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March 22, 2010 | last updated January 18, 2012 11:15 am

All in a day's work | Tom Davis applies business acumen to employ the developmentally disabled in Maine

Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Hard hat in hand, Tom Davis takes a stroll through the yard at Sebasticook Farms Lumber Yard

VIEW: See more Tom Davis and Skills Inc.

Tom Davis leans over the conference table in his St. Albans office, perching on his seat to pose a question that illustrates the business philosophy behind his successful nonprofit: "Do you like the circus?" Well, honestly, not so much. "OK," he says, "Do you like Shakespeare plays?" Sure, from time to time. Circus fans, Davis goes on to explain, often steer clear of productions of King Lear or Macbeth, while Shakespeare admirers tend to avoid circus clowns and elephants. "Now," Davis says, "what do you get when you combine the two?" He waits. Much Ado About Juggling? "Cirque du Soleil," he says — something truly unique that appeals to circus fans, Shakespeare buffs and, importantly, a whole new crowd.

The illustrative example, drawn from the best-selling "Blue Ocean Strategy" business manual, underlies Davis' leadership of Skills Inc., a nonprofit that provides support services to adults with developmental disabilities in Kennebec and Somerset counties. Though he admits he's still chasing that never-before-seen idea, Davis, a trim 62-year-old former entrepreneur, has carved a distinct path for Skills Inc. by applying business principles to the organization's operation. Skills Inc. operates a regionally competitive sawmill, a computer recycling business, a traditional recycling center and three thrift stores, all staffed by people with developmental disabilities. That's in addition to its dozens of group homes, day programs and crisis centers in both counties.

The businesses generate a sizeable 18% of Skills Inc.'s $17 million annual budget, with the remainder coming from state and federal sources. But Davis would like to see that figure reach 35%. "It's freedom, it's choice," he says. "The bigger that number is, the more options you have on the board." After all, you can't use Medicare money to fund a business venture. "That 18% is the window that lets the sunlight in," he says.

As he relaxes back into his chair, Davis is silhouetted against another, literal window. Through it, Sebasticook Farms Lumber Mill, the organization's sawmill, sits just across Route 152, a muddy patch of activity on a drab March afternoon. On the wall hangs an aerial photo of the sawmill, originally built in 1980, taken before the structure was completely overhauled four years ago. Three decades ago, "anything employing people with disabilities that didn't go broke was a roaring success," Davis says.

Lumbering along

When Davis joined Skills Inc. in 1999, the sawmill had worn out both its equipment and its position in the market. Now, largely thanks a risk-tolerant board and the vision of the sawmill's manager, Vernon Martin, a profitable Sebasticook Lumber employs 25 workers, 12 of them disabled, and uses state-of-the-art custom equipment to saw more than 5 million board feet of hardwood a year. "We can saw anything that anybody wants," he says, counting cabinetmakers, boat builders and Popsicle stick makers among its customers.

Bundled up in a heavy work jacket and hard hat, Davis leaves his office and darts across the road to the mill's yard. Navigating muddy tire ruts in his dress shoes, Davis, who knew next to nothing about sawmills when he first took the executive director job, points out the various species — hard maple, yellow birch, white birch. As he enters the din and dust of the mill, his earplugs go in and a silent tour begins.

First is the production line, where the logs enter and are fed through machines, neatly labeled with names like "outfeed roller belt" and "vertical resaw." The logs make several passes through the resaw's blade, beginning to take shape as lumber, before being smoothed by a laser-guided edger. Farther down the line, Davis wordlessly points to a blue T-shirted employee chewing on a straw who slices off imperfections with a trim saw. Moving along, Davis crosses to the sorting side of the operation, where most of the disabled employees work, separating the lumber by grade and value.

Safety is a concern in any sawmill, let alone one that employs the developmentally disabled. But because of its focus on safety, which includes weeks of employee orientation, Sebasticook Farms has never had a serious accident, Davis says.

Earplugs dangling around his neck, he proceeds to the end of the sorting line, where bark, wood chips and sawdust mount in piles, destined for biomass plants, farms and elsewhere. "Everything has a home," he says. "You don't waste anything."

New approach

That waste not, want not approach also extends to Skills Inc.'s latest venture, a computer recycling business called eWaste Alternatives. Based in Waterville, the operation is a potential "game-changer" if its model can be proven and offered to other nonprofits as a ready-made business, Davis says.

Key to the business' model is the reuse of about one-third of the equipment. Typically, computer recyclers don't bother attempting to refurbish units. "We take the pile of computers and the first thing we do is test and see what's reusable," Davis says. The refurbished devices, many of which "every college kid in the world would want," are then resold online and through Skills Inc.'s thrift stores. Employees disassemble the remaining material, recycling glass and other components, before leftover scrap is sent away for disposal.

Davis has already convinced companies, including DeLorme and TD Bank, to donate their computer equipment to eWaste Alternatives, but he's scouting for more. Three years in, the business, while certainly lacking the spectacle of Cirque du Soleil, flirts with breaking even. As public resources for nonprofits dry up, Davis, who also serves as president of the Maine Association of Nonprofits board, is encouraging more organizations to consider such social enterprises. "Many people within the nonprofit world look at it as a curiosity," he says.

Davis' work exploring new ways for nonprofits to fulfill their missions last fall brought him to the doorstep of one of Maine's storied human services organizations. Good Will-Hinckley, which for more than 120 years served disadvantaged youths at its sprawling campus along the Kennebec River, last summer shut down its core residential services and laid off more than 100 employees.

Davis assembled a group of nonprofit and for-profit leaders to recommend changes to put Good Will-Hinckley back on track. An action committee is working on those suggestions, but the nonprofit's board has yet to endorse them. The faltering of such a robustly endowed and resourced organization begs a question other nonprofits must consider, Davis says: "If these guys can't make it, what's the message there?"

Within his own organization, Davis continues his efforts to ensure Maine's disabled residents have employment. Last June, he made the painful decision to close a struggling kennel Skills Inc. had operated for six years in Pittsfield that was staffed by three disabled workers. Fixing what he sees as one of society's most important problems continues to keep him from the private sector, where he spent 17 years as, among other things, a hotel and tavern owner and an investor.

While Maine has made great strides in serving the disabled, providing more of them with jobs remains a lofty goal, Davis says. "We have done an absolutely horrible, wretched job with employment," he says, shaking his head with disgust. "It has been absolutely the hardest area to make progress on."

But Davis thinks of his father, who worked his way up from truck driver to vice president over 49 years at Kraft Foods in Ohio, when he seeks focus. His father always asked, to his teenaged son's utter exasperation, "Does it sell cheese?" It may not be as catchy, but Davis says he now poses this question to himself: "Will it make the lives of people with disabilities better?"

Tom Davis
Age: 62
Favorite place outside work: On the golf course
Leadership icon: His father, Dan Davis, a 49-year Kraft Foods employee whose adage was, "Does it sell cheese?"
Maine's biggest challenge: Creating sustainable jobs without destroying the environment
Maine's biggest opportunity: Figuring out how to create those jobs
Best business advice:
From his former boss, a liquor store owner and Auschwitz survivor, "Think of something truly unique that's never been done before.



Skills Inc.
461 Hartland Road, St. Albans; 10 Quarry Road, Waterville
CEO: Tom Davis
Founded: 2005, following a merger
Employees: 340
Annual budget: $17 million
Contact: 938-4615, 872-6484
www.skillsinc.net

Jackie Farwell, Mainebiz staff reporter, can be reached at jfarwell@mainebiz.biz.

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