimizing risk for both our customers and organization.”

Brad adds that United’s lean operations help the company maintain its profitability in all market conditions.

He says the recycling industry is positioned to capitalize on the sustainability movement, with scrap metals reducing the energy needed to make new metal while minimizing the reliance on mining. “Educating all stakeholders on the benefits of recycling is a key industrywide initiative, incumbent on operators.”

As recycling grows in importance, United could be presented with growth opportunities, Brad says.

“Every growth scenario, whether it’s organic or via acquisition, needs to fundamentally fit,” he says, adding that the growth scenario must be profitable.

With geographic expansion, “We want to know if the state is attracting new industry, what economic incentives could come into play and if there are synergies within our customer base and a quality workforce,” Brad says. “We don’t believe in growth just for the sake of growing. It has to fit our business model.”

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at dtoto@gie.net.