by DAISY WAKEFIELD
photos by STEVEN HERTZOG
Cottonwood, Inc., celebrating their forty-year anniversary in 2013, is hardly a cutthroat, dark-suit company that goes hard after big name contracts. Their employees generally aren’t the kind to whip out smart phones and start multi-tasking. And the management isn’t looking to climb a brutal corporate ladder.
That doesn’t mean Cottonwood isn’t savvy and looking to benefit from astute business acumen. In fact, with contracts under their
belt with companies like the US Military, the US Post Office, Bayer and the University of Kansas, Cottonwood has positioned itself to do something really smart: create an income engine to support its mission of helping developmentally disabled adults to be productive and to work.
“Work has always been a big part of Cottonwood,” says CEO Sharon Spratt, “Whether that is by providing day activities or work opportunities — it is a core part of our mission to help our clients be productive and shape their own future.”
With an operating budget of $20 million a year and a staff of 238, Cottonwood serves developmentally disabled adults and children through state and federal funding, as well as its own income generation with regional and national companies. Their clientele, mostly disabled adults who would have difficulty finding jobs otherwise, serve as the employees and are paid by Department of Labor wage guidelines, according to productivity.
Cottonwood contracts with regional and national companies to do product manufacturing and assembly work. The anchor of these contracts is with the United States Military to produce cargo tie down straps. These straps are used in every branch of the military,but especially with the Army as logistics handlers and first responders. Since obtaining this contract in 1999, Cottonwood has produced about seven million of the straps. They are used in anything from shipping trucks to warplanes, can sustain a 5000 lb. pull weight, and go through all the steps of quality control that are required of an ISO compliant company.Cottonwood’s employees work each step of the production line, broken down into manageable steps and matched appropriately with each employee’s skill level. Employees who are not developmentally delayed are also hired to help meet the necessary quotas and to supervise as needed. Along with the cargo tie down strap manufacturing, Cottonwood also has contracts with companies for assembling, labeling, mailing and packaging.
With 22,000 square feet of warehouse space, Cottonwood offers their clients the ability to store raw materials and final products that are ready to be shipped anytime. They also are able to shipthe product anywhere the client company directs.
JR Condra is a 37-year veteran of the company and the director of Cottonwood Industries, the division of the company that secures contracts for the work services program. He talks about their new campaign, “Outsource to Mid-America,” which aims to identify more companies with which to contract.
“We have a 97% satisfaction rate with the current 35 companies we contract with, so we don’t lose customers,” he says. “But with technology [advances] and the economy the way it is — these things take the jobs that we might have taken 10 years ago. We’re confident that there is work out there, but just like any business, we need to position ourselves
to keep finding it.”
Job Link is another core part of Cottonwood’s services. The program matches developmentally disabled employees with employers in the community. Job Link is the largest community employment service in the state. Almost 200 area companies employ 250 people, with KU as the biggest employer in the program. Other employers include Neu Physical Therapy, Raintree Montessori, Pachamamas, Hampton Inn, Dillons, Hy-Vee and The Oread Hotel. Sixteen staff members at Cottonwood serve as job coaches, accompanying the employees to their jobs if necessary for training and support.
“We have a mission to serve the companies we work with, so it’s got to be a win for them as well as for us,” says Phil Bentzinger, Director of Job Link. “We have loyal and repeat employers who talk about how it adds to their overall work environment to have our employees there. Lawrence has been a very welcoming and open community for our program. And it means so much to the folks we serve to make an income and be productive in the community.” Cottonwood receives 64% of its funds from the contract work, and the rest from state, federal, and county sources. Cottonwood Foundation operates as a separate entity and processes private donations and gifts, including that from several fundraisers throughout the year. The foundation provides enhancements and services to clients, such as the building of accessible homes.
As Medicaid reforms loom and the state budget continues to be diced, Cottonwood feels the pinch. But by being entrepreneurial in their approach to business, they’ve built a cushion of protection around themselves, thin though it might be. The benefits are not for the bottom line — they are for the workers that find meaning, productivity and camaraderie in their work environments.
“The people we support are just like everyone else,” says Peggy Wallert, Director of Community Relations. “They identify themselves with their work, and it helps in normal rhythms of life to have a job and a full productive day. What we have learned over the course of time is that people want to work.”