A Camden waterfront landmark becomes a corporate headquarters again

An eight-story building near the Camden Waterfront that was constructed as the corporate headquarters of the Victor Talking Machine Co. has become the main U.S. office of another firm with a global reach.

EMR USA Holdings Inc., a metals recycling company with a U.K. parent and deep roots in the city, renovated the building’s interior for $40 million. The work was financed largely through $134 million in tax breaks from the N.J. Economic Development Authority.

Earlier this year EMR started the first phase of an exterior facelift likely to cost about $2 million.

“We love it here,” said Joseph Balzano, EMR’s chief executive officer.

“This building represented the industrial age in Camden,” he said. “We’re an industrial company, and we’ve tried to keep the building true to its roots [while making] it functional for today.”

About 120 EMR employees work at Front and Cooper Streets, and another 380 are employed at My Auto Store, an auto parts retailer, as well as the company’s metal recycling facilities in Camden. In 2023, 159 of the company’s 516 employees in Camden were city residents.

Across the United States, EMR operates 54 locations and employs around 1,600 people. The parent firm, European Metal Recycling LTD, is headquartered in Warrington, England, and employs more than 2,000 people across 70 sites in the United Kingdom and European Union. The family-owned company purchased the 90-year-old Camden Iron & Metal firm in 2006.

A mix of old and new

EMR bought the Victor office building for $13.5 million in 2019 after a developer’s mixed-use residential proposal fell through. The structure had been owned by the Camden Board of Education for about 25 years and had been vacant for some time.

“We tried to preserve and restore as much of the original building as we could,” said Balzano, who worked closely with the Philadelphia firm USA Architects.

“Although entire floors had been gutted down to the concrete, and others were all drywalled over, we kept original pine and mosaic tile floors, 30-foot ceilings, and moldings, as well as the front office and boardroom,” he said.

Those spaces on the seventh-floor executive suite are appointed with Circassian walnut and used only occasionally, mainly for special events.

“We saved stairwells and we saved the windows,” said Balzano, who put the cost of the interior renovations at $40 million. “We saved as much as we could.”

The bigger picture

The Victor office building is one of only three structures left of what for much of the 20th century was a massive manufacturing campus — one that was high-tech for its time. Tens of thousands of South Jersey and Philly workers helped create and sustain the recorded music and home entertainment industries with hit records by opera stars like Enrico Caruso, which encouraged consumers to buy a Camden-made “Victor Victrola” to play them on.

The architectural flourishes and grand spaces of its headquarters attest to the company’s spectacular early success, while its more recent history can be seen as emblematic of postindustrial urban decline. EMR also has had sometimes-fraught community relationships, including with some residents who live near facilities like the “state-of-the-art mega-shredder” described on an EMR website.

“It does seem like the company is making long-term investments, but a lot of times it feels like they’re just placating us,” said Jordan Mead, 36, a coffee roaster who lives on Ferry Avenue in Camden’s Waterfront South neighborhood. Three fires were reported at company facilities there in two years.

“After the first big fire in 2019, [company representatives] at community meetings talked about enclosing the shredder and making things look nicer, but it’s gotten worse,” Mead said. “We want them to be a good neighbor and be proud of them, but they don’t give us much of a reason to do that.”

Balzano’s late father, Joseph, long served as executive director of the South Jersey Port Corp. and had strong relationships with people in Waterfront South.

The younger Balzano said EMR has taken technological and other steps to rectify the issues, including those with other communities, including Cooper Grant, home of the company headquarters.

“We want to embed ourselves in the fabric of Camden,” he said. “We’re very active in community cleanups. We’ve hired two full-time community liaisons. We’ve sponsored health screenings. We want to do things that are impactful.”

A grassroots view from the top

Stacey Pierce, a longtime Camden resident, is EMR’s director of civic engagement.

“Seeing the beautiful restoration of this building, [one] that’s core to the community, makes me feel incredibly proud,” Pierce said in a statement. “Spending time with the community of Camden is paramount. Whether [by] representing EMR at local events, spearheading our employee volunteer initiatives or holding community meetings in the historic Victor building itself, we’re determined that this landmark remains at the heart of Camden.”

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