World War II, the revolution in El Salvador, even the Reagan Administration -- Konrad Ruckstuhl, founder and president of SPM Group Inc., of Littleton, Colo., has seen his share of business/government disasters. One of the grand old men of waste-recovery technology, Ruckstuhl has watched his field rise and fall with the convolutions of history and politics.
Last year, SPM was #35 on the INC. 100 list. This year, SPM consists of Ruckstuhl, a vice-president, and a part-time employee working out of the basement of Ruckstuhl's home, and wouldn't make it onto a list of the INC. 10,000. "Reagan's decision to cut back on environmental projects," explains Ruckstuhl, "practically put us out of business."
To Ruckstuhl, this shift of fortune must have seemed almost predictable. In 1940, while an employee of the Swiss Waste Council, he began developing machinery that transformed waste materials (garbage, phone books) into usable fuel for his blockaded country; when the government moved too slowly to take advantage of the equipment, he started his own company, Waste Conversion -- Konrad Ruckstuhl. The company succeeded, but after the war, coal, which was half as expensive as Ruckstuhl's briquets, once more became available. As other companies in the field folded, Ruckstuhl's survived by finding new applications for the technology.
In 1976, Ruckstuhl, concerned about the exorbitant cost of doing business in Switzerland, moved his plant to El Salvador, which, the Swiss ambassador there had assured him, was a "quiet little country . . . good for at least another 10 years." The ambassador was later assassinated by rebels, and Ruckstuhl came to the United States. He incorporated SPM in 1977, and took the company public in 1980.
SPM built a $3-million plant in Wyoming that turned wood wastes into fireplace logs. Most of its energies, though, went into municipal solid waste (MSW), and by 1980 it was close to concluding 15 contracts with local governments for pilot projects, most to be funded by the federal government. Then came Reagan, and none of the 15 contracts was signed. "We'd be a $100-million company today if they had been," says Ruckstuhl. Instead, SPM had sales of less than $1 million in 1983 and "excessive" losses.
Leery of government, Ruckstuhl is now attempting to convince independent businesses of the financial potential of his MSW plants: Under his plan, the businesses would contract with municipalities to dispose of waste, then sell the recovered fuel to local industries. SPM has already built one such plant in Richmond, Va., has another under construction in Washington, D.C., and is now talking with interested parties about 24 others.
Ruckstuhl remains, at 63, undaunted by his struggle and excited by SPM's prospects. "All I need," he says, "is one commercially successful plant."