This article appears in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
It might seem strange that Eric Ronay remembers the exact model of his first cell phone (“a Samsung SGH-R225M,” he says) but then again, not everybody works in a warehouse that stores thousands of them, from BlackBerrys to those “Gordon Gekko bricks.” When people upgrade to a new phone — oftentimes in two years or less — Eco-Cell, the company Ronay runs with his wife Lindsey, buys the “outdated” version and resells it to a third-party buyer in the states or China. It’s a market that Ronay, 40, says has grown 50 percent since 2003. This year Eco-Cell has taken in more than 65,000 phones from all over the country, and the goal for 2011 is 100,000. “I’ve seen every type of phone; what people get rid of is just astounding to me,” he says, digging through the contents of a storage bin. “See, here’s an iPhone.”
To answer your question: Of course nobody wants a Gordon Gekko antique. That’s where Eco-Cell differs from its competitors across the nation. While some companies won’t accept worthless phones, Ronay takes it all (accessories and batteries, too) and, at a cost to his business, recycles what he can’t sell, keeping toxins out of landfills. “We’re like a sausage factory,” he says. “We use everything but the squeal.” He has recruited some 120 zoos nationwide, including the Louisville Zoo, to set up drop-offs for phones, which raise money for causes such as gorilla conservation. On eco-cell.org, where you can request a shipping label, there is an option to donate what your old phone is worth (values fluctuate monthly but do not expect more than $50) to a charity.
Ronay’s father, a “serial entrepreneur,” started Eco-Cell in 2003, and Ronay, between IT jobs, soon started working with his dad. He has been owner since ’06. Eco-Cell has collected a half-million phones so far, and six months ago the company moved out of a basement and into its Mellwood Avenue warehouse. The plan is to bring on his wife full-time and expand into what used to be a bourbon-bottling plant next door. “We don’t have any investors or venture capital,” Ronay says. “We’re a 21st-century mom-and-pop.”
And there’s at least one hidden job perk: “I know where to go if I need a new phone,” he says.
Photo: John Nation