Mona Vaccarella had an unconventional childhood, one that prepared her well for succeeding in the corporate world. When she was a child, her father made his living selling dry goods out of the backseat of his car to migrant workers. So the family spent the year traveling back and forth between Buffalo and Florida. Mona would begin school up north, finishing somewhere in the south. “The whole beginning of my life affected how I was able to communicate more effectively with people in any environment,” she said.
That working environment, detailed in Mona’s very impressive resume, included stints in human resources at Met Life, Pfizer, Citi Group, UBS, and Burson-Marsteller. Along the way, with her sister, she launched a website, Casino Careers Online, worked as an independent consultant, and saw through bankruptcy an Indiana-based casino company, Majestic Star Casinos and Hotel. Recently, she returned to New Jersey to become head of human resources for the Meadowlands and Monmouth Racetracks. Yet Mona feels she is just getting started and is always looking for her next opportunity. Her career strategy could be taught at the Harvard Business School. With each step taken, Mona has worked to add to her skills, knowledge, and expertise. She truly has built her career brick by brick.
No doubt that Mona’s itinerant childhood contributed to her tenacity and her resiliency. When she was young, the family moved to Asia. “My father is from abroad and he wanted us to be exposed to many of the diplomats who were over there,” she said. In the late 1960s, Mona and her family lived through a war. “That was quite an experience for a young child,” she said. “We ran away, we hid in wells. It was terrifying.”
While abroad, Mona attended the international Friends School, which catered to the children of United Nations personnel. Her classroom combined several age groups and different cultures. She was able to jump ahead and study trigonometry and other higher level subjects before she would have in the U.S. “That added to my financial acumen and to my ability to maneuver through different cultures,” she said.
Shortly after the war ended, Mona and her family moved back to the U.S., soon settling in Turnersville, New Jersey. “My father was very strict, so I didn’t have the traditional life where I could participate in sports and community activities or have a social life beyond the school time,” Mona said. “Everything I did was through the school to participate in different activities.” She gained early admission to Glassboro State College, earning her degree in 2.5 years, magnum cum laude. “I was motivated to move into New York and get a job,” she said.
Right out of the gate, Mona landed at Met Life where she could be exposed to a large corporate environment. Her department managed group insurance for the delivery of documents, premiums for corporations like International Paper, Sears, and ABC. Yet Mona tired of being behind a desk and longed to get into the field. She went to work in the account executive department and soon found herself sitting down at the table with clients. It was the mid-70s and female issues were swirling around the workplace. Initially, male executives were reluctant to deal with Mona. Then, her boss went away, and she was left to negotiate on behalf of International Paper. By the time her boss returned, the client wanted Mona, and only Mona, handling its affairs.
Mona’s other client was Pfizer, who managed to hire her away from Met Life. HMOs and 401K’s were just being introduced and a business tool, the Hewitt Benefit Index, was used to track the performance of benefit programs. Along with one IT employee and an antiquated computer, Mona built a Hewitt benefit analysis to calibrate the company’s pension plans. “That was off the charts with the board,” she said.
Despite the accolades, Mona knew she needed to make some changes so she would not be seen solely as a benefits and compensation expert. “I wanted to continue to expand, to become a generalist,” she explained. “A generalist is engaged in dealing one on one with clients. You are out there helping with recruitment, understanding their corporate structure, how to a create succession plans—the softer side of HR.”
She moved to Pfizer’s pharmaceutical division, becoming head of human resources for the marketing and sales team. “Now I was learning a whole new business and in a whole new environment,” she said. “I was bringing my bag of HR tricks along with me.”
Always looking to add to that bag of tricks, Mona wanted to learn about how the company actually made its products. With plants in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, Terre Haute, Indiana, and Brooklyn, Mona did extensive travel and got a taste for the international side of business. She became an expert in a whole new area of human resources—expatriate compensation. “It’s a balance sheet approach,” she said. “If I’m going to send you from here to Japan, what would be the cost for you living in the U.S. and what would be your cost basis to live in Japan and how do I make up the difference?”
Pfzier had over 100 people in the pharmaceutical division who were in transition. Millions of dollars in bridge loans sat on the company’s books until those employees’ homes could be sold. “I went out and I got my real estate license so that I could understand what it was to get out there and market these homes,” said Mona. “Every place I went, I took it to the next level so that I could become a better problem solver, understand the process rather than just the surface.” She added: “And I still have that real estate license.”
Aside from the financial aspects, helping expatriates meant creating a type of safety net. Medical care, for example, was an issue. “No matter what country they go to, they don’t have the luxury we have here in the U.S. where we can go to whichever doctor we want,” she said.
Her international experience led her to take a job with Degussa, a German company headquartered in Frankfurt but she worked in New Jersey for the expanding U.S. division. (The company was eventually absorbed into Evonik). She managed the company’s expatriate program in reverse, because Degussa’s employees were being relocated to the U.S.
After three years, Mona was recruited for a job at Burson-Marsteller, a public relation firm and a subsidiary of Young & Rubicam, to move its headquarters from Chicago to New York. “Because they were an international company they needed someone who could do international expat programs,” she said. The incredible team that she assembled was soon engaged in redesigning the company’s compensation and benefits plan.
In 1988, Mona got married and looking for her next business challenge shifted her focus to investment banking. After 36 ( yes, 36!) interviews with the Swiss Bank Corporation (later UBS), she was hired to head up human resources for its global fixed income division. The bank was in high acquisition mode, and Mona became concerned about the longevity of her job. She transferred to the private wealth division, learning about managing the portfolios for high wealth individuals. Eventually, the bank merged with Paine Weber and Mona took a package and left.
Her next stop? Citi Group’s credit card division. In three years, Mona reengineered the entire division, creating a solid HR foundation, including a payroll and career tracking system, for more than 200,000 employees.
In 1988, Mona and her sister, Beth Deighan, a teacher who had migrated into casinos, started Casino Careers Online. They created a website and by the time Mona was leaving Citi, package in hand, the hospitality/gaming industry “exploded.”
In addition to working on the site, Mona launched an executive search firm to fill hotel and casino jobs. “I did a lot of recruiting, head hunting, and public speaking,” she said. Generational issues fascinated Mona and seemed tailor made for the casino industry.
“What better industry to study that than in the gaming world? You have older people in the morning, in the middle of the day you get more of the seasoned players, at the end of the day, you get those who want to come in for a nice meal and maybe see a concert, then at the night you have the hardcore.”
Ever the multi-tasker, Mona wrote a book, Quick Takes: How to Win a Job in Today’s Market, and also got partnered with college career service offices to develop a better curriculum to help students get jobs.
Her knowledge of the casino industry took her to the Majestic Star, owner of two riverboats in Indiana. Unfortunately, the company is in bankruptcy, but Mona put her skills to work to help them through a difficult time.
She’s eager for her next challenge at the Meadowlands. Monmouth Park is located across from Monmouth University and Mona already has a relationship with the school. She also will be working on another book.
Mona’s husband, Pasquale, is an Italian from San Lupo, a small village in Campagnia that resembles the wedding scene in Godfather II, according to Mona. Her daughter, Nicole, is a student at Carnegie Mellon University. In her spare time, Mona likes to run and she is a competitive racquet ball player.
Managing people, the core of human resources, remains Mona’s focus. “Human resources is a true science,” said Mona. “There is a math equation to building the right equality and the right group.” And Mona, without a doubt, will continue to build her career, brick by brick.
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