Story and photos by Megan Quinn
Becky Proler remembers sitting in her family’s scrapyard at age six, magnet in hand, combing the dirt for tiny pieces of metal. Under the scrapyard employees’ watchful eye, she listened to the rumble and crunch of the shredder as she played. The magnet was a toy to her but an important tool to her family’s ferrous-focused scrapyard. “With the Prolers, the saying was, ‘If it doesn’t stick to a magnet, ignore it,’” she says.
She didn’t realize those childhood memories would be so important until 20 years later, when she started her own recycling-related business in 1989. Southern Core Recycling, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, started as a reseller of automobile cores, but it has since evolved into a full-service scrapyard that has found its niche supplying steel mills with cast iron and primary and secondary aluminum consumers with aluminum. The company has endured in Houston’s competitive marketplace, where dozens of scrapyards compete with each other for contracts with major suppliers in the oil and gas and construction industries. With Proler at the helm; sisters Kari Coffey and Shari Conner managing daily operations and finances, respectively; and 35 employees working closely together, the team has turned the company into one of the largest suppliers of crushed cast in the country.
Building a business
“It’s really no exaggeration when I say this business is in my blood,” Proler says. Her family spans three generations and nearly 100 years in scrap metal recycling. Ben Proler, Becky’s grandfather, started a scrapyard in Houston in the mid-1920s that would eventually become Proler International, where her father, Jackie Proler, worked for most of his life. Her uncles, Israel and Hermann Proler, took over the company from Ben and ran it until 1985. Israel’s sons, Bill and Ronny Proler, worked at Proler International until 1992, when they left to start Proler Southwest. Schnitzer Steel Industries acquired Proler International and Sims Metal Management acquired Proler Southwest, both in the late 1990s. Another uncle, Sam Proler, is credited with inventing the first auto shredder, which he patented in 1960.
Despite that family history and despite the fact that the family scrapyard was like a second home to her, Proler says she initially had no plans to join the family business. “It was more common that the boys in our family would get into it,” she says. “My brothers were encouraged, but I was dissuaded. I was brought up in a supportive environment, and no one told me not to go into” recycling, but at that time it wasn’t common for women to go into the business, she says. Instead, her family assumed she would go to college and get married soon after.
After earning degrees from Westchester University and Temple University, Proler started working as a psychologist in Philadelphia. It didn’t take long for her to get tired of the harsh winters in Philly and plot her move back to Houston, however. “I didn’t want to do psychology. I was working three jobs and wasn’t happy,” she says. Her father remembered how much she loved spending time in the scrapyard when she was younger, so he offered her a job taking his pick-and-pull business in a new direction. “My family was always looking to expand” the business, she explains. “My dad knew automobile cores had a remanufacturing value, but he needed someone who could develop the market.” Proler took to her first official scrapyard job with gusto, learning details about automobile cores from suppliers, her family, and others in the industry. Her father became her main mentor. “It was like learning a foreign language, but after a while I could look in a parking lot and tell you every motor under every single hood.”
In 1989, one of her suppliers who was another mentor, Alan Walker, invited her to open SCR in the corner of a scrapyard he ran with his wife, Carol, and his daughters, Kari Coffey and Shari Conner. “Alan, along with my father, are the ones who gave me my first big break and really mentored me, Kari, and Shari,” she says. Carol, who had years of experience doing accounting and insurance for recycling and other small businesses, became SCR’s co-founder. She helped Proler set up the business and handled back office operations while Proler focused on the cores. Conner and Coffey would eventually join the company as well.
In the beginning, Proler bought old motors and transmissions from salvage yards and dismantled, cleaned, and sold them to remanufacturers like Ford and Chrysler. She sold the cast iron from crankshafts and other car parts to nearby foundries. Business was strong for the first few years, but by the mid-’90s, the core business began to dwindle as consumers adopted new ways of buying automobile parts. “The aftermarket parts business really killed the core business,” says Coffey, now SCR’s vice president of nonferrous. “Stores like Auto Zone came in, where you could start to buy cores cheap from China.” Inexpensive new cars also made the core business a less attractive option, Proler adds. “You could get cars with $0 down” instead of investing in expensive repairs. SCR still had to pay its employees for the labor-intensive process of taking apart transmissions and engines by hand, but “we weren’t seeing the growth we wanted. We knew we had to reinvent ourselves.”
While the market for cores was dwindling, Proler noticed another trend that suggested a business opportunity: marketing scrap to aluminum and cast foundries. To comply with corporate average fuel economy standards, automakers were producing cars with more and more aluminum parts, such as cast aluminum engine blocks and car bodies, to make them more lightweight and fuel-efficient. Shifting gears to recycle more aluminum seemed promising, but there was one problem: No one at SCR had a background in processing, marketing, or selling nonferrous metals. Proler knew her ferrous-focused family couldn’t give her nonferrous advice, but the family knew a thing or two about innovation. “My father and uncles always looked for new markets,” she says. “I was exposed at a young age to people who taught me how to make something better.”
Proler and her team set out to learn everything they could about their new scrap stream by making plenty of calls and fostering new business connections. They got help mastering metals identification (“At first, all the alloys just looked like aluminum,” Coffey says) and took a critical look at their equipment and processing capabilities. “The learning curve is steep,” Coffey says. “We wanted to get the right cast, get the eddy-current [separator] in the right place, learn how to blend [scrap] just right for the customer.”
They looked to their existing customers for help, too. SCR was already selling cast iron to Fiat and Caterpillar, so they discussed what it would take to sell them cast aluminum, too. “They really worked with us because SCR could provide a constant stream of supply that they could melt.” In 2006, Alan and Carol Walker sold their scrap business to The David J. Joseph Co., and SCR moved to the full seven-acre plot where they remain today. “That meant Becky could really start getting into the scrap metal side of the business even more,” says Conner, SCR’s CFO.
Refining the niche
To stay competitive in its niche, the company needed ways to make a clean, high-quality product more efficiently from the material it was buying from a variety of peddlers, dealers, and salvage yards across the United States and Mexico, so it invested in some big equipment. In 2008, SCR purchased a cast crusher, which employees call “Buster.” Buster crushes cast motor blocks to separate the aluminum from cast iron, improving capacity and cutting down on the labor-intensive job of manually separating these grades of metal. Before Buster, workers stood at a conveyor and took apart transmissions by hand, which could take hours. Buster helps SCR keep up with demand from foundries serving companies like Fiat, Caterpillar, and Tyler Pipe, as well as other Tier 1 automotive companies or secondary scrap ingot casters. To offer aluminum products that meet mill specifications, SCR also needed something to improve aluminum fractions. In 2011, the company installed its aluminum shredder, named “Tiny” because an employee poked fun at how small it looked compared with a megashredder at a nearby yard. Competing scrapyards with megashredders typically focus on volume, but SCR wanted to develop options for its aluminum, Proler says. SCR’s general manager, Gilbert Smolik, designed a special downstream system to help the company separate shredded aluminum into specialized products.
SCR has a close relationship with its buyers, who often send representatives to look over material and discuss their specifications in person. “That’s a good sign when they come through the door,” Proler says. “They need to see what they’re buying, and the melt shop guys are the ones who decide whether you get their business or not.” SCR has access to rail shipping, which helps the company sell directly to faraway customers, but it most often does business with cast aluminum mills in nearby Mexico.
By the time SCR got the shredder running, business was doing great. Yet the company had to adjust to other changes: Carol Walker, who stepped back from the business in 2006 for health reasons, died in 2015, leaving Conner, a CPA, to take on more bookkeeping and finance tasks. The loss hit the tight-knit company hard, but Proler, Coffey, and Conner say the close relationships they had with Carol Walker and have with each other is one of SCR’s strengths.
Houston’s intensely competitive job market pits scrapyards against the construction and oil and gas sectors in employee recruitment, so a supportive work environment means a lot to their employees, Coffey says. Robin Chrisip, SCR’s weighmaster, has worked for the company for 26 years. She admits she wasn’t picky when she applied to work there. “I just needed a job,” she says. But the close-knit environment made it easy to stay. “The job market is scary, and if you can get a good job, you want to keep it, especially if it’s a good place to work with good people,” she says. Moises Hernandez, SCR’s operations manager, has been with the company for 11 years. “Every day is a new challenge, but it’s a family-owned business where the environment is very friendly,” he says. “There’s something to look forward to every day.” The company organizes communal meals for holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter, an annual barbecue where it shows a slideshow of the year’s accomplishments, and birthday celebrations for each of the 35 staff members, Chrisip adds. She recalls that in 2017, the solar eclipse happened on one of the employee’s birthdays. Senior staff bought everyone special glasses to watch the eclipse and hired a snow cone truck to hand out treats. “We even had a snowball fight” with snow cone snow, she says.
Proler, Coffey, and Conner say their employees keep them focused on creating a safe and supportive work environment. “The people who work for us rely on us. Their families rely on us to get a paycheck,” Coffey says.
A culture of respect
SCR’s leaders face the added pressure to prove themselves as women in a male-dominated industry, Proler says. “Women get tested a lot. But if we are not successful, our companies are not successful.” Thirty years ago, it wasn’t as common for women to be in scrap industry leadership roles as it is today, she says. She knew other women who worked for scrapyards, but it was more typical for them to be at the front desk, somewhere in the office, or maybe working the scales, she says. As a young female business owner, she braced herself for whistles and stares when she walked into other yards or manufacturing facilities. “All of us women [at SCR] have done the same jobs as men,” Proler says. “We’ve driven the wheel loaders, we’ve worked the scales.”
While Proler today enjoys the nickname “Queen of Cast,” she says she occasionally still encounters situations where people assume she knows little about the industry. She has been able to turn those situations around for the better, however. Just a few years ago, an employee at an equipment parts store refused to listen when Proler told him the parts he gave her were the incorrect size. She asked him to call her boss for clarification. Proler remembers the shocked look on his face when he dialed the number and watched her answer the call on her cellphone, right in front of him. “After that, it was never a problem again,” she says.
Attitudes on gender are slowly changing for the better, Proler, Coffey, and Conner say. Their employees, especially their younger hires, have no trouble working for a company where the owner and top managers are women. The Houston area also has other women-run scrapyards and female leaders who are involved in ISRI’s Gulf Coast Chapter and ISRI’s national board and committees. (See “ISRI’s Women in Recycling Group Builds Momentum,” page 156). “It shows that women in leadership isn’t an outlier,” Proler says.
She sees these changing attitudes at recycling industry events, too. During her father’s generation, it was common for owners—mostly older white men—to bring their wives and children to ISRI conventions. Today, the industry is still family-centered, but families are more diverse, and younger professionals and women show up in leadership roles. Proler sometimes brings her wife of 25 years, Gretchen Gemeinhardt, a professor at the University of Texas, to ISRI events. Just a generation earlier, her family life “is something that wouldn’t be talked about,” Proler says.
The recycling industry can still do more to help recruit and support women in all scrapyard positions, however, Proler says. “If you don’t see your peers when you walk through the door, that’s tough,” she says. That said, she knows her own success story won’t be the last. “We’ve watched gender issues evolve over the last 30 years,” Proler says. “Kari, Shari, and I grew up surrounded by people who never looked at us and said, ‘You can’t do this.’ That’s how we’ve lived and how we’ve grown our business.”
Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.
ISRI’S Women in recycling group builds momentum
Nidhi Turakhia recalls attending an ISRI meeting a few years ago, looking around, and seeing few other female faces. “I know there are more women in the industry than this,” she remembers thinking. “How do we get them in the room?”
Women hold myriad jobs in the recycling industry, but they often aren’t as well-represented in ISRI as their male counterparts, says Turakhia, left, executive vice president of Allied Alloys (Houston). She is now co-chair of a new ISRI group that aims to encourage and support women in ISRI and in the recycling industry. The Women in Recycling group plans to organize events where women can network, find a mentor, plug into professional development opportunities, gain visibility, and build a strong community within the recycling industry, in part by getting more women involved in ISRI at the chapter and national level.
ISRI had a similar group, the Women’s Council, about 15 years ago, says President Robin Wiener, but members weren’t able to keep the momentum going. “It wasn’t as clear at the time how to fill the need that was there,” she says. Then, last year, she met with members of the Association of Women in the Metal Industries, “a fantastic group” that inspired her to help restart the ISRI effort. She invited women to attend a networking breakfast at ISRI2018 and asked them for their thoughts on how ISRI can support them and attract more women into recycling. Brandi
Harleaux, left, chief operations officer at South Post Oak Recycling (Houston), signed on as the group’s co-chair soon after. “I was already meeting up with women in the industry” at the Gulf Coast Chapter meetings, ISRI’s conventions, and the Commodities Roundtable Forum, Harleaux says, and she made it a habit to reach out to women recyclers whenever she traveled. “I thought, why not do this on a bigger scale?”
The new Women in Recycling group had its first meeting at the July 2018 ISRI board and leadership meeting, and the ideas started flowing. There is no time to waste, Turakhia says. “In the 1960s and ’70s, recycling was a blue-collar job, and it wasn’t so common” for women to work in scrap facilities, she says. “We’re starting to trickle in, but we have 30 to 40 years to catch up in the industry.” One way to do so is to connect women with ISRI resources they might not know about, such as training opportunities, webinars, or other events. “We don’t want to re-create the wheel, we just want people to have access and information,” Harleaux says.
Building one-on-one relationships is another major goal for the group. The organizers envision launching a mentorship program that would match women with recyclers of any gender who are at different points in their career. Both Harleaux and Turakhia say their fathers served as mentors who provided invaluable experience and insight into the industry that helped them become successful today. “Not everyone gets to have that type of relationship, so we want to help make that possible for other people,” Harleaux says.
Although the group’s main focus is creating opportunities for women at all levels of the recycling industry, participation is not restricted to women. Keeping the group open to all genders is an important way to build community while building support for the cause, Harleaux says. Organizers drew inspiration from ISRI’s Young Executives group, which offers networking and professional development opportunities for recyclers under age 40. “That group has really created a good community, and we want to do that, too—build those sustainable relationships in the industry for women,” she says.
The long-term goal is to inspire all ISRI member companies, as well as the association, to make room for women in ways that benefit the whole recycling industry, organizers say. The more women who participate in ISRI and share their perspectives and expertise, the easier it will be for event planners to think of them as guest speakers, and for chapters to invite them to participate in community-building events or networking sessions, Harleaux says. When deciding whom to send to conferences or training, “sometimes it’s just a habit that you send the usual suspects,” but companies can take a moment to identify employees that haven’t had a chance to participate yet, who might be women.
Women in Recycling is building momentum—now all people have to do is jump on board, Turakhia says. “The idea is to involve women from every part of the industry, not just women at the top, to be more plugged in.”
Upcoming opportunities to get involved include a panel discussion at 11:15 a.m. April 10 at ISRI2019 in Los Angeles. Other convention-related events are in the works. Check isri2019.org or the conference program for up-to-date details.
Visit ISRI.org/GetInvolved or contact Women in Recycling liaison Rachel Bookman at email@example.com or 202/662-8518.
Southern core recycling celebrates its 30th anniversary this year as a niche recycler of cast iron and aluminum. President becky proler credits the tight-knit staff for innovating and adapting in a competitive market.