From the Ground Floor to the C-Suite

She responded to an advertisement for a receptionist – now she’s calling the shots.

Editor’s Note: October is National Women’s Small Business Month, and here at Longitudes, we’re putting the focus on entrepreneurs who are getting big results out of their upstart companies. This is part four of an ongoing series of interviews with women small business owners. You can read part one here, part two here and part three here.  

Maria Mendillo knew she found her professional home as soon as she walked through the door.

Sure, it was an entry-level position. But it just felt right, and her faith paid off – now she’s CEO.

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Maria Mendillo knew she found her professional home as soon as she walked through the door.

Maria’s company, FarraTech, specializes in IT solutions like servers, laptops, monitors, laser printers, copiers, toner, software, service and repair. But more than that, FarraTech runs on its employee-owned culture.

In the interview below, Maria looks back on her ascent to the company’s top position and what the journey taught her about how to lead in today’s business environment.

Longitudes: Can you talk about your rise to CEO at FarraTech?   

Maria: I was a 27-year-old mother working as a bartender, not making a lot of money, and the hours weren’t good. With no experience and no education, I answered an ad for a receptionist.

I interviewed with the sales manager and founder and told him: This is the last company I’m ever going to work for. They only had five employees, but I just had a feeling this would be my home. That was 28 years ago.

I worked hard and John Farra, a mentor of mine – as well as the company’s founder – believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. He would say, ‘You’ve run this company from the day you walked in here.’

He created an environment where I could learn everything I needed to learn, and he promoted me through every position within the company. When he retired in 2007, I became president and CEO through an employee stock ownership program. Joining the company was the best decision I ever made.

Maria Mendillo rose from an entry-level position to CEO of FarraTech. 

Longitudes: How was the transition?

Maria: There were a ton of growing pains in the beginning (and still are), but John said that I was smart and advised me to believe in myself and work hard. So I set my mind to learning everything I could.

I paid close attention to our industry and all the changes that were happening. We were very small when I took over the company.

I didn’t have management experience when I took over the company so I went back to school and got an MBA (I had dropped out of high school in the ninth grade but graduated at the top of my graduate school class). An accountant founded the company so I had to learn a lot about accounting. This was a huge challenge.

Longitudes: You talk a lot about instituting an employee-owned culture. Why?

Maria: The most rewarding aspect of this job is watching the company and the employees grow to places you never dreamed they could. This company is 100-percent ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), which enables this culture from the bottom up.

My favorite day every year is the day I give the ESOP statements to the employees. The look on their faces is priceless. They have more money set aside then they could have ever dreamed.

Longitudes: And how does that culture affect day-to-day operations?

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It is our responsibility to worry about our people as individuals and not just employees.

Maria: This culture is a blessing. About 70 percent of employees have been here 10 years, and we are a family, including three of my own family members. They are the glue to this company. They have passion for the company and its customers and the drive to make us the best at what we do.

Our founder also believed it is our responsibility to worry about our people as individuals and not just employees. That’s always been our philosophy and culture. We do anything we can to make sure our employees enjoy their quality of life. We pay for every employee’s personal cell phone coverage, host family lunches and even offer interest-free loans. We also went to four-day work weeks.

Longitudes: How do you expect e-commerce to change your business?

Maria: E-commerce will be the only way we do business in the future. We started in e-commerce at the request of our largest customer. The employees were already well versed in digital commerce so it was an easy transition.

Many customers find it a hassle to deal with that part of their job so we try hard to remove that frustration and make it easier for them. We are always available for the customer by phone, in-person visits or emails. We provide all the information on the items they need to make it an easy process.

Longitudes: What macro trends have most affected your business, and how have you responded?

Maria: The original equipment manufacturers, for years, have taken steps to combat the recycling of toner cartridges. Though they have mostly stopped the lawsuits against companies in our industry, they make technical and component changes to cartridges to make it difficult for small companies like ours to affordably reproduce the cartridges.

But the industry has also evolved to the point where large national companies with great resources produce most recycled cartridges. This evolution enabled us to recently outsource the production of recycled cartridges to a multibillion-dollar player in our industry who manufactures and ships to our specifications and improves our profit margins.

Longitudes: How does logistics factor into your business?

Maria: To be honest, in the 20 years we have been using UPS, we really haven’t had any problems with logistics. Years ago, we needed a reverse logistics solution for our largest client, and we didn’t have a clue what to do. Our UPS Customer Solutions representative not only came up with a solution, Returns on the Web, but scaled it to be a significant part of our business we still use today.

Our customers were going to office supply stores and were charged two to three times more for toner and printers. Returns on the Web provided a portal for them to print a label and return the printer cartridges and printers to us.

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In the 20 years we have been using UPS, we really haven’t had any problems with logistics.

We receive the item, scan the serial number, create an order with a shipping label – and it goes right back out. So our customers only have to print a label and not think of anything else. We used to have six people handling those accounts, but now we only have one. We started with our largest customer, and we’re now using it with most of them. It completely got rid of the problem.

Longitudes: What’s next?

Maria: As our business evolves, we as a company must evolve with it. We are now expanding our revenue streams, products and services.

We stay in tune with the market, and we adjust our revenue and product offerings to remain ahead of the curve. We have started selling IT products and software to capture new revenue. It’s exciting to see where this business is heading.

You can learn more about UPS small business solutions here and also begin saving now on your shipping.

Maria Mendillo is President and CEO of FarraTech. She has more than 28 years of experience in the toner and printer industry. Starting up front as the receptionist, she showed how hard work and determination can pay off, taking over the company's top position in 2007.

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