How did you enter the recycling business? I was born into the business. My grandfather started Dixie Iron & Metal Co. in Atlanta in 1919, and my father and my uncle joined the company around World War II. As a youth, I worked in the business during summers, driving trucks, operating cranes, and cutting scrap with a torch. I did a little bit of everything. I continued working in the company while I was a student at Georgia Tech, and I joined the business full time after graduating in 1972 with a degree in industrial management.
Did you ever plan to pursue a different career? Once I started college, it was clear I was headed into the family business. After entering the industry, I got involved in ISIS [the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel, an ISRI predecessor] and ISRI, serving as legislative chair of the Southeastern Chapter and in other positions. After we sold our company in 1986, I followed my interest in government affairs by opening my own firm, named Resource Services, in 1987. I represented ISRI’s Southeastern Chapter as well as recycling companies, including Central Metals Co. in Atlanta. In 1996, Alan Cohen, Mark Cohen, and Marty Kogon—Central’s principals—started Pull-A-Part, a self-service used auto parts operation, as a way to get more cars for their shredder, and I handled the zoning and permitting work for the first facility. As Pull-A-Part opened other locations, I did the zoning and permitting work for those as well. The owners eventually decided to sell Central Metals and take Pull-A-Part national. At that point, my work for the company was taking more and more of my time, and they brought me into the company in 2005, where I now serve as executive vice president.
What do you like most about the recycling industry? The short and simple answer is the people. I have made lifelong friends in the business and had wonderful mentors along the way, including Marvin Kaiman of Pensacola Scrap Processors [Pensacola, Fla.], who was legislative chairman of the Southeastern Chapter when I started, and [former ISRI Executive Director] Herschel Cutler. When I worked in my family’s company, I liked how every day was different. I happened to work there during a transitional time, when our industry was making a conscious effort to shed the junkyard image and become recyclers. One of the first projects I got involved with for the industry in Atlanta was an effort to eliminate the “Junkyard” heading in the Yellow Pages. The different challenges each day continue to excite me.
What is the biggest challenge facing your company now? Industry image. Being in the used car parts business, we have to constantly show we don’t operate junkyards. We don’t even use that word. The good news is we’ve been very successful at differentiating Pull-A-Part from that negative image.
How would you sum up your business philosophy? Be optimistic, confident, and prepared. In the Mel Brooks movie The Twelve Chairs, there’s a song titled “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.” I follow a variation on that—I hope for the best, but I prepare for the worst. As a result, I generally get the best outcome. Credibility also is essential. When I was in the scrap business, I had lots of physical assets, but when I went into lobbying, I had one asset, and that was my credibility. Having credibility has enabled me to do much of what I’ve been able to do.
How do you personally gauge success? In my personal life, success is raising a son who has gone on to do well and provide my wife, Janice, and me with two gorgeous grandchildren. In my professional life, I measure success in terms of working with other groups, developing coalitions, and building consensus to pass legislation and regulations beneficial to the industry.
What are some of your greatest personal achievements? I’ve received a lot of recognitions, which are always nice. To note two, the Automotive Recyclers Association [Manassas, Va.] gave me its President’s Award in 2013, and the Georgia Recycling Coalition [Atlanta] selected me as an inaugural member of its Hall of Fame. But I get great satisfaction from knowing I’ve helped win legislative and regulatory victories not just for the benefit of my company, but for the industries I’ve represented.
Which of your traits do you like the most? Probably my ability to develop consensus and coalitions—getting people to work toward the same goal. That’s important because none of what I’ve achieved have I done by myself. You’ve heard the phrase about using OPM—other people’s money—to succeed; I’ve used OPI—other people’s influence—in a cooperative manner.
Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve? There are always things to improve, every day. For instance, I’ve lost 50 pounds, but I have a few more pounds to go.
Tell me something about yourself that would surprise people. I’m an avid fly fisherman as well as a certified fly-casting instructor. I also used to have a problem with public speaking when I was in college, which I clearly have overcome.
You’ve been a great supporter of and participant in ISRI over the years. Why do you think that’s important? I learned early in life that there’s strength in numbers. I’ve always seen the benefits of working together and the dangers of not. I credit my grandfather with showing me the importance of competing businesses coming together for a common goal. In 1932, he and other scrap dealers formed the Atlanta Reclaimers Association—which later became the Georgia Recyclers Association—to fight a city ordinance that would have crippled the scrap metal industry in the city. Although those guys competed head-to-head all day long, they realized the importance of coming together to deal with that issue, and they succeeded in altering the legislation. That example proved that when we work together for a common goal, we can achieve what none of us could accomplish individually.
What are your favorite movies? Any Mel Brooks movie.
Favorite foods? A perfectly cooked Pittsburgh-style rib-eye steak.
Favorite drinks? A Ketel One martini, up, with olives and onions. As a native of Atlanta, I also drink Coca-Cola—or, as we say it, “Co-cola.”
Favorite places in the world? First, Israel—I had a couple of wonderful trips there. Second, anyplace with water so I can scuba dive or fly-fish.
Favorite TV shows? House of Cards and VEEP. I also like cooking and home improvement shows, such as America’s Test Kitchen and This Old House.
What makes you mad? Intolerance and the inability to compromise.
Is there anything you still want to accomplish in your career? There are always things left to accomplish. There are still lots of legislative improvements that can be made for the industry, particularly on issues such as the definition of solid waste and car detitling.
What are your thoughts about retirement at this point? I’m looking forward to slowing down some, maybe easing into retirement and spending more time on my hobbies. There are a whole lot of fish out there that need to get caught, and I look forward to doing that. I’d like to study to become a master casting instructor. I’d also like to spend more time with my family and travel more.
Do you have any words of wisdom for the next scrap generation? You’re in a remarkable industry made up of some of the best people you’ll ever meet. There will be more opportunities for you than my generation ever had. Learn to work together, despite whatever differences you might have. Also, get involved, and believe you can accomplish anything. As I always say, don’t tell me what I can’t do because if I don’t know I can’t do it, then I might mess up and do it.
Scrap’s personal Q-and-A interview with Steve Levetan, executive vice president, Pull-A-Part, LLC, is an award-winning family business serving the do it-yourself, used auto parts market.