Salvaging the American work ethic
by Jessica Purvis Frost
Brothers James P. (left) and Mark J. Burnett learned the scrap metal business from their father and eventually launched Burnett Scrap Metals, on Vermont 116 in Hinesburg.
Jim Burnett knows that the kind of business he’s in can attract slick people seeking quick cash. “There are two ways to run this business — run it honestly or dishonestly — and we run it honestly,” he says. Jim is the owner, with his brother Mark, of Burnett Scrap Metals in Hinesburg. “My father always taught us hard work and to always be honest,” he says.
Bill Cleary, the general manager at J&B International Trucking, has known the brothers since their days together at Champlain Valley Union High School. Now he sells and services the Burnetts’ trucks. “They are the kind of customers that I wish I had 15 to 20 more of,” he says. “They always pay their bills and are always reasonable to deal with. I have never heard a bad word about them from anyone who has done business with them.”
The two youngest of Edward and Jean Burnett’s 10 children, Jim and Mark learned the trade from their father, who had returned to Williston after World War II and started a scrap metal business out of his truck. All of Edward and Jean’s children and grandchildren grew up in and around the junkyard, says Jennifer Ashley, one of those grandchildren.
With a span of 20 years between the oldest sibling and Mark, the eight older children had moved out and had families of their own by the time their father became too ill to continue with the business.
A member of CVU’s Class of 1980, Jim earned his GED and worked for Aztec Construction and Burlington Food Service. Mark, who graduated “in 1986 or 1987,” he says, also worked at Aztec, followed by a couple of years at Baker Distributing. When their father became ill, they began helping him and learned much about the industry under his tutelage. Eventually, they bought a pickup truck and went out on their own.
In 1998 they purchased the property and license of the former Giroux’s scrap yard on Vermont 116 in Hinesburg, formally establishing Burnett Scrap Metals LLC so customers could bring scrap to them. Each step seemed like a gamble, but the company continued to grow.
The Burnetts may have expanded beyond their father’s imagination, but they have managed to keep much of the business within the family. Seven of their 11 employees are family members, including Mark’s wife, Kristy, and Jim’s wife, Susan.
Jennifer Ashley, their niece, manages all the office functions, including the website. She was pursuing licensing to become a financial services rep when her uncles approached her about working for them. She began by working part time, organizing and putting systems in place to streamline the process for the growing number of customers. She was honored, she says, when they asked her to join the family business. “As the business was growing, things were becoming more regulated — it was a lot different than the backyard at Grandpa’s.”
What they pay for scrap depends on the kinds of metal being bought, and prices continually fluctuate. Ashley keeps track of them. “Even when you are away you are checking your phone for emails and the prices,” she says. “All day I watch the prices, and if something changes more than a few cents we have to adjust ours accordingly to stay competitive.”
The yard is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. Jim works mostly in the yard, and Mark, mostly in the office, coordinating the activities of the trucks that drive to pick up scrap metal or transport it to recycling ports in Montreal and Albany. They also work with stop-in customers such as homeowners, contractors, and other businesses.
As the business has grown, so have the challenges. “When we first started up, it was physically harder, but now it’s mentally harder,” says Jim. “It’s just more to deal with.” That includes paperwork. Between maintaining all of the regulatory paperwork and managing employees, he says, more time is spent dealing with business-related issues than being in the field.
One of the biggest issues day-to-day is competition. In 2008, the prices for metal increased significantly, which prompted people to clean out any scrap that was lying around, says Jim. This gave the brothers a high year in volume and sales. However, it also incited others to get into the scrap metal business, “because the prices were really good,” he says. “Before, no one wanted scrap. It was just something that got in the way and they got rid of it. Now that it’s worth money, people are getting into the business.”
The Burnetts pride themselves on never hiding the weight of the metals, so that anyone can see the amount being processed. “When you are bidding jobs and bidding on different material, you are bidding against people who are going to cut customers on weight,” Jim says. “It’s hard to get an accurate or honest quote.” This makes it difficult to compete, he says.
The increase in prices has also provoked the “criminal-minded” to steal metal for quick cash, says Ashley. “There was a lot of stealing from people in the community — cutting converters off of cars and breaking into people’s camps and taking out their plumbing for the copper. It all looks the same when it comes in.”
She says she keeps fastidious records of all the people who bring in scrap metal, including their driver’s licenses and what materials they have brought. Owners will come in to try and track down the stolen goods and the database is crucial to chasing down the crooks. “A lot of yards, unfortunately, are not even licensed, but are still in operation,” Ashley says. “That’s our big concern.”
The Burnetts have spent countless hours talking to police and tracking down stolen materials to return them to their rightful owners. Police call every day looking for materials that have been reported stolen. Repeat offenders have been arrested right in the yard. However, the company has had much less success in getting their money back from felons.
There is a court restitution program, but it has proven ineffective for their business, Ashley says. “The offenders have to earn the income in order for the court to take it from them through restitution, so it just doesn’t really go anywhere.” In those cases, Burnett Scrap Metals suffers financial loss.
David Demag, co-owner of Demag Rigging, supplies the Burnetts with rigging and cranes for loading and unloading heavy equipment being scrapped. They have done business together for at least 30 years. Demag has a fond memory of a job that they worked on together on State Street in Montpelier. It lasted a couple of months and involved a lot of demolition work throughout the building. “It was a pleasure to see and work with them every day,” he says. “They are absolutely not afraid of hard work. You couldn’t ask for a couple of better brothers or business people than they are.”
They are breaking ground this month for the construction of a warehouse measuring over 8,000 square feet. This will allow for trucks to pull right up to the building and leave their materials. The sorting will be done inside, as opposed to out in the elements as it is currently handled. It will also replace the trailer that is now being used as an office. “I’ll have heat and water,” Ashley quips. “I’ll be spoiled.”
Ashley, who looks forward to her new office in the building, says it will be big enough for all their dogs. “We are all animal lovers,” she says. “Jim has two English bulldogs and a couple of cats; Mark has three Swiss mountain dogs. Chris [Burnett — a nephew] has Labs and I have a golden and four cats. Mark’s dogs come over quite a bit.”
Their collective love of animals has prompted them to support the Humane Society. Not only do they sponsor the organization’s annual events, but when people drop off an appliance and do not want money for it, those proceeds are also donated to the Humane Society. That program alone generated over $1,200 last year.
When they do have downtime, they prefer to spend it with family. They manage to make some time for recreation and play in local sports leagues with several of the staff and family members from work.
Mark’s sons, Hollis and Ty, ages 16 and 14, also work at the yard occasionally. However, he isn’t certain that the business holds appeal for them right now. He says they are much like he was at their age. “As a young kid, it wasn’t real glamorous. That’s just like my kids — they don’t see much glamor in it, but they are going to have to make a living one day, so we’ll see.”
Reminiscing about his father, Mark says, “He was happy doing what he was doing. He picked up scrap all of the time, but he did it small. He went around in a small truck and picked up scrap and brought it to a local dealer. But now we are the local dealer and we have maybe 100 people bringing us scrap daily.” •