Let’s do a little trash talking — and no, I don’t mean the kind where I talk about your mama.
I mean a conversation with Mary Catona, president/CEO of Retriever Waste Management, a full-service waste and recycling management company that has been named one of the top women-owned businesses in the country.
PGN: Are you a Jersey girl? MC: I was born Philadelphia, but I moved to Jersey 21 years ago ... farmland country.
PGN: Where did you go to school? MC: I went to Upper Darby High School.
PGN: Where did you go to college? MC: West Chester University, where I studied health and phys-ed. I wanted to be a gym teacher!
PGN: So many people I interview don’t end up going into their field of study. MC: Yeah, teachers were a dime a dozen then and it was hard to find a job, so I took the phys-ed knowledge I had and started working in health clubs. Part of the responsibilities included selling memberships and I found that I was really good at sales. I also started doing physical therapy for a remarkable woman who’d had open-heart surgery and then started working with other people, mostly women with polio and other illnesses that needed therapy.
PGN: How did you go from there to trash? MC: One of my friends sent in my résumé to a prominent hauling company. They called me in for an interview and, three hours later, they offered me the job. My second day on the job, I knew that this was my calling. Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to own my own business, and I always thought I’d eventually open up a health club or a gym, but I was really intrigued by the intricacies of waste management. After a few years with one of the prominent players in the business, and then a smaller company in Jersey, I got laid off. That evening, I went to an event for Italian women professionals. My mother came with me and she’s like the social network, she was introducing me to everyone. One of the people I met was Camille Maglio, from Maglio Sausage and Cheese, and she asked me what I did. I told her that I’d just been laid off but that I’d like to someday own a business. She said, “I’ll tell you what, I have a company in Philadelphia, come see me tomorrow.” I went to see her and she offered me space on her second floor: She gave me a computer, telephone, everything I needed to get started. She said, “I’m not going to charge you anything, just get yourself established.” At the end of the year, my company was on firm ground and I went to her to say thank you and let her know I was ready to get my own place. She said, “Oh no, no, you’re not leaving yet, you owe me.” And I thought, Oh my God, what is this, was this too good to be true, what do I owe her? But she looked at me and said, “Next time, if a woman comes across your path needing help, I want you to stop and provide her the same opportunity that I did you.” We shook hands and that was the deal.
PGN: And what helped you make the transition from the health industry to waste management? MC: It was all about sales. Whether you’re selling a gym membership or industrial services, it’s about relating to the customer.
PGN: What makes you a good salesperson? MC: Tenacity, first and foremost, and then developing relationships based on trust. I’m always straightforward with people, no hidden agendas. I believe strongly in what I do, so if you believe in me, you’ll never have a problem with me. I’ll always do a good job for you, more than a good job. I get excited about it: I like to exceed expectations.
PGN: And you’ve grown from that second-floor office to a pretty large company. MC: Not as large as I’d like to be! There were a few hiccups along the way. When I first started, I brought in a partner and that didn’t work out too well. I had to dissolve the company to end the partnership but, fortunately, my clients all stayed with me.
PGN: And what does the company do? MC: We handle trash and recycling on a national basis, as well as in Canada, Puerto Rico and Mexico. We do it all. For instance, if I have a client with 500 locations throughout the states, we handle the waste — from supplying trash containers to collection. We make sure they are in compliance with all federal and state rules and regulations, and even though costs fluctuate because of landfill considerations, gas prices, inflation, etc., and there’s not much we can’t or won’t do for a client if they need it.
PGN: Waste is such a huge global problem today. What are your thoughts? MC: Where do you start? We try to help by getting clients to participate in recycling and doing it the right way so that it actually gets back into the post-consumer stream. We have a newsletter, “10 Steps Toward Going Green,” that we use to help our clients become sustainable and forward-thinking.
PGN: I worked for a big company that didn’t recycle and it used to drive me crazy. How come, as a resident, I can be fined for throwing out a soup can, but businesses can get away with not recycling? MC: They’re not supposed to. Many companies do handle trash the right way, but far too many don’t make the effort and it’s a shame. If businesses don’t get on board taking care of the future, we’re going to have serious problems. Even small businesses need to get in sync.
PGN: What are your hobbies? MC: I have a second-degree black belt in karate and have been working toward a third-degree belt. I love animals, especially dogs. Our logo for the company is a retriever. I always said that if I get the company big enough or hit the lottery, I want to build an animal sanctuary. I also enjoy horseback riding.
PGN: English or Western? MC: Western. I can’t do all that knees-in, chin-up, hands-still English stuff!
PGN: You won the National Association of Female Executives, Woman of Excellence Outstanding Entrepreneur Award and were named one of Pennsylvania’s 50 Best Women in Business. How important do you think it is to be a role model? MC: I think it’s very important, especially to set a standard for young women growing up today. It was harder for me to be a woman in the business arena than it is for women today, but I think that young women today don’t have the confidence in themselves that they need. With all the bullying that goes on and the social networking that can be used to tear them down, it’s tough. I think families really need to step up to the plate and get involved. I don’t care if you’re straight, gay or otherwise, the family unit is most important. As a role model, I try to share with young women — and boys — that you can’t let anything or anyone get you down.
PGN: When did you come out? MC: I knew when I was a kid that I loved women [laughing] — my first crush was Ann-Margret! When I went to college, it was the first time I realized, Wow, there are other women like me! It was great. I didn’t come out to my parents until I was in my 30s. I thought being from a very family-oriented Italian background it would be difficult and I was scared to tell them, but I guess I didn’t trust my family enough because they were terrific. There was no fuss about it at all, no ignorance about the subject, just total acceptance. It was funny, the night I decided to tell them I had some friends there for support: two family friends who were attorneys who had a gay son, and my cousin Rosemary. My mom was in the kitchen cooking, what else, surrounded by knives and forks. I didn’t know if that was the best time to do it, but I went ahead and I told her I had something to tell her. She looked at me and I said, “I’m a lesbian.” She didn’t say a word but put everything down in the sink and went upstairs. I followed her and she said, “I don’t understand?” I told her it’s nothing except that I preferred women over men. She looked up slowly and said, “But you still love me, right?” [Tears up.] I said, “Mom, of course I still love you!” And she said, “And I love you, my daughter,” and that was it. Now my father thought that it was some kind of party when everyone came over. I finally pulled him aside and with my heart racing, I said, “You know how we used to watch TV and you’d see a gay person on TV and not understand it? There’s nothing to understand, that’s just who they are and it’s who I am too.” He told me that it didn’t matter and that he loved me. Then he grabbed me and hugged me for 10 minutes and wouldn’t let go. From then on, I never hesitated about being open.