In the Spotlight
Growing from a mom and pop storefront to one of the top-ranked e-waste recyclers in the world, Advanced Technology Recycling is looking forward to not only improving their service models, but also expanding their footprint.
Advanced Technology Recycling has been in business for 25 years, starting in 1992 as B&K Computer Source. Founded by Ken and Barbara Ehresman, the small computer sales and service business originally opened in the tiny Midwest City of Pontiac, IL. Upon leaving the military after 10 years, the Ehresmans located back to the Midwest to raise their family. After opening a second location in Michigan in 1993, Barbara and Ken downsized the business to one store in 1997 and worked in corporate America until 2002. Corporate downsizing forced them back into B&K Technology Solutions to again sell and service equipment along with the other remaining storefront. Barbara and Ken went all in having another run at the American Dream. The first order of business was to find some desks. When a friend said “visit the state auctions, they are cheap,” off they went. Five hundred dollars later, with some desks and five skids of computers, a recycling company was born. At the time, in the State of Illinois, all state agencies would bring their recyclables and assets to Springfield where everything would be auctioned. Barbara and Ken discovered that enormous amounts of electronic waste were being disposed of at the landfills outside of Pontiac. Since there was no law prohibiting “dumping”, all of the old electronics were being bought and sold or “cherry picked” and then dumped. Barbara came up with a business model where they would start collecting and repurposing the equipment. In 2005, the State of Illinois awarded B&K the largest grants that they had to a single company for redeveloping, redeploying and fixing electronics as opposed to just scrapping everything. They were one of the only companies at that time that were able to repurpose because they had been servicing this type of technology for the past decade and were very efficient at identifying which components could be repaired and repurposed. The grant seed money, used to purchase equipment, was the catalyst that did what it was intended to do—spur innovation and growth where otherwise there would be none. In 2005, B&K had five full time employees. With Barbara’s vision and guidance, they assumed a DBA that would better align the name with the new business. A formal corporation was born and Barbara assumed the role of Chairman and CEO, supported by her husband Ken. DBA-Advanced Technology Recycling (ATR) skyrocketed, only limited by their imagination and growth strategies. Fast forward to 2016 and ATR now employs more than 150 associates at nine certified locations, making them the 4th largest organization in the world based on the number of certified locations—three in Illinois, one in Grand Rapids, MI, one in Tonawanda, NY, one in Richmond, VA, one in Birmingham, AL, one in San Antonio, TX and one Salt Lake, UT. ATR has services throughout the entire country, implementing routes between all their locations. “We might go into a service center for one customer and pick up a semi-load of laptops and then if the truck is empty for the return home, we’ll pack it full of commodities or other materials,” says Brodie Ehresman, National Business Development Manager. “We look at different cost options on a national platform, so even if you’re located in a very remote part of the county and you’ve got sensitive electronics—hospitals, defense industry suppliers, aerospace or other proprietary commercial equipment—we would try to include your pickup with existing ones and create a ‘milk run’. This is very common for us to do and in some cases the pickups can co-exist in the truck. In other cases, it can’t, so it just depends on the scope of work for each customer.”
ATR partners with landfills, cities and counties, holding collection days for e-waste. There are many drop-off programs that ATR offers across all its locations. In Michigan, they have a 4-million-pound quota for consumer electronics—TVs, desktops, laptops, printers, etc.—and people are invited to drop them off at their Grand Rapids location. In fact, ATR offers a $500 cash prize drawing as a recycling incentive. Anyone who has dropped off 50 pounds or more will be entered in the drawing and the winner will be chosen on Earth Day. ATR also has their own fleet made up of seven semi-tractors, 30+ trailers and 15 to 20 box trucks. The fleet is all GPS-enabled using software programs and hardware from GeoTab that gives them real-time reporting on where the fleet is at any given time. LTL carriers provide transportation as well, giving ATR a national service platform. Recently, Ehresman spoke with the Department of Environmental Quality at the University of MI about running an event outside of Detroit, which brings in more than 4,000 cars and 300,000 pounds of material during a two-day collection. “It is very common for us to come into a municipality or city and perform large e-waste events where we could collect as many as four to eight semi-loads of material in single day. We run the whole event and bring in all the assets—forklifts, trucks, people, etc.—as well as triage the equipment while its onsite, preparing it for downstream.”
Shattering Records and Expectations
While the recovering economy and recycling value in doubt has reduced the return ATR gets on the commodities they recover, it has also really strengthened the need for their repurposing program. ATR has always offered fee management programs and encouraged customers that had better equipment to allow them to sell it for them. Strengthening their position in the marketplace, they pride themselves on building a very transparent process so customers, through ATR’s system, can see in real-time where the material is going after pickup and, if the equipment is sold, what was the selling price. Then they know exactly the services they are getting. ATR’s Asset Management System, developed in-house and deployed in 2004 is one of the industry’s longest running records of downstream accountability on client assets, totaling in the millions. “As the commodity prices went down companies needed another way to manage the cost. As the large decrease in commodity prices hit and other companies started defaulting and disappearing, ATR stayed fast on its Information Technology Asset Disposition (ITAD) path to recovering value while still processing for end-of-life commodities,” says Ehresman. “Having said that, this hasn’t hurt us; we’ve actually grown in the past five years where most companies have struggled. Five years ago, everyone was focused on buying large pieces of mechanical equipment to sort and shred. Everyone was focused on the commodities they were recovering because they were worth quite a bit, but that was never our model, even from the beginning. Our model has always been to repurpose what is possible and salvage from the waste stream, so as commodity prices went down, many of those companies that invested in shredding and mechanical separation equipment struggled and, in many cases, went out of business, which leveled out the playing field.” Currently, in the residential stream, ATR has continued to get a large volume of CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes), flat panel TVs, tablets and mobile computing devices like phones, etc. On the commercial side, ATR is seeing a growing increase in defense grade materials. About five years ago, ATR started moving in that direction because of Ken’s military background and he understood the stream better than anyone else. They are one of the few companies in the country that have a program designed specifically for weapons grade electronics and other type of equipment coming in from defense and aerospace customers.
ATR even set a Guinness world record in 2015 for recycling the most consumer electronics in one week across multiple facilities. During a time when everyone was struggling and the petroleum prices were really bottoming out, ATR collected 1.18 million pounds of material. “When we set that world record, the judges came into our Central Illinois location and tracked/reported to the world record team. The independent judges at each of our locations were on video feedback to corporate headquarters so the Guinness judges could see all of our facilities and trucks coming in real-time, and verify the numbers that the judges were entering in,” says Ehresman. This year, ATR is going after three world records on Earth Day—the most consumer electronics collected in one week, the most consumer electronics collected in 24 hours across multiple locations and the most electronics collected at one particular site in 24 hours. Starting on April 17 and closing on April 24, the event will happen live on Facebook with streaming video on Livestream so people will be able to see everything playing out at all the locations in real-time.
ATR also offers free CRT recycling in many of the states that they operate in because there is a need for it in the communities and not just with regards to the commercial activity, but the residential programs as well. In Michigan, because they don’t have a landfill ban, everyone was throwing electronics away. After speaking to the landfills and waste haulers about this terrible problem, ATR discovered that the funding to dispose of this material was drying up. Many of the companies had reached the end of their obligations for CRTs and, as a result, they were all being dumped on the sides of the roads and ending up back in the landfills. Because ATR has a relationship with some of the larger manufacturers and processors of consumer electronics, they offered to set up a collection program throughout the state. In 2016, ATR collected 2 million pounds in less than four months. As a result, they were given a much larger quota for 2017. Depending on the volume ATR collects in 2017, the agreement will be revised and renewed in 2018.
Going Through the Process
When material is collected, the first thing that ATR does is triage the equipment—evaluate what has value to be repurposed and then they immediately start looking at repairing or stripping components from the material stream. Once all the value has been removed, the material is divided up into categories that fill many agreements. For example, if a company in Michigan needs them to collect 3 or 4 million pounds of consumer electronics on their behalf, then everything is divided into these categories and sent to a certain processor. For the material that does not have an agreement, it is sorted and distributed to the necessary downstream vendors. “What we have found is that you get a better commodity on the backside if you do more manual separation rather than letting machines take things apart, leaving a lot of dirty commodities,” stresses Ehresman. “For example, you can’t just take a laptop and throw it into a shredder; it has an LCD screen that must be removed, an internal battery that must also be removed, etc. There are all these different components that must be taken out of it before it can be shredded so we spend more time dismantling prior to shredding because we can control components being removed. This is something that can’t be done with machines.” For example, there is not good sorting material for various types of plastics and their colors. By breaking down the material manually, ATR can sort into certain types of plastics or colors increasing their ability to sell that commodity. If the material they are removing is still functional, it is put aside for a possible re-sell, while others may just be shredded or compressed through balers and additional downstream machines.
What makes ATR unique is that many employees have an IT background and most, if not all, of the entire management team is made up of IT engineers. This is so ATR can also perform extraction services if needed for some customers. Because they have their own databases, ATR creates a scope of work for each customer, including extraction or “white glove services”. Ehresman points out that it is not uncommon for a large commercial account to ask ATR to care of all their computers, from extraction to re-sell. For example, hospitals may have equipment they want to destroy but they also have other equipment they want to re-sell to employees through Purchase Programs. “Many companies need these IT services. In the case of hospitals, it is very common for them to acquire other companies that come into a smaller facility and replace equipment that is not part of the big company’s infrastructure. We will then go in, remove the equipment and sell it on their behalf, in some cases to their own employees. These services are very important to these customers because they know the equipment has value and that there are risk factors. They need a company and people that they can trust to come in and provide the extraction. In some cases, companies will keep us on hand just for those types of jobs because trust is key.”
Since ATR’s staff consists of many IT experts, they have developed an internal training infrastructure with a Web-based dashboard of training tools. When an operational revision is required, the process is formalized, training tools are added to the dashboard and then an invitation is sent out to the management team and employees who implement the change. ATR also uses an internal platform from Citrix that allows them to share the dashboard and desktop as well as record the session. After an employee is hired, ATR does a background check and drug screen. While that is pending, the new hires are going through three days of training, which is a progression of everything from how to run the time clock to keeping track of your time and the projects you are working on, as well as how to generate reports on the products you’ve entered, etc. Each department within ATR has its own training tools, including logistics, maintaining databases, residential hazardous and hazardous commercial. In the first week on the job, the new employee does not perform any duties, they are only going through training.
ATR is ISO14001 and OHSAS 18001 certified with a whole safety and compliance team in place with CPR certifications. They hold regular weekly training meetings and pride themselves on a very low injury rate. Using CAPA (Corrective Action – Preventative Actions) to recognize a potential hazard, all employees are encouraged to create a report, which the management immediately engages and presents to the compliance team. Everyone gets involved very quickly so the hazard is eliminated. Each site has its own coordinators and MSDS sheets, and every Monday morning the entire management team uses the Citrix application to host video meetings, covering safety, customer service and general communications.
ATR believes that their employees are their greatest asset, so they have employee spotlights and employee of the month programs where those chosen receive preferred parking, meals and time off. These are people who have shown exemplary behavior and involvement in the company. ATR always encourages participation, ideas and suggestions as well, implementing suggestion boxes at all nine locations where employees can give feedback. “We wouldn’t be able to do the job that we do without our staff and we like to take very good care of them. In addition to profit sharing, we also have a summer picnics every year where our team can bring their families and each of our locations have a holiday party,” says Ehresman.
ATR also likes to take care of the communities within their locations as well, empowering all of their sites to get involved. Their Pontiac headquarters location just recently provided all of equipment for schools in Kenya working with a Christian outreach program and the Salt Lake City location just did a project on old sewing machines that they recovered from the consumer electronics stream. The machines were fixed up and a company they partner with took them to developing countries to teach children how to sew.
Challenges and Achievements
ATR’s strategic plan has always been to certify all of their facilities, going through SERI (Sustainable Electronic Recycling International) R2:2013 Standards, working with an outside auditor and an internal compliance team that will prepare all sites for audits by going through certain processes and checklists that are performed every day with everything from vehicle maintenance work to scanning wheel calibration and testing. “We’ve found that having nine locations certified always puts us in some level of an audit, whether it is pre-audit, post-audit or mid-audit,” says Ehresman. “The one big advantage of having all nine locations certified is in many cases these renewals don’t come due for a year or two but by being in perpetual audit mode if a change comes up, like through SERI, we can make that change across the whole platform. We may not need to renew the Grand Rapids certification for one more year, but if an audit turns something up in Utah, we’ll make a change across all nine facilities. This makes us very proficient in knowing what the auditors are looking for and puts us way ahead of the curve.”
Any challenge that has come up, ATR faces head on. Ehresman points out that they are very proud of their world record and the fact that they are a certified woman-owned company, with Barbara as the Chairman and CEO, but the single thing that ATR is most proud of is that fact that all of their locations are certified. “That has been a very large investment both financially and infrastructure-wise. We were one of the first companies in the U.S. to get R2 certified back in 2008 and it is a very difficult process. It now takes us three months to open a site, bring it online with our infrastructure, staff it and get it certified. Having so many locations certified gives us a real advantage.” “A common practice is to have multiple locations but only one or two certified. This is a great way to see who is really committed to safely recycling electronics,” says CEO Barbara Ehresman. “If they believe in what they are doing, and are doing it correctly, they will certify all their locations like we do.”
Currently, ATR is focusing on improving their service models to west coast customers in order to provide better options for them while expanding their footprint. Looking at Seattle, WA and several locations in CA, ATR is also very interested on expanding into the UK looking for customers that can give them sustained material streams. While Ehresman knows that the recycling process is very different in the UK than what ATR does here, he believes there is a great need for recycling and repurposing option there. In addition, the company is strengthening their secure destruction model so they have more staff members certified for the equivalent of top secret clearance. “We’ve had a growing number of companies and departments within the government say we have these devices that require very strict management destruction and not only do our facilities have to be certified, but our people do as well.” In fact, says Ehresman, another goal for ATR in the future is to do more government work. The bulk of the business now is under the private sector, corporations and residents. While they have many Fortune 500 companies that they have provided this type of service to and have found value in it, ATR would like to offer their services to more federal entities.
ATR has recently expanded through an acquisition of ERS in Tooele Utah. “This better positions us to serve our markets,” says Ehresman. “We are seeking like minded companies to combine resources and become even larger in the year to come through it’s buy and build strategy.”
He continues, “If you really drill down into it, this company was once a mom and pop computer store and now it is ranked #4 in the world for Electronics Recycling and Value Recovery. I’m very proud to be a part of that process. We are very proud of what we have been able to accomplish in this company.”