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Women in Business
From hall-of-fame athletes to educators to big-time corporate execs, women continue to redefine leadership in business. Here are 35 Delaware all-stars.

BY MARIA HESS PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 16, 2007 AT 12:00 AM

Anabel Panayotti (left) and Gwen North
Photograph by Luigi Ciuffetelli


Driving New Business
Who knew used cars are so valuable in other countries? Meet two women who saw the glass ceiling, then crashed right through it.

Anabel Panayotti and Gwen North peer through the window of their offices along the Delaware River in New Castle. Beyond them, the 24-acre lot of their company, Port to Port International, is jammed with about 3,000 used vehicles. An average of 560 of them are exported to Central America every week.

That kind of volume is the reason Entrepreneur magazine named Port to Port International one of the nation’s Hot 500 Companies of 2007. Of the 19 million companies that applied, only 95,000 (0.5 percent) met Entrepreneur’s criteria. And of those 500 businesses, only 12 percent are owned by women.

Most of Port to Port International’s business involves the export of cars to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panayotti’s native Honduras from the Port of Wilmington via empty banana boats owned by Dole, Chiquita and others. But new businesses are on the way.

As vice president, North oversees human resources and marketing. As president, Panayotti heads operations. She started the company in 1998 after learning the shipping business as an employee of Dole.

“I didn’t feel I was moving up at Dole,” says Panayotti. “Opportunities for women weren’t available, and I’m very hungry.” So with $1,500, she set up shop in a small shack a mile from the Port of Wilmington. “The opportunity I saw was for cars and for convenience. If a customer wanted to ship a car, they’d have to stop in Philadelphia, come to Dole, clear customs, get a title, drain gas, prepare and protect cars for shipping, etc. What I did was create a one-stop shop.”

In its first year, Port to Port’s revenues hit $1 million. Panayotti then partnered with North, who organized the business, advertised its services and looked for markets to serve, mostly Latino. As business grew, about 40 bilingual staffers were hired, and Port to Port opened offices in Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala. By 2006, revenues reached $16.8 million a year, making Port to Port the fastest growing used-car export business in the state.

It recently bought a 30-acre brownfield to develop in Wilmington, and the company is preparing to spend thousands on technology it hopes will help it stay ahead of the three other Delaware businesses that export used cars. “But we strive for excellent service,” says Panayotti. “In this business, people say, ‘Go see Anabel. She’ll take better care of you and your car.’”

Last year Port to Port created World Trade Development, a division that searches for new markets around the world and for commodities such as textiles and agricultural products. “Essentially,” says North, “our licensing allows us to handle the shipment of anything, anywhere in the world.”

Panayotti and North recently visited Cuba with other Delaware delegates in order to arrange trade with the country. “Over there, they have old 1950s cars,” says North. “They’re just sitting there like they were when the revolution occurred, and they haven’t changed.” Because those cars are highly collectible in the United States, and because Cubans needs the cars that Port to Port has to offer, the deal would be a win-win if and when widespread trade with Cuba is permitted.

But when it comes to success, the partners agree on Port to Port’s real tipping point. Says Panayotti, “It came when we created a team instead of a bunch of employees.”