One simple question helped Alice Combs transform an uncertain career path into a multimillion-dollar business in a male-dominated industry. She tells her story here.

My embryonic fashion career with Mervyn’s Department Store ended with these words: “Alice, I’ve decided you just aren’t management material, nor are you corporate material.” That humiliation fueled my determination to never again give another person the power to make or break my vocation.

I was then a 32-year-old divorcee with two young daughters to support. I had an impractical bachelor’s degree in political science, and my rudimentary work skills included babysitting, food service, department store clerking, typing, shorthand, and low-level math work.

I had, however, been selling since I was four, when I peddled autumn leaves from my neighbors’ yards for two cents apiece. I later sold Girl Scout cookies and Christmas cards. During a shortage of five-cent Firesticks candy bars, my girlfriend and I discovered a source and sold them for 10 cents.

I knew I could sell, but I didn’t know what to sell. I began to ask people what they needed and couldn’t get. One man said, “Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can’t get it.” I was proud to find it for him—but it broke under stress.

I quickly educated myself regarding the necessary properties of baler wire and the ins and outs of industrial sales. I soon found better wire and had my first happy customer. That, in 1975, was Vulcan’s auspicious beginning. The company now manufactures and sells $10 million of wire nationally each year and is also the main source of my comfortable semi-retirement.

What began as desperation to support my small family now supports the families of 18 Vulcan employees. Partial support is indirectly provided to the truck drivers who deliver and pick up at Vulcan, the employees of the businesses that use our wire, and the employees of the companies from which we buy unfabricated wire.

Our wire is used to bale recyclable materials, which include paper products, aluminum, plastics, and even tires. The next time you’re on a freeway, look for the trucks carrying bales of these products, and note that they’re usually secured by wire—hopefully Vulcan’s.

The bulk of our wire secures flattened corrugated boxes, the ones emptied of the products sold at supermarkets, but also from recyclers and the unused cuttings from manufacturers who make the corrugated material. The recycle value is less than four cents per pound, and their wire cost is approximately 2 to 3 percent of that. Currently, new boxes consist of 50 percent used and 50 percent timber. The saving of trees is not only more economical but also more environmentally sound due to reduced use of land, water, and fertilizer.

Though less of our wire contributes to aluminum recycling, we’re pleased to take part in that as well. To produce recycled aluminum takes only 5 percent of the energy required to produce virgin aluminum, which must be derived from mined bauxite and then separated from iron oxide. Since 1980, US virgin aluminum production has fallen from 80 percent to 32 percent, which means that our national production now uses 68 percent recycled aluminum. The recycle value is 67 cents per pound, and the wire used is less than 0.13 percent of that. Formerly, Vulcan had an aluminum ramp, which was blowtorched off our building—stolen, no doubt, for its recycle value. We replaced it with a stainless-steel ramp.

The world’s ubiquitous discarded plastics are valued at only 38 cents a pound and dropping, though the wire cost is less than 0.22 percent. Plastic has low recycle value, due mainly to low demand. Our politicians are battling over this issue. Sadly, the US and the rest of the world recycles only 14 percent of its plastics. Japan puts us all to shame, recycling 86 percent of theirs.

Rubber from used tires averages 10 cents per pound. Its main end use is ground rubber, which has many applications. The most important aspect of recycling tires is that before they’re shredded, the void space is 75 percent, due to which the wire cost is nearly 1.5 percent. Piles of neglected tires harbor vermin and mosquitos. In the US, between 1990 and 2015, the more than 1 billion stockpiled scrap tires were reduced to just 67 million. Between 1994 and 2010, the European Union increased its use of recycled tires from 25 to nearly 95 percent.

We at Vulcan are proud to do our part to protect the environment—our air, trees, oceans, and other waters—and limit what goes into landfills. We even have an energy-efficient wire chopper for our wire scraps. And it all began with a simple question about what people needed.

Alice Combs

Alice Combs grew up in Tarzana, California, married at age twenty, and discontinued college for pink-collar work to put her husband through college. Eleven years later she became a single mother of two young daughters. She finished college, then worked briefly at a now defunct department store until told, “You’re just not corporate material.” Humiliated, she was determined to be her own boss. She discovered she was corporate material, as long as it was her corporation.

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