No matter what city the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) chooses to host its annual convention, the recycling industry's army of delegates takes over the town.
For five days in May, San Diego took on temporary status as "Recycling Central" when just shy of 4,500 delegates—the second-largest attendance on record—made California's second-largest city their home away from home.
Although known as a big convention town, San Diego seemed to take a special shine to ISRI. Cab drivers asked riders again and again what group was in town, and signs inviting ISRI members to come on in were posted in the windows of nearly every shop and restaurant in the adjacent Gaslamp Quarter.
This year's attendance figure might have set a new record were it not for the timing of the event. Noticeably absent were a number of scrap brokers who passed up the convention because it was held in the first week of the month, when they are busy shopping for scrap for their client mills. The downward momentum of the market also kept other members at home as they pushed to unload inventory to manage costs.
Although efforts by ISRI to attract recyclers handling tires, plastics and electronic scrap may be alienating a portion of their traditional scrap metal base, it is clear that networking is the number one reason recyclers of all ilks attend the event. And while major sessions such as the "Spotlight on Iron and Steel" filled the enormous ballroom, many individual sessions drew 50 or fewer attendees.
Still, the sessions, which covered a multitude of topics geared toward ferrous and nonferrous recyclers, tackled many unglamorous, yet key, issues, such as stormwater management, combustible dust and how to improve shredding operations.
In contrast, the exhibit hall bustled with activity throughout the course of the event. The hall played host to more than 250 exhibitors, including companies like Liebherr Group, which brought along full-scale versions of its scrap handling equipment. It also was the favored place to see and be seen, renew old acquaintances and catch up on market buzz.
Condoleezza Rice, the convention's keynote speaker, was a major draw, with a quick sampling of attendees indicating the audience was thoroughly impressed by the former U.S. Secretary of State. Rice's speaker fee reportedly is around $150,000, roughly the same amount earned by her former boss, President George W. Bush.
As part of this year's gathering, ISRI took time to honor two retired industry veterans with lifetime achievement awards Marvin Siegel, formerly of Spartanburg Iron & Metal Corp. in South Carolina, and Tom Salome, who spent his career at M. Lipsitz & Co. in Waco, Texas
On the sidelines after the official recognition ceremonies, Salome recalled how "Mr. Lipsitz" was shocked to see actual buying prices posted on a brand-new board and prominently displayed. The competitors didn't like the new strategy either, but the customers did. Decades later, the same pricing board started by Salome is a permanent fixture.
Siegel's success is legendary. He left a job in the textile industry in 1997 to become a partner in a small operation. Through a merger and acquisitions, Siegel grew the business into one of the largest scrap processing and recycling companies in the country. The company became known as Carolina Recycling Group and ultimately was sold to OmniSource.
ISRI chairman George Adams, known for sporting trademark hats created for him exclusively by a Chicago hat maker, passed the gavel to new chairman John Sacco, president of Bakerfield, Calif.-based Sierra International LLC, which operates scrapyards and is involved in the scrap equipment industry.
The face of the convention has changed in recent years. Besides embracing recycling businesses outside metals, the event attracts a significant number of delegates from other countries who show up to find and cultivate new scrap contacts. One convention veteran quipped that recent events look more like a United Nations conference than the gathering of a U.S. trade association. These visitors are supportive of ISRI, pay dues and are full members. Their presence also underscores the growing influence on, and importance exports play in, scrap market dynamics.
American pride did exude in one major session, however, when a hedge-fund panelist suggested that the U.S. embrace the European way and the moderator countered, "We don't want to be like Europe." The retort was met with thunderous applause.
One of the things ISRI does exceptionally well is inject a little fun into an otherwise very serious mission, such as promoting the message that safety in the workplace is more than a challenge and must become a way of life. To drive that message home, ISRI hired a professional actor known as "Dave" to deliver the mantra in a series of videos. Dave appeared live on stage complete with hard hat and sporting an out-of-place necktie to catch the attention of the crowd.
"I think you think ISRI got me off a supermodel gig," the unshaved actor told the audience in San Diego. Effective? You bet. You could hear a pin drop when Dave's newest safety video hit the screen. LISA GORDON