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Family Fortress

Mar 31, 2017 | 08:00 PM | Bette Kovach

Building on a legacy that dates back more than 90 years, one generation after another of the Cohen family has contributed its own unique twist to a tradition earmarked by almost a century of steady innovation and sustainable growth

When the Cohen family first landed in the United States from Russia in 1924, brothers Mose and Phil took to the streets of Middletown, Ohio, to collect surplus materials and resell them as a means of survival. From those humble beginnings, a business model has evolved and grown into an increasingly specialized and sophisticated operation, one that handles more than one million
tons of material annually.

Today, some nine decades later, second through-fourth generation members of the Cohen family lead and manage one of the largest
ferrous and nonferrous recycling companies in North America.

“There are literally thousands of recycling companies with the necessary quality certifications in business today in North America,” Ken Cohen, president and chief executive officer of Middletown, Ohio-based Cohen Holdings, Inc., readily acknowledges. “But to distinguish ourselves, we have marketed our service capabilities to manage our customers’ scrap. Supply chain management is a very hot topic right now, and we market our firm as a service organization and not just a scrap company,” he emphasized.

Ken along with his brother Neil, who serves as secretary and treasurer of the company, are the third generation of Cohens engaged in the family business. Cohen Holdings is the corporate banner under which the family’s various interests operate.

While Mose and Phil laid the foundation of the family business, Wilbur, Cohen’s chairman who at age 94 still goes into the office three
days a week, helped refine the focus of the business and usher it into modernity. Immediately following World War II, Wilbur started building a fleet of vehicles – once they became commercially available in the retooling of the economy to peacetime products – that paved the way for the company to further its geographic reach.

Under Wilbur’s leadership, Cohen began to expand its scrap yards beyond the confines of Middletown. In the early 1960s, Cohen started providing customized fabrication services to help establish its trademark service orientation. One such service involved the construction of scrap boxes and containment systems, specific to each customer’s business.

“We have to differentiate ourselves. Executing our value proposition is the key to securing market share, and that value prop is rooted in the extensive services we offer,” said Adam Dumes, Ken’s nephew who serves as vice president of commercial, which includes marketing. “The culmination is a customized, full-service, scrap management solution that helps customers improve efficiency and ultimately their bottom line,”

“We rely on ourselves to perform services our customers need and want,” Ken noted. “We build our own containers for both speed and efficiency instead of contracting through an outside firm. When a customer tells us he needs a custom container, we put the wheels in motion that same day.”

When Wilbur’s sons Ken and Neil joined the company after graduating from college in the 1970s, the firm embarked on a drive to further strengthen its service orientation while expanding the company’s geographic footprint. Through the acquisition of existing scrap and recycling companies as well as greenfield construction, Cohen now operates more than 20 locations in four states within a 100-mile radius of Middletown and counts about 500 employees.

Under Ken’s leadership, the company adopted a regional view of the business and, through its involvement in trade associations, such as the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), raised the profile and reputation of the Cohen brand.

In the early 1970’s, Cohen recognized the integral role shredders would play in the scrap industry and invested in a unit which operates to this day at the company’s West Carrolton, Ohio, yard. The following decade, the company further expanded its’ reach by adding the shredding of auto bodies and recycling of auto parts to its product line.

Today, Cohen’s auto parts operation counts two Ohio retail locations for the purchase of body, mechanical and interior parts. “We kept building upon our business philosophy of growing our product lines while creating a critical mass to further expand the business,” Ken commented. That critical mass gained even more momentum in the 1990s when Cohen further differentiated
itself from the competition by becoming one of the first ISO-certified scrap processors in the United States.

The acquisition of its ISO: 9001:2008 quality control certification ensures Cohen products and services consistently meet the rigorous international environmental regulations for handling, storing, transporting, and processing scrap metal. Earlier in the decade, Cohen also began onsite scrap management services for the AK Steel plant also located in Middletown.

Theft has long been an issue in the scrap business, and the problem was exacerbated in early 2008 when commodity prices peaked.
Stricter anti-theft laws have been enacted as a deterrent since then, but “so are customized anti-theft and containment systems that we are able to fabricate in short order for our customers,” Andy Cohen, vice president of operations and administration, pointed out.

Andy is Ken’s son and a member, along with Adam, of the fourth generation of Cohens at work in the family business.

Being innovative in its core scrap recycling business has allowed Cohen to survive during difficult times such as those that ushered in the ‘great recession’ of late 2008, Adam explained.

“We made a conscious decision not to be a helpless victim while the markets plummeted,” he recalled. “We focused on our efficiency. We challenged and leaned on the incredible workforce that defines Cohen. And we worked very hard to raise the bar, through innovation...which is usually expensive.

“Wilbur’s and Kenny’s decades of work have afforded us the opportunity to grow geographically, expand product lines and services, and bring in world-class talent,” Adam added. “I love the team we have and how we are positioned. Andy and I are energized and enthused to lead the charge.”

As part of that charge, the Cohens and their employees give back to their communities through volunteerism and financial support for
various non-profit organizations.

A full fleet of vehicles and customized equipment support Cohen’s businesses today, which are orchestrated around the management of four waste stream. These include:

• Industrial scrap management, which oversees national scrap management for single and multiple-location firms.

• Retail recycling, for the drop-off of consumer and industrial products containing more than 50-percent metal, including food and beverage containers and household appliances.

• Automobile recycling, including the shredding services and the retail parts locations.

• Electronics recycling, the newest waste management initiative and perhaps the most exciting venture for the fourth generation of
Cohen family employees.

Adam and Andy began working in the early 2000s and have continued their family’s tradition of identifying new waste streams and service strategies to maximize each. Along with the further separation of metals in the waste stream that has created the stainless/alloy and copper divisions, that quest has led to the creation of electronics recycling to process the ever-increasing waste stream generated by aging computing and communications devices that are being replaced with increasing frequency.

The need to dispose of the mounting heap of used electronic devices led Cohen to invest $7 million in August 2015 in an e-scrap facility to recycle in an environmentally responsible manner the literally hundreds of thousands of electronics no longer wanted by corporations and citizens in its four-state domain.

Work completed early last year nearly doubled the footprint of the-scrap processing operation to about 110,000 square feet in Middletown at a facility located close to Cohen Holdings’ headquarters.

“The 50,000-square-foot addition and $7-million investment reflects our commitment to provide the communities we serve a cleaner, more sustainable environment,” Adam Cohen told American Metal Market at the time. In return for the investment, processing capacity jumped to more more than 20,000 pounds of waste per hour, amounting to an eight-fold increase. “This will make us more efficient where virtually everything can be recovered and will make us more competitive in the electronics scrap world,” he predicted in the story.

The unscripted Adam is much more robust in his assessment of the role played by the investment in advancing Cohen’s legacy to enter new markets with new services for its customers. “Each generation of our family has brought value to the company that subsequent generations have embraced and built upon,” he explained.

“My generation has an opportunity to directly influence a cultural shift favoring a society where it isn’t socially acceptable to send anything that’s recyclable to a landfill, let alone anything toxic. We are increasingly seeing that those choosing not to recycle are being
politely shunned by their peers.

“E-scrap is the product line that has connected us to the larger community,” Adam Cohen observed."Everybody has it, and at some point they will need a responsible outlet to properly dispose of it. We are passionate about being that outlet and about succeeding while doing it the right way,” he emphasized.

Even so, the conundrum remains: the scrap business is all too frequently viewed as a necessary evil -- or worse.

“The change we are trying to effectuate by having our retail centers, our yards that are open to the public and our escrap
recycling center is to move the needle more toward recognizing that the very essence of our company is ‘green,” he summarized.

“We recycle, and our industry is recycling,” Adam stressed. “We try to live our mission and execute our vision every  day: to provide businesses and individuals the opportunity to recycle safely, responsibly and conveniently.

“Our industry doesn’t deserve the bad reputation it has,” the fourth-generation recycler insisted. “We’re proud to be changing that.”


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