She started with $200 in the bank, a truck, and a determination to succeed. Marsha Serlin had a small house-plant installation business making barely enough to support her two children. She was $250,000 in debt, had her electricity turned off, and just couldn’t seem to make enough money to get by.
Her neighbor was successful in the scrap business, so she decided to make a career switch. She called him and said, “Teach me everything I need to know in 24 hours.” Serlin was unyielding to the fact that scrapping was a male dominated industry. She needed something that didn’t require schooling, and figured if she could drive a truck and was strong enough to pick up things, why not give it a try?
Serlin started her scrap metal company in 1978. Competitors ignored her, believing a woman could never make it in the business. Much to their surprise, Serlin’s business continued to grow. Now, United Scrap Metal, Inc. of Cicero, Illinois, is one of the nation’s leading recyclers with 150 employees and revenues of more than $100 million per year.
United Scrap Metal originated as a way for Serlin to bail her family out of hard times. She never imagined it would turn out to be so successful. She credits her success to hard work, long hours and staying focused. “I worked 16 hours a day almost from the start. I didn’t want to fail, so I just kept doing it. In the end, I got to be good at what I did. I’m glad I stuck it out,” Serlin says.
In 1991, she joined Vistage as a way to connect with other CEOs and to learn more about being the head of a company. She says, “My group is the best board of directors I could have ever asked for. Not only are they great advisors, but they have become close friends. They have helped me through the best and the worst times.” She adds, “It gets a little lonely at the top — my friends are distant from running a business and don’t always understand what I’m going through. With Vistage, we are all on the same level, and can relate to each other’s issues. We are there for one another.”
When United Scrap Metal went through a down cycle and was losing money, she says, “I didn’t know how to handle the loss, but with the help of my group and the ideas that we came up with, I turned my company around within 6 months.” Serlin’s revenues before joining Vistage were just $5 million, and now after being a member for 15 years, she has increased her revenues to $125 million per year.
Serlin has continued climbing her way to the top. She was the first woman to ever be named National Small Business Subcontractor of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and has won several other awards, including The 2005 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
With no plans of retiring just yet, Serlin continues to grow the business. Although her son Brad Serlin has taken over operations and sales, she wants to “keep rocking and rolling,” as she puts it. Being the strong woman that she is, she knows she will never be able to just sit back and be quiet. Vistage remains a part of her life as a source of support and motivation that, she says, “continually helps me to raise the bar in all aspects of my life.”
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