11 Inspiring Tales of Unexpected Success
"How I Did It"
Photography by Toshi Tasaki
Makeup by Jill K. Imbrogno
Hair by Diane Mammana and Amanda Bisignano
Attaining true success—in life and in business—is rarely, if ever, easy. Yet, there are certainly factors that can help maximize its odds along the way: money, a great education, dedicated mentors, familial support, and opportunities to prove oneself. For the individuals lucky enough to have all the stars aligned for them, success—if it comes—really isn’t much of a surprise. But for others, like the 11 entrepreneurs profiled on the following pages, it takes determination, perseverance, passion, and, yes, even a bit of luck, to tip the scales in one’s favor, beat the odds, and rise to the very top.
MIND YOUR BUSINESS
Wiley C. Harrison
President, Business of Your Business
After graduating from a tough Queens high school in the early ’70s, Greenburgh resident Wiley C. Harrison worked at a variety of minimum-wage jobs, digging ditches for a construction company, feeding metal into a machine on a factory assembly line, and doing clerical tasks for a firm on Wall Street. It was during his tenure there that Harrison noticed the knots on his officemates’ ties were neat and smooth, while his were big and bulky. Why? His ties were made of polyester, theirs of silk—and cost $100 each. How were his co-workers able to afford their fancy cravats? “I found out that they had these things called ‘MBAs,’” he says. “I’d heard of the NBA, but never an MBA. But I decided to get one. I was never going to get ahead without further education.” He would become the first of his family and friends to go to college.
“A lot of my friends were turning to drugs at the time, and I realized that I needed to get away,” he recalls. He entered Wilberforce University in tiny Wilberforce, Ohio, at age 23. “It wasn’t too expensive and offered decent financial aid." He graduated magna cum laude in 1982 with a BS in accounting and went on to receive his MBA from the prestigious Columbia Business School in 1984. “I knew I didn’t want to be making minimum wage for the rest of my life,” he says.
After five years working for corporate America, “I realized I wasn’t making much of a difference—whether I worked hard all day or read the newspaper, those guys were still making millions of dollars,” he says. “I wanted to be ‘the man’—the one who benefited from all my work.” So in 1992, Harrison founded Business of Your Business, a firm that provides the outsourcing of back-office accounting for primarily nonprofit
and religious organizations. “Our clients receive all the benefits of a full-time accounting staff without the capital investment and management challenges.”
The company started small—Harrison did personal tax returns at local McDonald’s restaurants or around clients’ kitchen tables—but, today, it employs 10 full-time and three part-time staffers. The company has 750 individual and 75 small business clients, and an annual revenue of $500,000.
Harrison attributes much of his success to his strong empathy for others. “People trust me because I’ve been there,” he says. “I’ve dug ditches and I’ve sat in boardrooms; I’ve lived in the projects and owned a nice house in the suburbs. Right now, I feel like I am living a dream.” —Laurie Yarnell
HOLE IN ONE
Dan Scavino, Jr.
Executive Vice President and General Manager, Trump National Golf Club Westchester
When Dan Scavino, Jr., was spending his high school weekends caddying at the Briar Hall Country Club, as it was known then, in Briarcliff Manor, the Yorktown High student had no way of knowing that one day he would become its GM—much less be working for The Donald. “I was cleaning clubs, washing clubs, bringing them to the first tee,” says the 36-year-old Scavino.
At the time, golf was not a passion. “But I fell in love with it,” he says. Scavino attended college at SUNY Plattsburgh and, during summers, worked at the club. During his freshman year, he caddied for Donald Trump, who was then contemplating purchasing the club. “I’ll never forget the day his limo first pulled up. I was star-struck. I remember his first gratuity. It was two bills—two hundred-dollar bills. I said, ‘I am never spending this money.’ I still have both bills.” During one of his games, Scavino recalls, Trump told him: “You are going to work for me one day.” That was 15 years ago.
Trump bought the club and revamped, expanded, and rebranded it in his own name. Meanwhile, Scavino graduated college and went to work for Coca-Cola, thanks to a connection he made on the green. “I met the president of Coca-Cola while cleaning his golf clubs. He said, ‘Son, next time, bring me your resumé.’ I brought him my resumé, and I had a job the day I graduated college.” Five years later, in 2003, Scavino was asked by Briar Hall's senior management, who also remembered him, to return to the club, today called Trump National Golf Club Westchester, as the assistant clubhouse manager. “I sold golf outings to major corporations and charity groups, and was responsible for bringing new business to the club.” Three years later, Trump promoted the then 30-year-old to general manager of the club, and two years after that, he was promoted to executive vice president and general manager.
Working with one of Trump’s sons and another EVP, Scavino acquired for the company a club in Hopewell Junction, New York, which is now Trump National Golf Club Hudson Valley. “We went from one club in New York and Florida to ten worldwide”—with the newest one in Scotland. “And the portfolio continues to grow.”
How did he grow so far, so fast, in Trump's realm? “I attribute it to hard work, consistency, making smart decisions—and always being there for Mr. Trump, no matter what the task is at hand. There is no such thing as ‘that’s not my job’ in the Trump Organization. That, and I have been loyal for a long time.” He adds, “There are twenty-thousand employees within the Trump Organization—so to be in Trump’s inner circle, with Mr. Trump, at 35….” Scavino’s voice trails off. “I’m living proof that it’s all about right place, right time. This is why, whenever I give a talk at a school or someone asks me for advice, I always pass along the best piece of advice my parents gave me: you never know who’s watching you.”
A CLEAN STREAK
Owner, Night Owl Cleaning Services, Inc.
Arlete Turturro is quick to admit that running a cleaning business was never her dream job, though she’s been successfully doing just that for the past 24 years. “My dream was to open a children’s clothing store on Madison Avenue,” says the 64-year-old North Salem resident and owner of Night Owl Cleaning Services. Her training in merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology certainly seemed to be leading her in that direction: While at FIT, the São Paulo, Brazil, native (her family immigrated to New York in 1960 when she was 12) interned at B. Altman & Company and soon become the company’s youngest buyer ever.
She loved her job, but real life came calling, and soon Turturro was married with two daughters—and no longer on the fashion retail career track; she left B. Altman in 1975, when her first child was born. She subsequently earned a real estate license at Queens College and worked in the more flexible real estate industry for a while (and, to this day, still has an active broker’s license, working occasionally in real estate when “time allows”). Soon, though, she had two children, and she left to be at home to raise them. When it was time to go back to work, she opted not to pursue fashion retail. “Once you’re out of the loop, it’s hard to get back in,” she says.
In 1987, she moved to Westchester and began working in marketing at The Liverzani Group, a real estate development company. Now a single mom, she knew that she needed to earn more money to support her kids than she was making at Liverzani. Part of her job was to hire cleaning companies for buildings managed by the firm and she realized that cleaning homes and offices didn’t require much in the way of startup. So, beginning with, literally, “a broom, a mop, a toilet brush, and a bottle of Fantastik”—plus some valuable contacts, such as surveyors and architects, which she’d made at the real estate development firm—she started cleaning small offices on the weekends. “I decided to make it my new career,” she says. Before long, Turturro was getting word-of-mouth referrals and, in 1989, she hired her first employee and incorporated her business.
Through steady, hard work (her day begins at 5 am and ends “whenever”) and, consequently, a stellar reputation—and with the goal of becoming “a very successful woman and a positive and inspirational role model for my daughters”—Turturro has turned her one-person operation into a successful, award-winning business employing more than 30 workers. There’s not much her company won’t clean, she says, “except maybe septic tanks.” Despite being able to forge ahead through the most difficult economic era in recent history, she has dealt with some challenges—including the loss of some smaller accounts due to the economic downturn and fierce competition from large cleaning companies. “We’ve had to adjust pricing to meet our clients’ new financial needs,” she admits, “and to stay competitive.” Still, though, she is grateful. “I thank God that I am able to do this,” she says, “especially in these tough times.”
Owner/Operator, Creator’s Media Group
Anthony Trama has been running a successful business in Westchester since his early 20s. His business, the Pleasantville-based Creators Media Group, is a production company that creates award-winning campaigns for its clients. The Ad Council even submitted one of its commercials to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Trama’s accomplishments become all the more impressive when you consider his background. When he was 9 years old, his parents went through a rough divorce—one that was especially tough on his mother. He was sent to live at Andrus, a residential school in Yonkers. “It’s tough being so young and without your family,” he says. “It’s like going to college when you’re nine years old. I had to take on a lot of responsibilities and learn how to take care of myself. When I left, I was twelve, and I was pretty self-sufficient.”
That sense of independence led Trama to start working when he was 13, caddying at a local golf club. “It was one of the best jobs you could have at that age.” He caddied every summer while he attended Valhalla High School. Then, in 1999, when he was 19, he enrolled in night classes at The Westchester Business Institute (now The College of Westchester) so he could intern at Creators, shooting and editing videos, which almost immediately became a full-time job. “Video was the medium you could do the most with,” he says. “It tested my creative skills.”
When Trama was 21, Creators’ owner moved to Las Vegas and left Trama in charge of the company. A couple of years later, he says, “I wanted to either start my own company or purchase Creators. I made the owner an offer.” In 2004, Trama secured a loan and was a business owner by the age of 23—the youngest person to receive The Business Council of Westchester’s “Rising Stars -Westchester’s 40 Under 40” award.
Today, Creators Media Group is still a full-service production house, handling planning, shooting, editing, post-production, and even exhibition videos for a mostly corporate clientele. In addition, it has moved into web design and social media marketing. “Because of the economy, I’ve had to diversify what the company does,” Trama says. He supervises a staff of up to 10 people, including freelancers, and his work has won numerous awards, including Telly Awards, Davey Awards, and a “Big W” award from the Advertising Club of Westchester. But Trama says none of it would have been possible without the Westchester business community behind him. “I really owe them a lot.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Peter X. Kelly
Chef/Owner, Xaviars Restaurant Group
Peter Kelly never went to culinary school. His early childhood was spent living in the Scholbaum Public Housing Complex in Yonkers, the 10th of 12 siblings. He never even graduated college, dropping out as a junior. Yet the 52-year-old chef owns four highly touted restaurants (plus a catering business) with estimated combined annual sales of $10 million. He also has been nominated numerous times for a James Beard Foundation Award, has been featured in publications from New York magazine to Food & Wine, and has popped up on TV, most famously on Iron Chef America where he defeated Bobby Flay in the episode “Battle: Cowboy Ribeye.”
What accounts for his success?
“I have a large measure of self-confidence,” says Kelly, “instilled in me at a very young age. I understand that hard work can trump any obstacle. I try to outwork my competition, and that’s something I instill in my employees.”
Along with self-confidence and a strong work ethic, Kelly learned financial responsibility during his childhood. “All the kids were expected to work in my family, and the big rule was a third-third-third: a third of your paycheck you kept, a third went to the bank, and a third to the house.”
His passion for food also started young. “In our large family, we were always playing restaurant,” says Kelly, who now lives in Blauvelt, New York, with wife Rica and son Dylan. Kelly’s oldest sibling, Sheila, he says, sparked his interest in food and cooking early on. “She loved to cook and did it well,” he says. Kelly was exposed to his sister's cooking when he'd visit her after she'd moved out of the family home to Dutchess County.
In 1973, at age fourteen, Kelly found his first job in the industry, as a dishwasher at the German restaurant Forest House in Wappingers Falls, New York. Kelly quickly realized he liked the immediate-gratification aspect of the food business. “You know people are happy—or not—right away. And there is pressure as soon as people come through the front door.” Forest House would be one of seven different restaurants in which Kelly would work (as a waiter, captain, and then sommelier) until age 23, when he would open his own place, Xaviars at Garrison.
At the time, he says, Highlands Country Club in Garrison, New York, had a space to lease, and Kelly felt he was ready to open a restaurant.
He enlisted a chef, but immediately there was a rift. “In the traditional restaurant, the kitchen was never questioned. But I felt service had to work in tandem with the kitchen to make guests happy. The chef couldn’t accept this.” Despite having no money or time to go to culinary school, Kelly boldly decided to take over as chef himself.
“When you’re young, you have the nerve,” he says. He made a two-week culinary pilgrimage to France to figure out what makes a great restaurant. “I sat in these two- and three-Michelin-star restaurants and spent money I didn’t really have. What I saw was a high level of professionalism.”
Back in the U.S., in March 1983, Xaviars at Garrison was born. “Our first big day was Mother’s Day. My brother Ned, who worked the front-of-the-house, came into the kitchen and said, ‘Everyone’s happy.’ By summer, the New York Times had discovered us. Our first review was four stars in the Poughkeepsie Journal.”
According to Kelly, a key element of Xaviars at Garrison’s—and his future restaurants’—success was Kelly surrounding himself with kind individuals who were committed to gracious service and had an understanding of the importance of small details. “I never hire staff based on résumés alone,” he says. “I look for the kind of people you would want a sibling to marry or that you would be proud to call a friend.”
Though Kelly closed Xaviars at Garrison in 2003 when the lease was up, he has continued his pursuit of culinary excellence with Xaviars at Piermont (opened in 1987), The Freelance Café & Wine Bar (1989), Restaurant X and Bully Boy Bar (1997), X2O Xaviars on the Hudson (2007), and the catering company Events by Xaviars (1998). Kelly says his attention to detail in both the kitchen and front-of-the-house has helped him make sure his guests are happy. That, and valets. “One trick to knowing if your guests are happy is to talk to the valets. In the building, most guests tell you nice things regardless. Once outside, they speak more freely and the valets overhear the truth.”
—John Bruno Turiano
YOU'VE BEEN WARNED
T. Gregory Bender
Founder, K12 Alerts
When T. Gregory Bender was in his ’20s, he had a design degree, a little computer programming experience, and a few entrepreneurial role models. Since then, the Harrison resident has launched a string of Web businesses and, as a consequence of 9/11, founded K12 Alerts, an award-winning, bicoastal technology firm that provides emergency notifications to students and families.
K12’s servers blast out more than 2 million messages an hour during the school day to more than a million students at schools (including colleges) that use its service. Bender was named Entrepreneur of the Year for 2008 by the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, and one K12 product, an iPad app that allows parents to update their children’s emergency records, won a Readers’ Choice Top 100 Product award from District Administration magazine, the trade publication for school superintendents nationwide.
The Bronxville native says he always knew he wanted to be “a startup guy. In my senior year of college, one of my teachers asked me where I would be four years later. I said, ‘Owning my own company.’ I think I was the only one in the class.”
In 1996, he founded his first business, a website-design firm in what was then an emerging medium: the Internet. At the time of the September 11th attacks, Bender was working as a board member on the website carepackages.com (which allows customers to send fruit, sweets, and other goodies to students). Different educator friends shared stories of trying to alert families during the chaotic day. “I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”
By early 2002, he launched K12 Alerts, the first company to provide school districts a way to communicate with students and families in the event of emergency by text, robo-call, and voice message. The Ardsley School Board was his first customer.
“I love it,” declares Ardsley Union Free School District Superintendent Lauren Allan. “If something happens during the day, we want parents to know before the kids get home.”
IN A LEAGUE OF HIS OWN
Founder and CEO, Steiner Sports
Growing up in a single-parent home in a $62-per-month apartment perched over a butcher shop in Brooklyn, Brandon Steiner says he developed a fire in his belly to break out of his poor environs and become a “big success.” That fire may very well have been hunger. “I joke that I saw the light at an early age—the light of an empty refrigerator,” he says. “As a young kid, I’d wake up and hear the chickens being killed downstairs. That wasn’t the most pleasant environment to grow up in.”
To make money, Steiner delivered fruits and vegetables, maintained a newspaper route, and even baked bagels. And, shrewdly, he’d cross-sell. “I’d get people I was delivering bagels to to buy the paper as well.” He used the money from those jobs to buy and sell firecrackers at a markup to neighborhood kids—which paid for tickets to see his beloved Yankees. Steiner is passionate about sports.
With financial aid, Steiner attended Syracuse University. His major: accounting. “It was a blessing for me to be able to go to a school like that, being as poor as I was.” When one of his heroes, George Steinbrenner, visited the university, Steiner was profoundly intrigued by what he heard. “He was the first person I heard say that sports is a business.” He graduated college, worked in the hospitality-management field, and then tried to open a sports-themed bar and restaurant but couldn’t get the necessary financing. “I raised about three hundred thousand dollars, but I needed about a million two hundred thousand.” In 1987 “with four thousand dollars,” he launched Steiner Sports Marketing, a company that books professional athletes for personal appearances and product endorsements.
Eight years later, he took all his savings—$10,000—and founded Steiner Collectibles, branching out into merchandising autographed sports memorabilia. He signed Phil Rizzuto and Mark Messier to their first collectibles contracts. “The combination of the two of them, and a hell of a lot of luck, led me to found Steiner Collectibles.” Steiner’s second venture soon dwarfed his marketing business. “At the time, there were lots of problems in the industry—a lot of phony autographs and fraudulent merchandise. I knew how to make it right for the fans.”
Today, the Steiner name is synonymous with officially licensed, autographed sports memorabilia. His company, Steiner Sports, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and now comprises Steiner Marketing, Steiner Collectibles, and Steiner Stores. “Most people don’t realize that marketing the players was my original business. We still do that today, but with the collectibles, we stumbled upon something that took on a life all its own. I never imagined doing anything less. Going into business for myself was never an ‘if’ thing, it was always a ‘when’ thing. I’ve been talking about having my own business since I was six-years old! But in my wildest dreams I never thought it would be in sports.”
And to what does he attribute his success? “To the fact that I out-work everyone—which is probably an understatement,” he says. “While most kids were out playing, I was figuring out how to make a buck. I’ve always tried to keep myself a few steps ahead of the curve. That, and I’m a very happy guy, but never satisfied—and I understand the difference.” As for whom he attributes his success to, “That’s an easy one: my mother, my wife, and the Yankees!”
A BIG PAY DAY
Founder, The PSP Group, Inc.
In high school, Dominick Crea spent weekends at a training academy in Montrose, New York, learning how to operate heavy construction equipment. But he soon found that working full-time in the building trade wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. When one of his clients invited him to join his new payroll business, Crea agreed, starting in sales in 1996.
He struck out on his own in 1999, opening Payroll Services Plus (thepspgroup.com) in Yonkers (the company became The PBS Group in 2002, with Payroll Services Plus remaining as one of its subsidiaries), with 15 clients who followed him from his former job. Today, he has 400 clients across the the United States, the UK, and Germany. His company, now based in Mamaroneck, has made the Inc. Magazine list of the fastest-growing companies for the past five years, increasing in rank each year. For four years running, PSP was noted for best customer service—nationwide—and, in 2005, Crea won the Businessman of the Year Award from the National Business Advisory Council, and was recognized for this honor by then-President George W. Bush at a ceremony in Washington, DC. Sounds like smooth sailing all the way.
Except it wasn’t. “I was twenty-one when I started the business and my age was a huge problem,” Crea says. “People thought I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d have an appointment, and I could see their faces change when they saw me, and suddenly they were too busy to meet. I had to work without a contract, so companies could back out at any time if they weren’t happy. I worked for peanuts.”
So Crea worked harder—and smarter, joining NAPEO, the organization for the payroll industry, taking advantage of its continuing-education program. As his client roster grew, so did the company’s services. He got his broker’s license, branched into human resources and risk management, offered insurance and benefit plans. “Startup businesses started coming to me to act as their off-site administrative company. The Internet was tremendous for expansion opportunities.” Meanwhile, he was also handling all of his own marketing and public relations, gaining notice in Forbes, Businessweek, US Industry Today, American Executive, and other media outlets.
Hard work is important, yes, but the personal touch was a key component to Crea’s success. “When new clients called us, they were surprised to get a person on the phone, not a machine. I give them my cell number. Clients can get a hold of us twenty-four/seven.” And 16 years after he started in sales, he’s still the guy to close accounts.
—Nancy L. Claus
President, Bartizan Connects; Chairman, Addressograph Bartizan
Lew Hoff, president of Bartizan Connects in Yonkers and chairman of Addressograph Bartizan in Waterloo, Ontario, attributes his success to an unlikely source: “My own ignorance and lack of any money at all.”
“If I had any brains, I would’ve said that I’m not going to compete with these other companies,” says the Yonkers resident. “I knew nothing about manufacturing. I didn’t have any money. I wasn’t bright enough to evaluate my obstacles. But not knowing anything meant anything was possible.” Armed with no knowledge and diving headlong into his company, Hoff was able to create a business that sold millions of credit-card imprinting machines and today employs more than 20 people.
After graduating with a degree in economics from UMass Amherst, Hoff did a four-year stint in the Air Force and held a couple of sales jobs when he returned. When one of the companies went under in 1970, Hoff and coworker Ed O’Reilly decided to form their own business. “He had an idea for a portable credit-card imprinting machine,” Hoff says. Though they knew nothing about manufacturing, the duo jumped into an industry that already had stiff competition; indeed, two businesses that made the same devices were Fortune 500 companies. “Out of the five companies that made these machines, we were number five,” Hoff says.
Hoff and O’Reilly manufactured the machines out of a converted stable on 76th Street in Manhattan. Hoff also lived there, illegally. A floating crew of friends, actors, and the unemployed worked at assembling the machines, and Hoff and O’Reilly got jobs waiting tables at nearby O’Brien’s Tavern to make ends meet. “I’d work at O’Brien’s until four am and get home at four-thirty,” he says. “The people who worked for us would show up at about eight am. I’d have to be up when they arrived. Then I worked with them until I had to be back at O’Brien’s.”
Hoff managed. “I didn’t a draw a paycheck from my company for three years, when finally I had enough business to pay myself fifty dollars a week, and I was finally able to quit O’Brien’s.” Then O’Reilly—newly married with a baby—decided to pull out and sell Hoff his share of the business. Hoff took over the business—and the $100,000 debt—himself. “And that was in 1972 dollars,” he says. “That would be about $900,000 today. I was scared to death. I never worked so hard in my life.”
Working hard included relentlessly pursuing leads, to the point where businessmen would see him and say, “Not this guy again.” A friend of a friend got his foot in the door at Bankers Trust Company—a company that had resisted his earlier cold calls—and the bank wound up ordering 5,000 credit-card imprinters. “Before then, we hadn’t sold five hundred machines. That was a big break.” Another time, Hoff landed a big account after following up on an inquiry that came by telex all the way from Wellington, New Zealand. A businessman named Graeme McLeod had a client who was interested in the machines. “Years later, we were somewhere having lunch, and I asked him why he went with us,” Hoff says. “I figured we must’ve had the cheapest price. He said, ‘You were the only one to answer.’ He did millions of dollars of business with us.”
Focusing so much time on the business also meant putting his personal life on hold. “I was forty-six when I got married, and my daughter was born when I was fifty years old,” he says.
Hoff relocated the business to Yonkers in the late ’70s and it continued to grow. At its peak in 2004, Hoff’s business—which had partnered in 2001 with a competitor and was renamed Addressograph Bartizan—sold $18 million worth of credit-card imprinting machines.
Still, Hoff understood that credit-card imprinters was a “buggy-whip” industry, and started to look around for his next business venture. He founded Bartizan Connects—a company that sells hardware and software that scans and reads badges at trade shows, then delivers information to computers and smart phones—in 2005. That business hit a bump in 2008 when the economy tanked. “We were really hammered,” he says. “We’ve been growing since then, but that was a really tough year.” But Hoff isn’t too worried—he’s a long way from waiting tables.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
President & CEO, Crickett Staffing Services, Inc.
As a 20-something recent graduate of Pace University in the late ’70s, Gayle Fitch of White Plains had her heart set on law school—she just had to find a way to pay for it. So she landed a job at a now-defunct local staffing firm, where she fell in love with the industry. “I thought, what a great little business to be in; it’s fast-paced, and I get to work with people I like.” Soon, she dreamed of opening her own firm, but, once again, money was an issue. “I had the energy,” she recalls. “I just didn’t have the funds.”
In 1983, Fitch saw her opening when a space became available that was affordable, even for someone with just $500 in start-up capital, and Crickett Staffing Services, Inc., was born. The company was named, Fitch says, for the “singing” insect—a symbol, in many cultures, of good luck.
Still, Fitch had her fears. She had just one part-timer helping out at her shared office in Ossining. “Sales, bookkeeping…I did everything,” she says. “There were lots of phone calls that never got a response, lots of times I felt like giving up.” When recruits were low, she placed her brother in a temp position.
Fitch’s natural affinity for reaching out to others, however, shone. “I really enjoyed meeting and talking to people,” she says. “And one thing always made me feel particularly good: making everyone happy, the employer and the employee.”
Three years after its inception, the temporary administrative staffing company turned a profit. Fitch was able to hire a “real” staff, including a receptionist, administrative assistant, sales person, and recruiter. She and her new employees moved to their own, larger office in Ossining and expanded from placing personnel mostly in medical offices to placing them, well, everywhere, including in the banking, real estate, government, education, and manufacturing industries, to name a few.
The early ’90s, however, dealt Fitch a devastating double-blow with the passing of her husband, Charles, and a recession that forced her to lay off the staff she’d finally been able to hire. Now a single mother starting her business over virtually from scratch (most of her clients, feeling the same economic pressure, had gone out of business or moved), Fitch recalls, “I knew I’d made it when I got to the first stage of really making money. Not that I wasn’t resilient before, but I knew it was worthwhile then to stick with it and make it happen again.”
By 2001, Crickett Staffing Services was pulling in $3 million in sales annually. In 2004, Fitch was named one of The Network Journal’s 25 Influential Black Women in Business, and, in 2005, she was honored as Westchester Business Leader of the Year by the African American Chamber of Commerce of Westchester and Rockland Counties; she also is a member of the National Association of Female Executives.
In light of the most recent economic recession, Fitch says, “I know now that the old cliché is true—that it’s not worth having unless you work hard at it. I’m confident the staffing industry will rebound as it has before.” Last year, Crickett was still profitable, servicing around 200 companies. Fitch chalks up Crickett’s long roster of often-repeat clients to its admin-support niche (“virtually every industry has an interest in that”), but also to the company’s personalized approach. “We understand that clients need to fit in well skill-wise, but be comfortable with an employer’s style, as well,” she says. “That’s really important—people will listen to what you have to say if they feel comfortable. It is a bit like matchmaking.”
A PATENT SUCCESS
Robert Nowinski, PhD
Founder, Chairman, and CEO, ContraFect Corporation
You’d think that one of the most successful biotech entrepreneurs in the world (he’s founded six successful biotech companies, holds numerous patents, and can claim myriad achievements—including the development of TOBI, the leading treatment for cystic fibrosis, and the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis) would have grown up in a family of physicians and scientists. Nope. Robert Nowinski was the seeming outlier amid “a very creative family filled with artists and musicians.” Keyword: seeming. Science has always been Nowinski’s creative outlet. “It’s the most creative thing I can imagine,” declares Nowinski, who grew up in New Rochelle. “I would say the two most creative things imaginable are to run a lab or be a jazz musician. Both require remarkable improvisation, which is wonderful.”
Nowinski says he’s been interested in science for as long as he can remember. He first got to explore it hands-on at age 14, when he volunteered at a branch of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in Rye. “I worked there all through high school,” he says. At night, he would run his own experiments there, on his own time. Nowinski’s work at Sloan-Kettering earned him a finalist position in the national Westinghouse (now Intel) Science Talent Search. Nowinski’s interest from then on was immunology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Beloit College in Wisconsin, and then his doctorate in immunology from Sloan-Kettering.
He assumed a succession of research positions at universities before being approached by a group of financiers who were interested in fronting the dough for Nowinski to form his own biotech company. “I decided to go for it,” he says. “It was a big adventure.” Nowinski’s Genetic Systems Corp. was one of the first 10 bona-fide biotech firms in the nation. “I ran it for four years, then sold it to Bristol-Myers.” Nowinski founded and then sold a succession of other biotech firms—three were acquired by major pharmaceutical companies: Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) paid $310 million to buy Genetic Systems in 1986; Chiron (now Novartis) purchased PathoGenesis Corp. for $660 million in 2000; and Eli Lilly and Company bought Icos Corporation (where Nowinski developed Cialis) in 2006 for $2.2 billion. Nowinski’s current company, the Yonkers-based ContraFect, was founded in 2008.
Nowinski credits his success to his lifelong passion for immunology (“Some would say I’m a ‘driven’ person,” he quips); his tenacious approach to research (“I pick a target, then I develop the research that slowly—but surely—opens up the ways I can get to it”); and dear old Mom and Dad—their genes, that is. “My talents are a totally genetic thing,” Nowinski maintains. “You can’t have a family of thirty people, spanning multiple generations, who are all successful in creative areas unless it’s something that’s truly inherent in their genetic makeup.”
Nowinski is proud of his work. “With TOBI, we changed the lifespan of children with cystic fibrosis from an average of seventeen years to now over thirty-eight. I also developed the first rapid diagnostic test for Chlamydia, which probably has led to a million fewer cases of infertility—and, therefore, close to a million births.”
And as for Cialis?
“I could tell you what I achieved with that, but you can’t quote me on it.”