In the 18th century, Nathan Trotter set up his self-named company on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia. The metal merchant used the river to import copper from England and other metals from as far away as China, supplying his fellow Americans with the materials that would help lead the country into the Industrial Revolution.
More than 225 years later, the company remains the oldest continuously operated metals manufacturer in the United States.
Nathan Trotter & Co.’s current owners, Russell Etherington and Peter Morris, have worked to keep this legacy alive and thriving since buying the company in the mid-’80s.
“Russ and I came together in 1984, and it seemed we were cut from the same cloth — we had the same ethics, the same goals, and the same ideas about culture,” said Morris. “So it was very easy to shape this company with a partner like that. And over those 33 years, we’ve always made decisions jointly. We discuss a particular topic and we come to a mutual decision, and it’s just been a wonderful partnership.”
Today’s iteration of Nathan Trotter alloys and shapes metals — like tin, copper, zinc, and nickel — to be used in the next stage of product manufacturing. In addition, Etherington and Morris opened a metal reclaiming facility in 2013, providing their customers an environmentally conscious way to recycle their scrap tin-based metals.
Now, as both approach retirement, they’re working with Wells Fargo on a plan to transition ownership of the company to their five sons — Morris’ three and Etherington’s two.
“Passing Nathan Trotter on to my sons is a very emotional thing for me,” added Morris. “I’ve worked hard in my lifetime principally over two things: my family and my work. And to be able to pass this on to my sons brings my family and my work together.”
A shared vision for the future
Etherington knows the importance of keeping Nathan Trotter in the family — he started working there when his father-in-law was a partner at the company.
“I was working for IBM at the time, in 1980, and my father-in-law — Harry Dixon — was getting ready to retire from Nathan Trotter,” said Etherington. “At the time, we had four employees, no trucking capability, and no manufacturing capability. We were distributors only.”
Over the past 30-plus years, Etherington and Morris have grown their company into one of the country’s largest manufacturers of tin and tin alloys in North America. It’s a legacy they are proud of as they prepare to hand it over to their sons.
But planning how to pass ownership and control of Nathan Trotter to the next generation proved challenging until their Wells Fargo banker, Steve Dorosh, connected them with his colleagues in the company’s Wealth and Investment Management division.
“We were going through the process of succession, and Russ and I were struggling with it. We were hiring an accountant, hiring an attorney, and we couldn’t get the pieces to fit together,” said Morris. “One of the best decisions we’ve made is hiring Wells Fargo Private Bank to help us with that succession.”
The Private Bank team worked with Etherington and Morris to ensure they had a shared vision and clear communications in developing a formal succession plan for their company.
“Research shows that 70 percent of family businesses are sold or do not survive beyond the founder’s generation, and only 3 percent are preserved into the fourth generation,” said Dorosh. “While it is inevitable that complications will arise, there are steps families can take to enhance the likelihood of long-term business sustainability — planning early and educating the next generation are two of the most important.”
Now the two longtime friends and business partners feel confident in their company’s future, and their sons, who’ve all worked at Nathan Trotter since their high school days, are positioned to take the company forward.
“I’ve been in this business for 37 years, and that’s a lot of years. Some of those years were difficult and a struggle because we were a tiny little company,” Etherington reflected as he discussed his pending retirement. “So I’ll miss a lot of that, but I always say that I will be here as needed, and hopefully I’ll be needed more than once or twice a month.”