For Fairfax metal trader, perseverance pays off

Ram Guru has a lucrative business buying and selling scrap metal from his Fairfax County home. At G & L Metals in Fairfax, where he often buys metal, wire is bundled and put in a machine that extracts copper.
Ram Guru has a lucrative business buying and selling scrap metal from his Fairfax County home. At G & L Metals in Fairfax, where he often buys metal, wire is bundled and put in a machine that extracts copper. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Heath
Monday, May 17, 2010

Second chances are everything. Henry Ford failed with his first motor-car company. F.W. Woolworth's first store was a bust. The Forbes 400 billionaire list is full of risk-takers who had multiple failures before becoming one of life's winners.

Ram Guru, 44, is a Fairfax entrepreneur who failed at a medical-billing business before he became rich trading scrap metal.

His Milestone Metals could rake in $80 million in revenue this year and is ranked by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States.

Guru is from Chennai, India, and came to the United States to get a master's degree in computer science at City College of New York. He's a self-starter and an indefatigable networker (like most entrepreneurs), who uses his U.S. contacts to fuel a niche trading business staffed in the United States and India. He is also an interesting investor; he puts a portion of his profits into Indian real estate, betting that the billion-plus population will demand more living space.

His first stab at business was a computer company he started in 1991 that handled billing for U.S. physicians. The doctors would dictate their bills into a recorder or dictaphone, and Guru's company would transcribe them onto coded forms and send them to the insurance company for payment.

He tried to run much of the business from India, but there were problems finding and retaining employees who could speak English well, understand U.S. idioms and terminology, and type fast. The business closed in 1998, and Guru lost a couple-hundred-thousand dollars.

Fortuitous phone call

In 1998, Guru traveled all over the world and dove into the computer and software industry. After he had returned to the United States, a friend called him from India, asking for a favor. The friend needed high-quality scrap aluminum for his business, and asked Guru if he could find several tons from a U.S. scrap yard and ship it to India.

Guru said he would explore it. By coincidence, a friend who happened to be with him said he knew of a scrap yard, and they visited it the next day in Beltsville. Guru figured out how to obtain the aluminum and had it shipped to India. He barely broke even, but saw potential and Milestone Metals was born soon after in June 2003.

Growing demand for highways, homes, offices, factories and other parts of infrastructure in the BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- was creating a big boom in metals. And Guru got into the business.

"My friend from India was doing well, and he wanted me to buy from various scrap yards and sell to him," he said.

Guru didn't know much about the business, but he read industry magazines such as Recycling Today, networked, asked lots of questions and found a mentor, who he refers to as Ben, in the scrap yard dealer in Beltsville.

Working from his Fairfax basement with a single phone line and a Dell desktop computer, he went on the Internet to find scrap metal industry conventions, and then started traveling to those conventions in search of people who might want to buy metal. At the same time, he started coldcalling at scrap-metal yards across the United States.


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