Eric Schneider takes the legacy of integrity that his grandfather established when he founded Huron Paper Stock, Chicago, in 1955 seriously. His father, Howard, joined the company in 1969 after graduating from the University of Illinois, and he embraced that ethic as well. “I grew up with that word,” Eric says. “My dad was always saying, ‘Be upfront and be honest.’”
Another thing Howard emphasized was taking care of the customer, Eric says. “Taking care of the customer means being honest about what you can do for them.”
While honoring this tradition of integrity, Eric has expanded the range of materials the company handles and the business sectors that it serves. But his path to running Huron Paper Stock as the company’s president was not as direct as his approach to the business.
Taking a detour
Eric took a detour on his way to running Huron Paper Stock. While he began working with his father in the business in 1995 following college, Eric vacationed in Maui in 1999 and decided he wanted to live there.
“My dad was floored and upset; he didn’t believe me at first,” Eric says of Howard’s reaction to his intention to move.
But move he did.
“Now, looking back and having a 17-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, I realize it is so hard to let your kids go,” Eric says. “It was hard for him, but he showed up to support me. I am grateful for how my dad stood by me.”
While in Maui, Eric married, started a family and worked a succession of jobs that provided a day-to-day existence, he says. Eventually, he began a career in real estate that he and his wife thought could lead to a better life. And then the housing market crashed in 2007 when Eric had five houses in escrow. All of those sales fell through.
Meanwhile, Howard was about to have knee surgery and was worrying about who would manage the business while he took time away to recuperate.
Eric’s wife, Christy, had been speaking with his mother, Terri, which prompted a phone conversation between father and son. During that call, it was decided Eric would return to Chicago for a month to look after the plant.
He says he left the company for Maui in part because he wanted to be creative and interact with people, only to realize upon his return that he could satisfy those needs while working in the family business.
Eric’s time in Maui, where he became familiar with Kimo’s Rules for Living, also reinforced his belief in the importance of integrity. “Tell the truth; there’s less to remember,” was one such rule that stood out to him. “While this is my personal belief, it definitely fits well with what my grandfather and father instilled in me and how to operate,” he says. “In an industry that has not always had the best reputation, we have always taken the approach to be honest and upfront.”
This approach doesn’t always ensure the company makes a deal or retains a customer, but Eric says it gives him peace of mind.
Howard retired earlier this year, making Eric the owner and president of the company. His legacy at Huron Paper Stock extends beyond integrity. While Eric’s grandfather didn’t finish high school, his father graduated from college and brought “keen” business skills with him to the family’s business, Eric says. “My dad is a numbers guy; grandpa worked the business. My dad brought in computer and accounting systems and maintenance and oversight on operations and equipment.” Eric says Howard excels at managing money, finding and trimming excess costs. Negotiating also is a strong suit. Those skills give Huron Paper Stock a strong base for Eric to build on as the company continues its sixth decade in business. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
“Paper has been our No. 1 material since the beginning,” Eric says. “We have branched out into other areas in efforts to provide more value and support to all of our customers’ sustainability wants/needs.”
When his grandfather started the company in 1955, Chicago was a mecca for printing companies, Eric says. In fact, Huron Paper Stock is located only about a mile away from the area that used to be considered Printers’ Row. However, the industry has thinned over the years, and so has the volume of paper from this sector. This reality also contributed to the expanded range of materials the company handles.
Since rejoining Huron Paper Stock in 2007, Eric has focused on growing its business from the food packaging sector. An added benefit is that this sector is less volatile in terms of generation than the printing segment, helping to maintain the flow of materials coming into the plant.
Paper accounts for roughly 70 percent of the recyclables the company handles, while plastics make up 25 percent and metals and miscellaneous materials account for 5 percent, he says. In total, it processes 3,000 to 3,500 tons of recyclables per month.
The company handles preconsumer plastics from manufacturers, Eric says, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), high-impact polystyrene (HIPS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) banding. Loads arrive baled or loose. It also handles regrind and purge.
Huron Paper Stock sorts and bales some incoming metals. When a full trailer load has been accumulated, the company transports the metals to a local scrap yard.
“Our niche is working with either other local businesses that value ‘mom and pop’ service with the corporate-style accounting/reporting as well as key partnerships with national account brokers that need a trusted friend/partner to service those accounts with operations in the Chicago area,” Eric says of Huron Paper Stocks’ generating customers, which include companies in the printing and food packaging sectors, as well as mailers, manufacturers, carton companies, offices and schools.
“We handle, sort, debox and get dirty—whatever it takes to make the cleanest and most marketable packs,” he says.
Eric says the company often spots trailers for customers, helping create space in their facilities that otherwise would be filled with recyclables. It also avoids live loading of the containers when Huron comes out to collect the material.
“Mixed trailer loads are our specialty.”
Of course, customers occasionally ask the company to handle materials it’s not equipped to handle for various reasons. That’s when Eric calls on the relationships he has established with other processors. “We connect customers to other vendors or sources that might benefit them.”
Navigating the turbulence
Eric describes market conditions as of August as being “interesting,” adding that if issues related to China’s National Sword customs crackdown continue, a serious correction in bulk grade pricing and movement could occur.
This situation appears to have arisen as of late September as recyclers reported having difficulty finding buyers for mixed paper grades and prices for all recovered fiber grades are showing signs of plummeting as the month advances.
China’s National Sword campaign also has made plastics a “really tough commodity to be working with now,” Eric says. “With National Sword in China, many grades of plastics that had been shipped overseas for processing are not any longer. I heard that even if all other countries in Asia and Europe could take on some of that volume, it would only account for 20 percent of the total volume.”
U.S. processing facilities cannot handle the degree of contamination found in these postconsumer grades, he says, so the material is being landfilled. “While this is not a good thing for anyone, I do believe that there are some great opportunities that lay hidden and need to be uncovered.”
He continues, “When the markets are hot, anyone can do this business, and often I see others come in to try and make a buck. However, those that are successful in this business know it’s more crucial to understand a down market more than an up market. This has always been one of our strengths and will continue to be how we modify our model.” Eric adds, “We continue to look for the best ways to add value, which is an always evolving aspect of the business that I love the most.”
While Huron Paper Stock is not overly reliant on overseas markets, he says the company has been affected by National Sword as the market responds to surplus material in the U.S. by lowering pricing. If the situation continues, orders could decline as domestic mills’ inventories rise, further reducing pricing, Eric says.
Regarding plastics, Huron is working with its customers who might have to sort materials in their plants differently to assure recyclability and yield the most value.
As Eric looks toward the future of Huron Paper Stock under his leadership, he is grateful for the foundation built by his grandfather and father. “I am fortunate to be standing solid on a company that has been in business 62 years,” he says. Eric plans to build on that foundation.
“I am open to growing and expanding,” he says, though he adds that he’s not sure what form that will take as of yet. “Growth to me is represented in more tons moved through the plant. However, how we do that and with whom are the key factors. By connecting and aligning our company values with the values of others, we can continue to foster win-win situations.”
Eric continues, “Often, I say that I am not looking to work with anyone and everyone. Sometimes an account might generate huge volumes and is certainly very attractive; however, if the hidden costs are working with people out of integrity with themselves and their company who are overly demanding and unrealistic, then those huge volumes might not be worth it. For us, the reality is that I find it much more rewarding to work with six to eight smaller companies in which friendships are made and cherished.”