One on One: David Chiao, Uni-All Group (Atlanta)
How did you enter the recycling business? I was in the logistics business in Atlanta in the early 1980s, and one of my customers was Uni-All, a trading company that sold scrap to Taiwan, with a little bit to Japan and South Korea. I got to know the owner of Uni-All, and one day he said he was looking for a business partner. When I decided to quit my logistics job in 1983, I joined Uni-All. I bought my partner out in 2012, so I am now the company owner and president.
Did you originally plan to pursue a different career? I left my home country of Taiwan in 1977 to attend the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I earned a business management degree in 1980. After graduating, I thought I would work for a financial institution, but the logistics field was booming at the time, so I started working in that business before entering the scrap industry.
What do you like most about the recycling industry? I like that it’s an environmentally conscious industry. Our industry finds positive ways to reuse and recycle different types of scrap materials, giving them another life.
What do you like least about the industry? Every day we are so afraid of being cheated because of quality claims. We have to always be prepared for that.
What is the biggest challenge facing your company? Uni-All is a small, privately owned company, and it can be hard to convince suppliers that we are trustworthy. We’ve been in business since 1983, so you would think that our longevity would have proved our trustworthiness by now.
How would you sum up your business philosophy? My philosophy is based on three points: First of all, be professional. When customers deal with us, we want to make sure they know they’re dealing with a professional team. Second is credibility—we do what we say we will do. And No. 3 is being knowledgeable—understanding the materials, the markets, and the industry.
What lessons have you learned about business in your career? Everything goes back to the basics in that supply and demand define the market trend. I also believe that if you are a good person, you will most likely be a trustworthy businessperson.
How do you personally gauge success? Success for me is being respected by the people around me—my family, my friends, my customers.
Tell me about a weird or funny experience in your career. When I was just starting in this business, I received a $4,000 quality claim on a scrap shipment. I notified the supplier who sold me the scrap about the claim, and he said he would resolve it, but then he changed jobs. No one took over his position, so I ended up having to pay the claim out of my own pocket. Fast-forward 20 years, and one day I received a note and a $4,000 check from that person. His conscience made him pay me back 20 years later.
You’ve been a great supporter of and participant in ISRI over the years. Why do you think that’s important? There are so many issues we need to watch and address. If we don’t support organizations like ISRI, everybody will lose.
What are some of your greatest personal achievements? I’m proud that I was elected to serve as president of the Non-Ferrous Metals Division of the Bureau of International Recycling (Brussels). I wasn’t expecting that. I’m also honored to serve as chair of ISRI’s Trade Committee.
Which of your traits do you like the most? People like to play golf with me. When I started taking golf lessons in my late 30s, the coach asked me, “David, do you know how to become a good golfer? It has nothing to do with the score. When everybody likes to play golf with you, then you’re a good golfer.” I think that’s a great philosophy. I’m fun to play with because I always share some jokes, and I’m pretty calm. I don’t get mad about my bad shots or if my partner hits a bad shot. I just enjoy the game and the company.
Hobbies? Besides golfing, I like cooking—I think I’m pretty creative in my preparations. I also like to fish. I always wanted to learn how to sail, but Atlanta is not a great place for that.
Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve? I’d like to lose a few pounds, but I’m pretty happy overall with who I am right now.
What are your favorite movies? I like action movies the most, like Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator. Sully is the most recent movie I liked. I also enjoy comedies.
The reason I love Saving Private Ryan is because it reminds me of my late father. During World War II, he was a fighter pilot for the Republic of China—not the People’s Republic of China, as today—working with the U.S. Army Air Corps in a unit called the Chinese-American Composite Wing. He was shot down by the Japanese over occupied territory in China. The Japanese army chased him, and the underground Chinese resistance saved him from capture but lost 14 lives.
Favorite cuisine? I would prefer to eat a different cuisine every day, but if I had to pick one favorite, it would be Italian.
Favorite drinks? I like red wine—especially cabernet sauvignon. I’m also a big fan of coffee. I have my own espresso machines in the office, at home, almost everywhere I go. I’ve got to have my espresso!
Favorite cities in the world? Atlanta is my favorite city, but I also like Taipei, Taiwan, and Chengdu, China.
Favorite TV shows? Besides news, I like to watch Family Feud. It’s a good laugh, and it’s educational because it talks about survey results, which increase my understanding of my community and our society.
What’s your guilty pleasure? I like to smoke a cigar about once a week. You need to be relaxed and be able to sit outdoors to enjoy a cigar, so in wintertime it’s almost impossible. I like to have a glass of scotch or a beer with my cigar.
What makes you mad? I get mad whenever someone tries to cheat me.
What constitutes a perfect day for you? I’d wake up about 6 a.m., make an espresso and breakfast, then go to work and do a few deals in the morning. Then I’d take off in the afternoon with my golfing buddy. That would be a perfect day.
If you had three wishes, what would you ask for (besides additional wishes)? I have only one wish, and it is that everything could happen just like the lyrics of “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
Is there anything you still want to accomplish in your career? In business, there’s always more room to grow. Uni-All has one location in Atlanta and one facility in Taizhou, China, and I’d like to see those operations continue to grow financially.
Any words of wisdom for the next scrap generation? I would tell them that even though technology is advancing very fast in this business, don’t forget that this industry is always based on the basics of supply and demand, quality, and price. Another very important fundamental is to maintain good relationships with your loyal customers. And the most fundamental point is the need to be a good businessperson—someone who is trustworthy and credible.