CEO Jennifer Larson of Minnetonka-based Vibrant Technologies and CEO Amanda LaGrange of Golden Valley-based Tech Dump are veterans in the business of refurbishing and recycling “electronic waste.”

Their companies employ 130 workers and generate tens of millions in revenue. The women are drivers in a coalition pushing the “fair repair” bill at the Minnesota Legislature that would require manufacturers of products ranging from mobile phones to computer servers to TVs, mostly manufactured overseas, to broadly distribute to repair shops the directions, diagnostic tools and parts for five years after end of production, so that more of the stuff can be fixed and resold in Minnesota.

Outfits like Vibrant and Tech Dump, and a lot of other small electronic repair shops, say the manufacturers want to control the product life, stifling competition.

“We use 10-year-old computer servers at Vibrant,” Larson said. “The industry wants to make the money by controlling things. We are authorized by Microsoft, but it’s virtually impossible to get authorized by some manufacturers. You should be able to buy, own and sell equipment and get it repaired where you want. The refurbishers, resellers and purchasers are small businesses like ours. The customers get good equipment at a lower-than-new cost.”

The argument was persuasive enough to get two Minnesota state senators, who often disagree, to cosponsor a bill that would open up the repair business. Sen David Osmek, a Republican from Mound, and Sen. John Marty, a DFLer from Roseville, are cosponsors of a bill that has cleared Marty’s energy and environment committee.

It may not make it to the floor of the Senate and House in this short session.

“I’ve visited Vibrant and Ocean Tech in Eden Prairie. Minnesota is a hub of refurbish and recycle,” Osmek said. “They provide good-paying jobs. The equipment is refurbished, sometimes sold to schools at a savings to taxpayers.

“I work for UnitedHealth Group and we rotate our equipment. Those old servers and other equipment can be wiped and refurbished. And John Marty and I don’t want any more of this stuff going to landfills. I don’t know why the IBMs and Apples and others are fighting this. We all end up buying new equipment eventually.”

The recyclers also want to fix and sell more because it’s more profitable than recycling the steel, aluminum and precious metals and other parts inside business and consumer electronics. Tech Dump, Best Buy and other outfits that take electronics are charging drop-off fees of $10 to $25. Recycling doesn’t cover costs given recent low commodity prices.

Tech Dump just started a refurbish-and-retail business to complement its recycling business, said LaGrange. But there are some products its technicians can’t work on because of lack of parts and directions.

The industry, led by the Consumer Technology Association, CompTIA and others, said there already are about 64 “authorized” repair shops in Minnesota and that manufacturers have liability issues even after products are sold. The manufacturers want to control who fixes their products.

“The vast majority of consumers acquiring used electronic devices expect no other than the manufacturer or their authorized repair shops have altered the devices’ inner workings,” Walter Alcorn of the Consumer Technology Association and James J. Halpert of the State Privacy and Security Coalition wrote in a recent letter to Osmek and Marty.

They added that the proposed legislation weakens warranties and could lead to unqualified repairers botching jobs in ways that harm manufacturers. Osmek and Marty say the industry wants to control the industry and stifle competition and supply of good, used equipment.

Huntsman to speak at forum

Jon Huntsman Jr., formerly the Obama administration’s U.S. ambassador to China, Utah governor, Republican presidential contender (and a good guitar player), will address “Global Leadership: Our Future with China” at the 2016 Hendrickson Forum on April 20 at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Also, 3M CEO Inge Thulin will be honored for focusing on investing heavily in people, research and development, environmental stewardship and ethical business practices, according to St. Mary’s President Brother William Mann.

Tickets, including lunch, are $40. Registration is required at www.smumn.edu/HendricksonForum.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.