By Clare Noonan
Business Journal Writer

When metal prices dropped precipitously a year ago, recyclers such as Modesto Junk Co. took it on the chin.

In August 2008, shipment of metal overseas slowed and some buyers refused to pay for orders they’d placed. “We lost a lot of money,” said Keith Highiet, who, along with his sister, helps his father and grandfather run the 89-year Modesto Junk Co.

It’s times like that when having a name and reputation in the industry sees you through; because, clearly, this family knows junk.

Alex Highiet started the business in 1920 as the automobile was replacing the horse-and-buggy. It was taken over by his son, Harvey, whose, son, Jeff, now heads operations. Keith and his sister, Alexis Highiet Pinkerton, round out the family operation. Its long history, said Keith Highiet, ensures that “people have a sense of trust in you already.”

The 30-year-old says he never thought he’d end up back in the family business after receiving his bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California at Irvine. But the pull of the place he played in as a kid landed him eight years ago and now he loves what he does.

“It is totally fascinating,” Highiet said. “There’s so much going on here. I’d be bored working anywhere else.”

It is fascinating. It’s a whirligig of activity, from the moving line of people waiting to hand in their recyclables, to the lines of trucks waiting to have their loads of scrap metal weighed.

The two-acre site on Ninth Street on the edge of downtown Modesto is also a bit of industrial-strength art on display. The compressed bales of gray metal, that eventually will be shipped overseas, look like sculptures, glistening in the sun with bits of color peeking out.

“This whole place as it looks is my dad’s vision,” said Highiet. He pointed to a massive “press and shear” machine that cuts and bales metal, saying his dad insisted the company buy it 10 years ago, overcoming Harvey Highiet’s reluctance.

The increase in the amount of metal the company could process because of the machine made it worthwhile. That first machine has been joined by others since, but it maintains an important role in the company’s history.

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