Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.

EP 7 - Protecting Front-Line Workers, Employees & Community | Beyond Vision | Milwaukee, Wisconsin

April 30, 2021 Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, Beyond Vision Episode 7
Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.
EP 7 - Protecting Front-Line Workers, Employees & Community | Beyond Vision | Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.
EP 7 - Protecting Front-Line Workers, Employees & Community | Beyond Vision | Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Apr 30, 2021 Episode 7
Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, Beyond Vision

“Early on, we really just made the decision to trust our people, trust our culture and we did a lot of things to try to maximize safety.” – Jim Kerlin | President & CEO | Beyond Vision

In this episode of "Wisconsin Made. The Podcast." we highlight Beyond Vision out of Milwaukee who is a non-for-profit company with the mission to enrich the lives of people who are blind through the dignity of work. They offer manufacturing, fulfillment, assembly, packaging and customer care services employees to customers including Harley-Davidson, Caterpillar and Oshkosh Defense. During this episode, we gain insights on how Beyond vision provided additional way-finding tools to allow employees with vision loss to safely navigate and social distance. Plus, we learn about how their strong culture helped them through the pandemic.

Our guest joining us in this episode is Jim Kerlin, President & CEO of Beyond Vision who has a strong manufacturing, business and engineering background. He is the inventor and co-inventor of twelve patents, with several additional pending. Join us in this episode to understand how Jim has used his leadership skills to keep his employees and community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, he speaks about the opportunities available in Wisconsin for those who are visual impaired.

In this episode we answer:

  • Tell us a little bit about Beyond Vision and what 2020 was like for you? (1:50)
  • What are some of the big things that you had to do early on in the pandemic to really respond and keep your employees safe? (3:35)
  • Can you talk a little bit about your new emergency sick time off program? (8:10)
  • What is the outlook for Beyond Vision in 2021? Where do you see the company going and what challenges do you see happening the rest of this year? (11:00)
  • Where do you see manufacturing in Wisconsin going beyond 2021? Do you think it's on the upswing that it's going to continue to have a bright future? (14:00)
  • What would your message be to your employees for the way they responded over the past year? (18:15)

Next week, we will be joined by Ricardo Abud, President of CMD Corporation out of Appleton. We will learn more about the innovative changes they made within their manufacturing processes, how they were able to continue to communicate and work with their customers as travel restrictions were in place and how they were able to achieve business growth in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, we will talk a little bit about what the future holds for CMD Corporation and manufacturing in Wisconsin post-pandemic.

If you found value in this episode or want to hear the stories from Wisconsin manufacturers, please hit that subscribe button and share it with your peers. We really want to showcase all the good news stories of how manufacturing was critical in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.” is brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC).

Show Notes Transcript

“Early on, we really just made the decision to trust our people, trust our culture and we did a lot of things to try to maximize safety.” – Jim Kerlin | President & CEO | Beyond Vision

In this episode of "Wisconsin Made. The Podcast." we highlight Beyond Vision out of Milwaukee who is a non-for-profit company with the mission to enrich the lives of people who are blind through the dignity of work. They offer manufacturing, fulfillment, assembly, packaging and customer care services employees to customers including Harley-Davidson, Caterpillar and Oshkosh Defense. During this episode, we gain insights on how Beyond vision provided additional way-finding tools to allow employees with vision loss to safely navigate and social distance. Plus, we learn about how their strong culture helped them through the pandemic.

Our guest joining us in this episode is Jim Kerlin, President & CEO of Beyond Vision who has a strong manufacturing, business and engineering background. He is the inventor and co-inventor of twelve patents, with several additional pending. Join us in this episode to understand how Jim has used his leadership skills to keep his employees and community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, he speaks about the opportunities available in Wisconsin for those who are visual impaired.

In this episode we answer:

  • Tell us a little bit about Beyond Vision and what 2020 was like for you? (1:50)
  • What are some of the big things that you had to do early on in the pandemic to really respond and keep your employees safe? (3:35)
  • Can you talk a little bit about your new emergency sick time off program? (8:10)
  • What is the outlook for Beyond Vision in 2021? Where do you see the company going and what challenges do you see happening the rest of this year? (11:00)
  • Where do you see manufacturing in Wisconsin going beyond 2021? Do you think it's on the upswing that it's going to continue to have a bright future? (14:00)
  • What would your message be to your employees for the way they responded over the past year? (18:15)

Next week, we will be joined by Ricardo Abud, President of CMD Corporation out of Appleton. We will learn more about the innovative changes they made within their manufacturing processes, how they were able to continue to communicate and work with their customers as travel restrictions were in place and how they were able to achieve business growth in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, we will talk a little bit about what the future holds for CMD Corporation and manufacturing in Wisconsin post-pandemic.

If you found value in this episode or want to hear the stories from Wisconsin manufacturers, please hit that subscribe button and share it with your peers. We really want to showcase all the good news stories of how manufacturing was critical in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.” is brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC).

Jim Kerlin | President & CEO | Beyond Vision
But, you know early on, we really just made the decision to trust our people, trust our culture and we did a lot of things to try to maximize safety.

Voiceover
You’re listening to Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Now, here's your host, WMC Vice President of Communications and Marketing, Nick Novak.

Nick Novak (Host) | Vice President of Communications & Marketing | WMC
Hello and welcome to this week's episode of Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. The show that takes you inside the strength and resilience of Wisconsin's manufacturing community where we hear from Wisconsin CEOs and executives to learn about their challenges, opportunities and successes navigating their business throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m your host Nick Novak and today we're going to talk about Beyond Vision out of Milwaukee, but before we get started I do want to say a big thank you to our program partners Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. Together, we remain committed to our mission of recognizing excellence in manufacturing here in our state.

Well our guest joining us today is Jim Kerlin, President and CEO of Beyond Vision and we are very excited to hear how Beyond Vision really made it through 2020 you know some things that we can talk about for the future and a lot of the changes that they made over the past year and so Jim first off thanks for joining us today.

Jim Kerlin
Thanks for having me.

Nick Novak (Host)
To get started, just tell us a little bit about Beyond Vision, about the company and then let's talk a little bit about what 2020 was like for you?

Jim Kerlin
Yeah so I suspect this will be a little unique for your audience, so Beyond Vision is actually a non-profit social enterprise with the mission of providing gainful employment to people who have vision loss and blindness, so we're all about creating job opportunities and career paths for people with low or no vision and we're sort of the best kept secret in the Milwaukee area. We actually began back in 1903 and separated from the state, we were started by the state of Wisconsin, but separated by mutual agreement in the 80s and today we're a private social enterprise. We employ about 120 people and the majority of them are legally blind. The jobs that we provide are in an integrated and inclusive setting, our blind employees are working side by side by their you know with their typically sighted counterparts. Everybody here makes a competitive salary and benefits and there's equal opportunities for career advancement regardless of their visual acuity so and the way we create the jobs Beyond Vision is we essentially do work for other companies value-added work, services like call services, call center services, assembly packaging and even CNC machining, so yeah so we're all about creating job opportunities specifically for people with blindness.

Nick Novak (Host)
So let's talk a little bit about 2020 and some of the challenges that you faced and you know kind of talk about how you overcame those. Obviously you know we talk about social distancing, we talk about having to maybe you know you know change how a factory floor looks you know, what are some of the big things that you had to do early on in in the pandemic to really respond to this and keep your employees safe?

Jim Kerlin
Yeah what a ride, so Beyond Vision was first of all we were essential to all of our government customers including Homeland Security and Department of Defense and almost all of our commercial customers you know they were depending on us maintain our supply and and at the same time maximizing safety obviously was our number one priority as always and you can imagine the additional burdens that  are placed upon people with lower, no vision How do you consistently social distance when you can't see you know, our employees many of them are dependent on public transportation, so they I was just so proud of them that came in every day and put themselves in a hot spot every day and took care of our customers, so it was um particularly early on in the pandemic, it was quite a challenge. We you know when it became apparent in last March, we immediately developed a COVID-19 pandemic response plan from the very beginning and you know we followed CDC guidelines and also looked around and borrowed best practices from other companies and when you know in mid-March when the Coronavirus intensified, we had everybody who could work from home do that, work from home and so we created we created additional PTO policies for some of our employees that couldn't work from home, but needed to be off for personal health reasons, etc. We did a lot of communicating with daily I had a daily meeting with my senior staff and we would keep the employees informed via you know the normal means, text messages and emails and social media I got into a practice of doing a video messaging on a weekly basis which our employees really liked, so that that was keeping them up to date on you know what was going on, but you know early on we = really just made the decision to trust our people, trust our culture and we did a lot of things to try to maximize safety. We had to move some cells around on the manufacturing floor to ensure social distancing, so we had to move some workstations, we had to split lunch shifts so there was less people in the lunchroom at a time. We created barriers at all the tables in the lunch break room so that people you know could ensure social distancing sitting at the same table.

Nick Novak (Host)
So Jim I want to I want to talk about a little bit of that because obviously you know manufacturers all across Wisconsin were doing a lot of the same things that you're just describing here, but obviously you had a bigger challenge having a lot of your workforce you know either being blind or visually impaired so what were some of the specific things that you had to really go through to kind of augment some of those CDC protocols of social distancing, of having you know barriers between workstation, you know how much more did you have to do to make sure that you were keeping your workers safe.

Jim Kerlin
You know what, they're blind, they're not dumb right, so we talked to them and we trusted them and we said we told them you know we're going to take temperature every day and we want you to wear your mask if you're not in your office by yourself I mean our rules are simple or your mask we reminded them continuously of all of the you know recommendations you know when we would occasionally observe a situation where people inadvertently not realizing they were within the you know the social distancing protocol we would tell them and they would take action so I don't know that we did that much different than any other company. You know they were also very I mean I’m just proud of them, we've had about a dozen cases, about ten percent of our workforces have contracted it throughout the entire time period, but you know fortunately none of them were contracted inside of our facilities amazingly and all the cases were relatively minor and everybody recovered, so it's yeah it's kind of an amazing thing even though they have you know an additional burden obviously because of their lack of sight, they've done an amazing job, I’m proud of them.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well and I want to talk about you know having employees who did contract COVID-19 as you mentioned not in the workplace because you were taking those proper safety protocols, but you did something you know above and beyond for your employees to make sure that they were able to take that time off and quarantine and keep the rest of your workers safe you know instead of using the sick time or vacation time you guys actually created a new program that that gave emergency sick time off, can you talk a little bit about that?

Jim Kerlin
Yeah very early on during the first initial weeks of the pandemic emerging, we instituted 80 hours of additional emergency PTO, so two weeks of PTO for anybody that needed to be out because you know several people had I mean blindness is often there's often other maladies associated with blindness so some of our people have various other health conditions and some of them needed to be out so we created this emergency PTO and that and that was actually just before the federal if you remember early on the federal government had extended lead program so it kind of matched up to that nicely because our 80 hours was ending about the time the federal program started and so people that needed to be out for various reasons stayed out and they were able to continue to get paid and it was kind of surprising though that how people you know wanted to come back, it was interesting how people who could have stayed out longer you know wanted to come back to work, you know our folks really appreciate their jobs.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well it's that it's that strong work ethic that we have here in Wisconsin and you know that definitely shows through. We're going continue talking with Jim here in just a moment, but just going to take a quick break to thank our program sponsors and when we come back we're going to talk a little bit about the future of manufacturing here in Wisconsin, so stick with us.

Voiceover
Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. is brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well welcome back to Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. We are joined today by Jim Kerlin, President and CEO of Beyond Vision in Milwaukee and we've been talking a little bit about how Beyond Vision responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of the challenges that they overcame and you know now I want to shift a little bit and talk about the future of the manufacturing industry. Obviously we've seen so much innovation and so many changes over the last year, it definitely puts up some big question marks for 2021 and beyond so Jim you know from where you sit right now you know, what's the outlook for Beyond Vision in 2021? Where do you see the company going and what challenges do you see happening the rest of this year? 

Jim Kerlin
I mean I think our biggest challenge is that we're encouraging our employees not to let their guard down, so we're trying to encourage them to not become complacent. Again, they're still in harm's way as they're taking public transportation and as more and more people return to using public transportation that becomes a more a hazardous environment and so forth so you know as far as Beyond Vision is concerned we're really fortunate I mean we're very diversified companies and you know we saw softness in our commercial services because many of our commercial customers were pushed down by the pandemic, but that was more than offset by a really strong demand we had in our government products category and also we picked up a really nice call program for the state of Wisconsin that's continuing on today so we're fortunate. We, you know, we're diversified enough that we've come through this thing and a lot of our you know less diversified competitors close their doors and so there's going to be returning demand and less supply and we think, we hope that's going to mean more work and more job opportunities. Also, in the government segment, we you know the government is still largely working from home, all of the places that we operate in are, they're just starting to return to the ideas of working back in the facility. As that happens, we see strong demand for certain products that we distribute for PPE and cleaning supplies and other things so we're talking about that and then we also have a building program going on, so this is really sort of separate apart from our business although I suppose it speaks to the fact that we can even have a building program going on that you know the business is strong enough to do that but we purchased a building in West Allis as a former Sam’s Club, we're going to build a campus there which we're calling the Visibility Center which will be our new home because we're out of space here and but we're also hoping to have sister companies that provide services to the blindness community to co-locate in that facility and so it's kind of because the services are very fragmented, so this is something we've been working on for a number of years and you know fortunately our businesses is continue to be strong enough that we can we can do a program like that.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well I think that's absolutely fantastic to hear that you know you're able to expand and continue to grow the company and provide the services that you do. I want to talk a little bit about the you know the industry as a whole in manufacturing because as you mentioned there you know there's a lot of your colleagues who went out of business because of COVID-19 and that's going to shift a lot of you know a lot of the industry around, you know supply demand is going to kind of be up and down for a while is my guess and so what do you see generally looking at the manufacturing sector here in Wisconsin which employs you know one in six people and is nearly 20 of our state's economy, where do you see manufacturing going? Do you think that it's on the upswing and that it's going to continue to have a bright future?

Jim Kerlin
Yeah I mean for those that you know we're strong enough to survive through this I do I mean short term there's some pretty hefty challenges in supply chain you know anything that's coming from overseas right now is really a difficult category because there's a there's a believe it or not there's not a shortage of ships but there's a shortage of shipping containers for products coming in from Asian countries and so that's a short-term challenge. There's a steel shortage right now so a lot of companies including us are sometimes having difficulty getting that supply, so I think a lot of supply chain challenges in the short term, but you know and it depends on what category you're in, what product category or service category you're in as to whether or how soon you're going to be returning. I think in general yeah I think that manufacturing should really start to see returning demand and for those that were able to survive it, should really be a bright future.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well and one things that we've talked a lot on this podcast and you know generally at WMC is the fact that there is a workforce shortage, even as we're coming out of you know a recession and a global pandemic, Wisconsin is still short of workers, is that something that you're still experiencing is trying to find enough people to fill the jobs you have available?

Jim Kerlin
Unfortunately, no I would say unfortunately no, in the sense that so the reason we do what we do, the reason we have the mission of providing blind employment is there's this really sticky statistic of that seven out of ten people who are visually impaired and legally blind are not employed so there's you know over a million people in the country that are unemployed and blind right, there's and it really goes across the country so now unfortunately a lot of them have stopped looking so it's always a challenge for us to get the word out that yeah there's that we have opportunities and they're not just jobs or career paths right and they're not just again we're not your grandfather's sheltered workshop, these are real jobs with competitive pay and benefits and real opportunities for growth and so we're constantly working on getting the word out about that because there's you know thousands or tens of thousands depending on how large you draw the circle around where we are in Milwaukee and in our other locations of people out there that are unemployed, working age blind adults and so you know in the short term there's a little bit of hesitancy right now just because of COVID fear for people that are new to you know the workforce to take on, but I think in the long run, unfortunately as I say there's no shortage of people out there that we can hire so I wish there was,

Nick Novak (Host)
Well and I want to kind of wrap up here a little bit and obviously you know our partners at Baker Tilly and Michael Best you know we love being at The Pfister Hotel each year to celebrate manufacturers across Wisconsin and give out the awards you know at the at the event that we do obviously can't do that this year, it's one of the reasons we started the Wisconsin Made. podcast and so my question to you is if you were up on stage and you were accepting a Manufacturer of the Year award, you know in front of a room full of people at The Pfister, what would be your message to your employees and to the rest of the people in that room?

Jim Kerlin
I guess it would be stay positive, hang in there and we'll get through this and it's going to be better on the other side and you know we've gone through how many months now, I’ve lost track is it 10 months almost or a little over 10 months and a few more months we should have you know the vaccine widely enough distributed and reach what they call the herd mentality or herd immunity and so yeah hang in there, stay positive. I think it's I think any business leader,  it's the number one thing they can do to stay positive and stay focused on the future.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well Jim I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today about some of the challenges that Beyond Vision went through due to the COVID-19 pandemic and like we talked about, you really did overcome a lot of those challenges and it seems to be better on the other side so thanks again for joining us today.

Jim Kerlin
Will we ever stop wearing masks?

Nick Novak (Host)
That's a that's a great question and I mean we're I guess we'll just have to find out.

Jim Kerlin
Alright well thank you very much for the opportunity, I really appreciate it.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well that has been our conversation with Jim Kerlin, President and CEO of Beyond Vision in Milwaukee. Next week, we'll continue to share stories from other manufacturers who've adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic and we'll highlight CMD Corporation from Appleton and talk a little bit about the challenges, opportunities and successes that they had over this past year and we'll talk a little bit more about the future of manufacturing here in Wisconsin. If you found value in this episode, please hit that subscribe button and share it with your peers. For now, this is Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. I’m your host Nick Novak, thank you for listening.

Voiceover
This is Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. The show that takes you inside the strength and resilience of Wisconsin's manufacturing community where we hear from Wisconsin's CEOs and executives to learn about their challenges, opportunities and success navigating their business throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.