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October 27, 2005 - Image 86

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2005-10-27

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Business & Professional

Oily Rags to Riches

Usher Oil continues a four-generation Detroit tradition.

Bill Carroll

Special to the Jewish News


n 1930, Charles Usher, a poor

Jewish immigrant from
Russia, eked out a living by
driving a small tank truck to
Detroit gas stations and garages,
collecting used oil, and selling it
to a refinery to be turned into
brand new motor oil.
Now, 75 years later, the third
and fourth generations in his
family oversee an operation that
collects liquid industrial waste
— the modern description of the
old oily stuff — and sells it to a
new breed of customers in what
has become a $10 million a year
business for the Usher Oil Co.
The business is now operated
by Michael Usher of
Bloomington, Ill., who is presi-
dent, and his son, Matthew, of
Huntington Woods, the on-site
manager. And an important
chapter in that story involves the


late industrialist-philanthropist
Max Fisher of Franklin and his
first oil refinery.
Usher Oil Co. has grown into a
major recycling operation, with a
total of 900,000 square feet of
storage space at its headquarters
on Roselawn Street on Detroit's
west side, plus storage space
Downriver; 35 trucks that cost
about $100,000 apiece; 37
employees; 300 collection points
in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana,
and a dozen major companies
that buy the separated waste and
water — including the Detroit
Water and Sewerage Dept.
"This business was created by
my grandfather as a means of
survival during the Great
Depression, and we're happy to be
able to continue the family legacy
by growing the business and
adapting it to the changing needs
of industry and the environ-
ment," said Michael Usher.
His father, Morris, and uncle,

David, joined the firm in the
1930s. But in 1984, Michael
bought the company and wants
Matthew to "become president in
the future!'
Matthew, 29, attended Berkley
High School, got a marketing
degree from Michigan State
University, then worked in real
estate development for a few
years before realizing that the
Usher Oil Co. was inevitably in
his future.
"I just blended into the busi-
ness and I'm learning it from the
ground up, just like my father did
before me he said, dressed in all-
black "oil man's"-type attire at the
Roselawn office that the company
has occupied for almost 60 years.
He and his wife are affiliated with
the Oakland County-based
Congregation Shaarey Zedek, and
he belongs to the Young Adult
Division of the Jewish Federation
of Metropolitan Detroit.
Charles Usher, a carriage

maker in Russia, left his wife and
son Morris for a relative's home
in Canada in 1912, hoping to
eventually get a job in the prom-
ising new automotive industry.
Realizing that Detroit would be
the hub of that industry, he
hitched a ride to Chicago on a
cattle train one night, then later
to Detroit. He earned enough
money in menial jobs with the
old Packard Motor Co. and Ford
to bring the family over from
After the 1929 stock market
crash, Usher found himself
standing in bread lines and
accepting handouts from soup
kitchens until he hooked up with
his nephew, Leon Kay, a chemical
engineer, who also was unem-
Kay had some interesting
entrepreneurial ideas. One was to
use an old truck to collect used
oil and sell it to the Keystone
Refinery at Oakwood and

Schafer, operated by a young man
named Max Fisher and his fami-
ly. (Keystone later became the
Aurora Oil Co., then was sold to
the current Marathon Oil Co.)
Morris attended Wayne
University's pharmacy school in
Detroit, but soon decided his
father's oil-collecting business
was a better prescription. He got
his own truck and launched an
Usher father-son operation,
entering the modern era with a
"fleet" of four trucks. Charles'
younger son, David, now 75, of
Detroit, also joined the business
for a while and helped spur its
early growth. A jazz aficionado,
he became more interested in
music and record publishing and
left the business eventually.
Morris' son, Michael, joined the
company in 1969.
In the 1940s, Usher Oil Co.
started a tank farm, with small
storage tanks to store oil collected
in the winter to sell to companies

October 27 . 2005


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