PRIDE Industries: A Nonprofit EMS and Staffing Firm Moves Into Mil-aero
PRIDE Industries is a contract manufacturing provider with a twist: The company provides training and coaching for job seekers with disabilities, including service-disabled veterans. If they don’t have openings in their Sacramento facility, they may have a job for you in one of 15 other states.
I recently spoke with Tony Lopez, PRIDE Industries’ vice president of manufacturing and logistics services, and Kat Maudru, public relations and social media manager. They discussed what it’s like operating a nonprofit EMS company, their recent move into the aerospace and defense segments, and how they’ve stuck to their founders’ original tenets since 1966.
Andy Shaughnessy: Tony, your company doesn't really fit into any of the typical buckets. Give us the backstory on PRIDE Industries.
Tony Lopez: We like to say that PRIDE Industries is a complex carbohydrate. That’s because we’ve been a social enterprise since before the term was coined. For a long time, we’ve been the nation's leading employer of people with disabilities.
We were started in 1966 in the basement of a church in Auburn, California, by a group of parents with children who had disabilities. They came together because they wanted gainful employment for their adult children. From our founding to the mid-‘80s, PRIDE Industries operated just like every other nonprofit: hand to mouth. The board recognized that this model wasn't sustainable, so they decided to change it, and adopt some of the tools of the business world to better fund our mission and grow our services. To do this, they brought on a stellar sales individual as president and CEO, Michael Ziegler. Zig passed away almost a year ago, but not before leaving a huge mark on our organization. He was an important catalyst for change and transformed PRIDE Industries into what we are today.
On my side of the house—manufacturing and logistics—it was the Hewlett-Packard relationship that put PRIDE Industries on the map. Then we partnered with McClellan Air Force Base, got a couple of federal contracts. From there, we just grew, and it's been a great ride ever since. We provide both product and service offerings to Fortune 100 companies and the federal government.
It's quite the unique social mission that we have here. Within the Manufacturing and Logistics Services Division, we provide electronics contract manufacturing services. We do supply chain and logistics services for large companies like Hewlett-Packard, and we also do contract packaging and fulfillment. That last line of business does a lot of general assembly, general kitting for food-related products or just standard products that have secondary packaged requirements going into the retail market.
The other side of the house, our federal side, is really what's taken us to the 15 other states outside of California and Washington, D.C. Our largest facility is in El Paso, where we provide services for Fort Bliss U.S. Army Base. For anything the military doesn't do themselves, PRIDE Industries is contracted to do.
I’m proud to say that for several decades, we've done a great job of creating job opportunities for people with disabilities, while providing world-class support to our customers. We’ve shown that an inclusive workforce is highly productive. So, in keeping with our mission, we decided to share our workforce model with the rest of the world. A lot of companies today are looking at diversity and inclusion goals and trying to generate an alternative workforce strategy. We can help with that. We’re now providing training and assessment tools to companies across the United States. We also provide placement of individuals with disabilities to help these companies reach their diversity and inclusion goals faster.
So yes, we are diverse and complex company because of all these services that we provide.
Shaughnessy: We don't see that very often. You're a provider of electronics manufacturing services, and a leader in other lines of business as well. And now you're becoming a staffing company. Those are big company-wide goals. Let’s drill down a bit. What’s your latest endeavor in the EMS business line?
Lopez: The latest endeavor for us within the electronics manufacturing line of business is to pursue opportunities supporting customers that are in the aerospace and defense industry. I made reference earlier to providing services to the federal government within the facility space. We have so many connections already established within the federal facilities side that it made sense to leverage those long-established relationships. The EMS business has already proven itself in the commercial space, so it really made sense to offer that expertise to our existing federal customers. Of course, we had to modify some of our processes and bring in new subject matter experts, but the fundamental know-how was already in place.
We spent the greater part of last year preparing to become certified within the aerospace and defense industry. Our teams rallied together to upgrade our processes and procedures, and to make sure we were compliant. Now we're ready to go. We are in the process of courting two large aerospace and defense contractors—one of which is the sixth largest on the face of the earth—to provide kitting and cabling services. And that’s just a start.
Because our experience in the commercial space is so deep, it was relatively easy to get off the ground. And it’s a natural move for us; it fits well with our mission. PRIDE Industries serves quite a number of service-disabled veterans, most of whom feel quite at home working on a military base. So, along with highlighting that we've got the required skills to support products within aerospace and defense, we also tout the fact that we employ veterans. That combination has been a huge win for us, and I think that’s one reason we’re doing so well this early out of the gate.
Shaughnessy: Tell me more about this. You had to get all your certifications done to do defense work, right?
Lopez: Yes. We had to register with the federal government, and we'll be audited by those agencies as well as our customer base. The requirements are quite stringent. But again, this is a natural area of growth for us. A couple of years back, we did something similar when we decided to manufacture medical devices. Our standard electronics manufacturing factory adheres to what's called ISO9001. It's a basic requirement to play in the electronic space, and documents what you do to ensure that your outcomes are consistent. But to manufacture medical devices, we needed even more stringent certification. Getting that took us a little over 12 months and required a high level of effort and sweat equity. But it was worth it: We got to play an important role in keeping people safe during the height of the pandemic. That was gratifying to the whole company, and of course now we can offer more manufacturing solutions in this industry than we could before. Now we’re going through a similar process, in expanding our EMS services to the federal sector.
Shaughnessy: How does this process work if you’re a job seeker? You mentioned earlier that PRIDE Industries hires veterans. Tell me more about that.
Lopez: We hire a broad range of people, including veterans, and we specialize our services to the individual. Early on, we found that the terminology, the language with the military, is not the same as in the business world. So, we brought in veteran liaisons; they’re responsible for partnering with individuals who are looking for employment outside the military. The liaisons work with veterans to translate their military experience into civilian terms on their resumes, and to make sure they understand the requirements of a business opportunity. Then these job candidates work with our recruiting teams to find job openings that match their job skills.
To reach more veterans, we actively work with the VA system. You’ll also find us at job fairs and other venues. It's both individuals reaching out directly to PRIDE Industries, and PRIDE Industries reaching out to the military population to talk about what we do, how we do it, and how we can provide services to them once they are retired from the military. And because of our mission, PRIDE Industries has decades of experience working with veterans who have some level of disability.
Shaughnessy: Wow. I haven't seen any other companies that fit into this category.
Lopez: To be honest, it's really what's allowed us to grow as an organization. We’re projecting a top-line revenue of around $375 million this year, all of which gets put back into the organization in support of our mission. It's this diversification, our range of service offerings, that’s made us the leading employer of people with disabilities in the U.S. At the end of the day, it's all about job creation for us. So those wins—the revenue, the surplus—are great, but for us, it's all about the number of jobs created and the lives that we impact.
Shaughnessy: What are some typical job titles that someone who's disabled or retired military might find in electronics?
Lopez: In electronics, you could be an assembler or a technician. We offer a variety of skill sets. A lot of times, what it really comes down to is just understanding where a person’s current skill set is today. If needed, we can provide additional training or adaptive technologies, or fixturing to make the jobs accessible. It’s about enhancing their abilities to make them even more successful. I think a lot of times companies don't take the time and the energy to pause and say, "What can you do today and how can we work with you to help you become even more productive in the future?" Instead, it’s fairly common for companies to say, "We've got a need. You either meet it now, or we'll find somebody that can." I think that's what’s special about PRIDE Industries: We look at the whole person, not just what they’re capable of now, but also what we believe they'll be capable of in the future.
Shaughnessy: Do you ever provide job training or coaching?
Lopez: Absolutely. It's not uncommon for individuals to come in and want to graduate up to the next level. Let’s say someone is an assembler to begin with; they can come to us and go after new opportunities. We've had some employees who have become leads and some who have become managers. We have individuals with disabilities in our organization today who have a degree and are managing and directing large-scale operations across the U.S. Most of the time, people look at disability as a limiting factor for somebody in employment. Again, our job and our mission is to find success, find out what they can do, and then grow their skill sets along the way.
Shaughnessy: How did COVID change the way PRIDE Industries operates, or did it?
Lopez: Great question. Because we were so diverse as an organization, we experienced both ups and downs. Within the electronics manufacturing space, I referred earlier to medical device manufacturing. Well, early on in the pandemic, there were elective surgeries that were eliminated or postponed, so a lot of our customers within the elective surgery space saw a downturn. We’re also in sports rehabilitation. We have devices that we manufacture for that industry, and sports were limited as well last year, so we saw a large erosion in our volumes in those areas as well. But then we entered new ones. We manufactured a lot of personal protective equipment, for example. And on the commercial facility side, we started offering COVID cleaning. It was not a huge stretch for us, and we started providing more services than we had before. It was really easy for our teams to spin up and pivot to get there.
On the employment side, our folks with developmental disabilities were deemed a vulnerable population. They all had to go home, and that was really difficult, so our rehabilitation team pivoted to serve that population in a different way. The team would spend time with each individual daily to check how they were doing and provide virtual services. When lockdowns began easing, we broadened our services. We began transporting them to doctor visits or the grocery store, or just on a tour to get out and about. That was something that we never thought we would be doing, but it was great to be able to say, "All right, we're going to take you guys out."
Shaughnessy: Wow. Well, that's great. And I notice that you're in a lot of states.
Lopez: I think it's 16 states plus Washington, D.C. Again, really what has taken us outside of California is the facilities services that we offer. Most of the manufacturing and logistics is done currently in Northern California. There is a big push right now to grow our service offerings within manufacturing and the supply chain. An East Coast presence, for example, would allow us to cut shipping times for customers, so we’re looking at that. We are dialoguing with a customer right now who may require us to stand up a factory in the Louisville, Kentucky area. There could be a requirement for manufacturing in the San Diego area. Just recently, we've been talking with a company about a project that may take us into Nevada. We're going to grow our footprint within manufacturing, grow our ability to offer more service offerings than we do today, and have a global footprint in the next five to seven years.
Shaughnessy: So you're an EMS company, kind of like other EMS companies. But at the same time, if you know that somebody is looking for a job and maybe they happen to be disabled, if you don't have a spot for them, then you know somebody who does. How do you keep it all straight?
Lopez: A lot of people say, “How do you compete in the EMS market?” Our value proposition has always been low- to mid-volume and a high mix of products. The larger OEM providers out there offer a relatively small number of products, but high volume, right? They may have mass production of two or three products, so we don't really compete with them. Our equipment and our systems are comparable to anybody else’s in this space. I would say we are very competitive on pricing, highly competitive on quality, and our turnaround time is great. Again, if we get that opportunity to expand into other areas, we can improve there as well.
Shaughnessy: And your main assembly location is in Sacramento?
Lopez: Currently, the main location for our EMS side is in Roseville, near Sacramento. At present, we are operating a single shift. So, when we're talking to our sales teams or these development folks, I like to tell them to sell all they want because we have infinite capacity. I want to be able to generate two, three different shifts. We can modify the factory and the building to expand and create more surface mount technology lines to increase our board throughput. Our operations are very scalable and flexible, so it’s not hard to meet the needs of our customers today and their growth projections for the future.
Shaughnessy: You’re all over the place, like the Los Angeles Air Force Base gas station. And what do you do for CoolSystems, Inc.?
Lopez: The CoolSystems product is pretty innovative. Every major sports team in America uses that product. It's a post-therapeutic device. If you look at athletes, at the end of a big game, you'll see them jump into vats of ice water. This product is the same, but it's localized. Imagine you have an ice bucket, and you fill it on one side. You've got control units on the other. There's a cable harness that connects to a blood pressure wrap, and then it will circulate and pressurize water to whatever part of your body is hurting or has gone through some type of surgery. This product is like a targeted ice bath.
Shaughnessy: Now, I saw on your site that one in five Americans has some kind of disability. I never realized the percentage was that high.
Lopez: People with disabilities are a large, disenfranchised population. As you said, one in five Americans has a disability, and only about 33% of adults with disabilities are employed. I know so many people who either have a disability themselves, or have a family member, neighbor, or a friend who has some type of disability. That really is what drew me into this organization. I have a brother who’s hearing-impaired, and when we were young, my family wasn't quite sure what to expect for him in terms of gainful employment. Was he going to have the same opportunities that a lot of us take for granted? These are real concerns for millions of people. So, when I got a chance to meet and hear (former CEO) Michael Ziegler speak, I was just completely in awe.
At the time, I was still in school. Now I've been with the organization for 23 years. I was going to college to become a pediatric cardiologist. But when I heard the CEO speak, I thought, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for, for my brother; how can I connect those two dots?”
This mission just hit me right in the heart, and I wanted to be a part of it. I changed my major to business, and that's all she wrote. Since I’ve come to PRIDE Industries, I've been in every facet of operations that you can possibly think of.
Shaughnessy: I can't think of any other EMS providers that are nonprofits. How does this classification change the way you operate?
Lopez: To put it simply: We deliver business excellence with a positive social impact. We employ the same commercial strategies as our for-profit competitors do. But at the end of the day, we're not lining shareholders' pockets. To your point, we are owned by the community. So that surplus goes back into creating more jobs for people with disabilities across the U.S.
Kat Maudru: As an aside, following what Tony was discussing, it’s important to remember that you don't always see disabilities. The fact is, 65% of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed. But 70% of people who are disabled and unemployed want to work. So even though we’re the leading employer of people with disabilities in the country, we know we still have a long way to go.
Lopez: We, as an organization, have created a BHAG—a big, hairy, audacious goal—of serving over 100,000 individuals with disabilities. That's our new target, and per Kat’s point, we've got a long way to go. But the executive team is putting forth a well-defined strategy. Our new Inclusive Talent Solutions line of business is going to be a huge catalyst for employment growth. We're very excited to put this into action. And we have other plans in the works. It’s a matter of answering the questions: How do we get to those milestones? How do we get more people served across the U.S.?
Shaughnessy: You’re really doing something to help make the world a better place.
Lopez: Very true. If you were to come into our EMS factory, it would look and feel like any other factory across the globe. We just happen to have this great social mission added to it.
Maudru: And our mission makes good business sense for our customers, in more ways than one. Studies show that employees with disabilities have higher retention rates than average, and lower absenteeism, too. That makes for a more positive workplace. We know from our 55 years of experience that inclusive workforces result in all kinds of good things. Now we’re helping other companies discover that. And we’re expanding the services we offer to people with disabilities. We have a new job helpline that we’re just starting to roll out. It's a free job helpline for people with disabilities, where a live human will talk to you and guide you through the process of finding employment. It's 844-I-AM-ABLE, and I believe it's unique within the country, right, Tony?
Lopez: I believe so. We initially kicked it off as a pilot program, to test if there was a need. A test drive, so to speak. We envisioned a handful of calls a day. But the response has been amazing. The helpline has been embraced by the community. We’re getting almost 300% more calls per day than we anticipated. Fortunately, our helpline advisors were trained to help with a wide range of requests, so they’re able to triage and direct traffic, provide answers and solutions, and also direct callers to employment opportunities.
Shaughnessy: That's great. It's nice to hear a good, positive, happy story like this. Best of luck to both of you.
Lopez: Thank you, Andy. Our pleasure.