Business growing at Industries for the Blind

David Horton
David Horton

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – In August, Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind began shipping 100 cargo parachutes a month to be used by the U.S. military for cargo drops in  Afghanistan.

And with more military personnel returning from the Gulf War, the nonprofit agency expects its revenue from eyeglasses it manufactures and sells at 21 Veterans Administration  hospitals to increase this year to as much $15 million from $12 million last.

With 800 employees, including 420 who are blind or legally blind, Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind operates with an annual budget of $100 million and is the largest employer of blind individuals in North Carolina and the largest of 87 similar agencies throughout the U.S., says David Horton, its executive director.

The group operates at 41 locations throughout the U.S., including manufacturing plants in Winston-Salem, Asheville and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and generates about $60 million in revenue through military contracts.

“We take care of the solider in the field through military products,” Horton says. “We take care of the soldier’s family on the base through a commissary program.”

The agency, for example, makes advanced-combat helmet pads, advanced-combat shirts and shipboard mattresses.

It also generates about $40 million in revenue from other products.

In addition to making and selling eyeglasses for veterans, for example, the agency operates Paperclips Etc. office-supply stores at 15 military bases and other locations, and makes and sells mattresses for the University of North Carolina system, private colleges and universities in North Carolina, and military bases in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Textiles represent a big part of business at the agency, which has developed a long-term relationship with Winston-Salem-based Hanesbrands.

Hanesbrands has donated equipment for use in the agency’s three manufacturing plants, including a cutting machine for the Winston-Salem plant that makes t-shirts for the military.

Operated by a legally-blind employee, the cutting machine would have cost $250,000 if purchased new, Horton says.

Over the past three years, he says, equipment Hanesbrands donated, worth at least $1 million, has helped create and support 30 new jobs for people who are blind, he says.

And because the equipment is complicated, employees have had to acquire new skills to use it, he says.

That is important, he says, because a big focus at Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind is training employees, and then retraining them to handle new products.

“We always have new products in the works,” he says.

The contract for the new cargo parachute, for example, will generate $600,000 a year, with the opportunity to grow, says Jeanne Wilkinson, the agency’s vice president of business strategies.

Also growing is the agency’s eyeglass business.

Launched in 2001, annual revenues from the business grew to $12 million last year from $8 million three years earlier and are expected to grow another $2 million to $3 million over the next year.

In recognition of its partnership with Hanesbrands, Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind this year presented the company with its 2010 Commodore Funderburk Visionary Award.

Mike Faircloth, senior vice president of global supply chain support at Hanesbrands, has served as a member of the agency’s board and as a volunteer for nearly 10 years.

“We value our relationship with Hanesbrands,” Horton says, “as their contributions over the years have helped to change lives for people who are blind.”

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