story and photos by Kara Nardoni, special to The City Wire
Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of The City Wire focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by The City Wire and sponsored by Propak Logistics.
Wal-Mart service suppliers come in all shapes and sizes and one of the local organizations providing contract work for the retail giant is a non-profit, the Elizabeth Richardson Center.
This month is a particularly exciting one for the ERC, as they celebrate their 50th year of serving the needs of those with disabilities across Northwest Arkansas.
Originally founded in September 1963 as a school for disabled and developmentally challenged children, the ERC now operates five Child Development Centers, provides vocational training programs for disabled teenagers, and offers skill development classes.
In addition, the ERC operates Richardson Industries, an adult development program that introduces disabled adults to the workforce through contract assignments for Wal-Mart and other local companies.
John Salina, the ERC’s sales and production manager, describes Richardson Industries as an integrated workshop that provides pre-vocational training and rehabilitation services to nearly 80 adults, ranging in age from 18 to 55.
The adults enrolled in this Medicaid-funded program are referred to as “clients” and are given a job performing contract labor for local businesses. Through Richardson Industries, clients are taught the mechanical and soft skills (punctuality, communication, problem solving) necessary to function in society – all while earning a paycheck.
When Salina joined the ERC in April 2012, Richardson Industries performed regular contract labor for only one local business. Now, clients at Richardson Industries execute jobs for ten consistent customers, including Wal-Mart, Marshalltown Tools, Omni Packaging, Ayrshire Electronics, and Central States Manufacturing. He said they do small and large jobs, from $12 million to $18 million a year for retail and manufacturing.
Salina is pleased with the workshop’s increased workload, to be sure, as it has garnered the non-profit an increase in operating revenue and has provided the clients with the opportunity to learn the broad range of skills associated with different jobs.
Clients specialize in a wide variety of tasks, including mechanical assembly, packaging, product refurbishing, labeling, and shipping, often performing most or all of these tasks throughout the course of one job.
For Wal-Mart, Richardson Industries’ largest customer, clients sort the numbers used to display retail prices, count them into stacks of fifteen, package the numbers, and then load the boxes into a truck for shipping back to the company.
It is a time-consuming and (at times) frustrating job, but one that provides clients with a comprehensive understanding of business processes.
There are several reasons why companies like Wal-Mart choose to contract with Richardson Industries. First, and what Salina considers to be Richardson Industries’ competitive advantage, is the flexibility that the organization provides to its customers.
Clients are able to learn new tasks quickly and efficiently, meaning that the organization can have a job started within a couple days, saving many local businesses time and money.
Richardson Industries’ commitment to quality also benefits their customers.
“We don’t want companies to give us work because we are a non-profit or because we helps disabled people, but because we do a good job,” said Salina. “Honestly, we routinely do a better job than a company that employs so-called ‘normal’ individuals.”
Richardson Industries is not the only non-profit in Northwest Arkansas to offer an adult development program or pre-vocational training for those with developmental disabilities, but they are the only organization that actively seeks to transition clients from their workshop to a job in the community.
Former clients at Richardson Industries have rehabilitated so successfully that they now hold jobs at Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and McDonald’s.
“Our goal is to rehabilitate individuals to a point where they can assimilate into society seamlessly,” said Salina. “But there are certainly challenges in doing so.” Salina cites the lack of workshop space as the largest limitation on the adult development program. Ideally, the ERC would like to expand the space over the next few years. A larger facility would allow the non-profit to provide additional services to clients, increase revenue through added contract labor, and most importantly, would allow the organization to accommodate those with developmental disabilities for many years to come.