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Robert Tortorella: The will to topple any barrier to success

Robert Tortorella, his elbows propped on the desk, ventures to pause and reflect on life. He is trying very hard–really.
But life keeps interrupting: Lunch arrives, papers need signing, staff pop in with questions.
Life has a way of doing that, he apologizes, but Tortorella does not really seem to mind.
Tortorella, 35, is president of Corrosion Products & Equipment Inc., a New York distributor of process products such as piping, pumps, seals and valves. Founded in 1988, the firm has sales of $6 million and employs 23 in Elmgrove Park and Albany. Its Engineering Services & Equipment Repair Division and a training component were added in 1993 to provide follow-up service.
The products that his company distributes and repairs keep the world’s manufacturers humming along. They handle aggressive chemicals and waste products, and are used in manufacturing processes. Among the firm’s customers are Eastman Kodak Co., Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., Xerox Corp., and Rochester Gas and Electric Corp.
Over the years, many of the manufacturers it represents have recognized Corrosion Products & Equipment as a top distributor.
Tortorella co-owns the firm with his younger brother, Peter, who is vice president. The two spar like most brothers: Rob jokes that he gifted Peter his share of the company. Peter snickers while Rob reflects on life’s lessons during an interview.
A middle brother, Paul, teaches and coaches at a private school. The three grew up playing soccer and hockey in the Syracuse suburb of Camillus.
“I learned how to enjoy myself through my younger brother, Peter,” Tortorella says.
“All of us brothers were close. Peter and I always had a neat relationship. We can scream and yell and swear at each other and disagree, and half an hour later we’ll be over it.”
For all the charge Tortorella gets out of running a successful company, Corrosion Products is what he does, not who he is.
“No matter what happens in the financial side of my business,” he explains, “I know I’m successful in the important parts of my life, with family and friends.”
The story of how Tortorella arrived where he is today has some twists and turns. A political-science major at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., Tortorella approached graduation in May 1983 like most students do–lacking concrete career plans.
He was impressed, however, with his father’s work as a manufacturer’s rep and liked the idea of owning his own business someday. In his final year of school, Tortorella accepted a sales position with the former Alloy Supply Co. in Rochester.
It would be two years before he would start the job.
Only days after college graduation, Tortorella was seriously hurt in a car accident that changed his life. The injuries he sustained left him paralyzed.
After six months in rehabilitation at Boston University Hospital, he returned home to Camillus for several months, and then took a job at Northeast Independent Living Center in Lawrence, Mass., only eight months after the accident.
Working at the center proved to be the right experience at the right time.
“I developed and matured as a young man, but also I was dealing with the fact that I had this traumatic injury that changed the physical aspect of who I was,” he says.
During his two years there, Tortorella worked as an advocate and peer counselor for people with disabilities, and his self-confidence returned. Born in Boston, Tortorella was surrounded by family members who still live in the area–his mother has 14 siblings, his father, 10.
Blessed with nearby college buddies and those generous Italian relatives, Tortorella grew comfortable with life once again–too comfortable, he says. Firmly planted in the back of his mind was a determination to follow his dad’s lead in business.
“I was afraid to leave,” he recalls, “but I thought it was too easy to stay there.
“By the time I left, I knew in my own way, in spite of the limitations, there were options.”
Tortorella’s job with Alloy in Rochester was waiting for him, and he worked there for some three years before striking out on his own, staking new territory in Albany. He moved his company’s main offices to Rochester in 1990.
“I always had felt that I’m going to succeed on my own, ever since I was a child,” he recalls. “I think that’s something I was born with, something that my parents reinforced.
“It comes down to the person that you are and what’s inside.”
Tortorella, who works out regularly at Flex Gym, wants to infuse others with that determination. Sports relieves stress and builds confidence, he says. With that in mind, he is setting up a foundation to provide much-needed funding for disabled people to participate in sports. Athletes who are short on cash to join a gym or buy a racing chair, for example, could apply for a grant.
“Some funding arms are available for disabled people to pursue their sports, but it’s very, very limited,” Tortorella notes.
He is assembling a business plan for the foundation and hopes to have it in place next year.
Tortorella also has been involved with Rochester Area Multiple Sclerosis Inc. since 1992, and he likes to speak at schools to promote disability awareness.
Those who know him well say Tortorella is the kind of guy whose glass is half full, not half empty. He finds positive outcomes in negative experiences time and again.
“It got me through my accident, my divorce,” he says. “I think that’s how we all get through the tough times in our lives. It’s your attitude.”
“Rob is a great guy,” says Shelley Cunningham, who was married to Tortorella for several years. “He has desire, determination and dedication.
“And you can say he has a great relationship with his ex-wife.”
Tortorella shares that affirmative attitude with the teenagers who take his eighth-grade religion class at Church of the Transfiguration each week. It does not seem so long ago that he was that age and in need of some guidance, Tortorella recalls.
“When I was a kid, we got to be friends with a priest informally on Sunday nights. He was involved with the community and cared a lot about the kids.”
Tortorella has never forgotten the solid influence that Father Ron Buckle had on him and his friends. That is why he takes the time to work with young people today.
“That’s a tough time,” he says of the early teen years. “You’re still a child, but you’re physically starting to change and starting to feel like you need to establish your own identity.”
In the spirit of Father Ron, who passed away some years ago, Tortorella says he tries to help them “realize that many times in life they have to stand alone, even if there is peer pressure.”
Tortorella and his girlfriend, Mary Ellen Kircher, try to attend church every week with his daughter, Shauna. An energetic 6-year-old who appears in photo after photo on the shelves behind his desk, Shauna is Tortorella’s constant companion and favorite topic.
“She has a lot of personality, and she’s very, very outgoing,” Tortorella says. “She also tends to be a little mischievous, but we’re developing that energy and keeping it channeled in the right direction.”
Tortorella excuses himself to sign legal papers someone has brought in. Diverted from telling his story, he seems apologetically distracted. The traffic in and out is constant. But he keeps no one waiting, fields his own calls and still manages to reflect.
“Rob finds the problem and can cut to the chase without offending people,” says William Cox, the mechanical engineer who manages the firm’s Engineering Services & Equipment Repair Division. “He clarifies things; he doesn’t make things confusing.”
Tortorella also surrounds himself with people who can get the job done.
“He gives me quite a bit of leeway to run my side of the business my own way,” says Cox, who has been at the firm since leaving Kodak in 1992. “He’s able to give me information from the (overall) company perspective.”
Tortorella says he relishes the challenge and the competitiveness of owning a business. But he also likes to make connections.
“You get to know somebody and they open up to you and ask your advice and your opinion,” he says.
Tortorella has a knack for forging friendships.
Donna Perlo, who owns Water Street Grill, got to know Tortorella eight years ago when he started coming to her restaurant.
“Rob just impressed me because he has an absolutely great outlook. Nothing seems to be insurmountable to Rob,” says Perlo, who nominated Tortorella for 40 Under 40 honors last year.
Perlo recalls once asking Tortorella to bring some pictures of Shauna in her Halloween outfit next time he came to the restaurant. Instead, true to form, he drove out of his way to drop them off so she could see them earlier. Consideration in the little things is standard procedure for Tortorella, she notes.
“I’m a fairly negative person,” Perlo says, “so seeing someone like him was really inspiring. He is just always happy.”

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