In her early 30s, as a single parent with two young sons, she made an odd choice of employment. She signed on with a private distributor to sell supplies to auto body shops in Florida---typically a career pursued by a man---and ended up making a career of it across the country.
“Knowing nothing about the automotive business, I needed to learn, and the only way I could learn was by talking to the body man. Men in a body shop just look at you as a pretty face. They’re happy to talk, but they don’t give you any sales orders. They don’t take you seriously,” Santoro remembers.
But not getting orders meant she had plenty of time to ask questions and learn the business.
“They gave me the knowledge I needed to be successful when I eventually joined 3M,” she said.
Santoro was born in Brantford, Ontario, and in her early teens, her parents divorced. She ended up in Ohio where her mother, a fierce entrepreneur, opened a beauty parlor and cosmetology school.
“So, all of my summers were spent going to beauty school and learning how to be a cosmetologist,” Santoro said. “By age 16, I had more hours than were required by the state to take the state licensing exams. I passed them, became a managing cosmetologist and started teaching cosmetology.”
The students in her first class ranged from a 15-year-old to 64-year-old twins.
Several years later, while starting her career in auto body shop sales, Santoro heard that 3M, the giant research, manufacturing and sales firm, was actively seeking women in their sales force. She applied, was interviewed, hired and went through the company training. Her first posting, in 1976, was to Green Bay, WI.
“I’d been living for years in Hollywood, Florida. Going to Green Bay was a bit of a shock,” she said.
Santoro sent out cards to the body shops announcing that she was their new 3M representative, signing with her initials and last name, and started making calls.
One typical call went like this: “I introduce myself to the owner. He shrugs his shoulders. His hands fall to his sides and his eyes roll up in his head. He says, ‘Oh my gosh, first they send me a black man and now a woman!’ And he turns around and walked away. He wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“My mother had taught me a lot of things about business and how to win people over,” she said. “She could’ve taught business at Harvard---she was so good at it. She gave me the confidence to be able to do just about anything I set my mind to. I set my mind to do this and be successful at it.”
She increased sales in her territory by 250 percent during her first year.
The body shop that had originally dismissed her later became a good customer. She successfully argued that her territory be enlarged. She developed special promotions that increased sales.
For the next 20 years she continued her sales successes in a succession of territories, often winning sales awards and prizes. Her photo albums are filled with pictures of 3M sales groups in Hawaii and other exotic locations--- Santoro the only woman among dozens of men.
But being an attractive woman in a male-dominated business required some smart counter measures. She was regularly propositioned by her customers and co-workers.
“I knew I needed to help my customers to save face. I didn’t want to make them feel bad. I bought myself an engagement ring and invented a fiancé. That was my excuse for turning down drinks or dinner. It allowed them to save face and at the same time avoided a lot of complications for me,” she said.
Her professional attitude, deep knowledge of the business and ability to demonstrate products to skeptical body shop owners and workers gained her respect and increased sales.
“I can actually cut down Bondo filler or polish a car,” she said.
She also credits the quality of 3M products for her success.
“3M is an absolutely wonderful corporation because they build their products on research and development and they’re always the most innovative company, ahead of everybody else,” she said.
Santoro’s career with 3M ended suddenly in an eight-car pileup.
“I heard the crash behind me, turned around see what was happening and was hit. Because of a shoulder injury from the accident, I couldn’t lift my 70-pound sample cases any longer,” she said.
She had several choices for life after 3M, and chose real estate in Midland, MI, where her soon-to-be-husband, Neil, had taken a new position. A few years later, they moved to Jacksonville, FL, where Santoro’s son and three granddaughters lived at the time. After a long illness, Neil died and Santoro needed to reinvent her life again.
“I was planning a trip to south Florida and got a call from a friend,” Santoro said. “She said, ‘Why don’t you visit me. I’m living in The Villages.’ She takes me all around---rec centers, to play bridge, music and line dancing at Sumter Landing. After two days I fell in love with this place.”
She moved into her home in the Village of Polo Ridge in June 2017.
She finds the location to be a good jumping-off point for visits to her two sons and grandchildren in places like Newark, NJ, Boise, ID, various locations in Michigan and nearby Jacksonville.
One of Santoro’s main projects now is writing a young adult fantasy book, which she calls The Book of Fairie.
“Think of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. And, actually,” she said with a smile, “it’s not about fairies. It’s about elves.”