Marsha Serlin never expected to run a business. Any business. Certainly not one of the largest industrial recyclers in the country.

But things have a way of happening.

"I moved to the suburbs when I had kids, and I thought I'd be lunching with the ladies," she says, sitting in the conference room at United Scrap Metal in Cicero, where she's the CEO. "(But) things were bad, severe financial troubles. Our lights were turned off. We had nothing. ... It was terrible. I was a stay-at-home mom. I thought that's what I'd do, not drive a truck and wear steel-toed shoes and a hard hat."

After a divorce, she found herself a single mother with two kids, holding down three jobs to get by.

"I sold insurance at night. On weekends I worked in my brother's clothing store. On scrap day, ... I left home at 5 a.m. It was not a good time; I picked up scrap all day."

That last job, starting with $200 and a Budget rental truck, grew into United Scrap, which now covers nearly 40 acres around 16th Street and Cicero Avenue, employs about 200 people, and did $200 million in business last year.

"When I was starting the business, 'recycling' wasn't even in the phone book," Serlin says. "It was always 'scrap metal,' or 'junk,' not 'recycling.' So instead of United Recycling, I made it United Scrap, because that's what people knew."

In the 34 years since she started the company, the kids have prospered — son Brad is United's president, daughter Cindy is a private tutor for learning-disabled children in Chicago — and so has the business. Serlin has come a long way.

Q: What did the competition think of you when you started?

A: I was the first woman to do this. No one had ever done this. I think the thought was, "She'll be gone in three months, in six months." As long as (competitors) were forecasting that I would fail, I could focus on my operation. They had no respect for women. Most of the companies who gave me a rough time, they're gone. And I'm here.

Q: What about potential clients? What did they think?

A: They would ask, "What yard did your father have?" I'd tell them, my father sold neckties. He had a little store that sold neckties. I'd give them a fair price, pick up the material (and recycle it). Manufacturers were excited to see a woman do this. And they always got a fair price. The business also became a very professional business. It was not a bottom-line business. If you make a few bucks, great.

Q: How did you convince people that a woman could do it?

A: I was trying to get a client in Aurora. It was at what had been a rendering plant, on the river, and it had been abandoned for a while. The guy said it was going to stink and it would be terrible. And he said there was a lot of swampy material. I got there, and I had waders in my trunk. We went all over the property, and I stayed right with him. He said, "Lady, you can have all my business."

Q: What's it like working here?

A: We try to have fun. It's a dirty business. People here are engaged. Our workforce is pretty stable. We're having a party next week for someone who has been here 30 years. He was a kid when he started. Now he has eight kids — and some of them work here.

We're fair and honest, and that's our culture here. If you don't (follow those rules), you can't work here. If you steal or lie, you can't work here.

Q: Have you thought about retiring?

A: Never. I still love what I do. We're still growing the company. I don't want to miss it. I want to be here for it. And it's fun to be in a place where people appreciate you and are eager to learn. We have a lot of young people here who like my stories.

Q: What about hobbies?

A: I love to travel. Boating. Anything with water. Helping others.

Q: Yeah. United Scrap is heavily into charity. There are about 20 charities you support. And you're co-chair for fundraising for the new Ronald McDonald House in Chicago.

A: We also Recycle With Ronald (an annual open house that features food, entertainment and tours of the facility; this year's is Oct. 6). All our team members cook for houses in the area. We like to hire people who not only work here but do charitable things. And we support Cicero as much as we can because they've been very good to us.

Q: In the 34 years, what lessons have you learned?

A: Never give up. That is my favorite thing. And fail fast. You're never going to be right all the time. Get over it. The hurdles get smaller as you go along because you're willing to jump over them. Also, have love and respect for every worker and team member. It goes back to the Golden Rule. Treat people the way you want to be treated.

Q: Did the hard times change you?

A: It made me strong and tough. I was not about to wilt on this journey. I'm here to show people it's not where you start, it's where you finish.

Q: Has it been fun?

A: It's a wonderful journey. As you climb to the top, there's always somebody underneath. That's the fun of competition. There's always someone looking up my skirt.

bhageman@tribune.com