Marsha Serlin is CEO of United Scrap Metal, a company she founded in 1978 with $200, a rental truck and an indefatigable determination to succeed. It now employs more than 300 team members and continues to grow. She has received many awards, most recently the 2015 Womanetics POW! Award, which honors women who demonstrate a high level of leadership and community impact.
You founded your company at a low point in your life, didn’t you?
Life wasn’t good. My car was repossessed off the driveway. The house was in foreclosure. And I had two small kids. I wasn’t divorced at that time. I really started the business thinking my then-husband would run it because it was a tough business and I needed his support. I would pick up metal at factories that had old inventory that was obsolete. I’d say “I’ll clean it up for you but I won’t charge you. Just give me the scrap.”
But why scrap metal? How did that business come to your mind?
I have a background in horticulture. I did large plant and flower installations. One of the people that I worked with was in the scrap metal business. In the early ‘70s he bought $10,000 worth of plants for his new apartment. That was a huge amount of money that somebody would spend on plants.
It still is!
You’re right. He liked cacti and I imported them for him. I was doing a lot of installations for law offices and medical buildings. It was very fashionable and I did the larger ones. I asked this guy what he did and he said he was in the scrap metal business. He was home every time I made a delivery. He was a rough guy; you know, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve. I thought, “You’re decorating this gorgeous apartment on Lake Shore Drive. You’re making all this money and you’re home during the day and helping us install?”
So when I really needed money five years later, I called this guy and said, ‘Do you remember me?” He said “Sure. You put in in the plants. They’re still gorgeous.” So I told him I needed something from him and that I was thinking of going into the scrap metal business
I said, “Would you teach me everything you know in 24 hours?” he laughed and said, “You wouldn’t want to be in my business. This is a terrible business for a woman. It’s dirty! It’s filthy!”
But he invited me over to his scrap yard to show me around. I was wearing a sundress and a pair of high heels and walking through his scrap yard and warehouse. My shoes are coming off because they’re sticking to the grime.
And you were still interested?
That’s what he said. I had no idea that it would be so dirty but I asked him to teach me everything he knew because I had to make some money. He said, “Absolutely. You’ll make money every day. You just have to work hard.
Well, I was willing to do that. But what I didn’t know was that it would take so long. After three years I finally started to see some light at the end of the tunnel but I was working 16-hour days. I didn’t have the courage to call him to tell him I wasn’t making money. I was just paying my mortgage.
After four or five years, I did call him and I said, “This has been really tough but I can see that I’m going to do OK. But how did you manage to always be home when I was bringing plants to your apartment?” He laughed and said, “You didn’t know?” I said “Know what?” Well, he said he took six months off as a sabbatical because he’d been working 16-hour days and he had burned out.
So you didn’t get the time with your children that you wanted, did you?
Oh my, no. I was working 16-hour days. On Sundays I did paperwork but I worked the other six. But there’s something about a challenge: I didn’t want to fail. Failure is not an option when you have two children to support and no money coming in from anywhere else.
And I had pride. Fear of failure is a driver for many people in all kinds of business.
After that initial scrap yard tour did you have any real mentors who helped you learn the business?
It was all learning on the fly and whatever I didn’t know I learned. In order to do this business you had to have a truck with an open top. A crane with a magnet picks up the scrap and drops it into your truck. I didn’t know at first so I was thrown out of a lot of yards because they couldn’t unload my truck. I had a Budget rent-a-truck with a roof on it. I lost money because somebody had to unload my truck with a forklift and I also was being charged by the mile for the rental.
Really I had three jobs at first. I sold insurance at night and on weekends I worked for my brother-in-law who had a clothing store. I worked there for the health insurance. But pretty soon I looked at my life and decided scrap was going to pay off the most for me. It wasn’t easy.
Did you need to learn a different way to be a boss, working with scrappers?
I think I was always a boss. I grew up in a very matriarchal family. My mother was bossy, so I guess it came naturally. I had worked at other companies before I was married and usually I became the boss. I was always admired for working hard; I knew how to do things quickly.
I always felt I was going to be successful and I never looked back. When I make a speech about growing my business, I never like it when women come up to me and complain that they’re going through a divorce and how awful it is. I say, “If you would just take stock of what you have in your life and don’t worry about what you have to settle for and go out and take care of yourself, you’d be so much happier.”
I divorced my husband after I’d started the business. I asked the lawyer what was the fastest divorce settlement he’d had and he said three months. I told him I’d double his fee if he could get it done in three months. Sure enough, it was done. My ex-husband didn’t have any money so he didn’t pay me anything. He agreed to everything
You’re not a believer in the glass ceiling for women, are you?
My feeling is the glass ceiling exists if you allow it. I believe there’s always a way to get around things and women are good at figuring out ways to get around whatever barriers are there.
I love fixing and I love solutions and I always find ways to be better and to help fix things. I love when there’s a problem. Right now we’re putting in a new computer software installation. We’ve been struggling with it for three months. It is so out of balance but I’m loving that I’m looking for nuggets of things that are wrong that I can fix.
I really believe I can move mountains. If you have something you need done, I know I can do it.
What was the most difficult part of getting the business up on its feet and profitable?
The most difficult time in business was probably 2008. That was a trying time. Commodity markets dropped overnight and we were left with the most inventory we’d ever had. That meant a huge reversal in what had been a very good year. We managed to turn it back around in less than two months, though we took major losses.
But I rolled up my sleeves and I did exactly what I did in the beginning. It teaches you not to be afraid. I just dig in and do it and hope I’ll come out on the positive side.
What’s has been the best part of the struggle?
It’s being successful and knowing that it took years. Having my son, Brad, here now helps. He knows how to run a business. The joy is building a team of wonderful employees. Now we have more than 300 and we’re still growing. We may double our size within a year.
When you’re a good company you’d be surprised how often good people and good opportunities come to you.
Are you able to be a boss with your son or are you always a mother?
Oh that’s a tough question. I think boys working with fathers works well but boys working with mothers? Not so good. We’ve had our moments but we’re getting better. It used to be awful. I used to throw him out of the office and tell to go work somewhere else.
Do you have time to be anything other than a CEO?
I do. I have a boat and I want a bigger one. I’m like the boys: I want a bigger one! I’m not into fancy cars but I enjoy living on a boat. I don’t have an apartment but I live on a boat in Chicago and in Florida in the winter. The more I’m in a boat I’m a happy girl.
You say women often come up to you at speeches. If they ask for advice on achieving the kind of success you’ve had, what do you say?
I tell them to have blinders. If you believe in what you’re doing, you’re passionate about it and you believe you can do it, don’t let anything redirect you from your dream.
I tell young people to be patient. They want to be a success right now, but it may not be right away. It may take three years. Don’t give up. Plan and move forward and you will be successful.