Sheared metal: Charlotte hair salon owner buys recycling business

As a hairstylist for more than 30 years, Michelle Coffino had never worn a hard hat at work. That changed this spring when she bought Gilbert Iron & Steel, a scrap metal yard on North Tryon Street, north of uptown Charlotte.

Coffino, 47, had been contemplating a major career move for years. Finally she had the time; her triplets were teenagers and busy at Myers Park High School.

“The last thing the kids wanted to do was hang out with me,” she said.

She first started devoting more of her energy to her salon on East Boulevard, called MC3 Salon and Wellness Center. But she’d already mastered the art of cutting hair and developed a base of more than 350 clients.

“I reached a place with my company that I was comfortable with,” she said. “I needed a challenge to step outside my comfort zone.”

Using business savvy gleaned from years of advice from salon clients – many of whom are company CEOs and vice presidents in the Charlotte area – Coffino made some big changes. She has an employee working fulltime to find new customers to build the business, and has found places to cut costs.

On July 12, her company opened with a new name – Queen City Metal Recycling and Salvage.

The 4.5-acre yard accumulates thousands of tons of metal each month, including steel, copper and aluminum. It also recycles electronics and about 600 cars a month.

Coffino, who still owns her salon, said her new endeavor satisfies her environmental tendencies. She also believes metal recycling is a hot market.

Buying and revamping a metal recycling business may seem like “an out-of-the-blue” move, as her daughter, Kim, puts it.

But years of hard work and measured decisions in her hair salon business assured the entrepreneurial Coffino that she was taking the right step.

And she had money to invest. She said she’d saved cash from her many years in the hair and salon business and had set aside about $50,000 from successful stock market investments that she pulled out before the crash.

Styling glamour girls

Coffino, from Pontiac, Mich., entered beauty school at 15 as a way to jump-start her professional career.

After graduating two years later, she moved to California. By the early 1990s, she was working for Redken and Vidal Sassoon in West Hollywood, styling the hair of stars such as Heather Locklear, Drew Barrymore and Dana Delaney, she said.

But Coffino found the Beverly Hills lifestyle too fast-paced. She and her then-husband moved to Matthews in 1994.

Three years later, Coffino and her husband split. She was left alone with 16-month-old triplets.

“Survival – that’s the first thing that popped into my head,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to feed three kids.’ ”

Coffino went to work: 12-hour days at a salon in Matthews, three days a week. The rest of the time she spent with the kids.

Coffino opened her own salon in Myers Park in 2003. Last November, she moved her business to a house she had gutted and remodeled on East Boulevard.

Contractors ripped up blue-shag carpet, stripped the purple wallpaper and replaced the ’70s-style popcorn ceilings. Finally, she had private rooms constructed, to be used for each haircutting client.

“I wanted to create a warm, homey effect, where everything is organic,” she said.

An astute hairstylist

Three years ago, Coffino met Gilbert Iron & Steel owner Steve Gilbert at a party. He became a haircutting client and vented his frustrations with business finances as Coffino clipped away.

Coffino, who at the time was reading about billionaire Carl Icahn’s exploits in the scrap metal industry, began to identify ways that she could transform Gilbert’s business.

She had other haircutting-clients in the metal industry, some who owned car lots, and others who worked for IBM in manufacturing. She started asking her clients a simple question: What do you do with your scrap?

Coffino, who also reads a lot of business self-help books, said she quickly built a list of potential clients for Gilbert’s yard.

In October 2012, the two discussed Coffino potentially taking over the business. And she bought the company in March, exchanging her black heels for a pair of steel-toed boots at the scrap yard.

Gilbert has stayed on as manager of the yard operations. “It’s nice not having to worry about as much of the administrative stuff,” he said.

A second chance

Walking through the dusty yard last Thursday, around gnarled metal and a crushed Lincoln Town Car, Coffino waved and hooted at an employee.

“Como estás, Jose,” she said.

When Coffino and her CEO, Ken Lagonia, first took over the yard, Coffino decided early to keep all of Gilbert’s employees.

“Michelle always downplays it,” Lagonia said. “We could have cut payroll costs. But she wouldn’t let anyone out of work.”

Coffino has also instituted a hiring process that gives potential employees a second chance. She’s OK’d hiring ex-convicts with no prior sex offenses or violent charges, and today the yard has 34 laborers.

“At the end of the day, people will remember how you treat them,” Coffino said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in the salon or at the yard.”