Women is...: Marsha Serlin, Scrap Metal Maven

Marsha Serlin, Scrap Metal Maven

profession: Founder and president of Illinois United Scrap Metal, which picks up industrial waste from Chicago-area manufacturers and demolition companies and delivers it to scrap metal dealers.

annual revenue: $45 million.

the basic story:The high priestess of scrap metal, Serlin started her company in 1978, after being left with a staggering debt from her soon-to-be ex- husband's failed business. She launched into a career that she knew little about with only $200 and a rented truck.

age: Late forties.

education: Dropped out of the University of Oklahoma in her sophomore year. "My parents said the university had gotten too expensive so I said, 'OK, I won't go.'"

beginnings: "I was married at the time and my husband had always provided for our family. I was a housewife. His business went sour, and I had to be resourceful. I wanted my husband to work with me at this business, but he didn't like this kind of work." The couple was divorced within a year.
biggest break: Being forced into the workplace. "If my marriage had continued the way it was going, if I didn't have to go to work to survive, then I never would have known I was capable of this kind of achievement."

biggest motivator: Fear. "Anyone who has experienced a time with no money or security never forgets it," she says. "If you wake up panicked about money, you will get to work."

on the competition: "It is a very labor-intensive business and not terribly glamorous. I was the first woman to start a scrap metal business. Because I was female, my competitors didn't take me seriously. Therefore, they didn't pay attention to me or what I was accomplishing. I just kept quietly working hard and expanding my business."

In April 1996, the US Small Business Administration honored Serlin as National Small Business Subcontractor of the Year.

role models: "I had none, given there were no women in the industrial environment. Today there are lots and that is very exciting."

on micro-managing: "I have had a lot of trouble relinquishing control of areas of my business to employees."
management style: Very unstructured. "Sometimes we hold spontaneous sales meetings in the hallway. I am very positive and never discourage an idea. I know that my greatest assets are my people and I always listen to them. My door is always open."

on keeping employees: Serlin offers financial incentives for her employees to continue their education. "Given the labor-intensive work at United Scrap, proficiency in English is not required. Many of my employees are immigrants, a lot from Mexico," she says.

"I want them to be educated so I offer GED classes for them to take while at work, and they are given financial incentives to pass. An educated worker is a better worker. It also allows them to break out of the original job they were hired for and move up into sales or working with our computer system."

household: Daughter, Cindy, and boyfriend, Jerry.

tech-savviness: "I use a laptop, but I'm not super computer-literate. I'm in the process of getting my modem installed at work."