Venture: The mistress of metal

What a scrap yard can tell us about the health of the economy

March 14, 2011

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(WBEZ/Ashley Gross)
United Scrap Metal CEO Marsha Serlin

Here on Venture, we'll trek out into the business world to hunt up people who can tell us more about the economy than the numbers alone.
 
Every week, the economic news cascades over us like a waterfall of numbers - housing starts, consumer confidence, jobless claims. It's easy to tune them out.

But all those numbers signify someone's livelihood, someone's home, someone's wallet. That someone is us. We want to get insight into the health of the economy by exploring how people all around us are experiencing it.

This week, we'll get data on the manufacturing sector.  Someone in the Chicago area who knows a lot about manufacturing is Marsha Serlin.

Back in 1978, she was stuck in a situation a lot of people face these days - she was newly divorced with two kids, staring at foreclosure. She needed to make some money. So when she saw a neighbor with a truck picking up scrap metal in alleys, she had a flash of inspiration.
 
"I was strong, I was young and I said, you know, I can do this," Serlin said. "I said, if he can do it, I can do it."
 
She didn't let her lack of knowledge stand in the way. She just started asking other scrap collectors for tips.
 
"I said what about all that material, where do you get it?" Serlin said. "And they said, 'It comes from factories.' So I started knocking on doors. I was driving the truck in the beginning and then I had to hire people to do that and lo and behold, I had a fleet of trucks."
 
Now she wears a bubblegum pink hardhat and oversees a scrap empire in Cicero that stretches over 38 acres. United Scrap Metal’s annual revenue is about $200 million.  It’s a noisy place. There are gigantic sorting machines that Serlin describes as straight out of Willy Wonka.
 
Outside she stops in front of a mountain of metal that includes remnants of old Coca Cola vending machines.  From these scrap piles, she has a unique perspective on the economy. Serlin can tell if the country’s factories are humming or dead,  based on how much metal they buy from her.
 
That’s the kind of savvy that can help us make sense of this week’s manufacturing numbers, which have been showing some improvement lately. She says the industry is clawing its way out of a deep hole:

Marsha Serlin's business is now one of the largest scrap recyclers in the country. I wanted to know what gave her the drive and business savvy to go from picking up scrap in alleys to running a multi-million dollar company.

From scrap yards to tattoos...

Tattoos are this week's Windy Indicator, where we search the Windy City's nooks and crannies for a read on the wider economy.

Even on a recent snowy day, customers stream into Tatu Tattoo in Wicker Park. Marci Mundo is the manager. She says business has slowed down since the recession hit, but they've adapted as their customers have scaled back:

Check back in with us next Monday for another installment of Venture. We'll meet an artist who's become an accidental real estate mogul and then head over for a good old-fashioned shoeshine.