Long before the phrase “Recycle, Reuse, Repurpose” became part of the modern American lexicon, a small family-owned and operated firm in Indianapolis, Indiana, was creating value for itself, its suppliers and buyers by reprocessing scrap—never referred to as “waste”—for new and often innovative uses.
For more than a century, in fact, J. Solotken & Company has recycled everything from the scraps of paper, cardboard, rags and metals first collected in a pushcart by family patriarch Jacob Solotken starting in 1914, to the high-stress turbine housings and compressor blades it receives today from a nearby jet engine manufacturer.
“As long as there is manufacturing, there will always be a need for our industry,” says Brian Nachlis ’94, currently the company’s vice president.
Through the Great Depression, two world wars, and other calamities large and small that might have shuttered less stalwart firms, four generations of the extended Solotken family have kept the company prospering by always staying true to the company’s core principals and a business model based on cultivating and maintaining personal relationships.
Even today, the company takes in, processes, and trades or sells tens of thousands of tons (the exact figure is proprietary) of copper, aluminum, nickel, brass, bronze, lead and zinc every year—it no longer deals in paper or textiles—with nary a formal contract to be found in its files.
“Ninety-nine percent of our business is done with a basic pricing agreement and a handshake. We’re still a family-run business, and we believe in treating our suppliers and consumers like family,” Nachlis says.
But, that should not suggest the company or its industry is anything less than serious business. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, scrap recycling contributes more than $105 billion annually to the U.S. economy while supporting roughly 471,000 jobs. It is often the first link in today’s global manufacturing supply chain—more than a quarter of scrap recycling volume in the U.S. finds its way overseas—and in 2014 represented $21 billion on the positive side of the country’s international balance of trade, in line with other important commodity export products such as corn and other grains, cotton, timber, and petroleum.
Perhaps more important, however, as one of the world’s first “green” industries scrap recycling also reduces substantially the greenhouse gases produced when making metal from raw materials. The amount of energy used is much smaller, too—92 percent less for aluminum, 90 percent less for copper, and 56 percent less for steel.
And though the industry was not started by environmentally minded entrepreneurs, but rather by impoverished immigrants such as the Russian-Jewish Jacob Solotken who could not enter the general workforce stream in early 20th Century America, that early 21st Century environmental concerns have shed a new light on what the scrap industry is and the benefits it brings “is something we’re proud of,” says Nachlis.
“Because let’s be clear, if this industry did not exist, the environment would be a disaster.”
From Hospital to Scrap Heap
Standing in the open-air receiving area at J. Solotken, a jumbled landscape of salvaged auto and truck radiators in the foreground, a veritable mountain of scrap aluminum siding towering behind, Nachlis has to admit this isn’t quite where he pictured himself 20 years ago.
Originally from Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania, Nachlis followed his older brother, Warren ’87, to F&M and majored in government. His intention at the time was to graduate and move on to law school, though he no longer remembers why he never actually applied to any law schools. Clearer is a conversation he had one day with his mother, who remarked upon her son’s facility with people and, having friends in the healthcare industry, suggested that Brian look into career options in that field.
Three years later, he emerged from the graduate program at George Washington University with a master’s degree in health/hospital administration and began researching suitable positions in the Indianapolis area in order to be closer to his then-girlfriend-now-wife Sandy Alpert Nachlis ’94, a native Hoosier who had just completed her own graduate program at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.
With Sandy newly employed at the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, Brian began a one-year residency at publicly owned Wishard Memorial Hospital, and after receiving a subsequent offer to remain on staff there as a full-time administrator, he and Sandy were married in 1997.
The union between Brian and Wishard, however, proved neither as happy nor enduring.
“I began to feel that the industry was just not dynamic enough,” reflects Nachlis today. “It was too slow to adapt and it took too long to see any results from your efforts. And then there was always some financial issue to be addressed, especially at a county hospital, and though I held a fairly substantial position, I didn’t really see a stellar future in it.”
Taking a week’s vacation, Nachlis spent the time working at J. Solotken & Co., headed then and now by Sandy’s father, Joe Alpert, a grandson of Jacob. It was a turning point for both Brian and the company, then doing business from an aging four-story warehouse near downtown Indianapolis. There was only one computer and no coherent means of inventory control. Accounting was still being done on paper ledgers. Invoices and memos were being turned out on typewriters. And the company’s trucks were often in the repair shop more than they were on the road.
Far from discouraged or intimidated, however, Nachlis found the situation irresistible.
“At the hospital, you could work for months on a project that might never happen, and so it was hard to judge sometimes exactly what impact you were having,” he says. “But after only that one week in the scrap yard, I knew … here, at the end of the day, you knew if it was a good day or a bad day.
“I thought, ‘There’s a reason for me to be here. There’s opportunities for me here, and for the company.’ And so I decided to take the risk and leave the hospital. That was in October 1998.”
Among the opportunities Nachlis foresaw in his move to J. Solotken were ample openings to apply the many skills he learned through his liberal arts experience at F&M, where, in addition to his government studies, he recalls working as a research assistant in Shadek-Fackenthal Library and the mentoring he received from Librarian Emerita Kathleen Spencer, former Reference Librarian Tom Karel and current Interim Science Librarian and Systems Librarian Andy Gulati.
Working now in a highly regulated industry and one subject to commodity market fluctuations measured in minutes, not hours or days, Nachlis says information literacy or knowing the ins and outs not only of how to find information quickly, but also how to use it effectively, is at a premium.
“A lot of the skills I picked up from that experience [in the library] continue to come in handy today,” confirms Nachlis. “But, it was F&M more broadly that provided me the ability to be a diverse thinker, that taught me how to write well enough that I now help design our public relations materials, and that showed me the importance of always staying open to others’ opinions and engaging in open discussion.
“F&M doesn’t restrict you to one area of education, but instead requires you to explore different avenues that at some point in your professional life you’re going to need to apply.”
To illustrate his point, Nachlis reaches into one of 20 or so large white Super-Sacks covering part of the floor in the shipping area of the more modern, one-story plant the company relocated to in 2010—in the process investing approximately $4.5 million to turn the once-vacant structure into an efficient scrap metal recycling facility (i.e., the company now uses a bar coding system to track inventory). Pulling out a small cone-shaped piece of aluminum reminiscent of a miniature space capsule, he explains the shiny nodules are made from aluminum scrap, which J. Solotken could buy for, say, 40 cents a pound, bundle together and resell to a secondary smelter for roughly 55 cents a pound. In this “value added” form, however, the company can sell the cones for more than 80 cents a pound to industrial steelmakers, who use them to de-oxify molten batches of steel, thereby reducing a major contributor to rust and adding value to their product.
“That’s what it’s all about,” says Nachlis, who pioneered the product line for Solotken, “adding value—for the company, for our suppliers, and for consumers.”