A Conversation with Marsha Serlin of United Scrap Metal
People often ask me about which business leaders inspire me, and I love to share stories about the people and companies I’ve learned about in my travels and in the many business organizations I am lucky to participate in.
I recently sat down with Marsha Serlin of United Scrap Metal to discuss her experiences as a woman business leader, her success as an early pioneer in sustainability, and her company’s unique culture. I hope you enjoy this interview, which has been edited a bit for length.
Alison: How did you decide to take the bold step to start your company?
Marsha: I started with $200 and a budget rent-a-truck picking up metal in alleys. I picked up material and I didn’t even know you needed a certain kind of truck in order to get unloaded. So, I was pretty naïve. I didn’t come from a family of scrap metal. I didn’t know anyone in the scrap metal industry, except for one guy who I thought was a nice guy, but I thought, if he could do it, I could do it. And that’s where I got the idea.
Alison: Tell me a little about your business. It’s my understanding that most of the machinery we use to create products eventually becomes obsolete. So, people break them apart, bring them to you, and then you recycle them.
Marsha: Right. And it will then go to a steel mill, an electric furnace or an integrated mill. That metal will then be sent to be melted down into a coil, plate, or billet.
Alison: Is there anything new that you’d think is coming down the pipeline in your industry? Any new technology?
Marsha: Electric furnaces are probably the newest thing, because they require much less labor. There can be as little as 10 people in a plant where you’d have hundreds in an integrated mill. So, the electric furnaces are the most efficient for melting down material. My materials get sent directly to mills domestically. When I have multiple loads of materials, we ship by barge. That material then goes to the mill where they make new sheets, coils or billets or different products that start all over again, and that’s part of the recycling.
In other words, you’ve got a car; then after 10 years, you say “I want a new car,” and then you sell it and then somebody buys the used car and the used car breaks down and that’s when it goes to the scrap metal yard. The fact that it’s reused again and again, I think, is the most interesting thing. You don’t know where your car came from. It could have been a pitchfork from Alabama. Who knows? We use many different materials to create new products. Manufacturing is probably where the biggest amount of scrap metal comes from.
Alison: Do you feel like you’ve been at the forefront of the recycling initiative?
Marsha: In the ’70s, the term “recycling” wasn’t even in the phone book. I wanted to advertise my company in the phone book, but there was no section for recycling. And it was shortly thereafter that all of a sudden, there was. I knew that recycling was going to be the new thing that people were going to pay attention to. In 1978 when I started, people would just throw out materials. But now they’re much more concerned about doing the right thing for the environment.
Alison: So, when you were working to implement all these recycling programs, what kind of challenges did you think you faced and how did you help the business achieve their goals?
Marsha: First of all, it hasn’t changed a lot over the years. There always was paper and metal. The paper goes back into making new news print, and news print was the most prevalent of them all.
We not only handle those kinds of things; we also regularly do large amounts of wood. When you look at the side of a lot of parks, they all have mulches and they are all made out of recycled wood. It takes a number of machines that crunch it all up into little pieces. The landscapers use a lot of that. So, much like iron, steel, aluminum, stainless brass, all the other items that we recycle.
As far as any other commodity, the commodities are pretty much the same: Copper, Aluminum, Stainless and Steel. We have a manufacturing plant in our company where we granulate wire and separate the plastic from the metal. And then we make a product, a finished product that we then sell to manufacturing plants.
Alison: With your $200 investment, it sounds like you’ve figured out a way to diversify into seven or eight different materials that you now recycle, repurpose them into two to three different new types of material, and sell them in a new form to somebody else.
Alison: That’s pretty innovative, Marsha.
Marsha: When we get very large quantities of a commodity, then we have to think about what we can do to add some more value to that commodity. You have to be a little innovative to be able to think that you can do that.
Alison: I’m wondering if you’ve come up with these alternative ways of looking at your business because you’re a woman. Do you think you’re looking at innovation in a different way than a man?
Marsha: Yes. I think that women think differently.
Alison: I don’t want to sound sexist. But you could just say, “You know what? I’m going to run a scrap metal business and I’m just going to be the biggest scrap metal business around.” But you’re trying to be a scrap metal business and a woman trying to find solutions to other businesses. It’s not enough for you to just break it down. You really want to try and create and find something as a product.
Marsha: I think women think of companies differently. Failure was never part of my anatomy. I was always afraid to fail so I never gave up. I think one strength that women have is tenacity.
But I must say in our business, in the beginning, there were no women in a company like mine, 40 years ago. The thing that separated me was I really understood the business. When a woman really knows what she is talking about, how unique is that? The novelty was me being at the forefront and my male counterparts all wanted to know why. They wanted to know what would make me want to do that. And when that would happen, I would always know the metal they were talking about, all the numbers, all the grades of the material—they were surprised.
When I started, nobody could believe a woman drove the truck. I got on the back of the truck and unloaded the stuff by myself by hand, and nobody could believe a woman could do that. I wasn’t afraid; I could manage to break a barrel. When I say break, I mean move a barrel that was 700 pounds. I could do that. And I could bring all that material, bring it into the plant and I would drive the truck and people were astonished; they didn’t know what to think.
Alison: Have you seen an influx of women since you’ve started your business?
Marsha: Yes, more. Many more are coming into the industry.
Alison: How do you inspire those women to succeed—not necessarily those who work in your company, but those woman that are running other companies? What would you say to them?
Marsha: First, I would say it’s never where you start. Always look beyond your start, and you can’t be too anxious because it’s not an overnight success. People think of me as an overnight success, but it only took 40 years! It takes a long time, and usually people think in your first year you should make money, but you don’t. It takes three years to really put something in the bank. For me, it was 16-hour days, it wasn’t nine to five. It’s never where you start, it’s where you finish. For me, it’s very gratifying now that all the hard work paid off and we have some of the same customers that we’ve had from almost day one. We keep growing in the spaces that we’re so good in.
Alison: Where do you see your company going in the next 10 to 15 years?
Marsha: We’re already larger than we imagined, and I think we’re going to double our size in the next five to 10 years, for sure. But I say that with caution. You have some years where you’re not so great and you try to fix it by minimalizing and cutting operating expenses, and you do what you have to do. You’ve got to keep your eye on the profit. Some people like to look at top-line growth. I look at the bottom-line growth.
Alison: So, one of the interesting things when I was doing my research on you is that you were invested in women-owned restaurants. Are you still involved in mentoring women and in different types of businesses? And what other women or businesses and industries inspire you?
Marsha: It’s about the owners. It’s never about the business. It’s about who has that spark? Who has that drive? Who thinks I’m never shutting this place down; I’m going to be here? You get it from certain people you meet. I try really hard to give, to help out other women.
Women sometimes have a hard time giving up percentages of their business, or when they go to raise money, they don’t realize they’re not going to own 100 percent. Men get that part. But women have a very different view on finance than men. And I find that most interesting. Some people grow a business without any help. But if somebody is going to come in and help you, they want a piece of your action. Women sometimes overvalue their company, and then they can’t get an investor, and then they’re done. That happens frequently.
A lot of young women think that a business is nine to five. If you think that business is nine to five, you’re done. How many times did you want to be there for your kids? Sometimes, you just can’t. Sometimes, you have to say, “No. I would love to be a stay-at-home mom, but I can’t.” If you’re going to run a business, you’ve got to do it right. Otherwise, you are going to kill the business.
Alison: Yes, there’s been a few times where I have missed really important things that my kids have had. Being a single parent, which you and I have in common, I can’t be every place at every time and it’s very challenging. And the guilt that I feel—it’s probably the same guilt you felt too.
Marsha: No question. I remember one time when my son was playing football, and I went to his game. I got there, I sat on the bleachers and fell asleep during the game. As soon as I stopped working, I was fast asleep. You are so sleep deprived and you try and be at everything and you can’t. You can only do what you can, and don’t feel guilty because it’s all part of parenting. The kids have to know that.
Alison: Even though being a woman in business has its unique challenges, would you say there are any unique advantages?
Marsha: Being underestimated as a woman in any industry has a great advantage because no one expects you to do great, and guess what—you have a really big opportunity to do well. I always say to people, tell my team, about experiences and stories. Because if I can relay a story, everybody knows it can happen to them. But we always take the high road. Whenever there are adversarial comments, we’ve kind of ignored it. We started off with nothing and no customers, and now we still have some of the same customers from 40 years ago.
Alison: I know you have a tight-knit work force with a lot of employees who have been with you for a long time. I’m curious what you do to foster that type of mutual respect because I know that Jelmar is kind of similar in that we have lots of long-term employees. How have you fostered that kind of loyalty?
Marsha: We just finished a company-wide survey on culture. We do this from time to time, and we wanted to find out what people thought of the kinds of things we’d done in the past and whether we should continue to do them. What is the satisfaction rate working for us? It was extensive. We just rolled out the results to all of our employees to let them know that number one, we gratefully appreciate them participating and that we have learned an awful lot about what we need to change, and what we need to do in order to succeed in the future.
We have a few programs that help our employees go to college. If they have good grades, we’ll pay some of their tuition.
We pay for coaches for some of our people as well. We have a lot of millennials who have a lot of ideas, so we have coaches that help them become a professional business person.
And leadership classes are something that we do. We hire people to do both one-on-one and multiple-participant classes.
Alison: You’ve been so proactive in your industry.
Marsha: I have one more example I want to give you. I have a demolition contractor; he said “I have to take this building down, but I want you to see what we have so you’ll know what to do with it.” It was a big building, a tannery. He said it had been abandoned for eight or ten years. It was in the very beginning of my career. He told me to come meet him at the sight, which was on a river. The water was the cheapest way to bring in any kind of commodity.
He said it was kind of dirty so I brought in waders. The stuff was three feet deep and the smell was so awful that most people wouldn’t even walk into this place. Anyway, I never said a word to the guy. It was probably in my second or third year, and I never said a word. Then he said to me, “You have the job.” And I asked, “How did I get this job?” He said, “Because you never said a word; you never told me you’re not going in.” And I said: “OK, my truck will be here in the morning to load it up.” The smell was so hideous. But you see, if you don’t say anything, and you go up the high road, you get everything you want, and that’s how this business has been built. I’m very fortunate to have a company like this and to have grown to be so big—and it’s going to get bigger and bigger.
Alison: What a great story. Thank you so much, Marsha! This has been great.
Marsha: Thank you!