Staying power

Features - Cover Story

S.B. Cox Inc. has a long history of providing demolition and recycling services to customers throughout Virginia and surrounding states.

November 11, 2014

Throughout its 51-year history, Virginia-based S.B. Cox Inc. has evolved with the ever-changing demolition industry. As far back as the 1960s and 1970s the company’s first demolition jobs included buying up houses, taking them down by hand and selling the bricks and lumber.

“I kind of consider demolition contractors to be the original recyclers,” says S. Barbee Cox III, president of S.B. Cox. His father Sidney Barbee Cox Jr. founded the company in 1963. Cox describes demolition in the 1960s as, “You took out the good stuff, everything else went in the basement, you covered it up with dirt and moved on.”

Then in the late 1970s and 1980s, Cox characterizes the demolition industry as, “You didn’t save anything. You knocked everything down. That was before the regulations got so tight, you could put the debris anywhere.”

Today, Cox says, the industry has come full circle. “We’re trying to save as much as we can as far as the metals and concrete.” Even when regulations weren’t so strict, he says of the company, “We always tried to use what we could out of these buildings.”

A father's forethought

Cox attributes his father’s forethought to permit and open a landfill about 5 miles outside of Richmond, Virginia, in the 1970s. He says his father also realized in the 1980s that demolition cycles were so up and down that cash flows were not constant, so in 1984 the company expanded into the roll-off business, which has grown from one truck to 25 trucks today.

Contractors in the Richmond area initially approached S.B. Cox to begin the roll-off business, as other hauling companies focused more on garbage. “We were the first ones in the Richmond area to concentrate just on construction and demolition projects,” Cox says.

S.B. Cox at a Glance:

Principals: S. Barbee Cox III, president; Billy Ottley, general superintendent; Mike Barr, CFO

No. of employees: 175

Facilities: Mixed C&D recycling facilities in Richmond and Yorktown, Virginia; three concrete crushing sites; seven ready-mix concrete facilities; one landfill

Equipment: 25 roll-off trucks; 20 excavators; one high-reach machine; several cranes; sorting and grinding equipment; one stationary and one mobile crusher

Materials recycled: concrete, steel, cardboard, wood and plastic

In the early 1990s, the company started a portable toilet business that Cox says went hand in hand with the roll-off business. The company bought its first concrete crusher in 1995.

“We were the first ones in Richmond to crush concrete,” Cox says. “We were just seeing that it was getting harder and harder to find places to dispose of concrete.”

Cox recalls the company wasn’t reselling much of the concrete it crushed, but was reusing it on projects at the landfill.

In the late 1990s, S.B. Cox entered the ready-mix concrete business, which today consists of seven plants in the Richmond area.

Moving into mixed C&D

In 2007, S.B. Cox built its first C&D recycling facility. Cox says it was the same time that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects were gaining traction.

At that time the company owned two landfills within 5 miles of downtown Richmond. According to Cox, one of the landfills had already reached capacity and the other was quickly approaching capacity. The company also owned a landfill 35 miles from the city in Chesterfield County. S.B. Cox purchased property adjacent to one of the landfills in Richmond and opened Cox Recycling Co. (CRC). According to Cox, the decision to open the facility was driven more by customers wanting a recycling option than economics.

“In central Virginia, it really didn’t make a lot of sense to do a tremendous amount of recycling and still doesn’t because of the low tipping rates we have at the landfills,” explains Cox. “We did this to provide the recycling service for our customers to try to glean everything we could out of [the debris] to be good stewards and keep it from going to the landfill.”

Cox notes, the C&D recycling facility did help the company reduce its trucking costs. “At the same time we started to look for additional markets to go for our roll-off business,” he says.

The company began looking at the Tidewater area of Virginia, about 60 miles east of Richmond, in Yorktown.

“We started looking in that area for a piece of property, and found a piece that we liked and we put in a second facility down there,” Cox says.

S.B. Cox Yorktown Recycling opened in 2011. Cox jokes, “We were either two years too late or two years too early building that facility.”

He says several military bases are located near the Yorktown facility, but by the time it opened, military spending came to a halt. “We’ve struggled along down there, but we are finally getting close to the tonnage we need through there to make that facility work,” he says.

A tale of two facilities

While only about 60 miles separate S.B. Cox’s two C&D recycling facilities, the markets couldn’t be more different. Take crushed concrete for example. Recycled concrete in Richmond has to compete with locally mined granite, which is a tough sell.

“The Tidewater area is a little different story,” says Cox. “We can sell about all we produce down there.”

Additionally, crushed concrete is not approved by the Virginia Department of Transportation for use in road base, which Cox says puts the company at a disadvantage in comparison to Florida, Texas and Louisiana, where recycled concrete is in high demand.

Cox characterizes the concrete market as, “We sell it. We just don’t have a steady line of trucks coming in to buy it.” He adds, much of the company’s recycled aggregate is sold east of Richmond. Transportation costs combined with competition from virgin aggregate has made the market for recycled concrete and aggregate challenging. “We do move material,” he says, noting, “We use a lot of it on our own projects.”

C&D wood also has its challenges for S.B. Cox as forestry is a large industry in Virginia. While Cox says the company has been fortunate to get its foot in the door of some boiler facilities, many of them prefer virgin wood products.

“Most of the material goes to paper plants to provide steam for their operations,” Cox says. “We sell about 5 percent to a colored wood user, but the majority is going to boiler fuel.”

Cox says the company has to be selective about the wood it grinds for boiler fuel to make sure it is free of glue and paint. He says the wood from the C&D facilities is dryer than virgin material, so it has a higher British-thermal-unit-value (Btu-value). C&D wood, containing less moisture, also is lighter than virgin material, making it difficult to get large tonnage on a trailer, according to Cox.

As for other commodities markets, Cox says, “We pull a lot of cardboard. We pull a fair amount of plastics. We’ve been lucky to find some markets for plastics.”

At the Richmond facility, the plastic generated comes from pulling buckets off of the picking line; but in Yorktown, crews are pulling some siding. The Yorktown facility also recycles shingles.

“We are a little bit more progressive with our recycling at the Tidewater facility,” Cox says. “We’ve been able to find a few more markets down there. We’ve got markets for basically everything we can bale except for film.”

The Richmond recycling facility uses sorting equipment from Continental Biomass Industries (CBI), Newton, New Hampshire, including a trommel screen that runs to a picking line. The facility also uses a Rotochopper grinder to prepare boiler fuel.

“The Richmond facility is kind of unique in that we bought an old manufacturing building and kind of shoehorned the system in it,” Cox explains. “We added a 10,000-foot tipping floor to it. We basically reused the building and made the system fit into that building.”

The Yorktown facility consists of a 100-foot by 250-foot building with a CBI sorting system and a CBI grinder.

“We use a finger screen in that facility with the intentions of coming back in the future and putting a b-line on that material,” Cox says.

He notes that the company does not do any pregrinding of material. “It’s my philosophy that it is easier to pull a 4-foot piece of two-by-four out of a line than it is to pull a 1-foot piece,” he says.

S.B. Cox uses stationary crusher from Galion, Ohio-based Eagle Crushers to crush concrete in Richmond. A mobile crusher and screen from Northern Ireland-based Terex Finlay is used at job sites and at the Yorktown facility. “We are producing a 3-inch clean stone and an inch-and-a-quarter minus base material,” Cox says.

Cox estimates each facility processes about 175 tons of material per day. With tipping fees for landfills averaging $20 per ton in Richmond and $30 per ton in Tidewater, Cox says, “We do not have the large margins like they have in the Northeast. We have to work with what we’ve got and make it work the best we can.”

In Richmond, 75 percent of the material coming into the CRC facility arrives in S.B. Cox trucks. The reverse is true at S.B. Cox Yorktown, where only about 25 percent of the loads are from the fleet of S.B. Cox and the rest come from outside haulers.

“Recycling C&D debris in the Richmond area is not extremely profitable at this point,” Cox says, but adds, “I believe recycling is here to stay. It is instilled in the mindsets of the new generations coming on.”

Cox admits he is unable to recycle certain materials at his facilities without having end markets. This is the case for some LEED projects, when the recycling facilities take in carpet, drywall and ceiling tiles, which Cox says, “We can’t really recycle, but we are forced to take it.” He adds, “We are honest about the numbers we put on our reports.”

The company also pulls recyclables out of material that comes to the landfill, including metals, wood and concrete.

A bright spot

It has been an active year for S.B. Cox’s demolition business. “We are as busy now as we have probably ever been,” Cox reports. The company takes on projects in Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. About 50 percent of the jobs are total demolition and the other half is interior strip-outs.

“On interior strip-outs we separate on the job, and we try to do on-site recycling on the demolition work,” he says. The reason for performing the recycling on site, says Cox is, “We know how to do it. We can separate it the first time and keep the landfill material from coming into our facility. Steel and concrete we can separate on site and the concrete we can take back to the facility.”

Cox says the company is in the middle of three demolition projects for various colleges in the area. “All through the recession it was either health care or education that kept us going,” he adds. He estimates 25 percent of the overall demolition/strip-out work is educational institutions; 25 percent is transportation and the rest is a mix of health care, commercial and industrial projects.

Cox predicts business will stay busy for the next few years. “I think we are in for some good years,” he says. “There is a lot going on in the Richmond area.” He points to growth in Richmond’s inner city, where manufacturing buildings are being converted into apartments and universities are continuing to grow.

Demolition is allowing for growth and new development. “We basically on the demolition side are recycling the land,” Cox describes.

Cox attributes above-average customer service to S.B. Cox’s staying power over the years. “We try to get our work done. We try to be ahead of schedule, provide a good job and keep our customers happy.” He adds, “We don’t always try to be the cheapest, but we try to provide a good service.”

Providing good service is important to Cox because at the end of the day, it is his and his family’s name that is at stake. “I take a lot of pride in this company. My name is on this company. We are a privately held family company, and we try to do the best we can for our customers.”

As for the future, Cox says, “We will keep fine-tuning what we are doing. We were fortunate enough to survive the recession and we will try to make the best of what we do the best right now.”


The author is managing editor of Construction & Demolition Recycling and can be reached at