Talking to Charles Pompea: Steel Yourself With Passion

As Told To John T. Ward
Illustration by Brianna Ashby

An illustration of Charles Pompea
Retired CEO and former owner of Primary Steel Inc., Charles E. Pompea has served on the University's Board of Governors for over twenty years.

Charles E. Pompea ’71, ’90 EMBA, ’06 Hon. has served on the University of New Haven’s Board of Governors for over two decades. He is now in his second term as vice chair after an interim period as an emeritus Board member.

The now-retired CEO and former owner of Primary Steel Inc., Pompea was awarded an honorary Doctor of Business Administration by the University of New Haven. Here, he reflects on some life lessons learned along the way.

My father was a really hardworking individual. He taught me that no matter what you do in life, as long as you are passionate about it, and really enjoy doing it, you will be successful.

When I was growing up in Waterford, Connecticut — I was maybe 6 or 7 years old — I had a wagon that I’d take down to the beach. I’d spend hours finding clams and then go sell them to, as I called them, "the wealthy New Yorkers" — people who had cottages on the water. I’d get 10 cents a clam. If they bought a dozen, I’d throw in a couple of extra clams. I’ve always found a way to make a dollar.

In my senior year of college at the University of New Haven, a number of different companies came to recruit on campus. One of my fraternity brothers from Tau Kappa Epsilon came back from a session and recommended that I go talk to "this steel guy." He said it sounded like a great opportunity. I borrowed his necktie for my interview, and I really enjoyed learning more about the industry and opportunity. I told two other members of our fraternity about my conversation with the steel manufacturer, and each said, "Well, let me borrow that tie, and I’ll go, too." So, the four of us used that same tie for each of our interviews … and the only guy who didn’t get offered a job was the one who actually owned the tie.

If I have any advice to young students who want to build their own business, it’s this: Never stop learning.Charles E. Pompea ’71, ’90 EMBA, ’06 Hon.

After a couple of years in the industry, I joined Primary Steel working in sales. It was a fairly large company at the time, owned by a conglomerate out of New York City. I found out much later on that they weren’t paying the bills; they were actually taking our cash flow and putting it toward other business ventures. The way I saw it, my reputation was at stake. But I didn’t know a lot about finance. So, 17 years after I graduated, I applied to the Executive MBA program at the University of New Haven.

It was an amazing experience. M.L. McLaughlin was the dean of the Business School at that time. She was fantastic, and her teaching and advice helped me dramatically. I wound up managing a heavily leveraged buyout of Primary Steel, becoming the sole owner of a company with six plants around the country. And, most importantly, I made all of our creditors whole.

This experience is one of the many reasons that I give back to my alma mater. When I graduated in 1971, I didn’t think I’d ever be in a position to support this institution in the way that I have. But the EMBA program and the people that I met throughout my time at the University are very close to my heart.

If I have any advice to young students who want to build their own business, it’s this: Never stop learning. Make sure that each and every day, you’re working to learn as much as you possibly can, to always improve, to master what you’re doing. You have to be driven. And what my father told me, even all those years ago, still holds true. Above all else, you have to have passion.

More From the Alumni Magazine, Fall 2018