Friday, June 12, 2015

Born to Scrap

At Foil’s Inc. in Harrisburg, generations are ‘born to scrap' (

By Lisa Thornton

Michael Torrence, 50, looks over the 17-acre scrapyard of Foil's Inc. It's not just iron that flows through the fourth-generation owner's blood, but copper, steel, brass and aluminum, too.

Michael Torrence watched as the jaws of the giant shear – a stories-high machine that looked as if it could share lineage with dinosaurs – picked up a scrapped beam from the old Poplar Tent bridge and snapped it in two like a frail spray of uncooked spaghetti.

One hundred years ago, hen his great-grandfather started Foil’s Inc., the family’s recycling business, a big job like this would have gone to a team of burly men, often ex-convicts looking to earn their first honest living.

They would bust the concrete with sledgehammers, then bore into its bone with blowtorches to melt out its metal marrow – the hidden prize.
Now, million-dollar contraptions chew up the work, and concrete crumbs tumble from their massive jowls.

Few businesses survive to their five-year anniversary nowadays.
Torrence, 50, a fourth-generation scrapper, took over the company from his father, Sonny, who took over from his father, Robert Torrence. Robert took over from his father-in-law, Charles Foil, who started recycling rags, rubber and iron in 1913.

It will probably stay in the family, either the biological one or the one soldered together by a shared passion for scrap. Torrence’s will is as firm as iron on that.

I have been approached a thousand times to sell it, but you can pry it out of my cold dead hands,” he said. “It’ll go to the children or to employees.”

The fifth generation – Torrence’s daughters, Amber, 26, who works in accounts, and Erika, 22, who runs the scales – is keeping the torch lit and will eventually welcome their brother, Nathaniel, 20, after college, if he wants in.

It’s a dirty, dangerous job. All day, the 17-acre scrapyard on N.C. 49 in Harrisburg bustles with a steady parade of trucks. Their backs seem ready to buckle under the weight of nearly every metal-containing object imaginable: treadmills, aluminum cans, commercial airplane wings, trombones.

The continuous crunching, twisting and shredding never quiets down as the yard’s enormous machines digest heaps of scrap.

Each generation of the family has been drawn to scrapping like metal to a magnet.
I was born to do scrap, because I love it,” said Torrence. “I don’t remember ever doing anything else.”

His father agreed. “It’s just something that gets in your blood,” his father agreed. “It just keeps drawing you back.”

Foil’s Inc.’s first location was on Church Street, where the county Governmental Center is now.

For a while, the operation churned off Spring Street, behind the Boys & Girls Club of Cabarrus County.

In 1971, the business moved to Harrisburg and expanded into auto recycling. Torrence couldn’t bear to scrap gems that came in, such as Jaguars and vintage military trucks.

It’s painful for me to see anything like that go through there,” he said.

The past 100 years have brought plenty of changes to the industry.

Strict environmental regulations forced the change from giant furnaces that melt metal to massive shears and shredders that tear it into pieces.

Increasing metal theft has brought regular check-ins from detectives and mounds of compliance paperwork to scrappers.

The handshake has been replaced by the contract.

But metal is still king. A magnet is still the handiest tool, and the desire of the Torrence family to save the earth’s resources for future generations is unwavering.

Our raw materials are going,” said Torrence. “We have to recycle. We have to.”

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