Snap-on Inc. is a tool company that recently unveiled a new product line of Skilcraft Pro-Grade screwdrivers and socket wrenches; Snap-on also makes a variety of other products, ranging from ballpoint pens to paint brushes. And most of the company’s employees in the 100,000-square-foot plant are totally or legally blind (the company also supplies screwdriver handles and blades to the Industries for the Blind-Milwaukee plant, where they’re assembled into tools used by the U.S. military and federal agencies; there’s similar work done at Beyond Vision, also in Milwaukee).
Jeana Angelini, production supervisor at Industries for the Blind-Milwaukee plant and visually impaired since birth, takes pride in being able to run any machine in the factory: “I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. That’s kind of a big thing for me,” she said.
The plant employs about 140 people in production jobs. Many of the employees have some sight, but their vision has diminished to the point where the plant’s adaptive technology is helpful for them (according to the National Industries for the Blind, more than 70% of the blind are unemployed, which makes companies like Snap-on very important).
“The biggest hurdle for us to overcome is the general public’s misconception of what a blind person can or cannot do. There really isn’t any job or function a blind person can’t do except for possibly driving a bus, and even that could change with Google coming out with a driverless vehicle,” said Kevin Lynch, president and CEO of National Industries for the Blind (It’s been difficult for visually impaired people to find jobs at conventional manufacturing plants, even when they’re qualified and experienced).
Like other labor manufacturers, the plant faces a labor shortage because: Many workers are nearing retirement, enrollment is down at schools for the blind (a traditional source of recruitment) and more help is needed to handle product expansion. “It reached the point where, last summer, we placed radio ads to recruit legally blind people. Our business was growing so quickly, we didn’t have enough blind individuals to keep up with the demand in manufacturing,” said Rich Weingold, chief operating officer for Industries for the Blind-Milwaukee.
LockerDome is an unusual startup, offering perks such as: a full bar (drinks are free), a recreation area complete with basketball hoops, two bedrooms for quick naps-or end-of-shift sleeps, daily free breakfasts and pets can be brought to work.
Sounds like heaven? Well, there’s a reason for the perks; it’s not an all-play environment. To the contrary; the “perks” are in place because of the work involved. “The nice elements in this office are more are a reflection of how committed our staff is to working together here as a team and to completing projects, no matter how hard the job is or how long it takes,” explained Nick Apperson, chief technology officer. There´s still some traditional office elements no working remotely every phone call must be answered and there must be prompt attendance and total attention at all meetings. And no attitude!
And according to CEO Gabe Lozano, it’s a workplace culture that’s not for everyone: “When people come to LockerDome, I tell them upfront that if your goal is to have a 9 to 5 job and get the best bang for your buck in terms of how much you earn per hour, this is a terrible place to be,¨ said Lorano. ¨But if your goal is to be on the right side of history, you have made the right choice it´s Lozano´s belief that St. Louis will become one of the nation´s top tech centers. By moving downtown in 2012, LockerDome begun a trail that now has more than 100 startups on the Washington avenue tech corridor.
Launched in 2008, LockerDome started as a social network centered around sports. In 2014, the sports content was expanded to create an online environment designed to ¨learn¨ about its users´likes and habits, then customize site content to match those profiles.
Within the past two years, the company has raised $18 million from investors, including $10 million in December. The current roster of 33 employees will be expanded to 10 staffers in the New York office and hiring others at the St. Louis headquarters. And the site´s visitors has also expanded, from 20 million in December 2013 to 75 million today.
The Ly family was recently named Business Family of the Year by their community´s chamber of commerce, one of many for the company, including being recognized by President Obama during a 2013 immigration speech in San Francisco´s Chinatown.
From fleeing Vietnam in 1978 to living in a refugee camp, then finally relocating to America and working whatever jobs they could find, Andrew Ly and his brothers were able to buy a small doughnut and coffee shop, the Sugar Bowl Factory in 1984. Every family member helped out.
The Ly brothers eventually expanded to seven coffee shops, but their business really took off when the San Francisco hotel industry began outsourcing their pastry operations in the early 1990s the brothers moved quickly to fill the orders, cornering the entire Bay Area. “We got a small business loan in 1993 to set up a bakery to make doughnuts, croissants, muffins, Danish, other pastries and birthday cakes,” Andrew Ly recalled.
Two plants were opened to handle the increased production. The family started selling their products under the Sugar Bowl Factory label or house brands in major retail stores throughout the country; Costco became their largest customer, not just in America, but also in Canada and Mexico. They also ship to other retailers in 10 countries.
More than 300 people now work at Sugar Bowl Bakery, operating 20 hours a day for five or six days a week. Andrew Ly’s brothers are still part owners of the company, but Ly himself has been in charge for the past twenty years. And now there are some nieces and nephews who help to manage the daily operations with him.
Ly’s philosophy has remained the same since the early days of the first doughnut shop: “My goal is to make an improvement every day.”
Sources: “Visually impaired workers drive home a point”-Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)-The (Sunday) Vindicator, February 22,2015, “At unusual tech company, workers play, players work”-‘St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)-The (Sunday) Vindicator, February 8, 2015 and “Immigrants´recipe for success? Hard work, perseverance”-San Jose Mercury News (TNS)-The (Sunday) Vindicator, March 1, 2015