RALEIGH – When Greg Brown steps into his spartan office at Raleigh Metal Recycling in south Raleigh, he has to turn on the light. That's because he turned it off the last time he walked out.

For a man who once had a job diving to the bottom of a cooling lake for a nuclear plant in search of possible damage being caused to the ecosystem, Brown might not be one's first choice to own and oversee two metal recycling companies – the other is in Goldsboro – that slice, dice, crush and compress millions of pounds of steel, aluminum and copper each year and ship the recycled goods to mills and smelters across the globe.

"I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau," Brown confesses in reference to the famous underwater researcher. "The reality is I couldn't make any money, so I went into business."

A graduate of the University of Buffalo with degrees in biology and business, Brown took executive jobs with GE and Honeywell before 2004, when he bought a company in Auburn Hills, Mich., called Benlee that sells rolloff trailers and trucks, dump trucks and the like to companies that need such heavy-duty equipment, including his own recycling companies.

He still owns Benlee and spends three days a week in Auburn Hills to oversee that operation and be with his wife, Nancy, who is a professor at Oakland University. The other four days are spent in North Carolina, running Raleigh Metal Recycling and Goldsboro Metal Recycling, which he acquired in 2007. He figures he works about 90 hours a week.

But that's OK because Brown sees recycling as a business that has a high calling. And that gets us back to that light switch in his office. A self-described "nut" in the cause of reducing the nation's consumption of non-renewable resources to generate energy, Brown hands over a brochure produced by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. "Energy saved using recycled materials vs. virgin ones: 95% for aluminum; 85% for copper; 80% for plastic; 74% for iron and steel; 64% for paper," reads the brochure.

Plus, Brown says, "It's now become less expensive to recycle than to begin with virgin ores."

"We pay cash for your metal trash" reads a single sheet, double-spaced, double-columned paper Brown hands over that contains a list of some 120 items his company buys – pop cans, roof vents, stove tops, cast iron … on and on.

Once Brown's giant machines are done with all this junk, he turns it into another metal – gold, with his recycling companies generating in excess of $30 million in annual revenue. Millions of pounds of his recycled metals go to fast-developing China each year. "I am exporting trash to China ... and it comes back as iPods and flat-screen TVs," says Brown.

The company also buys metals from various scrapyards, including Always Buying Scrap in Durham, whose owner, Dave Rush, says he enjoys doing business with Brown. "He's a good guy. He's helped me a lot," says Rush.

Raleigh Metal Recycling, which has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau of Eastern North Carolina, accepts metal trash from all comers. The front parking lot fills with pickup trucks, sedans towing trailers and vans loaded with junk collected by individuals.

To the side of the plant, at the entrance of the 19-acre scrapyard, trucks of all sizes roll across weights, unload their bounty and hit the weights again on the way out so the payout can be figured. Tearing down a building and need to get rid of the steel bones? Call Brown, and he'll dispatch one of his big trucks to haul it off and pay you to do it.

Like most businesses, Brown's recycling companies were belted by the recession, and he responded by cutting the work force by about 25 percent. "Business has been coming back," he says.

Ultimately, he wants to take in all forms of raw materials – from plastics to paper – for the sake of Mother Earth.

And so he can keep the lights turned off.

Released: October 22, 2010