How did you enter the recycling business? I started out as an executive assistant for two brothers who ran a recycling company in 2001. I worked very hard to understand the industry and alloys, and I was blessed to be surrounded with people who believed, encouraged, and continue to encourage and helped me get to the next level over and over again. Imperial bought that company in 2009, and that’s when I got the title I have now, which is regional vice president of purchasing.
What do you like most about the recycling industry? It is not monotonous. There are constant changes and unlimited opportunities to grow professionally and personally in all aspects of the business. Also, by recycling we decrease pollution and landfill space, create good jobs, protect the environment, and reduce land and water pollution. We make a difference in our environment and our communities in a positive way each day while making money. It’s an amazing industry.
What do you like least about the industry? The uncontrollable variables, [such as] tariffs, trucking availability and rates, and non-universal standards for buying scrap at the dealer level. The recycling programs in nearly every state vary in what they can or cannot accept. It’s very challenging to the dealers in bordering states.
We also need to somehow do a better job of communicating the purpose of recycling. Nationally, there are still a lot of people and industries who are not recycling or recycling correctly. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we are getting there slowly and together.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your company? From my perspective, it’s the factors we can’t control, like tariffs and weather. Another challenge is finding enough reliable, qualified workers. A huge part of the workforce can’t pass a drug test. It’s a huge issue across the United States that’s challenging the whole industry, not just our company.
How would you sum up your business philosophy? Whether you’re dealing with customers, suppliers, or bosses, at the end of the day it’s all about value, loyalty, commitment, and relationships.
What are the keys to success in the recycling industry? Communication—actually hearing what is being said and making sure you have interpreted the message correctly.
What lessons have you learned about business in your career? Never stop learning. Any industry you work in has many levels. Excel at your job expectations and create new ones. Be creative. Change is good, and change is inevitable. If there is a difficult situation, take a step back and re-evaluate it through fact, not emotion. It’s more than likely that you’ll not only find the solution, it will make a great story in a year or so. Most of all, if you don’t like the system, get involved. Even if you don’t move a mountain, and you only move a few rocks, you’ll still make a difference. Make your voice heard.
How do you personally gauge success? I gauge success by the number of people I have affected in a positive way.
What are some of your greatest personal achievements? I have realized through God, faith, and prayer that some of what I thought were the worst experiences of my life brought me to some of my greatest achievements. I have learned how to make lemonade out of lemons. I’ve learned that sometimes the dead ends aren’t dead ends, they’re actually a highway to a better stretch. So I’d say overcoming obstacles is my greatest achievement.
Which of your traits do you like the most? My optimism, and the fact that I never give up.
Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve? I need more patience!
You’ve been a great supporter of and participant in ISRI. Why do you think that’s important? Getting involved and learning the various aspects of our industry is vital to becoming a better employee and better buyer. Participation is how you can make a difference in the industry, small or big.
What’s your favorite movie? With my big Greek family, it’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding 1 and 2, of course!
Favorite foods? Popcorn and seafood.
Favorite TV shows? Grey’s Anatomy and Live PD.
Favorite musical artists? Janice Joplin and Billy Joel.
Favorite places in the world? Anywhere I go with my husband, especially on the back of our Harley-Davidson Anniversary Edition Ultra Classic. Our favorite thing to do is get on the back of the bike (with no plan) and follow the road. We’ll just pack our gear, throw it on the bike, and go.
One of our most memorable trips was the America’s 9/11 Ride in 2013. It’s a commemorative motorcycle ride in remembrance of those who served, protected, and lost their lives on that tragic day. To date the foundation has presented scholarships to children of first responders totaling $360,000.
We joined the national ride in Macedonia, Ohio. The ride stopped at all three locations that were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. It was incredible to see the amount of people—families, children, veterans, first responders—alongside the ride path, waving flags at us, clapping ... it was a life-changing event.
I have put together [fundraising]events, but this one overwhelmed me, with the details [it covered], from getting hotels, filling gas, eating, entertainment for 600 to 800 riders—and many bikes had two riders—plus buses and maintenance people following us. It was incredible. The Holland Tunnel was even closed for all of us to get through. We got to see the New York “welcoming committee” as we were yelled at by all the drivers who could not get though. It was very moving.
What are your hobbies? Spending as much time with my handsome grandson and spoiling him as much as possible! I enjoy volunteering in my community and supporting local fundraisers like food drives, events for children, and working at our church Greek Festival once a year. I also try to help the elderly who live near me who need a ride to the doctor’s office or the grocery store. In the summer, my husband and I sign up at our local Harley dealerships for Poker Runs or escorted motorcycle rides [for charity] to support our community police officers, firefighters, [other] first responders, or children with cancer. Last but not least, my favorite hobby is just hanging out with good friends and spending time with my dog and husband.
What’s your passion? The ability to make a difference in someone’s day every day.
What’s your guilty pleasure? People-watching. Airports are the best, but any large venue, whether Vegas or a sports arena. I get a big kick out of it. And hanging out with my parents and listening to their “when I came to America” stories.
What makes you mad? Rude people.
Is there anything you still want to accomplish in your career, or have you achieved your goals? I continue setting and reaching my goals.
Do you have any words of wisdom for the next scrap generation? Never assume anything, and don’t be afraid to find your calling. There is a reason why we continue to work in this eccentric industry. I think it’s one of the best industries. I love the camaraderie, I love the networking, and I think I’m blessed to have so many contacts around the United States that have ended up being like my family.
One on One: Mary Hlepas, Imperial Aluminum Division, Imperial Group (Minerva, Ohio)