“It’s gorgeous,” she says of the electrical wiring. “It’s scrap, but I consider it art.”
As she’s admiring its gleaming beauty, a truck comes in with a delivery, and she rushes over to the table to help her crew remove the plastic insulation from the new cache of copper.
Michele, owner and president of Long Island City-based City Scrap Metal, loves unsheathing the braided copper, a task that her desk duties don’t allow her enough time to do.
Once she starts, it’s hard to stop. It’s like popping bubble wrap.
Tall and elegant in black high-heel boots, Michele doesn’t seem concerned about getting her hands or her suit jacket dirty.
The only woman on the line, she fits in comfortably, smiling each time a new vein of copper is revealed.
She’s not sure what makes the plastic peeling so satisfying and addictive, but it may be because she grew up in family that, as she says, “bleeds metal.”
Her mother and father owned a metal-plating company, and her paternal grandparents had a scrap metal yard.
Michele, who was born in Sheepshead Bay and spent five of her young years on Staten Island, grew up in Woodmere, Long Island.
“When my parents divorced, I was in college,” she says. “My mom bought out my dad.”
Michele learned salesmanship from her mother.
“I used to go with her on calls,” she says. “I was her sidekick.”
She never thought of going into business for herself, and after she graduated from the University of Buffalo with a degree in economics, she sought a career in advertising.
Instead, she ended up working in real estate, eventually becoming a commercial broker.
“I still wanted to pursue advertising, so I took a leave of absence and worked as a temp at ad agencies to see whether I liked it,” she says. “It turned out I did.”
She became an account executive for Hill Holliday, where she worked with a variety of sports clients.
And that’s where she still might be had she not made a trip to the Catskills.
“It was a singles weekend,” she says. “I met my husband, Alan, there. We were engaged six weeks later.”
They settled in Chicago, where Michele got back into the real estate business. The couple returned to New York when she was pregnant with the first of their two children.
They joined her family’s scrap metal business for a couple of years.
Nineteen years ago, they established City Scrap Metal, whose logo is a scrappy, in-your-face English bulldog.
“I started the company in my house,” she says. “My son was one year old. I used to hold him on my lap while I was on the phone doing sales calls. Then we bought this building and moved here.”
Although City Scrap Metal is open only six days a week, Michele is on duty seven.
“The work never stops,” she says. “I do paperwork at night and on weekends because I don’t want to waste income-producing hours on it.”
City Scrap Metal, whose offices and warehouse cover 8,000 square feet, collects scrap from job sites. Its trucks have digital scales, so sellers are paid on the spot. Customers also drop metal off at the warehouse, where it is processed and shipped to mills for recycling.
“We are not a stereotypical junkyard,” Michele says. “We’re a serious business, and we’re a brand. At nearly every construction site, you’ll see someone in a hart hat wearing one of our City Scrap Metal bulldog T-shirts.”
There aren’t many women in the scrap-metal business, a fact that Michele is very aware of. (Yes, she’s had her share of #MeToo moments but says she deflected them with humor.)
Michele’s work at City Scrap Metal is all consuming, but that’s okay with her. She considers the 15 people who work for her her extended family.
“There were years that I cut my salary to less than what my employees were making so I could make payroll,” she says.
City Scrap Metal recently was certified as a woman-owned business, and Michele has other changes in the works.
“I’m looking for 2018 to be a breakout year,” she says. “I’m planting the seeds to move the company in a different direction because the industry is changing. I want to stay ahead of the curve.”
For the next few minutes, though, she’ll continue helping her copper crew. Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break.
Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is September 23.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.