City: Daleville, Alabama
Entrepreneurs: Kevin and Tara McManus, Discovery Recycling
From 6000 feet up, Daleville, Alabama, is a patchwork of verdant greens and synthetic grays, stitched together around the imposing perimeter of a fortress. Hovering above Fort Rucker in a Blackhawk, the earth below Kevin McManus, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is one in which everything has its proper place. However, when Kevin steps out of the chopper and drives his lumbering pickup truck into Daleville the town is painted a less rosy hue. Rather than retreat to the heavens, with all its distant perfection, he planted himself firmly here on earth. He decided to make this little pocket of Alabama better.
Four years ago Kevin and his wife Tara opened a recycling company, Discovery, in order to put the mixed office paper languishing on Fort Rucker to use. Their inventory grew and grew, as did their web of businesses and scrappers in the area. Discovery is now a waystation for recycling for well over 150 materials. Its jaded treasures stretch across acres of land.
Discovery is staffed by four employees, as well as Kevin, Tara, and their college-bound daughter, Sage. The office is supervised by six kittens and their mother, a Garfield doppelgänger called Dorito. The felines do their part by offering a steady stream of scrapable cat food tins. An assortment of Daleville’s most colorful characters lopes through the office door daily, sometimes with wares to sell or items to buy. Sometimes, they come just to see Kevin and his sociable crew. Kevin never turns them away.
Kevin loves the challenge, the promise, and the work ethic of having his own family business. He rises at 3:30am every workday to teach new pilots, arriving at Discovery afterwards between 9:30am and 1:30pm (his arrival time depends on whether he flew two states away or spent the morning in a flight simulator). He works until the last employee leaves Discovery, and sometimes beyond that. Then he leads youth groups at his church, a source of at least two of his best employees. Kevin is a man who has carried a flight crew on his back in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he relishes in carrying some small part of Daleville on it.
Our team had the honor to work alongside the McManuses and their crew for seven days. Huddled over computer screens in a cramped office, we helped Discovery create systems for inventory management, sales, and customer payment. We weighed the costs of new equipment against gains in productivity. We inventoried football fields worth of boxes and bins and gaylords and bales. Most of all, we learned.
Scrapping and salvaging isn’t glamorous. But it’s good, honorable work that fills a man or woman with pride. It’s the kind of work that leaves you sore and stooped over and sweat-stained at the end of a long day (at nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, some of Discovery’s unventilated storage rooms felt like broilers). It’s also the kind of work that turns heaps of implausible junk into neatly separated bins of valuable materials and salvageable knickknacks ready for reuse. In a society that’s apt to throw away everything a shade beyond new, Discovery is on the front lines of a battle to make something of what others have written off for nothing.
Each day is a seemingly-Sisyphusian effort to process more recyclables than came in. The scorecard of a day might look as follows: two bales of aluminum cans, a heaping pile of disassembled and sorted white goods, a bale of used clothing bound for Congo, four gaylords (large pallet-sized boxes) of mixed office paper. A baler – the hulking, smashing machine that creates neatly tied rectangles of agglomerated mush – fires non-stop. The yard’s shift leader, Diana, whoops and gallops around the sprawling property at a dizzying pace, an efficiently rendered trail of refrigerator doors and brass shells and glass bottles in her wake. She’s managed in air conditioned restaurants before. Yet she prefers the kinetic, outdoor nature of Discovery. The yard’s hard work fills her with pride and achievement. The bruises and scratches visible on her limbs make apparent the toll this work takes.
Discovery struggles to keep employees for extended periods of time. The primary reason is obvious. There are easier ways to make a living than scrapping. Still, the chance to work with people of the caliber of McManus seems an immeasurable benefit of the job. So, too, does the pursuit of what they and their business represent.
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Working with Kevin and Tara illustrated the pleasures and difficulties of family business. In many ways they have different dreams for their careers, but have come to coalesce around Discovery. Tara, who is studying to be a social worker, runs the office by day. Yet this is no place to practice social work.
We saw a husband and wife whose love for each other and their children was manifest and whole. Yet this could not conceal the fact that their career desires were difficult to reconcile. This surely is the challenge of countless couples and families around the globe. The seemingly self-serving mantra “do what you love and the money will follow” may comfort the most privileged, but it ignores the reality that hard-won gains can’t be recklessly abandoned by families. Sometimes unity is demanded, and personal pleasure subjugated. Tara embodied this drive towards unity. Our hope is that, with a few tweaks to the business, Discovery can thrive economically and Tara can shift focus. There are possibilities within Discovery for her to help employees develop personally and professionally. There’s also a gaping need for capable social workers in the community.
Discovery is a true small business. It has the potential to grow by double digits and hire a few more hands. This would be a big win for Daleville. Yet it’s not a victory that would ever be celebrated by anyone off Main Street.
There’s an idea among the business literati that sleek, cash-infused companies founded by the progeny of Silicon Valley and Wall Street will transform the American economy. This may hold true in a few cities that we hear about incessantly, yet in a thousand Dalevilles, a million Kevins and Taras are the best chance to build a place that works. The McManuses are more fortunate than many. Kevin has an Army paycheck, and will for the foreseeable future. They didn’t start a business to make a mint. The McManuses built Discovery to share a sort of spherical prosperity that has no end. There is no exit plan. They spread their gains among their community, employees, family, and church. This isn’t a deep pockets operation. It’s a many pockets operation.
Discovery makes something of what others have written off. So, too, do the McManuses.
– Dan, Rebecca, Dulce, and Parasvil