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Full of Scrap: Wendy Neu’s mettle has driven herself, her business

Aug 28, 2012 | 08:00 PM | Lisa Gordon

Tags  Full of Scrap, Wendy Neu, WeRecycle! LLC., Hugo Neu, Lisa Gordon

She broke barriers when entering the secondary metals industry, and has continued to break new ground—and old rules—ever since.

Whoever coined the adage “It’s a man’s world” apparently forgot to tell English immigrant Wendy Kelman, who arrived in East Brunswick, N.J., as a child in the 1960s.

Her career path might spark confusion among the plethora of women who wed well-heeled men and were only too happy to trade in their working shoes for a closet full of Jimmy Choo stilettos. She entered the secondary metals industry at a time when females were dispatched to the secretarial pool, won over environmentalists, started an electronics recycling company and married one of the most prominent men in the U.S. scrap arena, John Neu.

Wendy Neu’s journey began with the quintessential ideals infused in teens growing up in America: she was determined to make the world a better place. After graduating from college, she took a job as a social worker at a maximum-security prison, the first female—aside from a nun—to work in such a position. “I learned probably the most important lesson of my young 21 years—that life was not fair, and luck had as much to do with one’s situation in life as much as any other factor,” she told attendees at an Association of Women in the Metal Industries (AWMI) meeting. “Changing the world was hard work and I wasn’t very good at it.”

Suffering burnout and faced with the disillusion of youthful aspirations, her father suggested she apply for a job at Hugo Neu Corp. Ironically, her only condition was that she wouldn’t have to work with chief executive officer John Neu, who was considered more than a little intimidating. “That’s saying something from someone who had worked with death row inmates,” she said.

Once again, she found herself in a male-dominated world. “The only women that worked at Hugo Neu were in secretarial positions; but I survived,” she said. Working her way up from traffic to preparing documents and collecting under letters of credit, she was finally promoted to work at a New Jersey scrapyard. It was there that Wendy Neu revealed her moxie, using her diplomatic ability to win over the mindset of environmentalists and make a lifelong ally of its ringleader. When the company decided to embark on a dredging project, she took the initiative and invited the local Baykeeper organization to tour the scrapyard, offering a proverbial olive branch before the environmental group attempted to delay the project and ultimately drive up costs.

“This might not sound so revolutionary, but back then the only time an organization like Baykeeper came into your yard was to deliver a notice of intent to sue,” she said. The group arrived lawyered up for the visit. “I learned they were very skeptical of our intentions and had joked among themselves as to whether they might end up in the shredder. They had never once been invited to participate in a process such as this.” A key member of the group was included in meetings throughout the project, and still consults on projects for the company to this day.

When the company sold out to Metal Management Inc., John and Wendy Neu used her blueprint for success to enter new markets and new arenas. “By trying to stay ahead and integrate our values around the environment and social justice, we’ve discovered new areas of recycling, such as electronics recycling, food composting and new regions where recycling rates are minimal, like Puerto Rico, where we are building a state-of-the-art recycling facility designed to process 25,000 tons per month,” she said.

Looking to capitalize on future trends, she established Mount Vernon, N.Y.-based WeRecycle! LLC, an electronics scrap recovery business that opened last year and sources its feedstock from New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Wendy Neu’s diplomatic ability has many times landed her in a seat where she replaced her hard hat with a hairdo and has testified before Congress on how U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation enhances the industry.

She is the first to acknowledge that her environmentally stringent approach oftentimes takes people off guard and might be misinterpreted. “We are now working actively to support federal legislation prohibiting the export of unprocessed electronics waste to developing countries. It is never popular to advocate for more regulation. Don’t we wish that people and corporations would just do the right thing?” she asked. “Sadly, we have found no better way to protect the public, the environment and our own company than through proper legislation and regulation.”

Looking ahead, Wendy Neu does not see her path deviating much. “Five years from now I expect things to be not much different than what I am doing today. Electronics recycling is ... quite different than what we were used to, so it has been a challenge. We’d like to grow, but I don’t think bigger is always better,” she said.

Wendy Neu credits the development of her character to her parents. “My parents had big dreams of not only aspiring to a better life, but one in which their children could both achieve their potential and also make a difference,” she said.

Wendy Neu told the AWMI meeting that she did not succeed in her attempt to change the world. But she apparently fails to recognize that she has left a pretty big footprint by tackling jobs historically held by men and working to protect people in less-developed countries from facing the threat of toxic scrap from other nations.


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