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Margo Walsh seems happiest at the wheel of her pickup truck, driving from job site to job site around Portland, stretching upward and pointing excitedly when she comes upon her workers.
“This group of guys here on the right is all with MaineWorks,” she enthuses and nods toward several men in bright yellow construction vests working across from the Cross Insurance Arena. They are working for Shaw Brothers Construction on a city project. “I really respect Jon and Danny Shaw. Every time I go out there at 5:30 in the morning to bring a guy [MaineWorks worker] out there, they are the first people at the work site. And that is a multi-million-dollar company.”
The morning we met had been unusual for Walsh, the founder of temporary industrial labor agency MaineWorks LLC in Windham: it was one of the few occasions when a couple of workers didn't show at a different job site, and substitutes had to be reassigned quickly.
Walsh pulled into a parking space so we could talk further, and eyed a disheveled man walking past. “There's a typical guy who should be working for me,” she says. “He will end up in a sober house somewhere, and if he has anything on the ball, he will work for me. But he is high or under the influence of something right now.”
Walsh, who founded MaineWorks in 2011, has seen strong demand from construction companies and their subcontractors for her workers. Revenues have almost doubled each year since she started the agency, and she expects to pull in $1.8 million by the end of 2014. She started with some financial help from her sisters, then got some CEI funding and what she calls a generous line of credit from People's United Bank. The company is profitable.
Hers is no ordinary employment service. She hires workers who others typically won't — veterans reentering the workforce, immigrants, recovering drug or alcohol abusers and those with previous nonviolent convictions — and gives them a chance to rebuild their lives. She makes her money from the difference she pays her employees and charges customers like Cianbro, Shaw Brothers, PC Construction and other Associated General Contractors of America members.
The jobs are temporary. She keeps about 50 people on staff at a time at 15 different locations throughout the state, including Bangor, Ellsworth, Augusta and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, with help from a regional manager. More than 300 workers have passed through her agency over the past year.
“I just turned 50, but I feel like I'm living on borrowed time,” she says. “I feel I've done so much because of the work I do.” Walsh talks with the intensity of someone living in the fast lane, leaning forward to meet your gaze head on with her blue eyes. But she also speaks somewhat deliberately, wanting to make sure you understand the importance of her mission.
She knows, personally, the pain, loss, isolation, indifference and recidivism of being an addict, and describes herself as a recovering alcoholic, noting proudly that she's been sober for 18 years.
“I was sick of blacking out,” she recalls of making the choice to turn around her life. “My sister said she wouldn't talk to me again, so I went to rehab.”
Watching her workers, who've had more recent brushes with drugs and alcohol, isn't a temptation, she says. “It's a way to remind me of the drive for recovery.”
And while she exudes compassion, no one mistakes her for a pushover. She checks up on her workers regularly, making sure they show up for work sober and on time.
“She's the first who has focused on those groups of people,” says Alan Shaver, one of Walsh's mentors at SCORE, where she recently was recognized with one of seven success awards in the category of Successful Innovative Small Business. Shaver, now based in Harpswell, previously was a corporate lawyer in New York and then ran six Midas car service center franchise shops in Maine. He advised Walsh on her business plan and financial projections going forward.
“She's clear-eyed, orderly and disciplined and thinks carefully about what she's doing and how she manages her business,” he adds. Shaver says her advice already is sought elsewhere: the Commonwealth of Virginia invited her to talk to their corrections officers about her program.
“She drives to job sites every day,” he says, adding that her presence is a key part of the company's success. Shaver and another Harpswell resident, Douglas Collins, both mentored Walsh for SCORE. Collins was an actuary and consultant.
Shaver says Walsh is considering whether her business model can be replicated elsewhere. Indeed, part of Walsh's five-year plan is to have 50 workers in Maine and New Hampshire and 50 in the western United States, likely in Colorado, double the current number. And she aims to push revenues to $5 million by then.
Born in Cumberland Foreside, Walsh earned a degree in psychology from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, then worked in New York City as a recruiter in Goldman Sachs' investment banking division and elsewhere. She returned to Maine to take care of sick parents, had two children and a divorce, then returned to the workforce.
“I realized I needed to be working, but I've never been one for an office job,” she says.
She became a volunteer at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland, talking to the inmates about recovering from alcoholism. She emphasizes that jail time before sentencing generally lacks the work programs available to people in prison. She noticed the people in jail weren't working, and that's how she came up with the idea for her company.
“Jail is pre-sentencing, so you're sitting there bored to death,” she says. She picks her employees from pre-release centers around the states, where those who were incarcerated are close to being released. Unlike halfway houses, which she says are like private enterprises, the pre-release centers are run by the jail system.
“The guys are looking for employment and at my company as the place for recovery and re-entry [into the workforce and society],” she says, adding that some 75% of jail inmates in Maine are there because of something they did related to drugs or alcohol. “If you take drugs and alcohol out [of the equation], you have a huge group of people who are relatively high functioning,” and ready for jobs, she says. After doing temp work successfully, some even get hired permanently by her client companies.
“My primary associations now for recruiting are from local, sober-living houses, because I can't require abstinence, but my business is based on trying to help people who have a drug and alcohol past,” she says. And though MaineWorks is a for-profit company, that measurable social impact qualifies it to be a B Corporation.
Everybody who works for her for longer than two weeks and shows up every day goes through MaineWorks' proprietary “work well” program. “There, I'm trying to dignify the experience of working as a temp. So for all of these guys right over there, I or my human resources director will meet with them and say, 'How are you? What are your obstacles to getting on with your life right now? How can we get you past temping.'”
Walsh, who has always done work related to recruiting and human resources, says she has had to develop an especially keen “B.S” meter to identify would-be workers. “I've become way more cynical, mostly because of my fiancé. He is extremely tuned in to all of this and he's looking out for my safety,” she says. “But I don't feel at risk.” Still, she keeps her home address private.
As a next step for the company, she'd like to create an apprenticeship to the construction industry. “I would like to start working with other high school programs and Southern Maine Community College and create an apprenticeship program that is meaningful and involves training and life skills, financial management, Life 101 basically,” she says.
She has developed relationships with her client companies that she says rely on her hiring model and discretion to supply workers. She says some competing temp agencies simply select people “who look good” from a line of hopeful workers. “It's like buying horses. They drive up, size you up and if you look healthy, they'll pull you. It's really dangerous,” she says.
She admits to getting frustrated at times.
“Addiction is a disease of recidivism. As long as you can accept that fact, then every experience of success that someone has is building a greater possibility that one day they may be sober,” she says. “I don't know why I do this [sometimes], because it's so especially frustrating. Alcoholism is like having a house full of termites, whereas drug addiction is like a house on fire.”
But she finds power in people who have been broken by addiction and helping them rebuild. “My passion is fueled by that,” she says. “Basically your life has been like a bag of marbles on the kitchen floor, and recovery is about trying to gather them back.”