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E-waste businesswoman goes from part time to big time

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Updated: May 30, 2013 3:14PM



ROMEOVILLE — Karrie Gibson has gone from part-time tanning salon employee to an international recycling mogul in seven years.

The 41-year-old Plainfield woman’s rise to the top of the electronics recycling heap has been fast and furious. But above all else, she said she’s proud that her company is squeaky clean in an industry that hasn’t always had a good reputation.

Gibson is the owner of Romeoville-based Vintage Tech Recyclers, a company she started in her home that has grown to process 50 million pounds of electronics waste last year.

TVs, monitors, laptops, desktops, cell phones, cables, keyboards, mice, fax machines, MP3 players, video game consoles, VCRs, DVD players, zip drives and scanners are all “crunched and munched” by shredding machines and melted into their basic components.

Gold, copper, steel, aluminum, glass and plastic and other raw materials are extracted and recycled. Toxins — including lead, mercury and chromium — are disposed of. None of it ends up in landfills. Computers are either recycled or securely wiped clean and refurbished.

Vintage Tech accepts about 80 different kinds of electronics waste. The company will take almost anything; even a blender’s components can be recycled and reused, said Gibson’s husband, Todd. Cadmium and lead are removed from the blender, and the copper, stainless steel, glass, rubber and plastic all are recycled.

“We take it,” he said. “Then we figure out what to do with it.”

While there is gold in some items, “It literally takes 118,000 computers to create one bar of gold,” he said.

Consumers pay nothing for the service; large clients get a cut of revenue from refurbished items that can be resold.

Home-based business

During a recent interview at her Romeoville headquarters in the Windham Lakes Business Park, a rushed, fast-talking Gibson explained her business while pounding noises from her computer-recycling unit reverberated through the walls.

In 2005, Gibson took a part-time job at a tanning salon in Plainfield. After having three children, she wanted to get back into the work force.

Soon, she was helping the salon owner with his electronics recycling business by making calls from home. But the relationship soured fast because her employer wasn’t paying his customers or his employees, Gibson said. She quit and started her own electronics recycling company in her home.

“I thought, ‘I can do this, I can take computers apart and put them back together,’ ” said Gibson, who has a computer science degree from Davenport University in her home state of Michigan.

Gibson started small, collecting electronics waste in the Plainfield area. At first, Todd Gibson was skeptical.

“I thought she was crazy when she started this,” he said.

Her brother, Terry Bouwman, said he didn’t think a person could make money recycling or refurbishing computers.

“I couldn’t believe it was a business opportunity, whatsoever,” Bouwman said of his sister’s plan.

Now both men work for her along with about 130 other employees, including Karrie Gibson’s dad, who sorts RAM components from all of the recycled computers.

Perfect timing

Gibson couldn’t have picked a better time to get into the e-waste business. When she first started, most electronics were thrown into landfills, but the tide was turning. Illinois started its electronics recycling program in 2010 and banned 17 electronics items from being thrown into landfills, effective Jan. 1, 2012.

That boosted Vintage Tech’s business dramatically. Will County was one of the first governmental clients to partner with the company.

“Will County believed in us from Day One,” she said.

Will County Executive Larry Walsh said because Gibson lives in Will County, the partnership made sense.

“She’s a mother, she’s a resident of Will County and she understands these issues both as a citizen and as a businesswoman,” Walsh said.

In addition to governmental involvement, electronics manufacturers also are part of the e-waste chain. State law requires them to chip in to pay for electronics waste recycling events. Some communities have recycling events a few times a year. Other areas have permanent drop-off points. And Vintage Tech also will pick up electronics waste at Will County residents’ doorsteps. For a list of drop-off sites or information on doorstep service, visit www.vintagetechrecyclers.com.

Gibson’s business has grown from her home to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in Plainfield to multiple locations. In addition to its corporate headquarters in Romeoville, the company has buildings in Detroit and Kansas City, Mo. And in the next couple of months, new sites will open in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

But what started local is now actually global. Vintage Tech recently partnered with Scandinavian recycling giant Kuusakoski of Finland. It’s a major coup for Gibson, who now travels overseas for business and is linked into a worldwide network of foundries and state-of-the art equipment.

This summer, Vintage Tech will move out of its large Plainfield location at 143rd Street and Route 59 and into the smaller former Fox Valley Press building at 135th Street and U.S. 30.

Vintage Tech needed the Fox Valley Press building because it has a 60-foot clearance in the old press room to house three cutting-edge shredding machines manufactured by Kuusakoski that work faster and reduce the need for storage, Todd Gibson said.

A property tax abatement is in place with the village of Plainfield for the new building. And some tax credits are in the works with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which funded the company with seven grants when it was just getting started.

Doing things right

While Vintage Tech is on the upswing, it has to compete with companies that take shortcuts, Gibson said. Some send all of their recyclables overseas to countries where government controls on pollution and child labor laws are weak or nonexistent. That gives those companies an unfair edge in pricing, Gibson said.

But she has not wavered. All of her recyclables are either processed in the United States or Europe, where there are standards for emissions and workers, she said.

“My mission was to move forward and do things right and show the industry it could be done,” she said.

She also takes pride in the security features she uses to protect computers as they are either refurbished or recycled. All computers are transported from the Plainfield intake center to the Romeoville building where they are locked away. Employees have to pass through metal detectors to prevent even a chip from being taken out of the facility. And all of the work is done on site. No computers are sent abroad where information on recycled computers or printers could be compromised, she emphasized.

That should help ease the fears of consumers who are wary about recycling their old computing equipment, she said.

Both the company’s security system and the safe handling of toxins helps Vintage Tech attract big corporate clients, too, including Walt Disney World and United Airlines.

“If we can’t take on a project and do it right, we’re not going to take it on,” she said.

Awards and professional acknowledgements have rolled in as Gibson’s company grew: She is on the Better Business Bureau board of directors; she was 2011-2012 Woman of the Year for the National Association of Professional Women; and Vintage Tech received the Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics from the Better Business Bureau in 2012.

“It’s been incredible,” Gibson said of her whirlwind ride. “I can’t even believe it. I didn’t think this business could possibly even grow this fast. It’s all owed to doing it right and having integrity.”



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