Jim’s Journey

May 26, 2017, 17:46 PM
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May/June 2017

Jim Fisher retired recently at age 70 from a more than four-decade scrap career, but his to-do list is as long as ever.

By Kent Kiser

Jim Fischer Profile_Jim's Journery_MJ17If Jim Fisher’s claim to fame was having a successful, multidecade career in the scrap industry, he’d be the same as scores of other recycling executives with that distinction. But Fisher has other accomplishments on his résumé that make him stand out. For one, he served ISRI and its predecessor associations for more than 20 years, rising to its top volunteer-leadership post, then called ISRI president, in 1996. He also is the rare business owner who sold his recycling firm and continued working successfully for the acquiring company for 18 years. On March 1 he stepped down as director of PADNOS Aluminum (Muskegon, Mich.), but he has no intention of slowing down his community involvement and philanthropic activities in retirement.

Setting Up Shop in Muskegon

The roots of Fisher’s career in the recycling industry go back to his great grandfather, Max Fisher, a scrap peddler in Germany in the late 1800s. Max’s eldest son, Harry (Jim Fisher’s grandfather), emigrated to Chicago around 1900 seeking new opportunity. As Jim Fisher tells it, Harry was living and working in Kalamazoo, Mich., when he heard about a scrapyard for sale in Wisconsin, just across Lake Michigan. While he waited in Muskegon, Mich., for a boat to take him across the lake, he had a few drinks at the local Elks lodge. In the course of his conversation with the other patrons, he was persuaded to stay and build a scrapyard there.

Harry founded Marcus Iron and Metal in 1916—Marcus was his mother’s maiden name—and sank his family’s roots deep into Muskegon. After going through a bankruptcy in 1930, the company reformed with the new name Fisher Iron and Metal Co. Harry’s three sons became the second generation in the business, with Eugene, the youngest and Jim’s father, joining the firm in 1946, after serving in World War II. By then, the family had changed the company’s name to Fisher Steel and Supply Co. to reflect its diversification into new steel sales. Although the firm exited the new steel business a few years later, it retained the Fisher Steel and Supply Co. name.

Jim Fisher, born Feb. 26, 1947, to Eugene and his wife, Frances, in Muskegon, doesn’t cite the family scrapyard as his most formative childhood experience. Instead, he names the 60-acre farm in the Muskegon area his family moved to when he was 5 years old. “I had a rather unusual upbringing by living on this farm,” he says. “The whole outdoors experience was a big deal for me.” Those experiences led him to get “heavily involved” in the Boy Scouts, which he calls “a foundation of my development.” Scouting taught him how to set and achieve goals, he says, and it awakened his interest in helping others and making a contribution to the world. Ultimately, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout and served for several summers as a counselor at the local Boy Scout camp.

At the same time, many of Fisher’s childhood memories involve the family scrap business, which he visited with his dad from about age 5.
“They switched railcars on Saturdays,” he recalls, “and one of my favorite things to do was get up in the locomotive with the engineer. I’ve always had a love for trains.” His grandfather was still involved in the business throughout Fisher’s youth, and he remembers spending hours with him at the yard. “I had a great relationship with my grandfather,” he says. “The whole integration of the family and the business, it was all part of it.”

Building an education in business

In 1965, Fisher graduated from high school and headed to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where in 1969 he received an undergraduate degree in political science with a minor in history. He continued his higher education at Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA in June 1971. “That certainly gave me a great foundation for business,” he says. He accepted a job with the Pathmark supermarket chain in New Jersey, but he delayed his start date so he could take a four-month, 31-country trip around the world. The company even provided international supermarket contacts so he could visit stores—and learn different supermarket approaches—as he traveled. “I was exposed to so many different cultures,” he says. “It was a dream trip.”

When Fisher returned in November 1971, he began management training in a Pathmark supermarket in Madison Township, N.J. His second day on the job, he met Jackie Barba, a senior at Douglass College who was working part time in the store’s office. They married seven months later, in June 1972. He left Pathmark in 1974 to serve as a product manager for Pfizer that year in Manhattan.

While Fisher was building his management expertise, the scrap industry was booming. As he recounts, the oil crisis of the early- to mid-1970s “spiked other commodities with it.” Fisher Steel saw its retail business mushroom, with “huge lines of suppliers lined up at our gates because scrap prices went through the roof.” Eugene Fisher visited his son in New York in 1973 and said he thought Fisher Steel had a great opportunity to grow during that period. He asked if Jim would consider returning to Muskegon to join the family business. “It was an invitation—he didn’t put any pressure on me,” Fisher says. He weighed the offer, but it wasn’t until late 1974 that he decided the timing was right. “There was always the idea in my mind that I was going to be the third generation,” he says. “I felt the sense of legacy from my grandfather and my father.” So he and Jackie moved from New York to Muskegon, and Fisher officially joined the family business in January 1975.

Branching Out

As economic fate would have it, the market shifted into recession shortly after Fisher joined the company, but the slower business pace gave him the time to learn the trade from the ground up. He spent his first year working in the yard, “wearing grubby clothes and hauling scrap.” That hands-on experience provided the foundation on which he built the rest of his career, he says.

At the time, Fisher Steel had a strong ferrous scrap business but only a fledgling nonferrous trade, so Fisher’s charge was to grow that sector. He did it by building relationships with industrial accounts and dealers around the state, identifying promising markets and then developing the scrap products the company needed to compete. He says his education and work experience, along with the leadership skills he gained from Scouting, gave him the tools to work with the leadership of the company: his father; his cousin Bill Fisher, who worked for the company for more than 40 years; and his sister Susie’s husband, Bruce Hurvitz. “I was very entrepreneurial,” he says. “I saw opportunities for us to grow the platform of the business.” One key to the company’s growth was hiring “great talent,” he says. Another was the firm’s ability to shift gears in response to the market. “Business conditions change in a hurry, and you have to be prepared to make some pretty radical changes,” he says.

The development of Fisher Steel’s nonferrous business turned out to be fortuitous when its main ferrous consumer—CWC Castings, a local grey-iron foundry—closed most of its operations in the early- to mid-1980s. Thus, Fisher Steel “became a business that was much more focused on nonferrous—particularly aluminum—in the 1980s and 1990s,” he says.

Along the way, the company adapted and expanded in other ways as well, installing new processing equipment, such as a Harris HRB baler, and acquiring two retail scrapyards in Michigan—one in Traverse City in 1982 and one in Grand Rapids in 1985. In 1986, Fisher became co-owner and president of the company, a change that succeeded because his father “was willing to turn over the mantle of leadership,” he says. By the 1990s, Fisher had helped the family company grow from roughly 20 employees at its single Muskegon location to about 75 employees at three facilities.

The Highest Levels of Leadership

While growing Fisher Steel, Fisher made a point of getting involved in industry trade associations, including the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel and the National Association of Recycling Industries, ISRI’s predecessor associations. Bill Fisher regularly attended meetings of the ISIS Michigan Chapter, and Jim started accompanying him soon after joining Fisher Steel. In 1977, when he became a director on the chapter’s board, he started attending the national ISIS board meetings and conventions. He climbed the leadership ladder of the Michigan Chapter, serving as president from 1984 to 1986, a position that gave him a seat on the ISIS board. In the same period, he also was chair of the ISIS Metals Committee and served a year as Chapters chair. “My involvement in the trade associations was a wonderful opportunity and challenge for me to use my expertise in business and political science,” he says. His involvement also allowed him to establish personal and professional relationships with recyclers across the country. “Some of the closest friends of my life are from my relationships in the trade association,” he says.

By the late 1980s, Fisher had established a reputation as an association leader. After ISIS merged with NARI to form ISRI in 1987, the association’s leaders invited him to run for ISRI national secretary—an invitation he accepted without hesitation. “I’m a politician,” he says. “I love the game, and I aspired to the highest levels of leadership. It was a natural next step.” The election pitted him against three scrap industry veterans: Harry Heinkele of Commercial Metals Co. (Dallas), Charles “Cricket” Williams of Charles Williams & Son (Richmond, Va.), and Don Lewon of Utah Metal Works (Salt Lake City). Fisher won the election, becoming part of ISRI’s initial post-merger team of national officers in 1988.

For the next eight years, he ascended the national officer ranks as secretary, treasurer, second vice president, and first vice president. Then, in 1996, he became president. One of his priorities was to strengthen the connection between ISRI’s national office and the association’s chapters, so he resolved to visit all the chapters during his term—and he did. “Part of that goal was to encourage members to get involved at the national and the local levels,” he says.

During his ISRI presidency, the industry and the association faced several significant challenges, including the ongoing battle for Superfund liability relief and the start of a period of massive industry consolidation. ISRI experienced an internal leadership transition, too, when Executive Director Herschel Cutler—who had led ISIS and then ISRI for 26 years—stepped down in 1997. The ISRI search committee sought a successor for months, and Fisher says he was “intimately involved” in the process. In the end, the association promoted Robin Wiener, then its assistant counsel and director of environmental compliance. “I was blessed to serve with both of them,” he says.

Fisher passed the ISRI volunteer-leadership baton in 1998 to Shelley Padnos of Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co. (Holland, Mich.), wrapping up his high-profile involvement in the association and capping what he considers a pinnacle life experience. “It was a true highlight of my life, no two ways about it,” he says. The highlights for him, he says, were “the people I was working with and the ability to extend ISRI around the country, giving energy to the chapter system and support to the leaders.” He also remembers fondly the two ISRI conventions during his term as president—in San Francisco and Las Vegas—as well as the association’s December 1996 board meeting at the historic Plaza hotel in New York.

A Win-Win Arrangement

Fisher was 51 when he concluded his ISRI presidency, and he found himself “contemplating what the next step of the journey was going to be for me.” That next step came very soon: In 1999, Fisher and his father decided to sell Fisher Steel to Louis Padnos Iron & Metal (now PADNOS). Why sell the family’s successful 83-year-old business? “I felt at the time that we were too big to get little and too little to get big,” Fisher explains. Family circumstances also contributed to the decision, he says. His father, who was 80 at the time, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and it was likely that his two daughters—Stephanie, then 22, and Julia, 18—would not choose to come into the business. Fisher Steel had worked with Padnos for years, and the two families had strong personal and professional connections. Jim had a decades-long connection to Jeff Padnos, whom he had known since they were in high school in the 1960s, and he and Shelley Padnos served eight years together as ISRI national officers.

Given the industry’s consolidation trend at the time, the acquisition itself wasn’t momentous news. What is notable, however, is that Fisher, as a former owner, stayed for 18 years as part of the PADNOS management team. “There’s no two ways about it—I’m an anomaly,” he says. The arrangement worked for Fisher: He was too young to retire, he says, and he didn’t want to start over on his own. “I had a comfort level with the Padnos family and the utmost respect for their values and how they operated their company, and I wanted to stay involved in the business,” he says. The arrangement worked for PADNOS in that it retained Fisher’s decades of industry knowledge and experience running the former Fisher Steel operations. The Padnos family also made sure Fisher’s father had an office in the company as long as he wished. “The Padnoses were very gracious to give him a place to hang his hat,” Fisher says. “Quite frankly, one of the real pluses of selling the company was that my dad didn’t have to worry about the business anymore.”

Fisher started out with Padnos on a five-year contract, even though “we weren’t 100-percent certain what I was going to do,” he says. After the first couple of years, the two parties decided to establish an aluminum trading division, which Fisher developed, managed, and operated for the next 16 years. He credits the Padnos family for being “very supportive in giving me a piece of business to operate and not micromanaging it.” Few acquiring companies, he notes, have the ability “to create the kind of culture that can support having previous owners work there. It’s a credit to the Padnoses that the arrangement worked.”

Giving Back

In addition to being a business entrepreneur, Fisher describes himself as a social entrepreneur, with four decades of involvement in community and philanthropic activities. “My early family life was all about the idea of giving back and being engaged in the community,” he says. He traces those endeavors to his family’s experience caring for his younger brother, John, who had profound mental and physical disabilities and who died at age 31. “It was really traumatic for my family,” Fisher says, noting that his parents “became involved in creating an association to help others in that regard.” Both of his parents were deeply involved for decades in other community organizations, he says, and his mother was a guidance counselor with the Muskegon Public Schools for 25 years.

In his early career, Fisher got involved in United Way and local economic development projects. Later, he became a supporter of charter schools, serving as a board member for various schools for 22 years, including two schools he helped start—the most recent one to help dropouts in Muskegon earn a high school diploma. Workforce development is another one of his top priorities. He served as co-founder and first president of Talent 2025, a 13-county organization in western Michigan that seeks to establish a globally competitive workforce in the region by 2025. He also helped form and serves as a board member for Start Garden, which he calls “an ecosystem for entrepreneurs” in western Michigan. A member of the Muskegon Rotary Club since 1987, he served as president of that organization from 2010 to 2011 and helped lead the founding of 1 in 21, a program that seeks to transform Muskegon County from one of the least-healthy Michigan counties to one of the most healthy, with a specific focus on reducing obesity and smoking. “These are the kinds of projects I like to get my fingers in, and I’ll continue doing them,” he says. “It’s a big part of what the next phase is for me.”

By next phase, Fisher means retirement. On March 1, 2017—three days after his 70th birthday and on the 18th anniversary of his tenure with Padnos—he officially brought his 42-year career in the recycling industry to a close. For the past two years, he has mentored Sam Padnos—son of Jeff Padnos, chairman of the board, and a member of the fourth generation of Padnoses in the scrap industry—to assume responsibility for the aluminum trading business. With that transition complete, Fisher is looking ahead to “the unknowns and uncertainties of retirement, which is to say the opportunity for some free time and to be creative with what that looks like,” he says. “I’ve got an awful lot of gas still left in the tank.”

His next steps will include continuing his volunteer activities; spending time with his wife and the rest of his family, including his first grandchild, Greta; and undertaking a new venture that matches retirees who want to work with available jobs. Even as he looks back on his long career in the industry with pride—on building Fisher Steel’s business, becoming an aluminum recycling expert over four decades, forging numerous win-win deals with customers, being part of the Padnos organization, and serving as a national trade association leader—Fisher refuses to rest on his past accomplishments. “I’m not done yet,” he says. “I’m just done with one segment of the journey.”

Kent Kiser is publisher of Scrap and assistant vice president of industry communications for ISRI.

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