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From entry-level to the C-suite: Four LI execs tell how they made the climb

In the Broadway show "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," window washer J. Pierrepont Finch talks his way into a mailroom job before rocketing up the corporate ladder to become chairman of the World Wide Wicket Company.

Along the way, he and his colleagues break into song as their ambitions collide in a comic flurry of backstabbing, deception and office romance.

The 1961 musical's story line taps a common theme in the business world: the race up the organizational chart.

Not surprisingly, 60 years on, there are a few crucial changes to American business culture.

Managers these days rarely have the time or inclination to burst into song. Office romances are closely scrutinized if not outright banned. And job applicants often have to get past a digital filter before their resume can even make it to the desk of a hiring manager.

Still, economic mobility is an article of faith to many in America, and the lure of the corner office remains.

When Newsday caught up with four high-ranking Long Island executives who started out in entry-level jobs, they described zig-zag paths to the top.

In some cases, they got a lucky break and seized the moment. In others, they moved from company to company like a frog hopping among lily pads.

Mentors also played a role.

Once they got their foot in the door, they said, managing was less about issuing edicts and more about building teams.

Here are their stories.

An immigrant's tale

Anil Jagtiani, 50, founder and chief executive of information technology company Naka Technologies LLC, has a constant reminder of his roots.

He named his Hauppauge company after Sakinaka, the Mumbai, India, neighborhood of his childhood that had no electricity or running water.

Jagtiani's family moved to the United States in search of a better life when he was 11, settling in College Point, Queens.

Once there, Jagtiani picked up the ways of the neighborhood's dominant ethnic group.

"I grew up Italian," he said in a Queens accent.

He worked at gas stations when he was a senior at Flushing High School.

While he was at Queensborough Community College, Jagtiani's parents were laid off from their jobs at a book-binding company and he had to hustle.

To help make ends meet, Jagtiani worked part time at a gas station and a nursing home, where he started as a night security guard and eventually moved to a day-shift job as a computer technician.

"There was a lot of struggle," he said.

Eventually, he earned a degree in business management from York College.

'Immigrants don't have a lot when they come here ... We can be ambitious.'

Anil Jagtiani

In his mid-20s, Jagtiani began working as a help desk technician for Custom Computer Specialists in Hauppauge. He rose through the ranks to become a senior support engineer and eventually associate director of engineering.

"Immigrants don't have a lot when they come here," Jagtiani said. "We can be ambitious."

Ira Berk, IT facilities director at Custom Computer Specialists, remembers Jagtiani's professional and personal devotion.

"He would stay with me all night fixing different problems in the servers," he said. When Berk went through a rocky time personally, his friend took him out to talk even though it was Jagtiani's wedding anniversary.

"His real asset is he cares about people," Berk said.

In 2013, Jagtiani joined Melville-based Marcum Technology, followed by the Hauppauge office of ITsavvy, where he had the title of vice president of professional services.

In 2019, he struck out on his own with Naka Tech, which now has 75 employees and annual revenue of between $15 million and $20 million.

"We had huge clients that were willing to follow us," said the Merrick resident. "My great luck is helping people and when I help people, they follow me."

Marcum and ITsavvy both filed lawsuits, now settled, alleging that Jagtiani improperly solicited their clients. Jagtiani dismisses the lawsuits as part of the rough-and-tumble of the business world.

"I have been around aggressive businessmen who felt people like myself don't need to be as successful as them," he said. "Coming from nothing, having all this success, I want to drive fancy cars as well."

Prosperity also allows Jagtiani to give back. He sits on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Long Island, and identifies with its mission of helping underprivileged children.

"I know what it's like not to have something," he said.

Assistant to the assistant

One of Katherine Robinson Cirelli's favorite childhood movies was "Mr. Mom," a 1983 film about a laid-off automotive engineer (Michael Keaton) who fumbles through his transition to stay-at-home dad.

Robinson Cirelli's attention, however, was less on Keaton's role and more on the role of his wife, an advertising executive played by Teri Garr.

"That looks fun," she thought at the time. Later, as a young adult, she would study advertising campaigns and consider how she could improve them.

These days, Robinson Cirelli, 42, is senior executive for marketing operations at Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty in Cold Spring Harbor.

Since she joined, the company, with sales volume of $4 billion, has grown from 400 agents to 900.

But in the beginning, her career path was anything but certain.

She was reared in Lloyd Harbor, but her family moved to tiny Landgrove, Vermont, when she was in second grade. After graduation from the University of Vermont, she landed a fundraising role at Brown University.

From there, she took a job working on fundraising auctions and writing advertising at a PBS station in Rhode Island.

After about two years, she decided to return to her Long Island roots and moved to Huntington.

'There wasn't even a position open, they were just doing me a favor.'

Katherine Robinson Cirelli

When she was 26, she landed an interview at Daniel Gale through a family friend. "There wasn't even a position open, they were just doing me a favor," Robinson Cirelli said. "Sixteen years later, I'm still here."

Her first job was as the asistant to the assistant of then-CEO Patricia Petersen.

The title may have seemed less than impressive, but Robinson-Cirelli threw herself into the role.

"This was my first foray into real estate," she said. "I learned every part of the business."

Eventually, she became Petersen's executive assistant, followed by a string of other jobs.

Petersen, now the company's chairman and president, cited Robinson Cirelli's communication and problem-solving skills.

While others might bring thorny issues to her desk, Petersen said, Robinson Cirelli "never came without a possible solution or two."

Now, as an executive, Robinson Cirelli connects brick-and-mortar residential real estate to human aspirations through marketing.

"It's more than just bedrooms and bathrooms," she said. "There needs to be a little emotion in the writing."

A laser focus

Brad C. Calhoun chose his path and never strayed.

In 1996, as a freshman at California Baptist University, Calhoun landed a job as a teller at Bank of America, later moving to an internship.

'I started in college and kept running.'

Brad C. Calhoun

"I started in college and kept running," he recalled. "I knew I wanted to stay in banking."

In those early days, Calhoun witnessed the impact that financial stress — and relieving that pressure point — can have on clients.

"Seeing the impact of refinancing someone's loan or consolidating debt, that impacted me early on," he said.

Now, as president and CEO of Teachers Federal Credit Union, the native of San Mateo, California, said he shares those stories with new hires.

Calhoun describes himself as "driven" and "competitive." That internal fire fueled an almost nine-year rise up the ranks of Bank of America until he became area executive in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2013, Calhoun shifted gears, moving from Bank of America, a traditional money-center bank, to a credit union, where depositors are the owners.

He joined First Tech Federal Credit Union based in Hillsboro, Oregon, embracing the not-for-profit culture.

As head of retail and later chief retail and marketing officer, he helped grow First Tech from $5.5 billion in assets to $12 billion.

Greg Mitchell, president and CEO of First Tech, said that Calhoun was distinguished by his willingness to "dream big and have the courage to make those dreams come true."

In 2019, a head hunter came calling, floating the top job at Teachers Federal Credit Union, one of the few credit unions allowed to market products in all 50 states, according to Calhoun.

As the top executive of the credit union with $8.7 billion in assets and 801 employees, Calhoun is intent on creating an engaging workplace culture.

"We know if we're the best place to work, we'll be the best place to bank," he said.

A chance meeting

Paula Castellano has risen through the ranks as an aerospace manufacturing executive, but there was a lot of happenstance along the way.

The West Islip native double majored in math and psychology at Binghamton University and played on the soccer team.

During summers, she worked at a day camp and a deli.

After graduation, she had no clear path toward a career short of getting a doctorate in psychology.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," said Castellano, 55. So she looked in the Pennysaver, an advertising circular that carried many job openings in the pre-Internet age.

There she found a listing for a secretarial job at Advanced Coating Techniques Inc. in West Babylon. She landed the job and learned about the business of painting and plating aerospace parts, becoming quality assurance assistant and office manager.

One day she got a flat tire while delivering parts to a Long Island customer. A couple doors down was another aerospace company, Burton Industries. Richard Santos, then general manager at Burton, offered to have an employee change her tire. While her car was being fixed, they struck up a conversation about Castellano's job and soon she was being recruited to take a job as an assistant quality assurance manager.

'He basically offered me a job on the spot.'

Paula Castellano

"I needed benefits," she said. "He basically offered me a job on the spot."

While at Burton, Santos tutored Castellano on industry specifications and heat-treating processes .

In 1996, she moved to Air Industries Group. Dario Peragallo, general manager of that company's Air Industries Machining unit, hired her when she was about seven months pregnant.

"People were looking at me," Peragallo recalled. " 'Why are you hiring a pregnant woman?' I said, 'Because she's got talent.'"

Peragallo said he "bounced her around" to various positions and she consistently excelled.

Though she said "it was never an aspiration to be a general manager or a site director," Castellano eventually became general manager of Air Industries' three locations.

In 2016, she joined GKN Aerospace, a manufacturer of structural aircraft parts, as the site director in charge of a 248,000-square-foot Amityville facility employing about 300 people.

With 17 managers reporting to her, Castellano said it's important to know "what you don't know" and "lead with humility."

For the past 25 years, she also has been playing in the Long Island Ladies Soccer League. "They're my best friends," she said of her teammates.

Her management style has been informed in part by her experience on the soccer field.

"You can be the best, like [Argentine national team captain] Lionel Messi, and never win," she said. "It's always been about when you finish at the end, you cross the line together."

Portraits by Barry Sloan, Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca, Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr. and Newsday / Steve Pfost.

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