Three generations of Rotenbergs help mark 100 years of business at General Mill Supply Company.
Founded in 1917, third-generation family-owned-and-operated General Mill Supply Company (GMS) is an inspiring American immigration success story. In this age of small independent companies being absorbed by larger competitors, the celebration of General Mill’s 100th year in business is also a story of survival.
Julius Rotenberg, of blessed memory, was a true visionary. How else would you describe a man who had the foresight to start a recycling business in 1917? He did so around age 24, just three years after arriving in America from his small shtetl in the Ukraine and two generations before renewable resources would become a part of the world’s lexicon.
“It’s a business my grandfather learned from a friend upon his arrival to the country,” says GMS President Stuart Rotenberg. “He showed him how to salvage and repurpose paper, metal and rags he found in the alleyways of Detroit.”
Jewish peddlers who populated the Eastern Market would be among his first customers.
Rotenberg would start General Mill Supply with a single truck, picking up and paying for cardboard and newspaper and selling the materials initially to paper mills.
Like so many of his generation, Julius Rotenberg, in his journey to create a better life for his family, made great personal sacrifices. His initial goal was to make money, then return home to his wife, Alice, and their young daughter, Mary. However, the onset of WWI and the Russian Revolution forced him to be away from his family far longer than expected. Eventually, the course of world history would alter Julius’ plans. After seven long years, he finally brought his young family to America for good.
As his business grew, so did his American family. Julius and Alice welcomed three more children: Manuel (Manny), Phyllis and Milton. Brothers Manny and Milton Rotenberg joined their father Julius at GMS in the mid-1940s.
During WWII, with materials in short supply, the government employed price freezes to prevent companies from selling commodities at inflated prices. That was greatly ignored by many companies — but not GMS, especially since Julius’ son Manny was a bomber pilot flying missions over Germany.
“My grandfather had an unwavering sense of patriotism,” Stuart says. “He refused to cash in on the black market that was available to scrap producers. Instead he honored the government price freeze. Because of my grandfather’s reputation for honesty and integrity, he convinced his suppliers to do the same. It’s a great sense of pride for our family and business.”
Manny and Milton’s own individual strengths helped the business continue to grow and prosper. Manny, of blessed memory, was more of the “outside” guy, managing the day-to-day schedules of the truck drivers and the running of the plant. Milton, who passed away in November, was the consummate salesman; his ability to create and nurture business relationships helped GMS expand its business to cover a majority of the country east of the Mississippi.
EVOLVING AND INNOVATING
In the mid-1970s, Milton’s sons Robert and Stuart Rotenberg became part of the enduring General Mill legacy. Three generations strong, the company has added new recycling opportunities to its portfolio, including plastics and metals.
“As product components and packaging changes, so the world of recycling must change,” says Robert, GMS secretary-treasurer. “We’re continually making on-site assessments of our clients’ waste products. We also built our own lab to identify new reusable materials, creating additional sources of revenue for our clients from materials that would otherwise be discarded.”
GMS handles more than 140,000 tons of material annually, including 16 million pounds of paper and 2.5 million pounds of plastic each month. To accommodate its burgeoning business, the company moved in 2005 from its home of 55 years on Vinewood in Detroit to a 13-acre site in Wixom.
GM, Ford, Chrysler and their Tier 1 and 2 suppliers, plus Meijer and Waste Management are among General Mill’s biggest clients.
PRESERVING OUR PLANET
The recycling business has also afforded General Mill the ability to positively impact the environment.
“Critical to our success,” Robert says, “is our ability to be innovative and divert a wide range of recyclable biproducts from landfills and incinerators by developing sustainable markets for these materials.”
According to Robert, “Every ton of paper or plastic recycled can save 17 trees or 380 gallons of oil or 4,000 kilowatts of energy or 7,000 gallons of water. It’s extremely rewarding to know we’re doing our part to protect the future of our planet while creating cash flow to the bottom line of our clients.”
PRESERVING OUR COMMUNITY
The generations of Rotenbergs that followed Julius are equally proud of the legacy of giving he instilled in them.
“Our grandfather never forgot the support he received from the Jewish community upon his arrival to America,” Stuart says.
To that end, Julius and Alice Rotenberg were generous supporters to Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, Congregation B’nai David and the General Israel Orphan’s Home for Girls in Israel.
On many Fridays, Stuart recalled that a steady stream of visitors from the Orthodox community would visit the office, leaving as beneficiaries of Julius’ generosity. “I once asked my grandfather about his practice of giving to so many strangers,” Stuart says. “His answer, which still makes me well up, was, ‘How do you figure it, Stu? The more I give, the more I have. You tell me.’ That was him in a nutshell.”
What shouldn’t be lost in this story is the irony that a company that has, for the last 100 years, been making things that are old new again has also done its part to help preserve and renew the community that has given them so much.