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From humble beginnings to goodwill enterprise: Manufacturing medical supplies provides jobs for disabled

Crafting cornhusk dolls is a far cry from mass-producing blue surgical drapes, but one local non-profit made that leap in a matter of about four years.

Today Haywood Vocational Opportunities LLC employs 365 people — more than a third of whom are mentally or physically disabled. Its mission is to bring disabled people and jobs together, whether the position is with HVO or another employer.

“We want to put people in a real working environment,” said George Marshall, who has served as HVO’s president for nearly 30 years.

The Haywood County nonprofit trains disabled clients to hold down jobs in the real world, from the importance of getting to work on time to job-specific skills such as how to buff floors.

Meanwhile, the business side of the company manufactures a variety of medical supplies, including IV bags and surgical instrument covers, for about 40 customers worldwide. A majority of its business focuses on making sanitized surgical drapes similar to the one’s dentists place on a patient’s chest during teeth cleanings.

HVO is more than a business with a philanthropic bent — it is a charitable organization first and foremost that funds its mission through its manufacturing line.

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“Our business enterprise is here to support our mission,” said Jeff Ledford, the nonprofit’s business development manager.

When HVO was founded in 1972, it had just six clients who spent their days make crafts such as cornhusk dolls to sell.

But, Fred Spencer, who served as the non-profit’s director from 1973 to 1975, had bigger ideas. He began knocking on doors and cold-calling companies looking for outsourced work for his clients. The person who happened to take him up on the offer needed belt loops and ties for disposable surgical gowns.

“We knew state and federal dollars … could not provide and would not over the long-term,” Marshall said.

Almost 96 percent of HVO’s revenue comes from production sales.

During fiscal year 2010, HVO reported $30.1 million in revenue — up from about $27.2 million the previous year, according to its federal nonprofit tax form. By comparison, its expenses were only $28.9 million — a gain of more than $1.3 million.

The impressive increase in revenue is likely a result of additional sales and grants related to its expansion into the old Wellco plant in Hazelwood, according to Beth Chittum, HVO’s market research analyst.

In September 2010, HVO bought the closed-down boot factory and turned it into a satellite facility, located just half a mile from its main headquarters off Hazelwood Avenue. The expansion created 32 jobs.

As a non-profit, HVO is also eligible for government funding.

The company received $740,749 in government grants during fiscal year 2010, some of that again related and an additional $350,363 in funding from other sources. It received only $490,010 in government money during the prior fiscal year.

Since 1972, the nonprofit has expanded to serve about 250 clients with disabilities annually, and has continued to grow its medical supplies business.

The nonprofit has averaged 10 to 12 percent growth each year, Marshall said.

“That’s pretty strong,” he said.

Business continued to grow despite the recession, Marshall said, adding that HVO was fortunate to get into a niche medical market.

“We backed into this one,” he said. “I have not seen our business in this healthcare industry really affected.”

There is no ceiling for HVO’s potential growth even though it restricts Marshall’s ability to engage with the clients on a daily basis.

“Growth has taken me further and further away from that daily business of HVO,” he said. “I would love to be active literally in our work areas.”

Although Marshall himself cannot spend everyday with HVO’s clients, the nonprofit employs three job specialists who work one-on-one with clients and follow-up with those who have graduated from its training program. The specialists help clients find what type of work they are interested in doing and teaches them the necessary skills needed to function in the workplace.

Clients who are in training receive a stipend, which is less than the salary of a full-time employee who has completed the program. HVO declined to comment on how much its employees are paid.

During the past three years, HVO has hired 52 of the 128 clients that it has placed in jobs after graduating from the training program.

The nonprofit offers a blended workforce of everyday people and individuals with disabilities. The one similarity among all the workers are hairnets and light blue smocks, which are required to maintain a sanitary workplace. Walls are also lined with nametags and hooks for each employee to hang his or her smock at the end of the day.

Because it manufactures medical supplies, the Food and Drug Administration audits the nonprofit. To keep up with federal sanitation requirements, HVO takes a number of precautions, from simply washing hands to air lock doors for some rooms.

Employees pass through an automated door into a small holding chamber, where they wait for the door behind them to close before the next one opens. This restricts the airflow into the room and helps prevent contamination. Visitors must stay behind a bold yellow line on the concrete floor so they do not contaminate the workspace, and several rooms can only be entered if a person is wearing a hairnet and smock.


‘Good training program’

Although HVO does hire some of its clients, others have obtained jobs at Ingles, Burger King and Goodwill, among other businesses.

Ingles grocery store off Russ Avenue currently has three or four employees who completed training at HVO, said manager Jeff Henderson.

“They always had a good training program, and they would work with them on-site too,” Henderson said. “It has always been a hands on effort for them; so, we were proud to be a part of that.”

Companies who hire disabled employees receive a federal tax credit. The amount of the credit depends on the company’s tax bracket and how much the employer pays in wages.

HVO’s older clients who work part-time or can no longer work can join the Learning and Enrichment program, where they spend time making crafts, gardening, cooking and volunteering.

Many of the nonprofit’s employees and clients volunteer in some way — with Meals on Wheels, MANNA FoodBank and others.

“We need to contribute back to the community,” Marshall said.

After receiving funding from the United Way for 15 or more years, HVO is now one of the largest contributors to the local United Way, he said.

Clients particularly enjoy ringing bells for the Salvation Army at Walmart and K-mart because they are able to interact with area residents.

“I think (HVO is) tremendously helpful to the community,” said Larry Clark, who has served on the non-profit’s nine-member board of directors for three years. “It’s a story that really hasn’t been told.”


Thirty years and no end in sight

George Marshall is the one constant at Haywood Vocational Opportunities LLC, which has continued to grow during his almost 30 years as its president. And, he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.

“I enjoy what I do,” said Marshall, who can easily be described as a man married to his job.

He is the face of HVO, representing it both around the state and nationally. Marshall, who earns $173,511 a year, focuses on the big picture, guiding the organization’s expansion and mission.

“I’ll say this about him because he won’t; George is very well-respected in the community,” said Beth Chittum, HVO’s market research analyst. She agreed that Marshall will never retire.

During his tenure, HVO has grown from a tiny medical supplies operation into a stable business whose products are shipped globally.

“George Marshall runs a great place down there,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.

While teaching in Swain County in 1978, Marshall applied for an instructor position in the continuing education department at Haywood Community College. The job was within HVO, which, at the time, was part of the local college.

“This was when we were just really developing our work, our business enterprise operations,” Marshall said.

His background in industrial education and career development ended up lending itself well to the position, and within about six months, Marshall became the nonprofit’s first operations manager. From there, he was named president of the organization in June 1982.

Marshall has the longest tenure of any HVO leader by a wide margin, having working there for about 33 years. The prior directors stayed in their positions for fewer than eight years; the first retired after just six months on the job.

“(Marshall) provides great leadership,” said Larry Clark, who chairs HVO’s nine-member Board of Directors. “When he speaks of passion for what he does, I think it’s a true statement.”

A humble man, Marshall would rather be on the ground floor of HVO’s operations than in his office overseeing the company’s budget.

“I would love to be active literally in our work areas,” Marshall said. “That’s where I started; that’s my background; and that’s what I enjoy the most.”

But, as the nonprofit continues to grow, Marshall gets further away from the daily business of HVO. He said he is disappointed that he cannot enjoy as much face-to-face interact with clients as he did in the past.

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