Remembering the Businessman Who Took a Chance on Ex-Cons

BY Paul Solman  March 4, 2013 at 2:55 PM EDT

Remembering John Neu, a businessman who took chances on convicted criminals by hiring them at his recycling company, WeRecycle. John Neu, chairman of Hugo Neu Corp., passed away Feb. 27.

Paul Solman: John Neu, a major figure in the scrap metal industry, died suddenly last week at age 74. A tireless, eager do-gooder of a businessman, he and his wife Wendy are long-time supporters of PBS NewsHour. Their support of the NewsHour was among a myriad of other causes they supported, including, most recently, serving food to victims of superstorm Sandy.

I knew none of that when I first heard about what Neu’s work with long-term felons at Woodbourne Prison in upstate New York. He was hiring them as managers at a plant for his recycling company WeRecyle in Mount Vernon, N.Y. We wound up producing a first and then a second story about these prison degree programs.

In reading about John Neu’s death, I remembered the interview we’d done with this extremely unusual businessman in the summer of 2011. It began by asking him for an introduction to WeRecyle.

This story originally aired on PBS NewsHour July 27, 2011. Read the full transcript.

John Neu: [At WeRecycle,] we have a highly automated, fairly high-tech plant where we take electronics which have been discarded or obsolete. And we are processing them in a way where we get clean commodities, which can be sold to steel mills, copper refineries, aluminum refineries … Plastic is being recycled and turned into plastic, and we eventually hope to recover the gold and silver from these electronics.

Paul Solman: Were you initially skeptical about the idea of hiring people out of prison?

John Neu: No. I was not. Wendy and I went to the first graduation ceremony for women graduating from the college in prison at a women’s prison in Manhattan. It was done by the Bard Prison Initiative, and the president of Bard College came and the whole board of trustees. The senior judge of the Court of Appeals in New York was the graduation speaker. It was one of the most emotional experiences that I’ve had in my life.

Wendy talked to a couple of the graduates. And when the Bard graduate who ran the program, Max Kenner, said “I have somebody who’s graduating who I want to recommend to you,” we didn’t have any hesitation about interviewing her.

Paul Solman: How did that first hire work out?

John Neu: Fabulously. I think this is the first job she’s ever done and she’s just improved her skills week by week, taking on more and more responsibility. She’s running our HR program, and she’s phenomenal.

Paul Solman: Compared to other college graduates?

John Neu: At one time we had over 1,000 employees. We’ve had a lot of HR people. We’ve had some very good ones, but nobody who’s increased their skills as much as she has.

Paul Solman: How many employees have you had in your career?

John Neu: I can’t imagine. It could be many, many thousands.

Paul Solman: How do these Bard prison graduates rank?

John Neu: Two of them rank as high as anybody we’ve ever had working for us.

Paul Solman: Of all the thousands of people?

John Neu: Of all the thousands.

Paul Solman: This is not affirmative action?

John Neu: Nothing to do with affirmative action. We do try to have a diverse workforce and we hire people from all levels, nationalities, colors, creeds and religions, but our hiring practice is hire good people. And the people we’ve hired from the Bard Prison Initiative have been fabulous.

Paul Solman: When you were at the Bard graduation and were so moved by it, wasn’t a lot of the impulse to hire the woman that Max suggested to do something good?

John Neu: Yeah, there was an impulse to do something good, but we trusted Max’s judgment that this was going to be a very extraordinary employee who would do a good job.

Paul Solman: You’re a small business. How many of these people can you possibly hire? Since there’s got to be some kind of limit, can you convince other businesses to do the same?

John Neu: I’m not going around convincing other businesses. We’re looking for good employees all over the place and this is one of the places where you can get them, and I think it may be an example to other people.

Paul Solman: Is this a competitive advantage for you?

John Neu: Business is all about the people who are working with you and for you. That’s what business is about. You might have the right equipment, you might have a good business plan, but if you don’t have good people working for you to execute the plan everything else is going to fail.

So getting good employees, good associates, good officers, good people working for you is the key to business today in the world. It might not have been 50 or 100 years ago, but it certainly is today.

Paul Solman: Are you tapping an unexploited resource here?

John Neu: I think the Bard Prison Initiative is going to become well known to other people and we won’t have the competitive advantage of getting the best people out of Bard Prison, but I hope we will for a while.

Paul Solman: But you won’t be terribly upset if you lose this particular competitive edge?

John Neu: No. I am very concerned about global competitiveness for the United States. I think better education, better training, and more commitment from employees is a significant issue in the competitiveness of American businesses. I don’t think this is even a small part of the answer for business in America, but any business that hires the best people coming out of a program like this, it’s going to be that company’s advantage.

Two key protagonists in NewsHour’s original report on the Bard Prison program, Anthony Cardenales and Carlos Rosado, are still at WeRecyle and thriving, as is the Bard prison grad being considered for a job at the end of our second story, George Perez.

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This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.