Recycler to Watch: Rob Smith

Sep 1, 2020 | Industry

Founded by the Clarke family in 1958, Erin Auto Recyclers in Erin, Ontario has made a name for itself within the automotive recycling community. For nearly 62 years, the company has operated on approximately five acres of land just north of Brampton, Ontario and is currently owned by Rob Smith, Elayne McSkimming (both pictured above) and their two sons. Today, this family-owned and operated entity strives to recycle vehicles in a safe, proper and environmentally friend manner.

In fact, Erin Auto Recyclers has been recognized by the Clean Air Foundation as the first in Canada to recover mercury switches from ABS breaking assemblies, which, along with recovering convenience lighting switches, is a vital achievement. Not only do these assemblies take a concerted effort to locate and remove, but these types of assemblies often contain three mercury switches that together contain over 2.5 grams of mercury, a harmful neurotoxin. Together, Rob, Elayne, their sons and their employees continue to strive to improve all facets of automotive recycling in order to have a positive effect on the environment.

With such a long-standing company history, do you have any interesting historical company stories of its founding and ongoing success? 

Rob Smith: Our yard was founded by the Clarke family back in 1958. Local folklore says that the man who ran the yard, Norm Clarke, was quite a character and a poster child of what a wrecking yard was at the time. The yard was named Erin Township Auto Wreckers and it remained that way even after it was sold in about 1982 to my wife’s parents, Rod and Evelyn McSkimming. Fast forward to 2003 and this is where my wife and I decide to get into the auto recycling business. I’m not sure what kind of drugs we were on at the time to take over a family business (laughing), but there we were and here we are.

What type of experience did you and your wife have prior to taking over the family business?

I have been an entrepreneur since I started working for myself when I was 19 years old. But my interest in entrepreneurial activities actually stared much earlier when I was a kid. I would pick through people’s garbage on a Thursday night and have a “garage sale” on Saturday morning. I still get a kick where that one ended up, turning one person’s junk into another man’s gold. By trade I’m a tool and die maker, mainly in the auto parts industry, and my wife was in ground logistics for an international freight company. When we bought the business, neither of us had any experience with auto recycling. In fact, despite my wife’s parents owning  the company she had no real interaction in their business.

Can you describe what Erin Auto Recyclers looked like in the “early years” after you and your wife purchased it? And what process do you go through to transform the yard to what it is today?

Initially, the yard was everything you would expect a “wrecking yard” to be – dog and all. This is where the transformation starts. The first order of business was to rebrand and take the business out of the Stone Age so to speak. That’s when Erin Auto Recyclers was born. This started the journey of gaining knowledge about the auto recycling industry, community  involvement, resources, rules and regulations and the local government.

How did the community react to the new ownership of the company and your eagerness to transform and update the business?

When we started dealing with new customers there seemed to be a common theme and that was “we never knew you were here.” I thought, “How could this be?” This place has physically be here since 1958. This need for awareness set the stage for involvement within the local community and beyond to promote us.

What type of challenges did you initially face when you began to reintroduce the company to the community and potential customers and obtain more exposure for the business?

As we started out dealing with the town’s regulations, it became obvious to us that some people didn’t want us here and that was due to the stigma that our industry has had to endure. Well that was about to change – for our town, anyway. When we were researching who could help us, the Ontario Automobile Recyclers Association kept coming up. We were not members of the association and we felt very intimidated by how far behind the times we were. In a way, we were afraid to ask for help from them. During our time of researching, we came upon the mercury switch issue and started pulling them out. We also started pulling the ABS switches and were recognized by the switch out program as being the first in Canada to submit them to the program.

During this time we launched our first website and we also came out of the Hollander “Stone Age” books – outdated books at that because they were cheaper to buy. We also bought a server and stations to begin doing inventory online, which we expanded on with a yard-to-yard program and car part software.

How have you become engaged within the community to help further your company’s growth?

I became a founder of the local chamber of commerce, as none had existed prior to this. I was also accepted as a member of the environmental committee for the town of Erin and the community involvement continued as we started sponsoring local events. We ended up winning an award of distinction from the Credit Valley Conservation Authority for our efforts to protect the town’s drinking water. And we became members of OARA and participated in the programs that they were doing, notably the Sunshine Foundation tire drive. We were consistently in the top ten spots and in 2013 I was asked to help do a dream flight to Disney World and it was one of the most meaningful things I had ever done. In 2018, we were the winners of the tire drive, which just goes to show persistence pays off.

Of course, I’ve never been one to give up, but that doesn’t mean I need to be first. Rather just knowing I’ve done my best has served me well. Winning is sometimes just a bonus. In 2014 I really got involved in our community and ended up getting elected in our town to serve the community and in 2018 I was re-elected to serve another four years. In 2019 we were given an award by our fire department for continuously helping out their fire training program as we supply cars to all surrounding fire departments.

Through all of your efforts, how has the company grown?

We now employ four full-time staff, which includes my wife and I, as well as two part-time staff. We process about 1000 cars each year. We were re-zoned to allow car sales and we are an OMVIC used car certified site. We also run a “car angel” program to help the East Wellington Community Services – similar to what the Car Heaven program does. This all brings us to where we are now.

What do you attribute to your success?

I wouldn’t have known all this could be done without the help and resources of our association. In the end, our fears of being “less” than at the beginning of our journey were quickly put to rest as there were many people who helped us along the way. With people like Steve Fletcher and a great board of directors watching out for us and helping us stay ahead of the curve – even during these trying times of COVID, with resources and tips to help navigate through this pandemic.  And all the members that treat each other with respect, I would like to take this time to thank all off them too.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic altered your business or the way you see the future of your company?

When this first started happening, my reaction defaulted to October 2008. What did I learn and what was I going to use from that crisis this time around? Well, much like 2008, there was some reflecting on what was working and what was not working, as well as who was working and who was not. Sometimes you are so busy all the time that the trees get in the way of the forest. You can choose to be scared or you can be energized by the unknown. I choose the latter. Most of us already know the answers to solutions and this seems like the time the world pushed us to make a move. Clean up, reorganize, re-tool or just plain rethink succession planning. My point is this:  Look for the dollar in the junk that life just gave us – after all, it’s the foundation of our business.

One man’s garbage is another man’s gold! We will be looking at a more ecommerce-based platform to take us into the future. This is one of our biggest failures to not be there yet, but I have no regrets on how far we’ve come.

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