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Recycling International spotlights family run recycling companies around the globe, starting in Salt Lake City, USA, home to Don, Chris and Mark Lewon of Utah Metal Works.

If there is anywhere the recycling industry is built on the solid base of family entrepreneurship, it is in America. Many of today’s US recycling companies started very small two, three or more generations ago – often as horse and carriage scrap collectors. ‘We do not have data on the percentage of family owned businesses – I wish I did,’ says Robin Wiener, president of the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). ‘It has certainly declined over the years but they do still represent a significant percentage.’

Among the survivors is Utah Metal Works, a ferrous and non-ferrous metals recycling company firmly rooted in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Lewon family has owned the firm since 1955 and the third generation, brothers Mark and Chris Lewon, are currently running the company.

‘Our father Don still comes to the office every day he is in town and his title is chairman of the board,’ says Mark who takes care of the operational side and works with the regulators and government affairs while Chris is in charge of purchasing, sales and dealing with the banks. Two members of the fourth generation are also learning the business as employees working in the yard, making a total of five family members involved.

Spread talents

‘It is nice and fun to work with family,’ says Mark. ‘Most of the time there are common goals and interests that make running the business enjoyable, especially when talents are spread around so that everybody doesn’t want to be the sales person.’ Currently, business conditions are good despite Covid-19. ‘Manufacturing is strong and growing. There is construction everywhere and we have plenty of scrap flowing in. Markets have also been strong, making things even better.’

Many of the advantages of family businesses are tied to the relative size of the companies ‘as smaller businesses can make decisions faster,’ according to Mark. ‘I believe that while larger family businesses can make fast decisions as well, implementation ends up taking longer.’

Another good thing, according to Mark, is that when changes occur in the industry, such as Covid-19, senior management can individually answer employee questions about the impacts. ‘Often, employees become like family members, with not only the Lewon family attending weddings and funerals. We also help with court issues and support employees through medical issues.’

Banking issues

The biggest disadvantage for Mark concerns banking and finance. ‘Banks are difficult to deal with for credit issues anyway but family businesses get extra scrutiny due to a lack of faith in the family management to begin with’. Not to mention the ‘complete lack of knowledge that most bankers have about the recycling industry and we have a recipe for problems in getting and keeping lines of credit’.

What about the next generation? Will a Lewon take over again when Mark and Chris retire? ‘That’s still up in the air. It would be nice if the two current younger family employees and other possible family members came forward and stated their intentions and interest. But the employees are 24 and 19 years old and other members who could come into the business are younger than that and may not have completely made up their minds. That’s a long-winded way of saying “we’ll see”.’

Read our “Family business” series in #2 of Recycling International >> right here!

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