While playing for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, Andy Russell learned how hard work, discipline and teamwork directed his team's success. Since then he's taken those lessons with him into the business world.
That may be why his tire recycling company, Liberty Tire Services, has succeeded at making money in an area where many companies fail.
Mr. Russell is managing director of Pittsburgh-based Laurel Mountain Partners, the investment firm that owns Liberty Tire, a company that expects to collect and recycle 40 million passenger tire equivalents in 2006 and post roughly that amount in annual revenues. Liberty, also based in Pittsburgh, has six divisions in Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina and South Carolina and employs 250.
The company picks up tires from dealerships but particularly has been active in cleaning up many scrap tire piles in West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, parts of New York, Ohio and Tennessee. In Ohio, Liberty is in the final phases of cleaning up millions of tires that caught fire at the infamous Kirby pile near Sycamore.
The company sells its tire chips to companies that produce tire-derived fuel (TDF), drainfield aggregate, playground material and ultra-fine crumb rubber, among others.
``We're not refining the oil, we're drilling for the oil, and in this case drilling for the tires,'' Mr. Russell said, borrowing an analogy from the oil and gas industry. ``We do recycle them, but we sell the crumb rubber and fine rubber to companies that then refine it even more and then worry about those markets.''
So how does a former all-pro linebacker go from the gridiron to recycling tires? Mr. Russell admits his career journey from football to investment banking to tire recycling is quite odd, but he established his own company, Russell Investments, while still playing football.
His success and reputation with the Steelers enabled him to travel to foreign countries such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Switzerland to speak, and he said he used those trips to meet wealthy investors and create a client base. After retiring from the NFL in 1976 after a 14-year career, Mr. Russell added two partners and formed a new firm, Russell, Rea & Zappala, an investment bank that concentrated on corporate finance and tax-exempt bond underwriting.
``As investment bankers, one of the things our divisions did is drilling here in Appalachia for oil and gas,'' he said. ``So we were in the power generation business, and when that went bad in the early 1980s we decided to get into hydroelectric. In hydroelectric we were able to finance using taxes and bonds and built a couple of projects.''
Some of his firm's projects included underwriting bonds for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Pittsburgh Airport Authority, then building hydroelectric dams in Georgia and South Carolina. They delved into the municipal waste business by building a waste-to-energy facility south of Philadelphia upon the suggestion of a client.
``Some guy came to see us and said, `You guys aren't very smart. You ought to be in the power business where they pay you to take the fuel source.' We were like, `What?' It was the waste energy business.''
Along with the waste-to-energy plant, Mr. Russell and his associates learned they needed to acquire landfills to dispose of the resulting ash the facility produced. Before long, they obtained 17 landfills.
In 1995, Mr. Russell, his associates Don Rea and Jeff Kendall, formed Laurel Mountain Partners and used that investment vehicle to create a subsidiary, Liberty Waste Services, to operate its waste business. Mr. Russell and his partners sold the investment firm to their employees, who have since sold the company to JP Morgan.
Eventually, in the process of acquiring assets in the waste industry, Mr. Russell said Liberty Waste bought two tire processors in North Carolina that serviced 70 percent of the state: U.S. Tire Recycling in Concord and Central Carolina Transfer in Cameron.
Mr. Russell and his partners later divested Liberty Waste Services and got out of the municipal waste business altogether but couldn't find a buyer for U.S. Tire and Central Carolina. The two companies became the genesis for Liberty Tire in 1995.
Mr. Kendall is president and CEO of Liberty Tire while Mr. Russell stays out of the day to day operations.
Liberty Tire's goal is to become the largest tire recycler in the U.S., Mr. Russell said, adding the company has three or four acquisitions ``in the pipeline'' this year. In January it purchased Johnstown, S.C.-based Ridge Recycling, another supplier to TDF users. Liberty also is trying to grow internally by adding new customers, he said, noting that he believes the secret of success in tire recycling is not staying small.
Mr. Russell said Liberty also tries to avoid what he considers the two major problems other companies in the field have encountered.
``If you're selling TDF to a power plant and it shuts down for some reason, it has nothing to do with the tires,'' he explained. ``You're kind out of luck there for a while. That can really hurt you. Or you try to come up with some brand new technology that you've invested a lot of money in and it may work in the laboratory but it doesn't work in scale.''
Admittedly, Mr. Russell hasn't forgotten his Steeler roots, and on occasion he has played up his Steelers career in select ads to tire dealer associations and by speaking at dealer meetings. For the most part, clients don't recognize who he is unless he wears one of his Super Bowl rings. But Steeler fans haven't forgotten him, even though they have a team that just won Super Bowl XL.
``When I played, nobody asked for my autograph. I didn't get any mail or memorabilia to sign,'' he said. ``Today... I get mail every day that asks me to sign this card, that card, this photo and it just blows my mind.''
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Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Pro Bowl appearances: 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975