Braille Monitor                                                                                 April 2006


No Boundaries

by Fredric K. Schroeder

BISM students hold the mainsail down so that it can be lashed to the boom.
Students in BISM's summer WINGS Program participate in the Living Classroom No Boundaries Shipping Program.

From the Editor: Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) is a thoroughly modern industries and rehabilitation program. Its associates and students understand that nothing but their best efforts will do in a competitive world, but BISM programs are also undergirded by idealism and dedication to high expectations and helping everyone to meet or exceed those expectations.

BISM President Fred Puente’s voice resonates with conviction and passion when he talks about the organization’s mission. With pride he explains that no one at BISM earns less than $7 an hour, and many earn a good deal more. Last year the bonus for associates was $1.24 an hour. Moreover, associates can count on being paid for forty hours of work a week. If they are sick or need to leave to see a child’s teacher, for example, their pay will not be docked unless they begin to abuse the system. As long as they discuss the problem with a supervisor, their colleagues will scramble to cover for their absence.

In 2006 Puente expects BISM to do at least $60 million in sales, and it could be a whole lot more. That’s why BISM is looking for blind people interested in relocating to become BISM associates. He says, “We are always looking for talented, capable, committed people who want to become part of this process.” He goes on to explain that those BISM has hired through the years have all either worked for BISM or with it. The first group see themselves as employees only; they don’t stay. The second group quickly become associates, and BISM is eager to identify and hire forty more of them. Fred Puente encourages anyone seriously interested in discussing becoming a BISM associate to call Elisa Lebowitz, BISM director of human resources, at (888) 322-4567 to see what can be worked out.

The following article appeared in the July 2005 issue of US Business Review. Here it is:

Blind Industries and Services of Maryland is built on a belief in the capabilities of blind people, explains President Fred Puente. He works with “some of the most dedicated, committed, caring people” that he has ever known, he says. Many of them also happen to be blind, but that’s no reflection on their capabilities. He is president of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM), which produces office paper products, janitorial supplies, and cut and sewn products such as United States Army physical fitness uniforms. It also performs assembly and packaging. Most important, BISM offers those with blindness or impaired vision a source of employment and independence, he states.

“There is no question that, when you feel you have impact on somebody’s life, there is no greater satisfaction or better reward, in my opinion,” he says. “We give people the opportunity to become independent and successful individuals.”

BISM also offers employment services, training, and rehabilitation. It is accredited by the Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Rehabilitation Services. “We have, in my opinion, the finest rehab staff in the country,” Puente says.

BISM participates in the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) program and makes Skilcraft products. Federal JWOD legislation requires government agencies to purchase products from nonprofit organizations that employ blind and severely disabled people. “I believe when the government—be it the federal, state, or local—invests in the training of a blind person, that entity gets back five to six times its investment from the blind individual,” he states. “When properly trained, they are gainfully employed, pay income taxes and sales tax on purchases, and are not a drain on resources, and benefit the community we live in.”

At BISM, “people are part of the process, and we involve them in the process,” he adds. “There is no top-down management; the least important position at Blind Industries is mine. We’ve tried to create an environment where associates feel they have impact and in fact do have impact on the process and the organization. What underlies the success of everything is the unquestioned belief in the capabilities of people who are blind. Anytime we’ve ever taken anyone on a tour of any of our facilities, their perception of blindness has dramatically changed.”

Associates play a major role in the business and how it is run. Puente says anyone can come into his office with an issue or compliment, and they will get answers. People aren’t afraid to speak up when they spot issues because they don’t have to worry about losing their income, he says. BISM has a wage continuation program. “All associates have income guaranteed to them,” he says. “They get a check for forty hours, whether they are at work or not. It allows people to know that they do have an impact and that we care about them. We don’t want anybody to not do something because of fear of losing income.”

The company is also flexible if employees have appointments or activities they have to attend. “Our commitment is unmatched here, and it works both ways—the company’s commitment to us as associates and our commitment to the company, which all reflects to the customer,” he states. “We write policies at Blind Industries for performers, not problems. We don’t measure absenteeism; we measure attendance.”

BISM’s monthly attendance rate exceeds 96.5 percent at its lowest, Puente notes. “I can tell you from my experience in private industry, if I had had 96.5, I’d be tickled to death,” he says. “But our requirement is 100 percent attendance. We want every one here. We need them here.”

With the help of associates, BISM has adapted to changes in its marketplace, Puente notes. “We’ve had to develop a much more customer-oriented philosophy,” he says. “We’ve had to deal with next-day shipments, just-in-time inventory management—we are constantly accelerating the process wherever possible. We’ve looked to improve equipment and processes and cross-train everyone here. It’s automated where possible without the loss of jobs. The whole purpose is to create jobs, but in some places we have to automate just to compete and create opportunities. Our [return on investment] at Blind Industries is the number of jobs we can create that allow blind individuals to be independent, self-supporting, satisfied, tax-paying American citizens.”

Puente encourages companies to call him with any questions or ideas about working with his company or blind individuals in general, and to visit BISM. “We would hope someday we are part of a process where blindness is not an impediment to someone being gainfully employed,” he says.

He has a message for potential customers. “Give us the opportunity to fail. If we do, we’ll turn tail and run, and I have to tell you we don’t own running shoes.”

Sidebar: Profile
Blind Industries and Services of Maryland
2005 sales: $72 million
Headquarters: Baltimore
Employees: 460
Products: office, janitorial, cut and sewn products