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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

George Adams: Finding Calling in Family Business

Growing up, George Adams Jr. aspired to be a veterinarian. Less than two years after studying to become one at California Polytechnic State University, he dropped out.

“I realized I hated it,” he told the Business Journal.

He worked at a veterinarian’s office while still in school and grew bored of the profession, finding it repetitive.

“Every day, going into the office, it was just the same thing over and over again with people bringing their animals in,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be a challenge for me.”

At the time, Adams did not yet realize his true calling—running his father’s scrap metal recycling business—was right in front of him.

Adams spent most of his weekends as a high school student working for his father, George Adams Sr.

Adams Sr. in the late 1970s started Anaheim-based scrap metal recycling Orange County Steel, which eventually became Orange-based SA Recycling. When the younger Adams took over the company from his father in the mid-1980s, SA Recycling generated annual revenue of about $10 million.

Today, SA Recycling does around $3.8 billion in annual revenue and processes over 5 million tons of recycled metal every year with about 3,100 employees across 130 locations in 16 states. Last year, the company became the largest scrap metal recycling business in the U.S., company officials said.

The Business Journal honored Chief Executive Adams on March 9 at the Irvine Marriott with an Excellence in Entrepreneurship Award for leading the growth of SA Recycling.

“One thing’s for sure: I did not build my company,” Adams told the audience of over 300. “I had the great, good fortune of having an amazing family … and then the most amazing people [who] have helped me build this company to what it is today.”

Non-Practicing Attorney

Adams grew up in Whittier and moved to Anaheim when his father started his scrap metal recycling business. Because his family spent weekends working for their father’s company, they never went to church. They lived frugally and favored buying used belongings over new.

“When I got my first truck—a 1961 Chevy Carryall—the engine was sitting on the ground next to it,” Adams said. “We had to rebuild the engine and put it in the truck in order for me to drive it when I turned 16.”

After dropping out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Adams resumed working for his father’s business. He eventually went back to school to earn a JD at Irvine-based Western State College of Law, which calls itself the oldest law school in Orange County. He, however, had no intention of practicing law after graduation.

“I was complaining that I didn’t understand what my attorneys were saying, [like] what a tort was or what a privity of contract was,” he said. My girlfriend at the time “told me ‘just stop complaining, go back to school and get your law degree.’”

Adams worked in the day and attended law school at night. He started his days at 6 a.m. and arrived home at 10 p.m. He’d end his nights walking along the river near his house, listening to Bar Exam review tapes.

“If I sat down at my desk, [I knew] I’d fall asleep,” he said. “So I figured if I walked, then I would stay awake.”

Adams passed the California Bar Exam after he graduated law school in the 1980s. He has kept his license active ever since and is currently a member of the American, California and Orange County Bar Associations.

“I actually was not going to take the bar because I didn’t care,” Adams said. “But my classmates shamed me into it.”

Near Closure

Adams’ legal background has helped him grow SA Recycling into the multibillion-dollar business it is today.

His company’s path to growth, however, did not come without roadblocks.

Shortly after Adams graduated from law school, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control changed its landfill testing standards, which reclassified SA Recycling’s shredder waste as hazardous.

“In no other state or country in the world is such waste considered hazardous,” Adams wrote in his book “Create the Connection: 25 Surefire Strategies for Success in Leadership and Life,” which he gives to every new employee at the company. “But in California, it is.”

The policy change nearly led to SA Recycling’s closure as it became stuck in what Adams called a “classic political standoff” between the state and the company’s home city at the time, Anaheim.

SA Recycling operated illegally after Anaheim revoked the company’s business license for the more than 58,000-ton hazardous waste pile the company could not properly clear out due to the lack of an affordable disposal means nearby.

The city had filed criminal charges against Adams for operating his business illegally. The California assistant attorney general also threatened to file criminal charges against Adams for abandoning SA Recycling’s hazardous waste pile if he followed the city’s request and shut the company down.

“The state of California didn’t have the money or the will to haul [the pile] away, and neither did the city of Anaheim,” Adams wrote.

After SA operated for months in limbo, Anaheim officials eventually relented, allowing SA Recycling to operate without a license for five years under a court order, which also gave the company the same amount of time to clean up its hazardous waste pile.

SA Recycling used its five allotted years to transport its over 58,000-ton waste pile at a proper landfill in Northern California, spending more than $4 million to do so.

“Ultimately, we outlasted both state and city officials,” Adams wrote. “By refusing to quit, we won the battle through a combination of patience, will and sheer determination.”

Fastest-Growing Large Co.

SA Recycling earned its current name in 2007 when the company, then-called Adams Steel, merged with Sims Ltd., a publicly traded Australian metals recycling company with a $1.8 billion market cap (OTC: SMUPF).

The company last year ranked No. 1 on the Business Journal’s list of Fastest-Growing Large Private Companies after it reported two-year revenue growth of 206% to $3.8 billion for the fiscal year ended last June.

The growth sprung from Adams’ goal to acquire one company a month, which resulted in SA Recycling adding 40 scrap yards to its portfolio last year. The company has added about five more scrap yards across the country since last June, including locations in Alabama and Florida.

$4B This Year

Adams projects SA Recycling will surpass $4 billion in revenue this year.

The company so far has already spent about half of the $100 million Adams allots yearly for acquisitions.

In the long term, Adams hopes SA Recycling will eventually have steel mills of its own. The goal comes as Adams expects an upcoming “big shortage of scrap” in the U.S.

“There’s another 15 million tons of capacity being built in the country right now,” he said. “There’s not going to be enough scrap to go around.”

“Someday, I want to vertically integrate,” he added. “I just gotta get bigger.”

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.

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