A scrappy entrepreneur – Marsha Serlin owner of United Scrap Metal Inc

Sharon Nelton

Growing businesses share their experiences in creating and marketing new products and services.

When Marsha Serlin started United Scrap Metal, Inc., 19 years ago; she did so with $200, a rented truck charged to her Sears card, and a sense–passed down from her father–that she could do anything she wanted to.

“I never knew I had a limit,” says Serlin,

As it turned out, her father was right. Today, United Scrap, in Cicero, Ill., has 120 employees, more than 600 pieces of equipment, and annual revenues exceeding $40 million. And Serlin has become, if not a household name, a widely recognized figure in the world of small business. Last year she was named National Small Business Subcontractor the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

She is the first woman to win the subcontractor award, the 30th of which was given this year.

After years of keeping a low profile and getting customers by word of mouth, Serlin had hoped the publicity would bring the company more business. Instead, she got a marriage proposal and, she says, “a hundred calls from investment counselors and insurance salesmen.”

Whoever coined the word “gutsy” must have had someone like Serlin in mind. Twenty years ago she had two small children, a marriage that would soon fall apart, and a small houseplant-installation business that she operated out of her home in Northbrook, Ill. “It was a thriving, nice little business, but not enough to support me,” says Serlin.

She recalls that one of her male clients always seemed te be at home, which Serlin found unusual. She asked him what he did for a living, thinking that whatever it was, it “couldn’t be a bad business–because this guy was never at work.”

She learned that he was in the scrap business, and she decided that if she ever really needed money, that’s the business she would go into. When that time came, she called the client and said, “Teach me everything you know in 24 hours.”

He agreed te help, but she was so naive, she says, that she showed up at his scrapyard wearing “a strapless sundress with a little jacket and a pair of sandals.” These days she wears bluejeans, steel-toed boots, and a hard hat.

Serlin began knocking on doors of firms that might have scrap to sell, and she resold what she collected to larger scrap dealers. She soon found herself working 16 hours a day six days a week and spending the seventh day doing paperwork.

It took her three years to work up the courage to ask her mentor what she was doing wrong. Why, she wondered, wasn’t she at home as he had been when she met him? She learned that he had been so burned out from his business that he had taken six months off

“I just imagined that I’d be home with my children after school and [be doing] all the other things mothers do raising their children,” Serlin says.

She sees United Scrap as a recycling business. It purchases scrap–including metal, paper, and plastic–from other companies, such as Commonwealth Edison, an electric utility, and Andrew Corp., an Orland Park, Ill., electronics company. The materials are sorted, cleaned, chopped, baled, and resold to customers such as U.S. Steel and Alcoa to be remade into other products.

In Serlin’s view, United Scrap acts as a partner with its clients, advising them, for example, on procedures that lead to better scrap management and helping them improve their bottom lines. And while the industry was fairly unsophisticated when Serlin s ‘tarred her company, she has kept up with technology, installing a computer system to track vehicles and materials.

“My customer is the No. 1 person,” she says. “I do everything as though it were for me. I put myself into the shoes of the customer, and I say, ‘If I were him, what would I want from me?'”

Serlin says she learned the business by asking questions: “If I didn’t get the right answer, I’d go somewhere else. I didn’t stop until I felt that I was doing the right thing.”

As Serlin walks through her seven-acre scrapyard, it seems she knows every employee by name. Spread across the yard are pile after pde of scrap, ranging from discarded household items to highway signs and an old propeller. “We have metal as far as the eye can see,” she says.

Serlin is working fewer hours now because her son, Brad, has taken over operations and sales. But only slightly fewer hours. That’s in keeping with her work ethic. In fact, Serlin scoffs at the notion that luck played a part in her success. “People think that you’re lucky,” she says. “It’s not luck. It’s hard work.”

Scrap-metal entrepreneur Marsha Serlin is the first woman to be named the nation’s Small Business Subcontractor of the Year.

COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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