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The Best Army

Marc Schupan’s family is very involved in the business, from left: sons Jacob and Jordan, Marc’s wife Jeanne, Marc, daughter Shayna Schupan-Barry and son-in-law John Barry. © 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Don’t even try to give Marc Schupan credit for his company’s phenomenal growth and success. He won’t let you.

If you’re the 73-year-old leader of a massive company that you have built over more than 50 years, the tendency may be to look back. Not Marc Schupan.

Inside a small room in a nondescript office building on Covington Road in Kalamazoo, the Schupan & Sons Inc. president and CEO sits in a recliner surrounded by framed photos of family, friends and famous athletes and coaches. This is no “I Love Me” wall. It’s a shrine to people Schupan has known, loved and admired through his life, and sitting by this wall he makes it clear he’s not nearly as interested in talking about himself or his career as about what’s next for his company.

“I’m excited about the future because of the people we have,” says Schupan, who turned 73 in late March. “I think we’re going to be creative. We’re never going to bet the farm on anything, but I think we’ll try some things. Maybe some won’t work, so you move on to other things. The world is changing all the time.”

In 1974, at the age of 26, Schupan took over what was then simply a metal recycling company after the sudden death of his father, Nelson. At the time it employed six people from a heatless building on Lake Street.

Now Schupan & Sons is one of the leading metal and plastic recycling and manufacturing companies in the Midwest, with 500 employees and 15 facilities in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana.

Schupan is a walking, talking motivational poster — he always seems to have an inspiring quote handy to preach honesty, loyalty, agility or tenacity. Fittingly, sports had a major role in his youth and nearly became part of his professional calling. He is a member of the Loy Norrix High School Sports Hall of Fame for basketball and football. After graduating from Michigan State University in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, he earned a teaching certificate and taught and coached baseball, basketball and football in Caro, just east of Saginaw.

Schupan says he was veering toward becoming a lawyer or college basketball coach when, in the summer of 1974, his father asked him to join his scrap metal company, then called Konigsberg Co., which Nelson had purchased in 1968. Marc took a sabbatical from teaching and coaching. A few weeks later, his father died of a stroke. He was 53.

“People say, ‘As an entrepreneur, did you plan any of this?’ Not really,” Marc Schupan says. “When my dad died, it was like failure wasn’t an option. So you did what you had to do. You worked as hard as you needed to. We were never wealthy growing up. We worked. We had good values.

“I wish my father had been around a lot longer to see things. He’d be pretty amazed. We’ve come a long way.”

More than scrap metal

For the first four decades or so, Schupan & Sons branded itself a metal recycling company. But it has moved far beyond the scrap processing yards of its infancy, now boasting five divisions that specialize in industrial scrap recycling, electronics recycling, aluminum and plastic fabrication and distribution, beverage container processing, and materials trading. Marc Schupan is also a principal in UBCR (Used Beverage Container Recovery), the company that collects, transports, and processes empty beverage containers for Michigan’s largest retailers, and the Norwegian-based Tomra, which provides reverse vending machines used for bottle and can returns at large stores.

Still, say company leaders, most folks in Kalamazoo know the company for its scrap metal yard on Miller Road. Each day steady streams of property owners and contractors drop off all sorts of metal at Schupan Industrial Recycling Services, or SIRS. Staff weigh and grade the material and pay customers for the metal. They primarily see aluminum. Occasionally, the staff will spot a unique item that may go to Rescued Metals & Equipment, another limb of the Schupan company tree, instead of heading to a mill for recycling (see story here).

At SIRS, shipping trucks move between a series of warehouses and several large cubes of bundled metal. Most of the facilities are open-air, meaning temperatures can soar during the summer and plummet in the winter. This is the domain of Gary Curtis, president of SIRS, and his team. Consistent with other Schupan leaders, Curtis constantly monitors metal prices and other industry trends. His geographic reach is all of Michigan, northern Ohio and northern Indiana.

“We are putting equipment at a manufacturing facility for them to collect the scrap,” says Curtis during a facility tour, amid beeps, bangs and thumps. “We are picking it up, bringing it back here, grading it, processing it, aggregating it and shipping it to a mill that is going remelt it. They are making raw materials that’ll go back to those same industrial accounts that we’re picking up (from). It’s very much a closed loop.”

Curtis, who grew up in Battle Creek, started working at a metal trading company in Baltimore more than 25 years ago. Schupan & Sons was a major trading partner of the company, and as part of his training Curtis returned to Kalamazoo to learn about the operation here.

“Marc, being the kind of guy he is, spent the whole week with me personally,” Curtis says. “He used to joke around (when) we’d see each other at trade shows — ‘Someday you’ll come back home and come to work for me.’ It took almost 20 years, but it finally happened.” Curtis joined Schupan & Sons seven years ago.

Making the most of metal

About three miles away from SIRS is Schupan’s Electronics Asset Management building, on Peekstock Drive. It’s a relatively new arm of Schupan & Sons, which purchased a company specializing in mining valuable bits of metal from outdated electronics in 2013.

One passes through a metal detector before entering the warehouse. Immediately to the left is ITAD, or IT Asset Disposition. Police departments, law firms, hospitals, schools and others bring their hardware here to be wiped clean and, in some cases, shredded. In another section of the building, employees review a variety of electronics coming through a “triage lane.”

Items in good condition are cleaned, tested and resold in the online refurbished electronics store, Fresh Tech Direct. If the electronic item is deemed unusable, it moves to another portion of the building to be dismantled, with its components separated into a series of bulk-sized corrugated boxes. Hard drives. Steel. Plastic. Batteries.

There are thousands of circuit boards here that Operations Manager Drew Beekman and his staff carefully mine to extract gold, silver, platinum and palladium. “The precious metals content in each board varies. You might have a board worth $8 a pound and then one worth 20 cents a pound,” Beekman says.

In 2020, the division successfully recycled 3,500,000 pounds of electronic devices, extracting the precious metals while keeping the hazardous waste embedded in the devices from reaching landfills.

At the other end of the company spectrum is the 140,000-square-foot Schupan Aluminum & Plastic Sales, or SAPS, located along Davis Creek Court. General Manager Pete Gildea, whose father, Mike Gildea, was a longtime executive at SAPS, winds a tour past a wall of framed, autographed hockey jerseys and uses the Schupan-made hands-free door opener to access the sprawling facility housing dozens of high-end metal cutting and bending machines, CNC equipment and row after row of stacked metal and plastic inventory. Forklifts and delivery trucks rumble through the property, which was expanded in 2019.

“SAPS really started in the late ’70s and early ’80s selling out of our scrapyard,” Gildea says. “Someone would want a little piece of this and a little piece of that. Well, then we didn’t have it, so we’d order it from another distributor company. One thing led to another and it evolved” into the manufacture and distribution of aluminum and plastic products for customers in industries including office furniture, outdoor furniture, aerospace, and medical equipment. SAPS is on track to fill 100,000 orders this year.

Schupan & Sons also has a global reach through its Materials Trading division, started in 2017 and led by Andy McKee. The division trades both scrap and new aluminum, used beverage containers, PET plastic and ferrous and non-ferrous metals. The group operates across the U.S., doing business with 350-plus scrap suppliers in more than 30 countries. In 2020, amid the pandemic, Schupan Materials Trading moved 350 million pounds of material, roughly 40 semi-truck loads per day.

And if you’ve ever wondered what happens to the billions of bottles and cans brought back to retailers for deposit in Michigan each year, look no further than to Schupan’s Beverage Container Recycling division. Led by Tom Emmerich, who has been with Schupan for 27 years, the division has developed one of the nation’s most efficient systems for recycling these beverage containers. Schupan processes about 80 percent of Michigan’s beverage containers generated from the state’s deposit law — 3.6 billion containers annually — helping make Michigan the top U.S. state for beverage container redemption and processing. Pivotal in this division’s work are the efforts of Shayna Schupan-Barry, the company’s director of legislative affairs and strategic partnerships and Marc’s only daughter, who works with lawmakers and environmental groups, providing education and outreach about beverage container recycling.

The restrictions and lockdowns created by the Covid-19 pandemic had a profound effect on all of Schupan’s operations, but in particular the Beverage Container Recycling unit, as can and bottle returns were halted in the early months of the lockdown.

SAPS President John Barry says that the diversified nature of the company as a whole and the experience of its leadership team were key in bringing Schupan & Sons through the pandemic. Barry, who has been with Schupan & Sons since 2005 and is married to Schupan-Barry, says the pandemic sparked a lot of innovation at the company.

“The lesson we learned there was we have sophisticated capabilities and an employee base that can do so much more than we envisioned,” Barry says.
For example, Barry thought collapsible intubation boxes for Covid patients would be a major need. He ordered thousands of pounds of clear acrylic plastic that were shaped into boxes that could cover a patient and protect hospital staff from catching the virus. Schupan began producing the boxes and received media attention for its creation.

“It was a great idea and worked for a little while, but as science caught up we learned it wasn’t doing what we thought it was doing,” Barry says.

As a result, the company ended up with about 100,000 pounds of plastic inventory it couldn’t use. Barry and his team pivoted again and used the material to make large plastic dividers, which became hugely important in schools, voting booths, bars and restaurants.

“We have become the sneeze guard capital of Southwest Michigan,” Barry jokes.

Leaving a legacy

As the company and the country slowly emerge from the pandemic, the tight-knit group of executives and family members leading Schupan is looking to the future.Marc Schupan is proud of his family’s continued involvement and success at the company. When his father died, he renamed the company Schupan & Sons in his father’s honor, a name that became prophetic as Marc’s children became involved in the company.

In addition to Schupan-Barry and Barry, Schupan’s son Jacob, 38, works in the electronics recycling division after careers in the medical community and the transportation industry in Chicago. His other son, Jordan, lives in Los Angeles, and has been the general manager of sales and trading at Schupan since 2017. Jordan is also the co-founder of the clothing company HNLY, which was launched in 2019.

Other relatives are also involved. Marc’s brother Dan, who turns 65 this summer, has been at the company since he was 18. And Marc’s nephew, Shay Schupan, manages the Rescued Metals & Equipment, a subdivision of Schupan Industrial Recycling.

In late June, Marc and Jeanne Schupan will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. They met when Marc lived in a 10-foot-by-50-foot trailer in a field a few miles outside of Caro. Schupan says he didn’t even have front-door steps to the trailer — just a wooden ramp.

Marc credits Jeanne’s stability and support as key reasons the Schupan family remains close, especially after suffering an unthinkable loss.

On Nov. 27, 2002, the couple’s oldest son, Seth, was driving Jeanne’s parents, Phyllis and Clarence Gettel, to Kalamazoo for Thanksgiving. Their car was involved in an accident in Gilford Township, near Saginaw, and all three were killed. Seth was 23. Marc says he couldn’t sleep consistently for two years after the accident. For years, he says, he wrote letters to Seth and essays about coping with grief. He’s thought about using them to shape a book.

“Nobody can write about this if you haven’t experienced it,” he says. “I don’t care what kind of psychologist you are. If you know someone who can say, ‘Here’s where you are and here’s what you’re going to experience,’ you can come out of this better. It will never be OK, but to think there are better days ahead I think would be a good book for people who lost children.”

Marc Schupan says he wears his heart on his sleeve, while Jeanne can be more controlled.

“How many people can go through that and not have your family implode?” he asks. “She’s amazing. She’s pretty amazing.

“The hard part is you never stop missing him. As you get older, you look at what’s important. He was just a great kid. What would life be like today if he was still alive? If he was alive today, my life would be perfect, so to speak. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do, within reason. Although, I want those boys married so we can have more grandkids. Those knuckleheads.”

Family members aside, Schupan says repeatedly that the company’s employees are its most important assets, and he has put money behind that assertation. In a highly competitive labor market, the company has invested in retaining and motivating its workforce. In 2018, the company partnered with the manufacturer Fabri-Kal to open a joint health care center on Covington Road for their employees and their families. Schupan also offers tuition reimbursement for employees who want to take courses toward a degree or professional certification. And, yes, Schupan & Sons still gives its employees a turkey every Thanksgiving. In 2020, the company was recognized as one of the Best and Brightest Companies to Work For by the National Association for Business Resources.

“The man with the best army wins,” Schupan says, noting that the quote came from Rich Holtz, a former vice president at Schupan’s Beverage Container Recycling division.

As Schupan & Sons has flourished, the company has put an emphasis on its philanthropic efforts. Schupan has been heavily involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Kalamazoo for more than 35 years and played a major role in the construction of its current Covington Road building, located a stone’s throw from Schupan headquarters. A few weeks after its opening, the building was named the “Seth Nelson Schupan Mentoring Center.”

The United Way, Kalamazoo Covenant Academy (a public charter high school for students 16-22) and several scholarships have also benefited from the company’s penchant for giving. Schupan & Sons has long been a significant underwriter of the annual New Year’s Fest in downtown Kalamazoo, partners with the Blue Dolphin restaurant to provide free Christmas dinners for more than 1,000 people each year and funds an annual social justice award for youth. And during the pandemic, the company has donated 1,000 refurbished Google Chromebooks from its Electronics Asset Management division to Kalamazoo Public Schools and Kalamazoo Covenant Academy for their students’ use during the study-at-home restrictions.

Upon hire, every Schupan employee gets eight hours of paid time off for community service work. And those Thanksgiving turkeys? Last year, many Schupan employees donated their gift birds to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes and the Salvation Army to feed the hungry.

“When you look back at what you do, it’s not what you take with you, it’s what you leave behind,” says Schupan. “Are you going to leave a legacy of something that makes a difference?”

John Liberty

John Liberty began his professional career as a journalist, but now he’s “a craft beer ambassador” and says the two vocations aren’t really so far apart. Liberty, a former Kalamazoo Gazette entertainment writer, and Aric Faber created West Michigan Beer Tours in 2013 to allow people to experience the area’s growing craft beer industry.

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