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Empire Recycling: From rags to riches

By Norman Poltenson


UTICA — It was 1916. Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, the Rose Bowl held its first football game, Gen. “Blackjack” Pershing was chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico with 15,000 American troops, and Albert Einstein presented his Theory of Relativity.

This was also the year that Robert, Morton, and Louis Kowalsky opened a small business in Utica recycling rags, metal, and paper.

With the fourth generation now running the business, Empire Recycling, headquartered in an 80,000-square-foot complex on 12 acres in Utica, is no longer a modest endeavor. “Empire Recycling, which is the holding company for 10 operating businesses and four separate corporations, processes 5 million pounds of non-ferrous metals, 7,000 tons of ferrous metal, and 2,000 tons of paper every month,” says Edward L. Kowalsky, the company’s executive vice president. He is a 50/50 stockholder with his brother Steven R., who is company president.

In 97 years, Empire Recycling has grown from a single site to six, metal-division locations in New York (Utica, Albany, Waterloo, Watertown, Syracuse, and Shortsville, near Rochester). The paper division has three locations — Utica, Syracuse, and Binghamton — handling both confidential documents and non-confidential paper. Along the way, Empire Recycling also acquired a trucking company — Lightning Fast Freight, Inc. — in 2011.

Scrap material is collected from individuals, businesses, scrap dealers, demolition contractors, and others. The materials are weighed, graded, sorted, cut, and then shredded, baled, or logged. The metal end-products are shipped to its customers for re-melting and processing into mostly sheet metal and can stock, and the paper is typically recycled to paper mills as pulp.

“Empire recycling today has 200 employees and [generates] more than $100 million in revenue,” Edward Kowalsky adds. “Our sites include about 40 acres of land and 400,000 square feet of [building] space, mostly owned by the company … We have 60 trucks, 300 tractors, and 500 roll-offs, in sizes ranging from 30 to 50 cubic yards … We export about 20 percent of our volume, shipping through the Port of Newark.”

Empire recycling recently expanded its geographic reach. “Empire has a new state-of-the-art, indoor scrap facility in Watertown,” says Steven Kowalsky. “It’s probably the largest of its kind in New York State … The facility opened last October. We have 12 employees handling both ferrous and non-ferrous metals.”

“The site contains 6.5 acres, and the 75,000-square-foot building occupies about two acres,” adds Edward Kowalsky. “We currently use 50,000 feet with 20,000 feet left over for expansion. The building also has 5,000 [square] feet of attached office space on two floors, which we will probably lease out … The building was originally the 90-year-old Black-Clawson warehouse [located at 511 Pearl St.].”

“We spent four years negotiating with the Railstar Corporation, the former owner,” Kowalsky continues. “Once the deal closed, we simultaneously closed on a contract to buy Perkins Scrap Metals [129 Factory Square in Watertown], a customer of ours for the past 20 years who sold us scrap to be shredded and distributed … The acquisition of the land and building cost us $500,000. We then invested $1 million in renovating the building and site and another $500,000 in new equipment, bringing the total investment to $2 million. The new company is called Empire Watertown.”

“We have been interested in the North Country for a long time. By opening an operation in Watertown, we cut our [hauling] time by an hour-and-a-half and make it easier for our customers … Watertown also gives us better access to our customers in Canada and lets us expand north to serve customers in St. Lawrence County. The volume of recycled materials coming from contractors at Ft. Drum, of course, is an added benefit,” says Kowalsky.

Edward Kowalsky says the company is not currently focused on another expansion, but it is considering moving into a new line — electronics recycling.

Steven Kowalsky, 60, and his brother Edward, 53, represent the fourth generation of this “rags to riches” story. Each has two children, none of whom is yet working in the business. Steven Kowalsky does have a son-in-law who works at Empire Recycling.


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