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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Cheery Traveler

Sepand Samzadeh, 41, believes in exercising creativity in his job as chief executive. The two electric guitars that sit within reach of his desk chair in his office at Valley Recycling Center in Chatsworth say more about him than his title. Samzadeh’s life began in Iran under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. When he was only 4, the Iranian Revolution replaced the Shah with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Samzadeh’s family moved to Spain; six year later, the family moved again to Canada. By the time he entered college, Samzadeh spoke four languages and had attended Muslim, Catholic and Jewish schools. In 2001, he moved again, to Los Angeles, years after his parents did. While countries and friends were never constant in Samzadeh’s life, music was. It has helped smooth the many changes he has experienced, and helped focus him on improving his parents’ recycling business – growing revenue tenfold to about $8 million in the decade since he took it over. The Valley Industry and Commerce Association recently awarded Samzadeh its Corporate Award for Excellence. Samzadeh says music still feeds his personal need for creativity and his company’s need for creative solutions. Question: What are the guitars in your office? Answer: The guitars are a 1958 Gibson Junior and a 1970 (Fender) Stratocaster. I’ve been playing guitar since 1994. What is the name of your band, and what kind of music does it play? I’m in a band called Days Between Stations. I got the name from a book by Steve Erickson, a novelist. I thought the name was very existential because we’re always en route to something. It’s kind of the feelings that a person experiences between journeys that has always captured my heart in that sort of sense. The genre is called progressive rock. What led you to form the group and record CDs? I felt a lot of frustration here (at Valley Recycling) because the business was very boring. It’s the industry. It’s simple. So, I think I need to channel a lot of my creativity into something – and there it is. What about the CDs? Our second CD came out in 2013. I financed the whole thing myself – I didn’t want any pressure. It cost $35,000 to $40,000. I was the guitarist and co-writer. It ended up being No. 9 in the world ranks for the genre of progressive rock. And then all hell broke loose. How? When they (music reviewers, fans) start using words like masterpiece, and all these things they’d like to box you in, to me, those words were a little ridiculous. I’m just doing what I’m doing, like walking or breathing. For a year, I didn’t pick up my guitar. You’ve said you don’t put profit first in your business. What have you done that shows that? I tell them (customers) where they’re at, where I’m at, how I can help. Sometimes I lose business because I think they can do better elsewhere, and I tell them straight out, so I’m there to help them out. And word spreads around. We haven’t lost a customer in a good 12 years, besides those who’ve shut down or gone to China. So, it’s very genuine, sincere. And everyone knows what they’re getting. How is Valley Recycling doing? It is becoming harder, now with the new generation. I’m sounding old now. They seem to text more. Before, you could go in the back of a (company’s) parking lot and talk to the forklift guy, and the forklift guy will give you the manager. But now it’s all gated with cameras. Now it’s all LinkedIn, so that intimate one-to-one (contact) is now gone. And the industry’s changing. Things are going like the print shops. Valley Recycling picks up waste that people and businesses would otherwise throw out. Do you have any good stories about that? One of the jobs we did was for the FBI and they left a loaded gun in one of the boxes. It came in a box (of paper) they wanted to shred. That was interesting. What happened? Did the gun go off? Yeah. The whole place shook. It was like a little Hiroshima mushroom cloud. You could see it from the camera. What’s the history of the company? It’s been around since 1979 (under a different name). The Los Angeles Times plant was across the street and this served as its recycling center. It went bankrupt eight or 11 times before my parents and two other founders purchased it in 1994. I walked in in 2001. What is the business model? Our model is not like a trash company where we put out bins, and charge for a service, and then trash it. We pay for our products. We pay for the papers; we pay for plastic. How is it different today than when your parents bought it? There’s a lot more awareness. But at the same time, it’s a lot more difficult to get accounts. Manufacturing has moved from here; distribution has moved from here. Print shops – 80 percent of print shops are out of business. Why print stock market information when you can email PDFs? The entertainment industry – especially the adult industry – that was in Chatsworth. We picked up a lot of DVD covers and posters and paper materials. That’s diminished considerably. There’s a lot of pressure on the zoning as well. As you’re seeing, this (area around us) is changing to more residential and retail. Although we’re the greenest industry, who wants this ugly yard? It’s very difficult to operate. Do you run the company by yourself? We’re still 50-50 with my dad (Sam). He deals with the stuff going out; I deal with the stuff coming in. He’s been here since 1994. He deals with finding markets for our materials and the trucking. We can’t function without each other. Where did you grow up? I was born in 1975 in Tehran, Iran. My dad was working in a plastic laminating plant under the Shah’s cousin. I remember an incident when my mom said to me, ‘You know those guys out there with the green uniforms and the guns? If they ever ask you, say you like Khomeini.’ As a kid who’s 4 or 5 years old, I realized my mom was scared, that she was lying to me, but that I needed to listen to her. The king’s cousin was hiding in our house. Then we moved to Spain. What kind of school did you attend in Spain? An American Catholic (elementary) school. What was it like for you as a young Iranian boy at that school? Boy, did I get into trouble. In Iran, I didn’t know who Christ was. (In Spain) the teacher allowed each student who passed the times table to make two funny faces before class time. He said, ‘You can go behind the door.’ So I went behind the door. There was a guy on a cross. I didn’t know who he was, and I just did the whole cross thing (he spreads his arms imitating Christ on the cross and with his head down) and the curtains opened, and there was me on the cross. And I got paddle whipped. I knew who Christ was after that. What impact did your schooling have on who you’ve become? I went to a Muslim school, Catholic elementary school and then a predominantly Jewish high school. I grew up with the tribe, I can say. Each (religion) has its culture and each has its civilization. But I think that was very, very important, because now I can relate to and understand people. When I talk to my employees who are predominantly Catholic, I understand what’s important to them and what’s not important, what they value and what they don’t value. Same thing with the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith. They all matter. What did music do for you when you were young and going through so many changes? Canada was difficult. We didn’t have any friends. That made it hard. I knew how to soothe myself. And that was through music. I started playing guitar at 14. When I was 6, my best friend introduced me to the Beatles and it was addictive. It was my companion. How has moving around impacted you? Sometimes, because of the loneliness, you’re attracted to meeting people. You just meet people, and hang with people, and appreciate life so much more because of the beauty of cultures and society and civilizations. What year did you move to California? June 2001. I then got into Pepperdine University in its master’s degree program in business. Why did you chose business? To see how I can improve this place. And I really valued education. As I went through life, I realized I enjoyed business and wanted to learn more about it. The master’s program gave me a lot of hope and ideas. I worked here and did the part-time master’s program at night. Every single project that came up in every course I would apply it to here. There was profound change here. What changed? I didn’t have drivers back then. We bought trucks; we bought uniforms, and there was a lot of training involved. And there was a lot of analysis, as far as what commodities historically have been good, what have not and where to focus our energy. You have one idea, it does great, it’s a cash cow, and then it completely tumbles and you have to reinvent yourself. Do you have an example? All the companies moving out of here. So, we started going out farther. We got trucks. I became chief executive in 2006. In 2006, sales were around $800,000. In 2013, they hit almost $8 million. We had six employees then, and now we have 25. Over the past 10 years, we grew 511 percent. How has creativity played into your new directions for the company? When I was in Disneyland (recently), the moment came. I’m an engineer, with building and safety experience, so why don’t we make nonstructural components out of recyclables, like drywall? All that stuff gets thrown out – trashed –particle board, insulation. Can we build stuff from the stuff we’re buying? And that is the magic question. I really feel the future of the company is going to be in what we can manufacture. Have you developed the idea? We’re doing business plans right now, and are in major talks with a petroleum company about research and development. What are some current issues at Valley Recycling? We’re under an acre here, and we need more land. I have to get permits to operate, but even with my contacts (on the building and safety committee) it would take one and a half years to get permits and that would be with a 30 percent chance of not being able to get them. It makes it very hard to operate. We’re grandfathered here, but we may have to move, or open another location outside the city in order to function. Have you gone back to Iran since you moved away? I went back in the 1980s and when it was in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War. I do remember they (the new Islamic regime) tore pages from the history books. Anything about the Shah was now illegal. History was changed. Television started changing. There was horrific stuff on TV and it scared the daylights out of me. How did you meet your wife? She is my cousin’s best friend’s daughter. I just chased her intensely. I was very shy. I fought for her. We married in 2009. We had our first child in 2013 and second in 2016. They are both boys. How does someone who’s very shy chase a girl? You force yourself, and you ask her out. It’s OK if she says no; just get up. Fortunately, with Valley Recycling, you get to hear a lot of rejection. Out of 100 phone calls, I get one person who wants to listen to me. Rejection is just a part of life. When did you go back to playing music? In 2003. After I finished my master’s degree, I wanted to do something experimental, avant-garde. Our first album was instrumental and dark. Next thing we know our music’s in a movie and it just completely blew up. It was for a scene on phone sex – where people are training this person how to talk on the phone, and then our music kicks in. We became well known in Europe and the East Coast, and then released the second album, and the third album is going to be released in July. How do you balance work and life? You don’t. I’m here till 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m., then I spend time with the family. By the time everyone is asleep it’s 11 p.m. So, I have from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. to do what I do. Then I’m here again at 6 a.m. You need to quit some things. So, I shift things around. What I try to do is shift the creative side – the child in me – to the business part, and this is where all the ideas come from. I try to make it fun and exciting.

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