The ABC of running a family business

Burnaby family firm celebrates its centennial this year

Clockwise from left: David Yochlowitz, CEO; Harold Yochlowitz, president; Karen Bichin, manager, community relations; Mike Yochlowitz, purchasing manager; Melvyn Yochlowitz, semi-retired; Helen Alko, semi-retired

Harold Yochlowitz, ABC Recycling’s president and former CEO, knows just how lucky he is. His sons were interested enough in the family business growing up and passionate enough about it in adulthood to carry it forward.

In fact, it’s because of his sons, David and Mike Yochlowitz, that the family is celebrating the business’s centennial this year.

“I think it’s a remarkable history because we survived it,” said Yochlowitz with a laugh. “We’re still expanding. It’s exciting to me.”

Since 1912, four generations of the Yochlowitzes have expanded ABC from a modest horse-and-wagon salvage business to a respected player in B.C.’s recycling industry, with sales averaging $200 million per year and employing just shy of 200 people.

Over the past seven years, ABC has expanded into the single largest producer of non-ferrous metals in Western Canada, shipping all over the U.S., China and Korea. They’ve grown from two B.C. locations in 2005 to seven in September 2012.

They’ve also partnered with two other B.C.-based family businesses – Kelowna-based Action Metals Recycling and Terrace-based Bold Salvage & Recycling – both of which rebranded as ABC.

Much of this expansion has been the achievement of David Yochlowitz, ABC’s CEO (named a Top 40 Under 40 by Business in Vancouver in 2001). Yet, for all the success that he’s brought to the firm, he takes the most pride in continuing the legacy his great-grandfather, Joseph Yochlowitz, established 100 years ago.

“It’s very exciting that we’re able to stick with the values that have been instilled and continue to move forward,” David said.

There are four family members employed full-time by the company — Harold, David, Mike, who serves as sales and purchasing manager, and Karen Bichin, manager of community relations.

“We’re lucky that we all share the same vision and the same work ethic, the same kind of mentality, as far as that goes,” said Mike, who joined full-time in 2006. “That’s a lot of what has kept us together this long as a family.”

Joseph Yochlowitz, a Polish immigrant, founded the company in 1912 as a scrap peddling business. In 1935, his son Daniel started his own metal-scrapping business and, in 1949, bought property on Main Street and established ABC Salvage and Metal Company.

By the early 1970s, Harold had taken over for his father Daniel, moving the company to the current 10-acre lot in Burnaby and building a spur that linked ABC to the main railroad line – and to the U.S. He also spearheaded ABC’s shift from salvaging to recycling by buying recycling equipment from the U.S. In 1975, he changed the name to ABC Recycling.

“We just grew from there,” Harold said. “We started to become a major player after we did that.”

By 1984, ABC hit serious trouble. Interest rates skyrocketed and with it, so did ABC’s debt load. There were few materials available, and Harold said that all Vancouver-area recycling businesses were literally scrapping it out for survival. Between 1984 and 1986, they nearly went bankrupt.

But by 1988, ABC turned a profit of about $18 million and they managed to pay off their debts.

David, who joined the company full-time that year, said that episode taught them a valuable lesson about the capricious nature of their industry. It has shaped all aspects of how they handle business: they keep very low debt levels and have expanded only with their own money.

This approach has affected how they’ll pass the business on to successive generations.

Through a family council, they have set up rules for future family members expecting to join the business: they must have a college degree and they must earn their voting shares in the company, among other stipulations. This long-term planning is meant to ensure the next generation carries the company forward.

Not that the Yochlowitzes need to worry about this any time soon. The eldest of the next generation is only 12 years old.

“It’s hard to say if they’re going to be interested. I don’t know,” David said with a laugh.