The Proler name has been among the most recognized surnames in the scrap recycling industry for decades. Despite that, Becky Proler’s father, Jackie Proler, never expected that she would work in the industry when she was growing up. In fact, she says he and her uncles involved in the family company, Houston-based Proler International Inc. (which Portland, Oregon-based Schnitzer Steel purchased in the late 1990s), discouraged it.
“My father and uncles were not crazy about their daughters and nieces working in the industry,” the 56-year-old says. “He knew that I loved the business,” she says of her dad, “but that was not something culturally or socially that I was encouraged to pursue. … It just never crossed his mind.”
She says her family’s reluctance was a “generational thing.” Proler adds, “My uncles and my father just did not have the idea that women could be in the business by that time in the '80s.”
Many years later and after a career in psychology (she has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia), Proler’s father did offer her a job with the family company in pick-a-part business, she says. Proler was living on the East Coast at the time and says her dad wanted her to return to Houston, so he gave her the opportunity to run that division in the 1980s.
“As much as I liked psychology, it seems it wasn’t as good a fit as this was.”
Today, Proler co-owns Southern Core Recycling in Houston. She and her business partners, Alan and Carol Walker, founded the company in 1989. As the auto core industry changed, Southern Core reinvented itself as full-service scrap company that specializes in shredded cast and aluminum as well as other forms of ferrous and nonferrous scrap.
Proler shares her experiences in the industry and as a company leader in the edited Q&A below.
Recycling Today (RT): Did you work outside the industry at any point in your adult life? If so, what lessons have you been able to apply to your work in the scrap industry?
Becky Proler (BP): Yes, I worked in neuropsychology and as a counseling psychologist.
I think listening is very important, especially in management. And I’ve tried to use those skills to help understand customers, to help understand my employees and to help understand how to communicate better.
I certainly missed out on the business part of going to college, and I regret that I’ve had to learn it in different ways postcollege.
RT: What is it that you most enjoy about the scrap industry?
BP: I do like the fact that it is a relationship-based business, at least for me. It’s not just about numbers. You know, I’ve known some of these folks for 30 years. They gave me my first break; they sold me material. You start to build a family around that really. Our business is very unique in that way; it allows you to have relationships that are fairly important in your success or failure. I think that’s probably one of my favorite parts of the business.
The other favorite part of my business is, having grown up in this industry and especially around shredders, kind of finding a niche and developing new ways of marketing materials.
RT: What do you find most challenging about the scrap industry?
BP: I think there’s a push-pull between what the melt shop managers want that comes down from engineering and what as a scrap producer we can provide and the technology that does that transfer. I think that is probably the most challenging thing for us. We play a very heavy role in aluminum, and it’s amazing how an engineer will design a part that will have one alloy in it and then the next year it’ll have a different alloy.
What do you do with the recycling part when everything gets shredded? They’re designing technology to help segregate it out, but that technology is not perfected yet. But the plant managers and the engineers want a perfect product or as close to perfect as possible. And that’s always been a push-pull.
When my family invented the auto shredder, they did it because U.S. Steel wanted a better product to melt. By shredding, you could get rid of all the unwanted material, like fluff and nonferrous, so that you had a more perfect product to send to the mill. I think that’s always been a great challenge to our industry. But that great challenge leads to some really innovative things, as you know.
RT: Do you believe there are challenges that are unique to women in the scrap industry?
BP: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’ve lived those challenges. I’ve said this to a couple of women before: I’m sure a lot of decisions go on and get made in a men’s bathroom. I’m very sure of it. And that’s an area I’ve never tried to go.
I think it probably still takes women twice as long to develop a book of business as it would a man. On the marketing side, we’re still dealing with a mainly male-dominated business. On the operations side, we’re still dealing with a male-dominated environment.
At Southern Core, we’re in a unique situation where my partners are all women. There’s three of us. I originally started Southern Core with Carol Walker. When Carol passed away four years ago, her two daughters came over to Southern Core. Still, I would say we’re at 80 percent in terms of male-to-female ratio. The females are usually in the office. We’ve tried to hire female operators before, but they are few and far between down here.
I think women coming up in the business have to really know who they are and be comfortable with that. You have to be willing to accept that some people just aren’t going to like you, and that may not be for any reason; they just don’t like you.
RT: You said that communication and listening are important. How do they factor into your management style and how would describe your management style?
BP: I am not trained in management. Having been a therapist, you usually sit in a circle and listen to everybody and make notes afterward. That was not very easy for me because I was more action-oriented; I wanted to do something.
My management style has evolved and primarily that is because we started the company with six people and now we have north of 50. When you start a company with six people, I drove the forklift, I palletized, I tore down motors, I was on a crane. I did it myself.
About 12 years ago, I decided that I needed some formal training and, instead of going back to school, I hired an executive coach who has been working with us. He’s actually been working with us now off and on for about 12 years.
If I don’t know what is wrong or what I need, I’m very good about trying to find that thing or that person that can give me what I’m lacking. I think knowing your limitations is very important in management.
RT: Do you think assertive women in business are seen as bossy, whereas men are expected to be?
BP: Unfortunately, yes. There are times that really gets to me; but, at the end of the day, it’s my name on the door. I’ve got to be responsible to those people that I’m signing paychecks for. I’m really clear about that.
I’ve got employees who have been with me for 20 years, so that’s got to be a sign that I’m doing something right. We are all people at the end of the day. And we have to communicate, we have to talk and we have to belong.
You spend half your life at work. I have two families. I have my Southern Core family, and then I have my family outside of work. We bring each other up, we take each other down, we share joys, we share sorrows, we share accomplishments, we get mad at each other.
And you can’t grow if you don’t delegate.
RT: What do you think sets Southern Core apart from other recycling companies?
BP: I have to say I’m so humbled by some of the bigger guys, such as OmniSource and Sims, that have come into our yard, and they’re very impressed with how we merchandise material. And, it’s funny, I didn’t really learn that from my father. I learned that from my mother. My mother owned three dress businesses all over Houston.
When people come into our yard, they’re very impressed with the quality of our material. We spent a lot of money on the infrastructure part so that a guy who is in Gucci shoes can walk through the yard and not get them dirty, just as somebody who has boots on can.
When you come in here, it’s not your typical scrap yard. Customers know they’re going to pay more, and they don’t seem to mind paying more. We have poured money back into Southern Core as a way of showing our pride and as a way of showing how committed we are to that culture.
RT: What traits do you believe have contributed to your success in the industry?
BP: Persistence. I think, even to women who want to get into the business now, persistence is really important. I don’t think I could have gotten into some of these places without being persistent.
RT: Do you have any advice for other women in the scrap industry?
BP: The doors are opening for women in this business. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to get the job if you don’t have the necessary skill level just because you’re a woman. But I do think that this industry is ready and timed to accept more women in it.
And I like the fact that ISRI [Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries] started Women in Recycling. I want it to get to the point where there doesn’t need to be a Women in Recycling; that we’re all just women and men and everything else in between. But I think there is some merit to doing it, especially right now.
It’s kind of like going to a restaurant, and you’re the only people there. Are you going to stay? Probably not. But if you see other people sitting in there, the chances are that you probably will sit down and enjoy the meal. Right now, we do need that support. Women do need that support. They need to see themselves in the industry. They need to see themselves sitting behind a desk or out running a shredder or going out and getting commercial accounts.