Four generations ago, Sam Becker started the business with a pushcart, rolling it through St. Louis gathering scrap materials and bones to grind into animal feed.
Freshly arrived from Russia, and speaking not a word of English, Becker founded what he and his progeny would later build into Becker Iron & Metal. A horse would replace his cart. A truck replaced the horse. Both buyer and seller, and an early practitioner of what we now call recycling, Sam Becker would soon set up shop in his own building.
Now, in what might be the century-old concern's shrewdest maneuver, the sprawling scrap yard will move to Venice — while raking in more than $2.6 million from governments on both sides of the river.
The city that has anchored the company since its birth is paying a lot of money — about $1.75 million — for Becker Iron & Metal to go away, clearing the area of a necessarily ugly industrial site and opening it to redevelopment.
Meanwhile, the state of Illinois will finance the move to Venice — a small, low-income town just across the river — with some $900,000 in tax credits and other incentives. So one city's eyesore is apparently another's economic development, and the Beckers will happily collect cash from both, thus ensuring that the legacy of Sam Becker's pushcart extends well into the new century.
"They say the first generation starts the business, the second generation grows it, the third generation screws it up and the fourth generation goes to graduate school," says company president Mike Becker.
Becker Iron has veered from that script in several significant ways. A fourth-generation Becker, Mike holds a degree in international relations from the University of Kansas. He has never attended graduate school.
And the company continued to grow and prosper under the guidance of third-generation owner Richard Becker, now the CEO. In Sam Becker's day, the firm operated solely in St. Louis. The third and fourth generation introduced a complex system of analyzing and recycling metal products through 'scrap management" that has given Becker Iron a presence at demolition sites around the country. "The business is a lot more sophisticated than it was even 20 years ago," he said.
Finally, more than a century after Sam Becker and his cart first materialized, the third and fourth generations are poised to alter the script again when they move the family business — lock, stock and megatons of metal scrap and heavy equipment.
The company will occupy 16 acres at its new facility, as opposed to the six it now occupies in north St. Louis. The recycler's warehouse space will grow to 35,000 square feet from 8,400 square feet.
Even better, from the family's standpoint, the new location gives the company easier access to the scrap generated by the steel works in Granite City along with tracks built to accommodate as many as 25 rail cars at a time — a six-fold increase over its current rail accessibility.
With the final paperwork out of the way, the Beckers are scrambling to meet a June deadline to clear out of the city. It won't be easy.
Dan Becker, Mike's brother and the company's secretary-treasurer, will figure out the logistics of a graduated move expected to stretch to six to eight weeks.
Richard Becker said St. Louis officials first approached the company about selling the property three years ago — negotiations that eventually were put on hold by the recession.
Once the Beckers depart, a multi-purpose truck stop accessed by Interstate 70 will occupy most of the site where the scrap facility has operated for 13 years. The transformation is part of an effort by the St. Louis Development Corp. to locate more light industry and service-oriented businesses along 3,000 acres on the North Riverfront. Deputy Director Otis Williams said the goal was to upgrade a major "entry point" to the city now populated with heavy industry — including several other metal recycling yards.
"While we do have a good number of those types of facilities down there, we don't want to be the home for all the (scrap yards) in the region," Williams said. "We'd like to spread the wealth a little bit," he joked.
The corporation appears to have done right by Becker Iron, paying $1.17 million for the company's property and another $630,000 — as mandated by the statutes protecting the owners of parcels claimed through public re-development — toward relocation.
Venice, meanwhile, has no qualms about taking Becker Iron off the city's hands. "St. Louis has the luxury of having a lot of businesses like this — they could afford to let it go," said Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols. "It's a viable business for us. We're a small minority community with no industry. ... It will push our valuations up; plus, hopefully, it will bring us some jobs."
Mike Becker agrees that the deal worked out well for all parties concerned.
"We needed to expand and we needed more leg room so, really, the timing was great," he said. "It's like growing out of your first apartment because you have kids and need more space."
The Beckers maintain they have no intention of looking at St. Louis through the rear view mirror upon landing on the eastern shore of the Mississippi.
In fact, they prefer to think of the relocation as providing the company with a front row seat.
The new offices, Mike Becker reports, offer a panoramic view of a mass of steel destined to never find its way to a scrap heap — the Gateway Arch.