Who exactly wakes up one day and decides to start collecting and selling scrap metal for a living? In our case, it started with two brothers and a cart.
Turn of the Century Traders
Phil and Mose Cohen immigrated to the U.S. from Russia as teens at the turn of the 20th century, settling in Middletown, Ohio, close to extended family who were already in the area. Around the same time, Middletown also became home to the American Rolling Mill Company, or ARMCO, a mill producing rolled sheets of steel. ARMCO was the predecessor to what is today known as AK Steel.
For the Cohens, the steel mill presented an attractive opportunity to support their families – not as steel workers but as scrap metal peddlers, collecting and selling used or leftover steel, such as from demolition sites, to be put back into manufacturing. Technological innovations around the turn of the 20th century had made it viable to work with already-manufactured steel in new ways, making scrap steel more valuable than ever. Middletown was in many ways the ideal place to set up shop, with a centralized location in industrial America and access to rivers, roads, and rail.
And so the original Cohen Brothers scrap business found its niche in 1924, processing and selling metal and other materials, such as rags and paper – anything that could find a second life as a commodity for reuse. In fact, this early model of recycling was a common profession for immigrants from Europe and Russia in the early 20th century who wanted to start their own businesses. The barrier to entry was low, and the demand for material was high.
Mose Cohen’s son Wilbur was born in 1923, and he joined the business as a third partner upon completing his college education in 1947. “When I look at what we have today, it’s just amazing to me,” says Wilbur.
Living the Legacy
Among those employees are Wilbur’s sons Ken and Neil, and his grandsons Adam Dumes and Andrew Cohen. Wilbur himself never officially retired and has maintained an office and a regular presence at the company’s Middletown headquarters for more than 70 years.
Andrew and Adam represent the fourth generation of family ownership of the Cohen business – a milestone none of them takes for granted.
“I’m excited to be able to carry on the family tradition,” says Andrew, “but mostly thankful for the opportunity we have from previous generations.”
“I’m really thrilled that we have a fourth generation working,” says Neil. “I think the future is very bright for this company, because they’ve got the modernistic ideas.”
Indeed, it’s easy to look back and see how each generation has left a unique mark on the company and operations. Even as the large, diverse organization nears the century mark, it remains agile and positioned to stay at the leading edge of the industry.
That’s part of what motivated Cohen’s expansion into electronic scrap recycling in the early 2000s. That meant a new facility, new equipment, and a new vocabulary for a growing waste stream that many traditional scrap businesses weren’t necessarily equipped to handle.
“Innovation is one of our core values,” says Adam, who took a special interest in the creation of the electronics division. That division has since grown into its own subsidiary of Cohen Holdings, known as Cobalt, which specializes in secure IT asset disposition for businesses.
Having a lifetime front-row seat to the running of the business has been an advantage for each generation since the original founders – and that means knowing every layer of the business. Ken remembers when he showed up for his first day of full-time work in 1970 and walked into his father’s office.
“Before I had a chance to say anything, he said, ‘If you think you’re gonna do what I’m doing, you’re crazy. Get out of here and find something to do.’” Ken considers it the best advice he could have ever gotten. “What he basically told me was that my job was not going to be to sit in the office and run the business; I needed to learn the business from the ground up.”
Neil, who was the longtime head of Cohen’s Hamilton scrap processing yard, looked to Wilbur’s example. “People would gravitate to him. I watched that happen, and I learned how to talk to people and connect with different people.”
People Powered Recycling
As much as the scrap business is about commodities, it has been and still is a very people-focused business, something the Cohens emphasize in their business practices. They never lose sight of the fact that without people bringing their scrap to Cohen’s recycling centers, there wouldn’t be a business.
“Every day, we’re out trying to make an impact in the communities we live in,” says Andrew. “We’re constantly reinvesting into our people and our equipment, so our ability to provide service at the highest level is maintained.”
The family values of quality and service instilled by the original Cohen brothers have been passed down through the leadership line. They continue to motivate the Cohens to do right by their employees, their vendors and partners, the surrounding communities, and of course, the environment. Under their leadership, Cohen continues to strive to co-create a better world for future generations.