Thriving in mining country

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The Lewon family is guiding Utah Metal Works to steady recycling success in the heart of America’s copper mining region.

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May 7, 2019

Photos by Chad Kirkland Photography
From left: Mark, Don and Chris Lewon of Utah Metal Works, Salt Lake City

Utah is copper country, which becomes evident to airplane passengers who look out their windows at the red, terraced earth that lies beneath them as they approach Salt Lake City’s airport.

While copper mining has helped underpin Utah’s economy for several decades, the Lewon family has staked its family business strategy on recycling copper that has long since been mined, smelted and used in one or another application.

Salt Lake City-based Utah Metal Works (UMW) has been owned and operated by the Lewons and related families since the 1920s. The company has focused on recycling wire and cable since buying an initial chopping line in 1978.

Don Lewon, chairman, and his sons, Mark and Chris, who are president and vice president, respectively, lead the company, which has emerged as a leading recycler of copper and aluminum wire and cable in the western U.S.

The family leadership team, while modest, can look back on several good decisions that have helped maintain UMW as a thriving recycler nestled in the heart of mining territory.

Gaining a foothold

Don says the exact date UMW was founded is not certain, but the firm “started as a business sometime in the 1920s.” Don describes UMW founder Hymie Goldman as “a well-regarded man” whose business evolved to focus on “buying scrap and handling some commercial accounts that we still have but also involved in the manufacture of lead-tin alloys, such as linotype and solders.”

When Hymie died suddenly in 1955, Don says his father, Harry, and two of Harry’s brothers, Louis and Rubin, ended up buying the business.

“The brothers ended the tin/lead business; but, occasionally in the scrap that we buy, we’ll get a reminder of the past.”

Don continues, “Military scrap was a large focus of UMW in the 1950s and 1960s, since there was so much of that around during those times.”

Pointing to a recurring theme in the company’s history, Don then says, “But as we see time and again in the recycling industry, changes occurred, and so did the focus of the company to industrial scrap and manufacturing.”

Don graduated from the University of Utah in 1958 with a degree in mining and metallurgy and then spent a couple of years in other jobs in the western U.S. before joining his father full-time in 1960. Shortly before that time, his father and uncles moved UMW to its current location on Everett Avenue in Salt Lake City.

In 1978, as more and more insulated wire seemed to be available, Don and his partner at the time, Leonard Pollock, bought a wire chopping line from Triple/S Dynamics, Dallas. It was a critical decision for UMW and set it on its course to becoming a regional leader in the growing wire and cable recycling sector.

Some 40 years later, “Insulated wire continues to be a major piece of our business,” Mark says. Chopping lines provided by France-based MTB Recycling process insulated copper and aluminum, with Triple/S equipment “still sorting the copper or aluminum from the smaller pieces of insulation on the back end,” he adds.

The successful foray into wire chopping also led to increased volumes and, for a time, increased headaches as UMW struggled to carve out a growing business in a neighborhood that initially was mixed residential and industrial.

It was among many legal, political and regulatory issues that spurred the Lewon family into active involvement with the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a connection that Mark and other members of the Lewon family say has been critical to their success.

Involved and engaged

Issues ranging from neighborhood zoning to unclear OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) compliance prompted Don to help organize the Utah Recyclers Association in the 1990s.

He passed on his engagement with industry issues to the next generation.

Don’s son Mark earned a degree in economics from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, while his son Chris earned a degree in business from the University of Utah. Chris and Mark are the fourth generation of their family in the recycling industry, and Mark says he realized when he was 16 that he wanted to go into the family business.

In the subsequent decades, Mark has extended his commitment to the industry beyond the family business by serving UMW’s regional ISRI chapter and then rising through ISRI national officer posts to serve as chair from 2016 to 2018.

At ISRI national conventions and in other settings, Mark often used his time at the podium to urge fellow recyclers to look beyond the confines of their own office or yard. “I’d like to see people be more proactive in their states and cities,” he told Recycling Today in a 2017 interview. “As an industry, we have a lot at stake, especially at the state and local levels.”

UMW itself has been proactive in addressing any concerns espoused by neighboring property owners. “It’s important to note that when our current facility opened here in 1956, it was in a half-residential, half-industrial neighborhood,” Mark says.

“Our southern neighbor is a refinery now owned by Marathon, but all around us to the north were houses,” he continues. “Union Pacific Railroad’s main line tracks block any serious expansion to the west, and a major north-south street blocks any large expansion to the east. In spite of this, we really didn’t want to move because the road network here is really good, both for our trucks and our retail customers.”

The company’s solution involved working with local government to create an important change. “We purchased all of the houses on the other side of the street by our plant, and we were then able to close the street after buying the street from Salt Lake City,” Mark says. “This has allowed us to expand so that we aren’t hemmed in so badly.”

Prepared for anything

The considerable effort and investment required for UMW to secure its ability to work from its own piece of property provides an example of how the Lewon family sees managing a business as an ongoing exercise in managing change.

Mark and Chris, like their father and the two generations before him, examine and re-examine business methods and philosophies to ensure they stay in touch with how the metals recycling industry is evolving.

Mark cites as an example the tactic of setting up feeder yards versus concentrating on buying material directly from other recyclers. “We have largely resisted ‘feeder yards’ as a buying method, preferring instead to buy from other recycling companies,” he says.

“We did end up with a recycling company in St. George, Utah, which is 300 miles from our facility in Salt Lake City,” he continues. “Dixie Metal Recycling is actually a joint venture between Don Lewon and partner Pete Thomas, who is a former copper sales chief for [mining and smelting firm] Kennecott Copper.”

While Don has maintained his interest in the venture, Mark comments, “As feeder yards go, this is a difficult distance, and this has actually made us oppose the ‘feeder’ concept even more, especially as we have seen competitors buy small yards around Salt Lake, only to have the former owners set up new operations as soon as noncompete agreements end.”

Thus, UMW continues to rely on its relationships with other recycling companies to serve as the network that provides the wire and cable for its chopping lines.

Trade issues are the latest industrywide change that has challenged the Lewons.

“As an industry, we have a lot at stake, especially at the state and local levels.” – Mark Lewon, Utah Metal Works

“Our sales markets continue to have a domestic focus on large portions of finished material, but our export markets have been rocked by the Chinese decision to reduce imported scrap,” Mark says.

The trade turmoil has not caused UMW to retreat from making needed investments, and Mark expresses confidence in the underpinnings of the industry and UMW’s workforce.

China’s restrictions and tariffs “have forced us to do lots more sorting of material here in our plant,” he says. It is one reason UMW has construction planned.

The other reason Mark cites is to improve facility layout, with an eye on safety.

The Lewons say UMW can afford to invest in part because of its reliable workforce. “We really rely on what is basically an extended ‘family,’” Mark says. “We have very little turnover among our employees, and in full employment times like today’s, this is definitely an advantage.”

The things that are steady help UMW cope with change. “Being able to handle changes as they inevitably come is a hallmark of the recycling industry,” Mark says.

He says he sees family businesses as poised for the future, though Mark is not in denial concerning the challenges. “The recycling industry has always dealt with change; but, from all of the consolidation in the industry, it is evident that not everyone can manage, and some ‘next generations’ don’t materialize. We hope to take our management of change forward, in combination with some construction that we believe will lower our costs, to take us to the next competitive level.”

The author is Recycling Today’s senior editor and can be emailed at btaylor@gie.net.