A family-owned metals company celebrates 60 years in business
February 2013 - Once known as the paper city of the world, Holyoke, Mass. was designed for industry—from the influx of immigrants in the 19th century to the careful planning of rectilinear street grids and canals along the Connecticut River. But in this town of pulp and paper, a different business thrived.
William F. Sullivan and his brother George Sullivan created Sullivan Scrap in 1952 with an aim to responsibly recycle scrap metal purchased from Holyoke’s largest manufacturers. “Officially it started right after my father got out of the Korean War,” says Bill Sullivan, president and second-generation sole owner.
During the Great Depression, his grandfather, William Sullivan’s father, took part in the paper recycling business. “My grandfather literally was the guy on the horse and buggy going through the streets of Holyoke picking up rags and paper to make a living,” he says. “So my father and uncle were exposed to the paper recycling business, and associated with that, they would come across metal.”
From rags to recycling
One day, Sullivan asked his father, “How come you didn’t just stay in the paper business?” His father plainly told him he didn’t like it. “He hated the paper business,” says Sullivan with a laugh. “He liked the metals business, so when he got out of the service he decided to concentrate on metals.”
Twenty years later, Sullivan Metals was created to provide finished steel and metal products for the construction industry. “In the eighties, we built our first building specifically for the new steel business,” says Sullivan. “At that point my father was involved, my uncle was involved, I was involved and my cousin was involved.”
Sullivan has never held a different job. “I worked when I was a kid in the scrap business and the new steel business from when I was about 14 years old,” he says. “I remember the first job [my father] gave me. I was washing the walls at his office.”
Today, he is proud to own his father’s company and employ so many relatives. “We’re pretty small, and there very much is a family focus,” he says. Currently, his sister and brother-in-law work in the new steel business, while three of his nephews work in the scrap business. “My father still comes in on occasion; he’s 83 but he still comes down and walks around a bit. So it’s still very much a family business with family members involved in it.”
The right size
As a small business, Sullivan Metals lacks the layers of administration and bureaucracy that can slow larger operations. “We’re a significant company but we tend to make decisions very quickly,” says Sullivan. “It’s not like you’re going through this big long chain of command. We consult each other. We might decide to go out and invest a couple million dollars on a piece of equipment, and we do that kind of stuff pretty quickly.”
Sullivan Metals has changed significantly in its 60 years of existence. “We have modernized tremendously, and we’re very aggressive when it comes to buying equipment,” says Sullivan. “I think it’s the investment in equipment without a doubt, and that transcends [time, and that’s] not just trucks, cranes, excavators and shears, it also has to do with computers and the tracking systems and the inventory control. We’re on the cutting edge of that stuff.”
Despite new technology, no manufacturer was exempt from the setbacks of the 2008 economic crisis. “It was gut wrenching,” says Sullivan. “2009 was without a doubt the single most difficult year that we have ever encountered in our 60 years.” In late 2008 the company had a warehouse full of square and rectangular tubing and pipe, for which it paid 75 cents a pound. “When the market crashed we were trying to sell it for 50 cents a pound.”
Even with layoffs, reduced hours and financial losses on inventory, Sullivan Metals managed to pull itself into recovery. “We were able to ride it out; we were able to take our lumps in 2009 and then move forward from there,” says Sullivan. “There are some companies that just couldn’t recover from that, and I’m thankful that we were able to. We’re still a little smaller than we were at one point, but we’re right-sized for the level of business that we do now and it is encouraging, we’re moving forward.”
With a long history in Holyoke, Sullivan Metals can focus on customer service. “We don’t have multiple departments—it’s very streamlined and it’s very direct,” says Sullivan. “We still have a couple of scrap customers that literally go back to the 50s that we have had relationships with since the beginning ... even if it’s going a few generations, we know all the generations.”
Bill Sullivan was born and raised in Holyoke, which now suffers from the loss of manufacturing and closing of paper mills. “It’s trying to find a new identity, and as the world changes, I think we’re part of that,” he says. “We’re investing in Holyoke and we plan to stay here. We love the city and I think we’re important to the city. We employ over 50 people throughout the different locations.”