Al Plumb, co-owner of Alpco Recycling Inc., has built his business by going against the grain.
"One of the things I learned a long time ago is that you can find success in doing the things that no one else wants to do," he says. "Not too many people want to go through somebody else's garbage and sort it out. So that's what we do."
Alpco is a complete recycling operation that collects and sorts materials that otherwise would go to a landfill. The company processes the materials into a form that can be made into new products. Alpco also offers smaller services primarily for its residential customers, including refilling of propane tanks.
Alpco's operation occupies roughly 150 acres of land in Macedon, Wayne County, that is owned by Plumb. The business has some 140 employees and has seen solid growth over the past few years.
After being hit hard by the recession in 2009, Alpco increased revenue by 20 percent in 2010. Last year, the company grew by 28 percent, with the bulk of its business being commercial.
This year, Alpco is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Plumb says the company is on pace for 10 percent growth in 2012. While he attributes the success to great employees and a bit of luck, Janelle Plumb, his wife, who co-owns the business with him, says Al deserves most of the credit.
"Alpco's success is really about Al and his vision," she says. "He is a tremendous businessman. His guidance and leadership are the driving force behind what we do here."
Al Plumb's father started Alpco Inc. as a gravel business in 1962. It supplied gravel to companies such as Xerox Corp. that were seeing tremendous growth and expansion.
As one of six siblings, Plumb spent most of his youth working for farmers in Macedon. He planned to be a farmer when he got older.
But as Alpco grew, he went to work for his father. By the time he was 19, Plumb was running the business.
"My father liked running equipment and being a mechanic, but he didn't like building a business," recalls Plumb. "So I handled that side of things for him."
In 1965, Alpco got into the landfill business. Plumb said the company once owned the landfill site in Perinton that is now High Acres Landfill and Recycling, a division of Waste Management of New York LLC.
After 10 years of being in the landfill business, Plumb had an epiphany. He noticed Alpco was burying a lot of materials that could be reused.
"It just didn't make sense," he says. "The industry was making a business out of throwing away stuff that could be recycled."
Alpco remained primarily a gravel and landfill company through most of the 1980s. However, when the company began to struggle, Plumb saw recycling as a way to grow.
He purchased the family business in 1989, changed the name to Alpco Recycling and converted it to a full recycling operation. Plumb says the decision was not popular.
"No one in my family wanted to be in the recycling business," he says. "But I felt the gravel business was slow and boring. In order to grow the business, I knew we had to become a complete recycling facility that could do it all, whether it was plastics, paper, cardboard, steel or whatever."
Alpco started by charging department stores and corporations almost nothing for loads of materials those companies would otherwise have to pay top dollar to take to landfills. Alpco would make money by processing the materials and selling them to manufacturers.
Plumb says it took two to three years for the business to become profitable.
In recent years, he says, bottle and can redemption, scrap metal and wood salvage have generated the most growth. But because the industry can be unpredictable, he likes to focus evenly on growing and refining each aspect of the business.
"Even if one area of the industry may be on the rise, I still try to develop it so there can be steady and equal growth in all departments," says Plumb. "That way if one area happens to be down for a bit, the others can carry it."
Alpco grew steadily throughout the 1990s, going from roughly 20 employees to more than 100. However, Plumb stepped away from day-to-day operations in 1998 when his first wife became ill.
"She was diagnosed with cancer," Plumb says. "They gave her just a few months to live. I decided I didn't need to be here anymore."
Plumb spent his wife's final days at her side. During the next 10 years, he traveled around the country, serving as a motivational speaker and giving lessons on how to build a business. Krista Walker-Smolnik ran Alpco during that time; she left the company in early 2009.
After a decade away from Alpco, Plumb found himself bringing those lessons back to his company in 2008 as Alpco began feeling the early effects of the recession. He gave up working as a motivational speaker to concentrate on Alpco.
Plumb says his philosophy for running a business is simple, relying on hard work and putting together a strong team of managers.
"You can't grow if you don't have managers that you can trust," Plumb says. "When I'm in my office, I have cameras overlooking every part of the facility so I can see if any of my managers need any help from me."
After taking a step back in 2009, Alpco saw a surge in revenue in 2010. Plumb attributes much of the success to mere good fortune.
However, Janelle Plumb says it was Al's inspirational leadership that turned things around.
"When Al came back, everything changed," she says. "You could see everyone's spirits lift. Things began running much more smoothly, and business began to grow again. It's a testament to Al's knowledge of business. He knows how to keep evolving."
At 62, Plumb remains an integral part of the business. He works perhaps 100 hours a week, overseeing all operational aspects of the company.
Plumb begins each day driving around the facility and meeting with the managers of each department. He says he relies on his wife and the company's president, Donna Figel, to help with the other aspects of running the business.
Plumb insists he does not have any hobbies outside of work. However, Colleen Wightman, marketing director for Alpco, says Plumb is just being modest.
"Al's hobby is being generous and giving back to the community," says Wightman. "He'll never admit it, but he does so much when it comes to helping people and giving to charity."
Wightman says that when Plumb is not at work, he spends much of his time promot-ing energy conservation and recycling with companies and community organizations.
Though Alpco moved out of the residential waste hauling business 10 years ago, Plumb came up with the idea of creating a drop-off circle at the facility where residents can bring materials to be recycled rather than paying more money for someone to haul it to a dump.
"It's not the biggest generator of revenue," he says. "But it gives people in the community an incentive to recycle."
Annette Leahy, Plumb's neighbor in Macedon, says his work in the community and willingness to give to worthy causes are as commendable as his business sense.
"When I met Al Plumb, I quickly learned he had a reputation in the community for being a sharp businessman, for being someone others went to for help and for supporting myriad charitable causes," Leahy says.
Alpco held a 50th-anniversary celebration at its facilities in May. Employees and community members gathered to celebrate the company Plumb has spent most of his life building.
However, Plumb does not plan to spend the rest of his life working 100-hour weeks.
"I'm not one of these guys who plan to work until I'm 90 years old," he says.
Plumb plans to step away from day-to-day operations at Alpco within the next few years. But you can expect he will still find some way to stay busy.
"I have a problem just sitting still," he says. "I'll find something to do."
Position: Co-owner, Alpco Recycling Inc.
Family: Wife Janelle; daughters Jody Poulakis and Tracy Plumb; stepdaughter Chelsea DePoint; stepson Seth DePoint.
Activities: Spending time with family, nature walks
Quote: "Building a business, no matter what the industry, is really about hard work. And sometimes when you work hard, you get lucky."
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