My journey to the recycling world, is a circuitous one primarily driven by environmental and social motives. A child of immigrants from India and the UK, and one of six children, I never sought easy answers. We came from England with just the clothes on our backs. My parents had big dreams of not only aspiring to a better life, but one in which their children could achieve their potential and also make a difference. As someone who grew up in the 1970’s, I was also strongly influenced by the particular issues of the day — the war, the environment, social justice, feminism, drugs, sex, and … maybe I should stop there. I truly believed that I could “change the world.” Looking back, I feel so lucky to have been part of that Cultural Revolution.
My first real job after college was as a social worker in a maximum-security prison, the first woman – aside from a nun – to work in this position. I had no idea what I was doing and the inmates figured that out much sooner than I did. There, I learned that life wasn’t fair, and luck had as much to do with one’s situation in life as any other factor. But after five years at the ripe age of 27, I felt burnt out and had lost my purpose. Plus, I needed to make more money.
My father, a marine surveyor, suggested I apply for a job where he knew and liked the people – Hugo Neu Corp., then one of the biggest scrap metal companies in the U.S. It was a long shot, of course. Although my resume made for interesting dinner conversation, it left most people puzzled. After a grueling interview process, I was hired, with one stipulation (which was mine)… I would not have to work for CEO John Neu, who was intimidating and a little frightening. That’s a pretty strong sentiment from someone who had worked with death-row inmates . . . But John would later become my husband and lifelong partner [N.B: John Neu passed away in February 2013].
At Hugo Neu, I was the only woman who wasn’t in the secretarial pool. I learned the business from the bottom up, preparing documents and collecting millions of dollars under letters of credit. Eventually, I was promoted into selling our own production of Prime western zinc and 380 aluminum alloys to galvanizers and steel mills throughout the country. At that time, there were few women, if any, selling to industrial accounts and I became somewhat of a novelty amongst the purchasing managers at Bethlehem, Sharon Steel and others. Ultimately, I went to work at a NJ scrapyard, where my work in prisons actually proved to be useful, and where I finally learned the difference between copper and brass, zinc and aluminum.
Hugo Neu traced its beginnings several decades earlier selling steel scrap and metals to customers in the USA, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Moving the industry from a junk business to a scrap business and then to recycling required changing the culture as well as the mindset. Over the next 30 years I was lucky enough to participate along with John in the company’s explosive growth through those phases. We added shredding plants in Hawaii, Utah, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. We launched a trading business in Russia, the Netherlands and Canada. We started selling to India, Pakistan, Greece, Turkey and Egypt and most importantly, China and eventually Vietnam. By 1990, we became one of the largest metal recyclers in the world and the largest exporter of recycled metal from the US to end users throughout the world.
Engaging with the NGOs
When Hugo Neu decided to embark on a dredging project that was perceived to be risky environmentally, I invited one of the most influential environmental stakeholders, Baykeeper, to visit our facility and engage in conversation ahead of the mandatory public hearing. Naturally, our general counsel thought we were crazy and even the state Department of Environmental Protection staff advised us against it. Back then, the only time an environmental NGO came into a scrapyard was to deliver a notice of intent to sue… I also later learned they were very skeptical of our intentions and had joked amongst themselves as to whether they might end up in the shredder! Instead, they engaged with us very constructively throughout the process — from strategy sessions to other aspects of HN’s operations – all without compromising on their mission. I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed close to that group, and many other NGOs working on environmental and social issues, ever since.
Working with Municipalities and Regulators
In the spring of 2002, Mayor Bloomberg had dismantled the curbside recycling program in NYC, claiming it was too costly for the city to run on its own. By this time,I was actively engaged in advancing recycling-friendly legislation through an array of relationships built within the environmental community and grassroots organizations in the city. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the nation’s leading environmental organizations, was mobilizing their NY constituents to reinstate the program but were seeking a recycler, not a waste company, to come to the rescue. During a small lunch, they convinced us we should consider taking over the program and we did! A new, very profitable business for HNC and one we would never have considered but for the NRDC.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to testify before several committees in Congress on behalf of our company expressing our view that regulations promulgated and enforced by the EPA have been essential to our growth, diversification and sustainability of our operations. We have also actively supported federal legislation prohibiting the export of unprocessed electronic waste to developing countries to protect the health and safety of the people who would be handling that waste. In each of these cases, we’ve learned that we can work with, versus against, external forces and still align our values with our work.
Identifying New Opportunities Through the Social and Environmental Lens
Hugo Neu sold its scrap recycling business to Sims Metal Management in 2008, but wanted to leverage its experience and financial assets to enter new markets. By trying to stay ahead and integrate our values around the environment and social justice, we’ve discovered new areas of promise, such as electronic recycling through our subsidiary Hugo Neu Recycling, food composting and other recycling opportunities particularly in Puerto Rico. These efforts, I hope, will provide opportunities for training and employment opportunities for training and employment – “green jobs” – especially in under-served communities.
Running a Sustainable Business
Though driven by environmental and social goals, I know that without a business model that works, we cannot continue to provide and add jobs. Our management team has worked hard to transform the business toward more profitable segments in electronics and explore new partnerships to ensure scale. In Puerto Rico, the focus has been on harnessing appropriate local support as well as finding the best technology and markets for end product. Getting certified as a B-Corp was also a very proud moment for our team: it proved that we’re delivering on our social and environmental mission, while also running a business.
John Neu used to say “Never mind all the reasons or the people who say you can’t” (Sherman Mills Fairchild). I’m here as proof to say that with hard work and focus, and by supporting our communities and stakeholders, we can ultimately make a difference.
Wendy Neu is CEO of Hugo Neu. Incorporated in 1947, the Hugo Neu Corporation is a woman-owned privately held company with deep experience in investing, building and managing businesses in recycling, real estate and related industries. Hugo Neu Recycling is an e-Stewards certified, woman-owned, Certified B-Corp that provides electronics recycling and IT asset management. Wendy Neu is CEO of both companies.