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Industries for Blind expanding

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Commodore Funderburk begins assembling every mattress his employer makes – about $5 million worth a year.

He pulls springs from a pile, places them on a worktable, wraps them with felt, staples the felt and slides the spring-assembly to the worker beside him.

Funderburk, who is 67 and has not missed a day of work in 40 years, is deaf and blind and cannot speak.

He is one of 220 employees – including 45 in Asheville — of Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind, a rapidly growing enterprise that makes, distributes or markets products for military facilities.

Revenues have surged to a projected $34 million this year from $9 million in 1997, and are expected to grow to $50 million in 2007.

To keep pace, the nonprofit has begun the quiet phase of a drive to raise $4 million to expand its 75,000-square-foot plant by 32,000 square feet.

The campaign — chaired by Bob Newell, executive vice president at Wachovia, and advised by Winston-Salem fundraising consultant Whitney Jones — already has raised $700,000, including $150,000 from Wachovia and $75,000 from BB&T. Its public phase kicks off in September.

The growth of Winston-Salem Industries – North Carolina’s largest employer of blind individuals and one of the top three in the U.S. — reflects an entrepreneurial staff that targets military-contract marketing opportunities, says Dan Boucher, its president for the past five years and former vice president for sales and marketing for National Industries for the Blind in Washington, D.C.

The national group divvies up $350 million a year in government contracts among 120 agencies for the blind, including Winston-Salem Industries, under a federal law that gives contract priority to groups employing disabled workers.

Winston-Salem Industries distributes its mattresses to most of North Carolina’s public universities, some of its jails, prisons and private colleges, and to Navy vessels and Army barracks throughout the world.

It also makes every poncho liner, three-fourths of the helmet suspension assemblies and one-third of the warmup jackets for U.S. soldiers.

New lines of business include selling “impulse-buy” items in supermarkets on every military base in the world, making eyeglasses for Veterans Administration hospitals and operating office-supply stories at West Point and other military facilities.

At its annual conference in November, to be held in Greensboro, National Industries will honor David Buckner, warehouse coordinator in Asheville for Winston-Salem Industries’ impulse-buy program, as its national blind worker of the year.

The agency also plans new ventures, including a telemarketing center.

Big challenges, Boucher says, include equipping the agency to handle its share of an expected doubling of the blind population over the next 20 years, and building awareness about what its work.

To help do that, Boucher has hired Larry Colbourne, former assistant vice president for credit product management at Wachovia, as the agency’s first development director.

 “We’ve never met a person who didn’t like us,” Boucher says, “but most people don’t know us.”

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