Niki Okuk likes to say she came back to Compton with a truck and a dream.

She was also armed with an MBA, a desire to make a mark in her hometown, and the wherewithal to take advantage of a state program offering grants and incentives to businesses that recycle old tires.

So in 2012, she and a partner formed RCO Tires, which recycled 300,000 tires last year and now employs 16.

“We’re trash collectors,” said Okuk, 31, its chief executive. That trash has turned into another form of black gold, generating revenue of $1.2 million.

RCO is among a number of recycling operations taking advantage of a California program that incentivizes recycling of tires into such things as traffic barriers and playground surfaces.

Money from the California Tire Recycling Management Fund, supported by a $1.75 surcharge on every new tire sold in the state, pays for the program, which encourages companies such as RCO to collect used tires and recycle them. The program, first rolled out in 1989 when national landfills were loaded with more than 1 billion scrap tires that frequently caught fire and emitted toxic fumes, has spurred an entirely new market for recycled products. According to data from the state’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), 80 percent of the 44 million reusable and scrap tires in the state were repurposed last year, up from 34 percent in 1990.

RCO is one of just 42 of businesses in California that has a permit to recycle scrap tires.

Finance to manufacturing

After working in finance and then attending graduate school, Okuk reconnected with Richard Carter, 47, to co-found the tire recycling business. 

Carter also came up through the finance world, where he said he and a friend opened the Global Trading Academy in 2004 for people who wanted to learn how to trade stocks. He closed the school amid the recession in 2010.

According to Securities and Exchange Commission records, Carter also was a co-owner of a Torrance company called Spyglass Equity Systems Inc. The SEC, in response to claims by investors that Spyglass was a “boiler-room” operation that lost them more than $3 million, barred Carter in 2012 from participating in any penny stock offerings and from association with brokers, dealers, and investment advisers.

That same year, another of Carter’s businesses, Trade Tech Institute, was the subject of a consent order from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. That order, which barred him from engaging in any “commodity-related activity,” stemmed from charges that Carter, a partner, and the business were engaged in “fraudulent promotion and selling” of systems for trading futures contracts. Okuk worked with Carter at Trade Tech, though she was not named in any of the documents.

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