From the Editor: Lou Fioritto is a member of the East Hillsborough Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida. He owns and operates a small business that was profiled in the St. Petersburg Times on May 25, 2009. Despite Lou’s being a blind man running a business in the blindness field, the reporter resisted the temptation to gush over his skills or the nature of his company. Articles like this one are heartening, not just because they spotlight blind people who are successful in their chosen work, but because they help to emphasize our place in the mainstream of community life. Here is the story:
Owners of Brailleworks found a niche to fill
by Ashley Grant
What began as a business of helping the blind to gain independence became a mission of making the world a more readable place. Lou Fioritto, sixty-two, who has been blind since birth, was out of a job and needed a way to make money. He wanted to help people like himself. He and his wife Joyce opened Brailleworks in Cleveland in 1994. They moved the company to Seffner [Florida] in 1996 and have been going strong ever since. The company mainly handles restaurant menus, but it also prints Braille bank and credit card statements for financial institutions as well as a few other commercial businesses.
Why did you start Brailleworks?
My wife and I went to a restaurant, and they gave me a Braille menu in 1993. I had never been given one before. The menu didn't have a table of contents, and there were quite a few pages of Braille. So, if I was looking for something, I'd have to touch every single thing on the page to find items. The first thing I thought was, if I had a Braille company, we'd do a table of contents. We were both entrepreneurial-minded, and we decided to start a Braille company at that table. I started doing research, and in December of 1993 we locked in our first contract, although we didn't have any software or any equipment. We got our first job out for the phone company in Cleveland, Ohio, and then we picked up Applebee's, Bob Evans, Outback Steakhouse, and other major restaurant chains.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
Knowing that we are making a difference out there. We are a Christ-centered company, and we work at that daily. We make sure that our products have integrity. I can read my menu for myself, and I know that thousands of other people are able to read their menus and credit card statements for themselves and have the privacy to do so. This gives them one more step toward their own independence.
What is the income like for this kind of business?
The company makes more than six figures annually in gross sales. We have thirteen staff members now. We've grown every year since we came to Florida.
What has been the biggest challenge in your job?
Money. It got pretty tight there for a while. We self-financed, and the stuff (we needed) wasn't cheap. It took everything we had. In 1994 or 1995 we took our last bit of my retirement savings out of the bank and put it in our checking account. I went to the Small Business Administration in hopes of getting a loan, and this lady who had a master's degree in business helped me write a business plan. Finally I walked in one day, and she said the plan was acceptable.
Why is the plan so important?
I had a lot of people telling me we should go after certain kinds of corporations and government accounts, and I took my eyes off of the restaurant industry and started marketing to government agencies and big business. I'd be up at three in the morning praying, saying we're going under. As a last resort I pulled out the bottom drawer of my desk, and the whole business plan was centered on restaurants. The next morning I told (Joyce) we were going to be okay, and I got back on the phone and started calling restaurant after restaurant. I went back to my plan, and the deals came through. Basically, we quickly learned that sticking to the business plan would always save us and keep us successful. When we divert from the plan, it is a risk for failure.
What are your plans for the future for yourself and the company?
I'd like to see the company be able to get bigger clients, major bank and health care accounts as well as government accounts. For myself I want to have more of an advisory role.