Neal St. Anthony
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Bob Carlson, founder of five-year-old Our Vision Recycling, is a scrappy business guy driven as much by vision as profit.

Carlson also is the only CEO I know who works an additional 40 hours five nights a week as a personal care attendant for a 97-year-old.

“I sleep from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.,” said Carlson, who added that his night job pays him a lot more than the $100-a-week draw he takes running his several-employee, Roseville-based Our Vision.

“In 10 years, I want to be the name in electronics recycling,” Carlson said. “We’re up to about $1 million we’ve saved customers. And we will always pick up equipment for free.”

Carlson, 56, is an upbeat, working-class guy who grew up and still lives in an apartment in northeast Minneapolis.

He describes himself as a mechanically inclined salesman who also has peddled cars and computers, and says he spent a decade seeing the world free from a couple of Navy warships after graduating from Edison High School.

He’s also an odds-beater.

In addition to surviving in the tough refurbish-and-recycle electronics business during the 2014-16 downturn in gold, steel and other commodities that claimed some competitors, Carlson survived cancer that floored him for several months in 2015.

The brawny former Navy firefighter couldn’t work for several months. The business shrank and lost money.

No complaints, however. And Carlson, a grateful vet, is thankful for the “great” care he received at the Minneapolis VA Hospital.

Today, the full-strength Carlson is adding a couple of part-time workers at Our Vision. He expects to generate positive cash flow on sales from refurbished equipment and recycling of $300,000.

The guy can still hoist heavy pieces of equipment. However the forte of the one-time high school music-and-theater performer is sales.

“We have about 500 [building] customers, and we’re adding about 40 a year,” Carlson said.

“My ‘free’ model is really working.”

Carlson continues to offer free pickup from his mostly small-business and small-building customers, giving him an advantage as other survivors in the trade charge $10 to $25 to pick up computers, laptops and other gizmos.

Last Monday, Carlson and two associates removed electronics from offices at Mill Place, the refurbished building on Third Avenue near the Mississippi River that is managed by Ryan Cos.

“Bob offers a very affordable recycling option for a couple of my buildings over the years,” said Ryan’s Emily Culpepper. “Being free is a huge incentive. And he’s extremely responsive and friendly.”

The manager of a couple of buildings for a major Twin Cities company, who isn’t an authorized company spokesman and asked that his name not be used, said he was skeptical that Our Vision could do the job when Carlson approached him a few years ago.

“Now he and his crew come in, separate and document and haul away our e-waste, freeing up hours of our time,” said the building manager. “Whenever I have asked Bob to take on something new or different with respect to e-recycling, his answer is always ‘OK.’

“Bob walks in with a smile on his face and a joke ready. He is a very gregarious guy.”

Carlson is driven to be a success in one of America’s toughest businesses.

After his discharge from the Navy in 1990, Carlson was a successful car salesman in New Orleans for 12 years. He said he returned to Minneapolis to care for his ailing mother and got certified as a personal care attendant.

Meanwhile, in 2007 Minnesota was moving to ban the growing raft of consumer and business electronics from being dumped, leaching dangerous toxins such as lead and mercury into landfills and incinerators.

That ban has led to a recycling industry of small and larger players, some of whom have not survived the gyrating commodity prices, low margins and gritty work. The United States buys several hundred million electronic products annually, most of them made in Asia. And too much is still dumped after use or transported to Third World countries for improper storage.

Locally, the survivors include Tech Dump, Ocean Tech and others that, like Our Vision, increasingly have gravitated toward higher-value refurbish-and-sell models over commodity recycling. A refurbished, memory-wiped laptop or personal computer can sell for $50 to a few hundred bucks.

Carlson, partly out of personal interest, started working for a since-failed recycler, then worked a year for Minnesota Computers in New Hope, largely to learn how to refurbish equipment. He started Our Vision on a shoestring when he figured he knew enough to be successful.

Carlson still hasn’t quit his night job. A decade ago, Carlson started caring five nights weekly for Ephraim Peretz Dworsky, who died at 103 in 2016, and his brother, Mischa, 97, at their St. Louis Park home.

Coincidentally, they worked their careers at what started as Dworsky Barrel Co. a century ago in the Warehouse District. They also refurbished and recycled barrels at what is still their family’s business, Consolidated Container Corp.

Phil Dworsky, a nephew who runs Consolidated, called Carlson a steady, reliable caretaker who has become like family. And he admires Carlson’s grit and vision. It’s not unlike his dad and uncles, who made their recycling business a success over many years.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.