One on One: Tom Rice

Jul 26, 2018, 20:56 PM
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July/August 2018

OneonOne_Tom-RiceHow did you enter the recycling business? After getting my business management degree from the University of Tennessee–Knoxville in 1982, I went to work in my father’s car dealership in Rockwood, Tenn., but that didn’t work out very well. So I tried the restaurant business, and then I worked for an independent insurance agency. I liked that, but the owner had some issues, so I couldn’t stay there long term. I decided I really wanted to start my own business.

At the time, my father-in-law owned a scrapyard in Columbia, Tenn., and he told me about another scrap business that was for sale: A former Alcoa engineer had an aluminum can collection business in Mount Pleasant, Tenn. He drove from city to city in middle Tennessee buying aluminum cans in shopping center parking lots. That business didn’t cost much, so I bought it from him around 1986. I covered 12 cities a week. In every city, I posted a sign that said, “Cash for Cans,” with the day of the week and the time I would be there. That’s where the name for my current business came from—CFC Recycling.

I continued that business for several years, and it was successful enough that I bought part of my father-in-law’s scrapyard, where I learned more about ferrous and nonferrous metals. Columbia, Tenn., didn’t have enough of an industrial base to support two scrapyards, so I started looking for property for my own business. I found a great spot in Tullahoma. I’d done a lot of cash-for-cans business in that area, and it had an Air Force base, so the area had a solid middle class and a good public education system. The competition level was minimal, so we leased a spot of ground there and started in 1989. Now we have two yards, including one with a transfer station, and about 80 employees. We’re also building another transfer station.


What do you like most about the recycling industry? When you go through business school, they give you a list of criteria for the perfect business. It would have a lot of barriers to entry so not everyone could do it. It would require a knowledge base that’s difficult to get unless you’re in it. It would require considerable capital. The scrap industry has all of those basic requirements, so if you can get into it, it kind of protects you. It’s not like having a McDonald’s franchise. Plus, I like all the challenges in it. It checked all the boxes for me.


What do you like least about the industry? The ongoing concern about safety. It’s hard to sleep at night worrying about my employees. Sometimes you just don’t know how to keep them safe.


What is the biggest challenge facing your company? Aside from safety, it’s always a challenge finding enough qualified employees. Our growth as a company is restricted by that factor as much as anything.


How would you sum up your business philosophy? Find the right people, then give them adequate direction and proper leadership to help them make a better living and achieve the best in their jobs.


What are the keys to success in the recycling industry? You can’t achieve success all by yourself; you need to find talented people to help you. It’s like putting a puzzle together; you need to come together to achieve success.


What lessons have you learned about business in your career? Sometimes you need to be patient to let the moon and the stars line up and not force things to happen as much. That applies whether you’re trying to grow your business or working with county or federal government officials or your employees. You can get into trouble by going at a pace that outstrips your resources—like an army fighting on an empty stomach. You plan and then you’ve got to be patient and let things work out. That’s especially hard to teach our young managers; they want to charge ahead so quickly.


How do you personally gauge success? Financial success is definitely one way. I’d like to have a steady income stream for retirement and be able to enjoy a good lifestyle. I also want to see my children advance in the business. Currently, our sons, Andrew and Alex, are working in the company with my wife, Karen, and me. Personally, I want to continue improving my professional skills through ISRI. You gain a lot of respect from your peers through the work you put in there.


What are some of your greatest personal achievements? Having my wife’s respect, raising two great sons, and having two grandkids are at the top of the list. I’m also proud that I’ve helped our church achieve financial stability.


Which of your traits do you like the most? I seem to have a good eye for what’s ahead for our business and for putting people in the right spot to be successful. My sons tell me, “You keep steering the ship, dad, and we’ll do the rest.”


Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve? My memory. I’ve avoided a lot of social situations because I can’t remember people’s names. I’d also like to work out more and spend more time trying to stay healthy.


You’ve been a great supporter of and participant in ISRI over the years. Why do you think that’s important? ISRI helps all of us achieve the professionalism we need to be respected in our communities and in the halls of government. ISRI also helps us lead instead of follow regarding laws and regulations that affect our businesses. My connections in ISRI also have helped CFC Recycling on a business level.


What are your favorite foods? Seafood is my current favorite.


Favorite drinks? I like red wine—preferably a cabernet.


Favorite places in the world? Karen and I vacation on Captiva Island in Florida in January or February. That’s my favorite spot. We also did a river cruise on the Danube with industry friends, and we had a blast. We went from Nuremburg, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary. That was more informative and more enjoyable than any trip I’ve taken in my life.


Favorite musical artists? KC and the Sunshine Band was always my favorite. I’m also a country music fan right now.


Hobbies? Karen and I own a motor coach, and we like to RV some. Depending on where we travel, that coach can be a lake house, a beach house, or a cabin. It’s our getaway.


What’s your passion? Work has been my passion over the years. When you own a business, it kind of needs to be. A lot of people say you work to live or live to work, but I could never make that distinction.


What’s your guilty pleasure? We have a skybox at my alma mater—the University of Tennessee–Knoxville—to watch UT football. We share it with some friends, so we usually get four to six tickets a year.


What makes you mad? Dealing with some of our county officials has made me madder than anything over the years, mostly because they can be unreasonable and unwilling to hear both sides of an issue.


Is there anything you still want to accomplish in your career, or have you achieved your goals? I’m not done yet. We’re still exploring other business opportunities, changing our business model a bit. I want to hire more talented people and help them achieve success. And I’d still like to participate in ISRI and have a small impact in the future.


Do you have any words of wisdom for the next scrap generation? You just can’t do it all. You’ve got to delegate, you’ve got to have talented people to help you, and you need the right resources, like ISRI.

One on One: Tom Rice, CFC Recycling (Tullahoma Tenn.)

  • 2018
  • Jul_Aug

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