Customer Profile - Steve Norton, Founder & CEO of STS Electronic Recycling

By Rhett Dawson| September 18th, 2014 | Agents

When you first talk to Steve on the phone, you get a strong sense of his entrepreneurial drive. In just three and half years he has gone from an empty 50,000 square foot warehouse in Jacksonville, Texas with two employees to a service area that stretches across nine states and a second location in Miami Florida. With 80 employees STS is not slowing down anytime soon.

Below are some excerpts from my interview with Steve:

Tell me about how you got started?

Steve: I had experience running several scrap yards and wanted to get into recycling. When someone came along and expressed an interest in buying my business I offered him a price I thought would scare him off and he took it!

Having sold my business I was elected as the Commissioner of Precinct 2 for Cherokee County and with the need to subsidize my salary felt like I had a good opportunity to get into recycling.

A good friend of mine was dabbling in electronic recycling and I began to read up on it and found out that only 25% of the electronics disposed of in the U.S. are being recycled. Added to that, there will be more electronics produced in the next five years than were produced between 1980 and today. With those kinds of trends in place I felt like this was an industry that wasn’t going away anytime soon.

Initially, I started on the scrap side of business breaking down components and selling them to be remanufactured. That ultimately led to where STS is today where we not only recycle electronics but also refurbish and sell them. In fact the retail side of our business is about as big as the recycling side of the business.

How did you go about learning how to recycle electronic devises?

Steve: I was self-taught for the most part and spent a lot of time learning about the industry requirements. I also hired the right people who knew more about it than I did.

Gradually, as the company grew we learned from what we were doing as we went along. Today, STS has a home for about 99% of everything that comes in from cardboard and plastic packaging to motherboards. What we don’t recycle or refurbish we can find a buyer for.

I also made sure we got the Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) certification which is one of only two certifications accredited by the EPA. Although there are no regulations requiring this certification, I felt like it was a responsible approach for the company to take. We are audited diligently throughout the year and they check everything from A to Z including the companies which are downstream in our supply chain to make sure nothing we recycle ends up in a river or landfill anywhere in the world.

What are some key moments that you remember in the life of your company?

Steve: One would have to be when I found a 50,000 square foot building in Jacksonville, Texas that became our first location. It was trashed out and had formerly been a plastic recycling plant. I remember walking in there thinking, this place is huge.

Our first customer was a guy I knew who had a computer business and called me to pick up a load of electronics he had been storing and wanted to get rid of. A cousin and I went and picked up the load in my truck and trailer and I can still remember driving into the warehouse and being able to turn around inside. As it turned out we needed the space as STS has doubled every year we have been in business.

Another key moment was deciding to diversify and build up the retail side of the business. I was in the scrap business during the financial crisis in 2008 and watched prices go from $10 per 100 pounds of scrap to $1 per 100 pounds of scrap in a year. Scrap prices move in sync with commodity prices so that side of the business moves up and down fairly frequently. The retail side of the business is more consistent as we sell refurbished products across the U.S. which generates cash flow for our local operation. In a way we recycle everything, just not the money!

With data security being in the news a lot recently, what does your company do to ensure any private information on the devices you recycle is destroyed?

Steve: Each truck is connected to a tracking system that monitors what we pick up from the time we receive it to the time it arrives at our facility. This allows STS to maintain an unbroken chain of custody while the device is under our control all the way through the recycling process. Once the data is destroyed and a device has been recycled we issue a certificate of destruction showing the data has been destroyed.

The FBI, Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshalls are some of the clients who have used us for data destruction and electronic recycling as well as a number of police and sheriff departments because of the safeguards we have in place.

In terms of growth where do you think STS will be in the next 3-5 years?

Steve: Based on our current growth rate I think we will probably triple in size over the next five years. I got into the industry at a good time and have been able to look at what other recyclers are doing and improve on it. From an industry perspective the growth is robust with electronic recycling going from a $5 billion dollar a year industry just a few years ago to an over $20 billion a year industry today.

This industry has to grow otherwise the growth in electronics is going to pollute the world. Where we stand today, electronic waste streams are the fastest growing waste streams in the world.

When you are not working as the CEO of STS or as County Commissioner what do you do for fun?

Steve: I live in Rusk, which is the county seat for Cherokee County and is a small town of 6,000 people about 45 minutes south of Tyler. With a big family (six kids), my parents, two sisters and a brother all living within about a five mile radius I spend a lot of time going to baseball games and just enjoying participating in family activities

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