Bob Carlson Isn't Leading the E-Recycling Revolution -- He Is the Revolution

"I want to be the guy who changed the electronics recycling industry. I want to be the guy who saves the day," says OVR founder Bob Carlson.

"I want to be the guy who changed the electronics recycling industry. I want to be the guy who saves the day," says OVR founder Bob Carlson.

Bob Carlson might own Buddha's body, but his curb appeal on this early spring morning is all Jesus of Nazareth.

His 54-year-old hands rest atop his belly as wintergreen chew juice stains his grizzled goatee. He stands near the yawning rear doors of his work van, which is parked at the TractorWorks loading dock in the North Loop.

Carlson's electronic-waste company, Our Vision Recycling, is clearing out tenants' unwanted electronics, but unsolicited disciples are making guest appearances en masse.

"I have an old computer and keyboard," says a man with a Russian accent pulling up in a car. "I can drop them off here?"

It's a scene that replays for the next 25 minutes. As one offloads their e-waste, another rolls in.

An Our Vision worker appears from the bowels of this brick structure where John Deere once built tractors. He's lugging a cart of computers and keyboards. Carlson grins wide enough for his gold-capped molar to catch the light of an overcast sky.


His business model is simple: Unlike other e-recyclers, Carlson picks up unwanted electronics for free. Yes, free.

"For years people have believed they needed to pay," he says. "I'm proving the point that you don't have to. I want to be the guy who changed the electronics recycling industry. I want to be the guy who saves the day."

The Cost of Connectivity

The average life of a smart phone is just two years. Businesses upgrade entire armies of computers annually. Apple peddles new iPads and iPhones every season.

In 1997, roughly 200 million electronic products were sold in this country. By 2009, that number had more than doubled, fueled by a nine-fold increase in cell phone sales, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But America's addiction to electronics comes with baggage. Namely, what to do with all that e-crap — much of it containing toxins like lead and mercury — once it's outlived its utility?

Though our e-trash amounts to 3.4 million tons a year, less than one-third is recycled.

The rest leak pollutants in landfills, send toxins airborne via incinerators, or get shipped to out-of-sight, out-of-mind lands like China, Ghana, and Vietnam.

"Take the five pounds of lead and mercury that's in [old-school] monitors and TVs," says Carlson. "If you take those five pounds and put it into a water stream, you'd wreck it for 1,000 years."

In these faraway dumping grounds, locals scavenge through mountains of TVs, computers, and smart phones looking to salvage the bounty therein. Acid is used to etch metals like gold from circuit boards. Plastic-covered wires are torched to get to the copper underneath.

The consequences are a horror show. Much of what's no longer needed gets tossed into nearby lagoons until a downpour washes it into the ocean.

Stateside, e-waste is considered hazardous material. In 2007, Minnesota outlawed throwing TVs and computer monitors into the trash.

The result has been an explosion in electronics recycling. It's now a $20 billion industry nationwide, with more than 45,000 employees.

While households haven't necessarily felt a financial hit, recycling has become especially costly for businesses. Once upon a time Dennis Abraham, operations manager for Super Dimensions, a Plymouth medical device firm, shelled out top dollar annually.

"Some of the pickups would be hundreds of pieces, and getting rid of the stuff would cost us thousands of dollars," Abraham says.

Until Carlson came along. He calls paying for e-recycling "total bullshit."

Carlson and his OVR staff are all parttime employees

Carlson and his OVR staff are all parttime employees

Our Vision has a comprehensive list of electronics it'll pick up for free. Discarded items are taken to the company's Roseville warehouse, where some are picked clean of valuables, while the majority are refurbished and sold after being wiped clean of data.

Instead of relying on scavenging for waste aluminum, copper, and other precious metals — where prices have fallen by as much as 50 percent — it's this renovating of waste that allows Carlson to flourish.

Our Vision also donates 15 percent of everything it takes in to charities. The ultimate goal is 30 percent, says Carlson. Our Vision has already given away 400 computers to various nonprofits.

Bill Laden runs East Side Neighborhood Services in northeast Minneapolis, a 100-year-old nonprofit that offers everything from infant care to adult daycare.

"We always have more places where money's needed than the budget allows," says Laden. "In the past, we had under-served or unmet computer needs that we didn't have the money for. That was until Bob came along."

Today, East Side staffers use refurbished laptops, while job-hunting clients sit before a dozen retooled desktop computers and monitors.

All came from Our Vision.

The company's Roseville headquarters is all business and no frills.

The company's Roseville headquarters is all business and no frills.


The Genius in the Details

The hulking boxes sit on pallets brimming with wares bound for a network of recyclers, sorted by metal, plastic, and commodities.

According to Carlson, Our Vision recycles 10,000 pounds of metal every month, retrieved from more than 1,000 clients.

But only a fraction of its waste goes to recyclers. Our Vision resells 80 percent of the gadgets it gets. None of it goes to landfills.

Company techs wipe every hard drive clean. Each unit is checked to see if it's resale worthy. If not, the computer is picked clean of valuables. The rest makes its way to recycling boxes.

Our Vision's major revenue stream is eBay. It operates two online stores, one peddling computers, the other retailing extras like RAM.

"What we've set out to do in our business model is put re-using first," says Carlson. "This is what allows us to come get people's electronics for free. If we didn't do it, we'd be no different than any other recycler out there."

In the beginning, reselling amounted to less than $30,000 a year. Now it's in the six figures.

Company President Joe Keith started working for Carlson in 2013. Just months after signing on, Keith was offered a managerial post at 3M with a $70,000 salary, six weeks paid vacation, and the full-meal deal of benefits.

He turned it down for an Our Vision salary of $15,000 a year.

"What I've always felt about this company, which all comes back to Bob, is we're not motivated by money," says Keith. "In Bob's case, I'd say he wants the attention. It's his ego that's the motivation. He wants to be known as the guy who changed the electronics recycling industry — or at the very least, he wants his name to be in that discussion."

Carlson admits Keith was a game-changer, driving the shift from recycling to reusing.

The company's data-wiping system is set up to handle 50 hard drives at a time. The process costs $5 in labor, but the end result is a computer that will retail for anywhere from $50 to $150.

"There's quite a bit of profit in taking someone's perfectly good old computer that we can refurbish," Keith says. "That's not only smart business, it's also smart environmentally. Each reusable unit isn't prematurely ending up in some poor country's landfill when it doesn't have to."

Dozens of restored computers have made their way to the desks of Twin Cities nonprofits. In north Minneapolis, the Sexual Violence Center's computers were once in rough shape.

"They were limping along," says Rick Cheney, a volunteer. "The computers they had were either really outdated, not working, or both. Some had the bare minimum of memory. Their network was really slow. It was so bad it was getting in the way of SVC doing its job."

Computer issues were especially stinging inside the crisis unit — a.k.a. "the war room," as Executive Director Kristen Sukura calls it — where calls come in from victims.

"It can be a mad scramble in there," she says. "It's where we have three of our computers, and we were having a bunch of problems — old software, computers that couldn't work together, viruses, take your pick — because, in reality, we run on a shoestring budget and just couldn't afford $150 for in-house IT support."

Cheney started searching for someone who might remedy the headaches. He stumbled upon Our Vision.

"[Bob] was like, 'Oh, you're from a nonprofit?' We can help you out,'" says Cheney. "It was amazing. I had to ask him to repeat himself because it seemed too good to be true."

Carlson's company donated four desktops, two laptops, and upgrades for three others.

When the Sexual Violence Center needs tech support, Our Vision supplies it pronto.

"As a nonprofit," says Sukura, "people want to donate [electronics] all the time, when in reality, they're just giving us their e-waste because they want to get rid of it.

"I've never met [Carlson]. We've only communicated by email. Bob has given us all this great computer equipment and he's also made it clear that if we need any help along the way, he'd stand behind their stuff. He's a driver for social change. He's making an impact on this world and he's doing it really well."

The Hurricane Finds His Calling

In the northeast Minneapolis home of Carl and Irene Carlson, Bob, one of six boys, became known for blowing through the joint.

It was a different era, when Dad was a Ford Motor Company lifer and Mom stayed home perfecting chow mein hot dish.

Bob was known as "The Hurricane."

"He's always been the guy who likes to stir things up and make a lot of noise," says little brother Curtis. "I remember one time when he put ketchup all over mom's face when she was taking a nap just to cause a commotion.

"I think what brings him joy in his business right now is he feels he's shaking up the system, and in the process, doing what he can to make something better."

The idea germinated five years ago.

In 2002, Carlson had made his way back to his hometown after working as a car salesman in New Orleans. That career was preceded by an 11-year stint in the Navy.

He wanted to be closer to his mom, who was stricken with lung cancer, so he took a variety of jobs, including providing elder care to two Minneapolis men who had enjoyed long careers in recycling.

In 2010, Carlson starting selling e-waste recycling contracts. Stiff competition made them a hard sell. The company needed a way to differentiate itself from the pack.

Why not pick up at no charge? Carlson asked his boss.

"I kept running into — and there's no other word for it — greed," Carlson says. "I remember telling my old boss, 'Everybody charges for this. Why not be different?'

"And his response back was, 'Oh no, we can't do that! It would cut into my money.'"

A seven-month gig at Minnesota Computers, which buys and sells secondhand products, followed. Carlson discovered there was better money in refurbishing than recycling alone.

"Two months before I opened Our Vision," he says, "I went to each competitor, portraying myself as a company who needed to get rid of some recycling, to learn how everyone else ran their company. After that, I started approaching customers I had relationships with, letting them know I was now in the business and I could pick up their electronics for free."

He encountered suspicion.

"My first thought was, 'Okay, what's the catch?'" says Super Dimensions' Abraham. "Everybody else was charging for it. I'll admit it does seem slightly mind-numbing to understand how he pulls this off, but maybe it just takes someone like Bob to do it."

But it was freebie by necessity.

"There's 167 recyclers in Minnesota," Carlson says. "I needed to undercut the competition in order to get their business. And guess what? It's working."


The Proof Is on the Loading Dock

Carlson's business skews toward smaller firms and building-management companies overseeing multiple companies under one roof.

Becky Spartz manages Union Plaza, a renovated gem from the 1800s on Washington Avenue North.

She notifies her 28 tenants when an Our Vision pickup is set. She also encourages them to bring things from home.

"It's great," she says, "because he'll take almost anything with a plug. When Bob first approached me, saying he would do it for free, my first thought was that it sounded odd because everyone else had charged us for it. But I figured we'd give it a shot and hopefully he would show up.

"It's worked out better than I could have imagined. In fact, it's grown into a perk we can now offer our tenants. It does seem like a lot of work for him, but he says he's found a different way to make money and I believe him. As long as it continues to work for him, it definitely works for us."

Today, Our Vision's hub is a 2,500-square-foot space just off County Road C in Roseville. It's staffed by Carlson and three others. All work part-time.

"That's if you call virtually every spare moment of your life dedicated to growing your company part-time," jokes Carlson, who still punches the clock 20 hours a week as a personal care aide.

Says brother Curtis Carlson: "I knew when he decided to do it, he was in it for the haul, and he was going to do it right. I think what he's found is a little street corner of the world he can clean up."

Carlson is well aware his free shtick isn't original. Small operations that picked up for free have come and gone.

What's unique about Our Vision is that it doesn't appear to be destined to fail.

"I marvel at what he's been able to do," says one competitor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he's employed at a rival firm. "In the past, if someone said they'd take stuff for free, you knew they were going to go out of business. But he's the first one who's stayed and survived.

"If there's any problem I see for him, it could be his own success."

The Hurricane Turns Superhero

Carlson still possesses the subtlety of an occupying army, just as he did as a child.

"He's always been a positive person, someone who cares about people," says his oldest brother, Chuck Carlson. "I think Bobby's needed some time in his life to crawl so he can get to the point where he can walk. I'd say he's more in a walking stage right now. He's just starting to see what kind of things he can do."

The Hurricane is now trying to save the day one computer at a time. Yet altruistic designs are not without self-inflicted pressures.

In closed quarters, usually inside Our Vision's headquarters, Carlson is known for regular Baby Huey episodes. They happen about once a month.

"There was an incident when the original tech left," says Keith. "We were dealing with other business issues too and Bob went crazy. I remember him coming in saying, 'Who wants to be Bob Carlson today?' as if he had the weight of the world on him. Some days it can be constant, like he's looking for an audience, like he's looking for someone to engage with him. I think it goes back to attention."

On this occasion, Carlson's venting morphed into the form of a company email. Back-to-back subpar months brought Carlson to write: "It's over. I am going to check into what I have to do to close down.... I blame no one but myself."

The email also instructed everyone to forget about coming to work the following workday.

Most of Our Vision's crew dismissed the boss's directive.

"That next morning, just as I thought, here comes Bob walking into work as if nothing happened," says Keith. "But that's the way he is. Once he has his fit, his pity party, it's like he gets it out of his system and he's ready to keep going."

When asked about the story, Carlson offers no defense.

Inside his Vince Wilfork frame, he admits, is an excitable boy who just wants to get life right.

"I have always been the kind of guy to mess with everybody," says Carlson. "In the past, because of the way I acted, people assumed I was going to be a fuck up my whole life....

"Now I put all that heart, pride, and passion into my company. I do want to be Superman. I want to be the guy who changed this industry. I'm trying to show myself I'm worth it."