One on One: Lenny Formato, Empire Metal Trading (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Dec 10, 2019, 20:05 PM
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November/December 2019

Feature Graphics 300 x 2007How did you enter the recycling business? My family has been in the scrap business since the early 1900s. We got magnets instead of rattles when we were babies. Seriously though, I went to work at my family’s scrapyard in 1990. I thought it was only going to be temporary, but I ended up working with my father and staying until it closed in 2015. That was a challenging point in my life because I was trying to figure out the next step in my career. A friend of mine, Wayne King, had a scrap metal facility in Brooklyn, and he was kind enough to let me store equipment there during that time. One day I went out to see him, and we started talking. I think we both realized that we had a lot of the same business philosophies, and we decided to work together to create a new great chapter in our lives, our company Empire Metal Trading. We’ve combined the best of the new and the old, as my original company was incorporated in 1927, and Wayne’s company started in 1922.

Did you ever consider doing anything else for a career? I actually wanted to go into TV production after college. I directed a college news show my senior year. I enjoyed directing, as the job entailed having to pay attention to many different aspects of a show: cameras, crew, anchors, etc. It was similar to operating a small business, actually.

What do you like most about the recycling industry? I have been fortunate to see the evolution of the industry through my career. I can remember dropping off containers for plastic at the New York City Marathon 30 years ago to try to educate people on recycling, and I remember sitting in meetings, watching my father and others create New York City’s recycling program. I liked working with people who had great vision to create what could be possible in our industry. Equally as important is the livelihood this industry provides to so many, blue-collar to white-collar and everything in between.

What do you like least about the industry? The fact that the environment that we work in is unforgiving and dangerous at times. This is a personal question to me, as I work outside in the scrap metal yard most of the time. Of course, safety is first. We all want to go home to our families every day. The reality, though, is that we are all aware of the inherent challenges in the field we work in. That being said, I am grateful for how hard ReMA works at giving us the tools we need to continue to run our operations safely.

What’s the biggest business challenge that your company faces right now? Our fixed costs, for sure, are a huge challenge. Another is going to be finding employees to replace those who will be retiring in years to come—and achieving the same success we have had with our current employees.

How would you sum up your business philosophy? As the saying goes, “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.” You never know when you’ll meet someone again. Along those lines, treat your employees fairly. They are the lifeblood of any company. I am very fortunate to work with the one of the best groups of people I ever have in my life.

What are the keys to success in the recycling industry? Integrity, consistency, and reliability. Customers have enough on their plate in their jobs. Make their jobs easier by trying to keep the surprises to a minimum.

What lessons have you learned about business in your career? Keep your eyes open to new ideas which may not be part of your normal course of thinking. Scrap recycling is a constantly evolving industry. Never rule anything out. And do a lot of listening.

What’s the strangest or funniest experience you’ve had? Our company had a scale man, Angelo, whose son-in-law also worked at the yard. Angelo would let his son-in-law use one of his cars to get to work. One day they were both on the road, and—I’m not sure how—they had an accident with each other. There was a lawsuit, and Angelo, because he owned both cars, was the plaintiff and the defendant. I still laugh to this day picturing him running from table to table in court.

How do you personally gauge success? By the difference I make in other people’s lives.

What are some of your greatest personal achievements? Two have been watching my children grow up and mature into adults, and being married for over 27 years to my best friend, Annmarie. I’m also proud of working with many of the same people for over 25 years.

Which of your traits do you like the most? I feel grateful for every day.

Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve? I tend to micromanage, which can sometimes cloud the bigger picture. [Also,] on occasion, when a large challenge comes up, staying in the present to work through it. 

You’ve been a great supporter of and participant in ReMA over the years. Why do you think that’s important? I have actually been involved in ReMA my whole life. I can remember, as a young man, going to meetings with my father, who was very active in ISRI. I saw firsthand how important being an active member of the organization was and is to our whole industry. Though we still have many challenges, we owe much of our ability to do business in a fair environment to ISRI.

What are your favorite movies? Fletch, Jaws, Rear Window, and Caddyshack.

Favorite TV shows? The Twilight Zone, Seinfeld, The Honeymooners, and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Favorite places in the world? First, New York City. There is truly no place else like it in the world. A close second is Rome. I love the fact that, though it is a bustling modern city, you can walk the same streets that Michelangelo did as he went to work at the Sistine Chapel.

Favorite foods? Most tapas, especially tortilla Española. Also chicken and rice.

Favorite drinks? Espresso, Guinness, and single malt whisky.

Favorite musical artists? Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin.

What’s your passion? Doing the best I can every day and living up to the expectations I set for myself.

What are your hobbies? I’ve been trying to get the hang of golf for 20 years, but I haven’t found my Zen. I would say exercising and walking are my hobbies. 

What’s your guilty pleasure? Happy hour.

What makes you mad? I truly try not to get mad or be angry. However, I will get mad if I find out safety has been compromised.

Is there anything you still want to accomplish in your career, or have you achieved your goals? I’m a long way from achieving my goals, as I constantly set new ones. I just want to continue to do the best I can every day and see what the universe throws at me as I go. I hope one day to be able to walk on the beach every day.

Do you have any words of wisdom for the next scrap generation? Slow and steady wins the race. I understand that people’s concept of time changes as they get older, but all good things take time. Always strive for forward motion, and do not compromise yourself or your values as you make progress in your career. And, as I mentioned before, do a lot of listening.

One on One: Lenny Formato,  Empire Metal Trading (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
  • 2019
  • Nov_Dec

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