Brandi Harleaux is the second-generation owner of the South Post Oak Recycling Center in the 5 Corners District.

She is also the winner of this year’s Texas Small Business Person of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Harleaux with the president

Harleaux received the award in May in Washington, D.C., where she met President Biden.

She earned a master’s degree in business from Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business. She has over 25 years of entrepreneurial experience and is a speaker on topics such as resilience, engaged leadership, empowerment of women and diversity. She took the time to share her thoughts with the 5 Corners District.

Q: What was it like to be named the SBA’s 2023 Texas Small Business Person of the Year?

A: To be recognized as a top small business in the State of Texas is a tremendous honor. It is even more rewarding because our company is in an industry that is often overlooked. We are honored to have been selected, and we hope this recognition shines even more light on the positive contributions of the materials recycling industry to society at large.

Q: How were you considered for the award? Were you nominated, or did you apply?

A: The Small Business Administration partners with SCORE and the Small Business Development Center offices around the nation. (Our business has) leveraged the services of the SBA Houston District office as well as SCORE Houston, the Houston Small Business Development Center, and the Minority Business Development Center. We’ve had phenomenal, trusted advisors, resources, and mentors from each of these agencies over the past 10-plus years. For this award, I was nominated by one of my business advisors, LeeVera Smith.

I had no idea the magnitude and reach of the local winner, let alone the state winner . . .There was an external panel of judges who gathered to review the hundred-plus submissions for the Houston region. Unbeknownst to me, I was selected as the winner for the Houston District office, which represents 32 counties in southeast Texas. From there, my name and South Post Oak Recycling Center went into a “Texas judging pool,” where I was unknowingly competing amongst the winners of the other five regional offices (Dallas, El Paso, Rio Grande, West Texas & San Antonio) winners across the state of Texas.

Q: Who are some of your clientele at South Post Oak Recycling Center?

A: We proudly serve customers of all sizes, including households; contractors; tradesmen; industrial accounts, such as manufacturing companies; machine shops, and fabrication shops; corporations in the utility, oil and gas, automotive, energy and construction sectors; and government entities.

Q: As the owner of a recycling center, what are some of the major challenges you face in running the business, and what are some of the rewards?

A: One of the biggest challenges is overcoming many misconceptions around recycling, specifically the myth that it does not make enough of an impact on the environment. Where in fact, material recycling has both an environmental, monetary, and social impact. It’s visible although people aren’t connecting the dots.

For example, the steel and iron we recycle is the same material used to create the roads and bridges we drive on every day, and recycled aluminum is used to make some of our favorite vehicles on the road.

Some of the greatest rewards include introducing recycling to the younger generation and seeing their excitement around learning more about preserving the environment as well as seeing examples of how recycled materials are used in everyday items we benefit from. From a business perspective, it’s also very rewarding when entities are able to see the strategy and real financial value of recycling scrap metal to their bottom line as well as the direct tie to their environmental social and governance goals.

Q: Can you tell us about the inception of the recycling center? Who began the venture, and when?

A: My dad, Freddie Robinson, was a buyer for an aluminum foil manufacturer, and he and my mom, Angela Robinson, eventually decided to open their own business in 1994. He wanted to establish the business in a working-class area where people like plumbers and electricians could get rid of their scrap metal at the end of their workday. He grew the business and served the community for 20 years before I took over.

Q: Did you have an opportunity to work with them, and what lessons were you provided to ensure the success and longevity of the business?

A: Growing up, I would help out by cleaning up around the shop or helping my dad clean things like AC coils from AC units. I learned a lot just by being around my parents, such as the power of hard work, what short-term sacrifice looks like versus long-term gain, as well as the power of “taking care of your people,” coupled with hiring and investing in employees that others are less apt to hire.
Later, I moved back to Houston from Los Angeles for the purpose of transitioning the business. My dad, mom and I had many conversations about the industry and day-to-day activities, as well as what the future of this business, including our impact and legacy.

Q: What types of materials does the recycling center accept?

A: We accept a variety of metal types, including all ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metals such as aluminum cans, alloys, brass, copper, appliances, aluminum, iron, steel, lead, stainless steel, shavings, and even exotic metals.

Q: How do you ensure that the scrap metals accepted are legitimately procured, versus stolen (namely, catalytic converters)?

A: Great question. Believe it or not, we have more regulations and process steps for customers to follow compared to going to a bank and withdrawing monies. For this reason, we have carried a lot of the burden for law enforcement by investing in technology, software, automation, cameras, and surveillance. We are required to take valid U.S. IDs for any customers who come to our facility if they have anything other than aluminum cans. We are also required to ensure we have on file license plates of the vehicle our customer drove in, pictures of all items purchased/recycled, a thumbprint from the customer and a signature! All of which is uploaded daily to a site monitored by the Houston Police Department. I don’t think most people are aware how extensive our regulatory process is.

I firmly believe the theft issues and purchases of materials such as catalytic converters are taking place in underground markets as well as the few facilities operating as “bad actors.” As the saying goes, one bad apple can spoil the bunch. Fortunately, most business owners in the material recycling industry with recycling facilities around the city and country are not buying stolen material. Case in point: HPD conducted a sting operation last year where they found a warehouse filled with catalytic converters – enough to fill a vessel cargo container. Not to our surprise, the theft ring that had this material was a group of people in the cleaning business; completely unrelated.

We have no interest in buying stolen material. I tell our team often that while we want to buy and recycle metal, we are an ethical and upstanding business that’s been an integral part of the community and job creator for almost 30 years. We have a great reputation amongst our customers, law enforcement and city officials. We don’t plan to change that as we look forward to the next 30 plus years in business! Recycling is a growing industry with evolving technologies and techniques.

Q: How do you stay up to date with the latest advancements in recycling and waste management practices?

A: We have been a part of our industry trade association, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, for over 20 years. The benefit of being a member and serving on the board is having the opportunity to attend conferences which expose us to technology, equipment, subject matter experts and a vast global network that gives us insight into not only todays advancements but future advancements. Reading various trade, equipment, environmental and sustainability publications are also helpful. Often you can incorporate ideas or be inspired based on what other industries are doing. We make it a point to stay plugged in and connected across industries and the globe.

Q: What are your plans and goals for the recycling center? Are there any expansions, innovations, or new initiatives on the horizon?

A: Of course, as the saying goes, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” We have diversification plans, expansion plans, and impact plans mapped out and prayed over. One of the ones I’m most excited about is our Every Day Is Earth Day campaign, where we’ll be working with local schools on recycling education and outreach. Be on the lookout for more opportunities to partner with the team at South Post Oak Recycling Center on your metal recycling programs, initiatives and even educational outreach.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to individuals or communities looking to improve their recycling efforts or establish their own recycling centers?

A: The first thing I would say is to look around. Look at the copper plumbing under your sinks, medical device equipment made of metal, steel frames and barriers on the roads and bridges we drive on. Look at the aluminum or steel body of the cars we drive and recognize that most of the metal you see around you is made of recycled metal.

Secondly, keep in mind that 70 percent of recycled metal comes from commercial and industrial companies. Therefore, rest assured that there are billions of tons of material being recycled every day and used to make resources and items we use in our day-to-day lives.

Lastly, if you are a household, we invite you to come by our location at 14600 S. Post Oak Road, Houston, TX 77045 to recycle some of your aluminum, brass, copper, stainless steel or iron and see for yourself how the processing of recycled metal works before it is made into new material. Or if you are a company generating over 10,000 pounds, give us a call to request a roll-off container to experience our center’s recycling service model.

The cherry on top for all is that you can make money on your recycled material, all while having a positive environmental impact!