Brian Houser danced down the hall when he learned that Lighthouse for the Blind-St. Louis had won a seven-year, $19.5 million contract from the Defense Logistics Agency.
“I felt complete jubilation and relief,” said Houser, director of sales and marketing for the nonprofit manufacturing and packing organization. “I did what some people in the office call my ‘happy dance’ because I had put a lot of hours and effort into securing that contract.”
Lighthouse for the Blind, which has a headquarters plant in Overland and a second plant in Berkeley, manufactures liquid and aerosol paints, liquid and aerosol cleaning supplies, medical kits and catheters. The organization has 94 total employees, 47 of whom are legally blind, and it sells its products both commercially and through contracts with the federal government.
Houser oversees Lighthouse for the Blind’s contracts with several government agencies and departments, including the General Services Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Forest Service.
The Defense Logistics Agency, which provides logistics support to the U.S. Department of Defense, notified Lighthouse for the Blind in December that the nonprofit had won the contract. The organization started receiving orders in February.
Before winning the $19.5 million contract, Lighthouse for the Blind produced paints and corrosion preventative compounds for the U.S. General Services Administration, but in the wake of spending cutbacks, the federal government decided to have the Defense Logistics Agency oversee the contract with the Lighthouse for the Blind instead. This action required the nonprofit to negotiate prices with the new agency, a process that spanned the course of about five months.
In 2013 and 2014, Lighthouse for the Blind suffered from sharp declines in orders from the government due to efforts to curb federal spending, especially in the military. In fact, Houser said, the General Services Administration stopped buying items from the nonprofit altogether for several months in 2014.
To cope with falling sales from its government contracts, the organization laid off 25 percent of its staff, including 20 legally blind and four sighted employees, in 2013, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report. Houser said while Lighthouse for the Blind did not let go of any full-time workers in 2014, the nonprofit had to decrease its number of production hours per week.
“We had to drastically cut hours as needed and eliminate all of the temps,” he said. “Sometimes, we had to go down to working three or four days a week.”
Lighthouse for the Blind, which was established in 1933 to offer full-time employment for blind and visually impaired individuals, used to manufacture mops and brooms. The nonprofit sold its cleaning products to the federal government through contracts with different agencies.
“Over the years, we went from making very simple items to making more complex things as technology for blind and visually impaired people advanced,” said John Thompson, Lighthouse for the Blind’s president and CEO. “It has been within the past 30 years that we have begun making aerosol products with all employees on the manufacturing floor being blind.”
Even though Lighthouse for the Blind has evolved since 1933, Thompson said the organization’s core purpose remains the same.
“Our mission is to provide gainful employment for people who are blind and to give them pay and benefits that would be competitive with other jobs of this kind,” he said.
Only 40.2 percent of working-age adults with significant vision loss were employed in 2013, according to the National Federation of the Blind.
“Lighthouse for the Blind is supporting the economy of the area by making individuals who might not have as many employment options be self-supporting and taxpaying citizens,” said David Ekin, president of the St. Louis Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “For many individuals, sighted or blind, employment adds to self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment and purpose.”
Jonathan Clemons, a line attendant at the plant in Berkley, has worked for Lighthouse for the Blind for more than five years. He said the organization has positively impacted his life because it has helped him financially support his six children, three of whom currently live with him.
“Lighthouse for the Blind has given me a stable job that allows me to provide for my family and to move ahead in life,” he said.
The new deal
Lighthouse for the Blind’s seven-year contract with the Defense Logistics Agency consists of two segments: one, valued at about $17.5 million, is for the production of paints and primers, and the other, worth about $1.9 million, is for the manufacturing of corrosion preventative compounds.
The new federal work is expected to provide about $2.8 million of revenue per year for the organization, with the paints and primers project bringing in about $2.5 million annually and the corrosion preventative compounds project yielding $279,000 per year, Houser said.
Lighthouse for the Blind generated total revenues of about $24 million in 2015, according to a March 2 press release from the nonprofit about its Defense Logistics Agency contract, and total revenues of about $24 million in 2014, according to the organization’s 2014 IRS 990 form.
About 36 of Lighthouse for the Blind’s legally blind employees will work on the contract with the Defense Logistics Agency. Manufacturing of the deal’s products will occur at the Berkeley plant, while its orders will be processed at the headquarters plant in Overland.
Houser said the expected revenues from the contract will not raise the wages of the employees that work on it, but it will benefit the organization by providing a significant stream of income for seven years.
Expansion into the commercial industry
The Lighthouse for the Blind, which until 2014 had filled orders only from the government, chose to make its first foray into the commercial industry by acquiring Quake Kare in February 2014 and Val-A Chicago in June 2015. Quake Kare, formerly based in California, manufactured emergency survival and disaster preparedness kits. Val-A Chicago, previously located in Illinois, produced the Tear Mender line of adhesives and sealants.
Lighthouse for the Blind makes and packages both Quake Kare and Val-A Chicago products at its St. Louis-area plants. The Tear Mender items are sold at retailers like Ace Hardware and Walmart, and the Quake Kare kits are sold online.
“We wanted to get into the commercial side of business because it has steadier revenues and work than the government,” Houser said.
In addition to offering employment opportunities to the blind and visually impaired community in St. Louis, Lighthouse for the Blind dedicates a portion of its annual budget to funding support programs for low-vision individuals across Missouri.
Houser said if Lighthouse for the Blind had not received the contract from the Defense Logistics Agency, the organization would have been forced to cut its budget for programs from $1.5 million in 2015 to $1 million for 2016. But expected revenues from the agreement have allowed the nonprofit to increase the budget to $1.7 million for this year.
The organization’s programs include a mobile low-vision clinic that provides optometric exams to children in rural areas throughout the state and evaluates what resources they need based on their visual acuity. Lighthouse for the Blind also hosts a three-week residential program for teenage students to teach them skills that will prepare them for living on their own.
To serve younger children, the organization funds programs run by the Delta Gamma Center for Children with Visual Impairments in St. Louis. One of these initiatives supported by the Lighthouse for the Blind is the Group Recreation and Development Support (GRADS) program. GRADS hosts monthly meetings during which school-aged children can participate in recreational activities, such as hiking and riding bicycles.
“The reality is that there are still very many parts of our community that are not prepared to include kids with visual impairments,” said Debbie Naucke, the Delta Gamma Center’s executive director. “But Lighthouse for the Blind supports programs that help kids realize they have the basic skills to go forward and be successful in life.”