As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Reinhard Mabry of Alphapointe.
Reinhard Mabry is the president and chief executive officer of Alphapointe. Alphapointe is the national non-profit organization dedicated to empowering people with vision loss to achieve their goals and aspirations. Manufacturing tens of millions of products annually, Alphapointe is one of the largest employers of people who are blind in the U.S. with more than 400 employees, more than half of whom are blind or visually impaired. Alphapointe also provides comprehensive vision rehabilitation services to thousands of children, adults and seniors annually. Founded in 1911 and headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., with a facility in Queens, N.Y., Alphapointe’s business lines include plastics, micro-molding, office products manufacturing and sales, textiles manufacturing and sales, janitorial products, contact center services and retail stores at military bases in Missouri and Arkansas.
Mabry began his career in the field of blindness in 1994 when he joined RESPECT, Florida’s state use program. He was appointed as the director by the Governor’s Commission for Purchase from the Blind and other Severely Handicapped. He was also director of Georgia Enterprises, Georgia’s state use program, during a transitional period for that program. He was a vice president for Winston-Salem’s Industries for the Blind, responsible for marketing, business development, and Base Supply Center stores before joining Alphapointe in 2006.
Mabry is president of the Board of Directors of The National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind. He is chairperson of the Kansas Advisory Committee for Blind and Visually Impaired and formerly served on the board of directors of VisionServe Alliance. Mabry received his Bachelor of Science in Political Science and his MBA from Florida State University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was born in Vienna, Austria and lived overseas for a lot of my early years as my father worked as a civilian for the U.S. government. I lived in Austria, the Philippines and the Ivory Coast in Africa. When I first came back to the U.S., I lived in Washington, D.C. I really valued the experience of living outside of the country and gained an appreciation for our nation and the benefits and opportunities of living in a free society.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My family was very patriotic. After living outside of the country, I was very thankful for the freedoms we have as citizens of the United States. Early on, I had a desire to give back to the community and the country because so much had been given to me. That was instilled in me by my parents, particularly my father, who had served in the military for a decade and then had a career as a civilian in the government for nearly 20 years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was working in North Carolina at an agency that serves people who are blind, I was scheduled to go on a trip with one of our blind employees. He had never traveled with me before. Because of that, his wife was very nervous about him traveling without her. We didn’t have the budget for her to travel as well, so it was just me and him. There was a lot of anxiety all around. Thigs went pretty smoothly for most of the trip, navigating airports, taxis, restaurants, etc. But, as the trip was ending and we were waiting at the gate for our return flight, right there in the middle of the airport, I walked away and left him to go get something to eat for the two of us. It was just a brief lapse and I was probably only 20 or 30 feet away, but he certainly wondered where I was and why I had left. “Whoops!” I was reminded that you need to be vigilant all the time when you’re taking somebody into an environment that they aren’t familiar with. It was a good reminder of the responsibility you have when you’re guiding somebody who’s blind. After that brief moment of concern, we both laughed about it. I ask him not to tell his wife about what happened. We laughed about that many times over the years.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have so many people who have been important to me. My parents instilled important values in me about how to treat people, about integrity and about hard work. I did have a mentor, Tim, who was the assistant director of RESPECT of Florida. We became good friends over the years, but early on, I was new to the field and very green. Tim sat me down early on and asked me about my intentions. He essentially said that there are two paths I could take: I could learn a bit, but become cynical or disenchanted with the difficulties we face to help people with disabilities find work and I’d likely be looking for another job in a year. Or, serving people with disabilities would get in my blood. He said, if that happens, you’ll never want to leave. As it turned out, he was absolutely right. It’s made for a lifelong and very rewarding career for me.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There was a small organization outside of Tampa that needed a project to energize them. It was located in a rural community and served people with developmental disabilities. They just couldn’t get themselves grounded. I wasn’t sure how I could help them or whether what I did could have any benefit. I helped them secure two small contracts with the state of Florida to supply products — a couple of different versions of a day calendar. They seemed pretty insignificant to me. I didn’t realize how much those small contracts would mean to that organization. A year later, I visited the organization again and there was a significant amount of construction happening and a new energy. They had parlayed those small government contracts into additional commercial business that allowed them to grow and serve more people. They were incredibly thankful and it really underscored for me how important these contracts were — even if it seemed like they were relatively small from a dollars standpoint. Their value for the organization, building muscle memory and confidence was vitally important. And the impact on the people they served was quite significant. They ended up serving dozens of people with disabilities with the business they secured. It is one of my earliest successes in our field. I treasure the memory of the hugs I received from employees that day who were so appreciative of their new jobs. It demonstrated to me that small successes can build on themselves and that I could make a difference.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The drive comes from keeping the end goal in mind. You accept that you’ll have tough times and challenges along the way. The challenge of helping people with disabilities secure gainful employment and satisfying careers where they can provide for themselves and their families can seem hard. The unemployment statistics suggest that it is daunting. But, each day, we try to make an impact. Small steps. I’ve been a goal-setter throughout my life. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there and that’s certainly true in this field. In everything that we’ve done, we set goals — usually lofty goals — and when obstacles get in the way, we don’t stop because we still have the goal in mind. I believe you have to break through. To use a football analogy, everything is about moving the ball down the field.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Our nonprofit field that is charged with growing employment of people who are blind is relatively small. We’re a fraternity, if you will. At every level, I’ve had success and that’s allowed me to have the ability to not only do more within the organizations where I’ve worked, but also to have an influence and effect on national policy. We’ve been able to make an impact at a policy level. We’ve been able to improve goal setting and performance across the industry. I’m really proud of that because it makes all of us better. That means we’re able to serve more people. More people will get jobs and have fulfilling careers as a result of the work that’s being done. I’m glad to play a small part in that effort.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our business is about people and there are so many stories about amazing people. Alphapointe is focused on creating employment for people who are blind, but at the end of the day, it’s about the people we serve. We had a team member — Cornell Williams — who contracted coronavirus because, even though he is blind himself, he was bringing food, medication and supplies to people in the Bronx who couldn’t leave their homes in the early stages of the pandemic. Cornell spent a week in the hospital, went through a tremendous amount of pain and eventually had to isolate himself from his family for nearly a month. And, as soon as he was out of quarantine, he was back at Alphapointe as the lead porter at our facility in Queens and he went back to delivering essential items to his neighbors who needed help. We have more than 200 individual stories like that at Alphapointe where people overcome a tremendous amount of adversity. Those stories really energize you. Anyone who comes through our organization, whether they’re an employee, a potential donor, or a policy maker — they all are completely blown away and inspired by what they see.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Celebrating successes is incredibly important. We all need to revel in each employee’s accomplishments, no matter how big or how small. Those achievements keep you energized. Some people are driven by sales. I’m driven by successes of the people we serve. When we are able to hire another person who is blind, give them a new role in our organization, or place them in a job in the community, it becomes like a drug and you just want more and more.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We celebrate each success. Blindness is a low incidence disability, and the unemployment rate is incredibly high — typically around 70 percent — and it has gotten worse because of the pandemic. We’re able to make a positive impact on employment in the communities where we serve people by demonstrating the talents and capabilities of people who are blind as an untapped workforce. Our work is a demonstration project of sorts, which changes the hearts and minds of employers by reveling in the successes of our employees and the people we serve. I believe that is making a difference. It may seem small, but the successes are building up.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Get out on the floor and meet the people — if you go out and meet the people, they will support you in both the good times and the tough times. They will energize you. When I give tours in our building, people are usually surprised that I know the names of our employees. To me, it’s essential. Many CEOs don’t take the time to get to know their employees. I think that matters because we’re in a people business. It’s important that they know me and for me to know them, so they know I’m approachable.
- “Hire slow and fire fast” — I didn’t follow this practice early in my career. Selecting new team members should be done carefully. In an enterprise with limited resources, the need to fill a spot sometimes caused me to rush hiring decisions. There were many mistakes made along the way. And deciding when someone is not a good fit can be difficult. I wish I had learned sooner to make those decisions more quickly. In the social service sector, you want to help people, so you tend to take longer to make decisions to let someone go. Often, the employee is just as frustrated as the employer. Once both sides come to that realization, the employee leaves and, in many cases, they’re happier. I recall occasions where former employees returned to thank us because their situation improved from their perspective. Doing that more quickly is better for everyone.
- Overcommunicate — in the midst of the pandemic, it was obvious how important it is to communicate. We kept people informed of what was happening and how we were responding. It provided assurance to our team that we took their safety seriously. Early on in my career, I was more cautious. I wanted to wait until I had all the answers. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. In fact, I believe people respect you more for admitting that you don’t have everything figured out. At the outset of the pandemic, we had to acknowledge that there were unknowns and that we were working on the problem together.
- Set big goals — the tendency of some people is to be cautious. I think having a big goal in mind and sharing that with your organization matters. It gives employees a clear understanding of your intentions; it makes clear where you want to go and how everyone can work help to get us there. We’ve created a scorecard and a dashboard for departments, which provide a clear understanding of the goals and what metrics we need to hit to make progress towards achieving the goals.
- Make it fun — one of our values at Alphapointe was to simply make things fun. We see each other for 8–10 or more hours per day, five days per week — sometimes longer. Having fun is important. You won’t keep people engaged without having fun. We celebrate our professional sports teams with pep rallies. We have contests between the factories, opportunities for people to dress up for holidays and other activities throughout the year. For our holiday parties, we incorporate a talent show which is great. People let their guard down and demonstrate their talents. People will make up songs that poke lighthearted fun at ourselves. The talent of our people is amazing — we had a deaf-blind person play the piano exceptionally well. We have people who are normally shy who will sing beautifully. We saw a tangible difference in the camaraderie and closeness of our staff when we encouraged people to have fun as a part of the job.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I’ve tried to be a lifelong learner to improve on my own leadership every day. I’m more open and more vulnerable today than when I started my career. And, I’m more secure in that vulnerability. I think I’m also more articulate about sharing our mission, our vision and our goals now than earlier in my career. I suspect my message was a bit muddled early on.
Alphapointe has grown in size, impact and the number of people we serve over the years. We’ve gained visibility and demonstrated greater value within our local communities. Those are success metrics. Many leaders believe that culture eats strategy. I think there is truth in that. Our culture today at Alphapointe is healthier than when I started. Being goal driven, having fun, being a bit vulnerable, overcommunicating and knowing one another — those are all things that have improved the culture of the organization and allowed us to work together more effectively as a team. This healthy culture was visible throughout the pandemic. Our employees trusted one another and they trusted management. And they wanted to help each other. As an example, our rehabilitation staff knew that people who are blind needed essential items such as bathroom tissue and paper towels, so they drove around the city buying scarce items and set up a dispensary at Alphapointe for those employees to obtain these items. We had several people unable to get to work because of the reduced availability of public transportation, so we had other employees pick people up and bring them to work. We had people doing jobs that normally they wouldn’t do such as assembling items just to ensure we met our obligations. We have experienced a surge in demand for products used by the government to deal with the national crisis. Our people have put in a lot of overtime to ensure we delivered. There were so many of those examples during the pandemic which confirmed for me that we have a strong culture.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
While we learn from peers, some things can only be learned by making mistakes. I think adversity is our best teacher because you learn from what you don’t do well versus what you do well.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
When I started at Alphapointe, we had one person on our board of directors who was visually impaired. Today, we have several people on our board who are visually impaired and their perspective is critical to our conversations. Their perspective helps guide our decisions. They tend to be bolder and move the organization further and faster. If every corporation in the country had at least one person with a disability on their board, I think we would see more people with disabilities becoming part of the workforce. They would change the conversation in boardrooms and move the needle on employment of people with disabilities because those companies would be more understanding of the capacity of a workforce that is largely sitting on the bench, desperately wanting to get in the game. I’m hopeful that Alphapointe’s successes and the fact that we have a number of people with disabilities on our board and at all levels of the organization will help cause others to want the same for their boards and their organizations. When we’re exceptional, our expertise is sought and I think the makeup of our board and our workforce at all levels can inspire other organizations to pursue that same diversity.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
People can view our website at Alphapointe.org and can access us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn from the website.