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ARC Thrift Store’s CEO, Lloyd Lewis, Interviewed by Opportunity Coalition's CEO, Brian Watson

Brian Watson: This is Brian Watson. Welcome to the Opportunity Coalition podcast, your go-to podcast for compelling interviews, speeches, and discussions with some of the most accomplished and well-respected influencers from around the world.

Welcome to the Opportunity Coalition podcast. Today we are honored to have Lloyd Lewis, the President and CEO of ARC Thrift Stores joining us. Lloyd, welcome to the show.

Lloyd Lewis: Thanks very much. It’s a real pleasure.

Brian Watson: Lloyd, if you wouldn’t mind, for our listeners, tell us a little bit about what you do at ARC and a little bit of your personal background and how you got to where you are today.

Lloyd Lewis: Yeah. ARC is a 46-year-old nonprofit, and we collect donated household items including clothing and furniture and everything in the house, and we resell them in our retail thrift stores, and the net funding of all that goes to support 12 ARC advocacy chapters across the front range. They’re in the largest counties and municipalities from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and they work with thousands and thousands of individuals and families who have intellectual developmental disabilities like Down’s syndrome, like autism, like cerebral palsy. And they help them find jobs, and housing, and medical services, and services in schools. And we operate now 22 stores, again from Fort Collins to Pueblo. And the public has been very generous to us. We collect over 100 million items a year. We process them in our stores and resell them. And, again, the net proceeds go to fund advocacy for a lot of deserving folks.

LLoyd Lewis

LLoyd Lewis

My own personal story, I was in the private sector as a CFO most recently prior to ARC. And I had done a business degree at Chicago and had worked for a variety of companies including IBM and Smith Barney and had been on a financial track. In 2003 I had a little boy born with Down’s syndrome, and I became very involved in advocacy, and initially scientific research followed by more general advocacy. And so when I was asked to join the ARC of Colorado board, from there this organization, I felt it would be a way to help generate funding to improve the lives of people like my son and my son’s life.

Brian Watson: That’s extremely powerful. I really appreciate that. It’s amazing how life’s circumstances lead you down the path in maybe a direction you didn’t think you were going to go and then now look where you are today.

Lloyd Lewis: Yeah, when my son was born, we were unaware he would have Down’s syndrome. And, in fact, when the doctor walked in to inform us, he unfortunately told us he had no good news to tell us about our son, you know, and I thought well maybe he died. I said what do you mean? He said, well, we suspect he has Down’s syndrome. So when I asked him what that was, he used an inappropriate term, and, you know, it’s just been a real blessing for me to have my son and to meet a lot of great adults who work for us with intellectual disabilities who are just very positive people, big contributors, just a lot of fun to be around. And it was something that I never anticipated happening, but it opened up this whole new world that I was largely unaware of at the time, and it’s been a real blessing in my life and my family’s life and my son. It’s just a huge part of my family.

Brian Watson: I’ve been to several of your events, and I must say it’s just amazing, one, to see the support of the community coming out, and two, as you have some of the people that you serve there, just what a positive impact it makes in their lives and it’s just great to see the interaction and the compassion and coming alongside those people and lifting them up and creating those opportunities, so hats off to you and to your entire staff and team for all the great work that they do.

Lloyd Lewis: Coloradans are very generous. The business and corporate communities are extremely generous. Very supportive. And as you mentioned, when I started with the company we had about ten employees with disabilities. Today we have well over 20.

Brian Watson: Wow.

Lloyd Lewis: And they’ve become very central in how we operate the company. And they’ve really been positive role models for other employees in terms of their commitment to work. They hate to miss work. They love to contribute. They’re very positive. They have extended friendship networks across the company and in their stores. And in a lot of cases they’re sort of characters, so we have one gentleman with Down’s syndrome who brings in his bowling score every week and announces it over the PA system. And all the customers (inaudible) applaud. We have another lady with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair, very physically challenged, but very infectious personality, who told my CEO group she was gunning for my job because she’d throw better parties. And when I chided at bowling night, she said she was throwing me under the short bus. So it’s practically impossible to work around our guys and just not feel better about what we do in life and be more positive. And what I found is that when you look strictly at traditional measures of productivity, in some cases you may not have the same traditional unit productivity that business people think of, but the impact on morale, and as you know with higher morale in a work place, it impacts productivity, which impacts revenue and earnings. So I think it’s a real Godsend to any company. There are a number of companies in Colorado doing it.

Brian Watson: Absolutely. How was ARC originally founded, and are there similar organizations throughout the country? Can you expound on that a little bit?

Lloyd Lewis: Probably the first organization founded by parents of people with disabilities was ARC in the United States in the 1940s. At that time there weren’t many – if any – advocacy organizations. And parents started by advocating for humane treatment of their children in large institutions. So way back in the day, people like my son were sent away to large institutions, and unfortunately more or less ignored and abused and not really cared for well. So it all started with parents forming an organization, ARC, to advocate for humane treatment of their children in institutions. That was followed by a movement for de-institutionalization, which has been followed by mainstream and inclusion as a form of advocacy that we now engage in. And there are ARCs across the country. There are probably nearly 200 chapters. There’s probably nearly a million members across the country. In many states they provide direct services. They are the largest direct service provider in New York as an example.

In our state they perform advocacy and they fund their advocacy efforts to avoid conflicts of interest through the operation of the self-sustaining thrift store organization.

There are other organizations that also participate in advocacy for people with disabilities. I’m the past Chair of the Rocky Mountain Down’s Syndrome Association, current Chair Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. Easter Seals does a great job. Ability Connection, the former Cerebral Palsy Colorado, does a great job. The Autism Society of Colorado does a great job. There are a lot of people in Colorado who are making a real different, and ARC, fortunately, is one of those organizations.

Brian Watson: You know, I have to say a little bit about your organization, you know, that it’s a private sector solution, that parents came together, and the organization helps empower the parents and helps empower their children to really go out and make a positive impact, and I just love that story, and thank you for sharing that. I really appreciate that.

Lloyd Lewis: Across Colorado there are nearly a half million people with various forms of disabilities inclusive of physical disabilities, mental health issues, etc. Intellectual and developmental disabilities are a big portion of that. But what’s interesting to me is how many people are really impacted across Colorado. The Chairman of my Board, who is a very successful entrepreneur now, a principal with a very large company, has a son with a rare neurological disorder that he cares for. My CFO had twins born with cerebral palsy who have fragile health conditions that he’s very committed to, and he also did a Master’s Degree and had worked with a number of energy companies prior to joining us.

I have people working for me who have family members with disabilities, including my assistant, and, you know, Frances Owens, who is a good friend of yours and mine, has her great brother in Texas who was born blind and a sister-in-law with cerebral palsy. So what’s interesting to me is that disabilities are really very common, and they cross spectrums. And when you meet people who have these family members, the level of commitment is just very striking and very impressive.

Brian Watson: Yeah. When you think about that, how that’s going to transition, even in our country, as you were saying, you know, at one time, with society, those individuals would be maybe put into some type of facility and maybe taken out of society. And what I love about it is it’s an embracing of society, it’s coming along, and it’s having encouragement, not only for them but also for their family members. And it seems like there’s a great family, it sounds like, that’s built with that.

Lloyd Lewis: A lot of progress has been made. People are almost universally positive about people with disabilities just through mainstreaming and inclusion. People with Down’s syndrome, as an example, have gained an average of 20 IQ points over the last 20 years, going from moderate to severe impairment to moderate to mild impairment. And while a lot of progress has been made, there are still some issues that we’re working very intently on. One is employment. Unfortunately 80% of people with disabilities are unemployed. That’s something we’d like to change, and we’re doing that here at ARC.

And another very unfortunate statistic that people may not be aware of is that 80% of women with disabilities will be abused, 40% multiple times, and 40% of men. That’s a very troubling statistic. The ARCs in Colorado are working with law enforcement and prosecutors and advocates, families trying to get awareness out and prevention and prosecution.

But on the one hand we’ve made a lot of progress. And on the other hand there’s still some issues that we really need the public’s help on.

Brian Watson: Yeah. When you think about that, at the end of the day those are very troubling statistics, and it’s great where we’ve come from, but we’ve still got a whole lot of work to do it sounds like.

So with regards to the funds you receive from these different stores, first of all, anybody can go in, obviously, and shop at these stores, and then the money that’s received, give us an idea of some of the specific programs or where some of this money goes in terms of helping to support the efforts of what you do.

Lloyd Lewis: During the course of my tenure, nearly ten years, we have now distributed approximately $70 million in funding to various charitable activities. Principally the ARC chapter is about $43 million. And, again, they use those funds to do systemic and individual advocacies so they can work with families and individual show may be having problems in school, may be having problems in employment or finding an employer, maybe having a problem with a housing provider or locating suitable housing, so that the majority of our funding goes to the ARC advocacy programs.

We also operate a very large vehicle donation program. Work with hundreds of nonprofits through the country inclusive of organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and humane societies and public radio stations, and we accept cars donated on their behalf, process them for them, and over the course of nine years, have distributed funding of about $18 million to those various organizations.

We have also allocated about $6 million over the last nine years (inaudible) people with disabilities. We have funded about $3 million to Cerebral Palsy Colorado. And we have distributed about $2 million in vouchers to victims of various disasters like fires and floods across Colorado.

We have also, during the course of my tenure, collected a thousand tons of food for Meals on Wheels through Volunteers of America programs.

And then we also support and participate with a number of other organizations. We’re a little unique. We’re a nonprofit and also at times can (inaudible) to other nonprofits. And I don’t think that’s a typical way that nonprofits operate. You know, we’ll support my friend Michele C. at the Global Down’s Syndrome Foundation, and our friends at VOA with their Western (inaudible). And we were just yesterday at a breakfast for the Colorado Adaptive Sports Foundation helping support their efforts. So we try to do as much as we can with the stores that we have and the employees that we have.

You mentioned shoppers. We have four million customer transactions annually. Our average shopper is a female 25 to 54 on a budget with kids, so we’re providing a great service to people, you know, to help with their families. And we have sales events on Saturdays and senior days and veterans days, etc. But we’ve become pretty large in terms of the people we serve in a community and with disabilities. Also the shopping public is a donating public.

Brian Watson: I must say I love the work that you’re doing because you think about it for a moment, if ARC wasn’t out there doing what you’re doing, there would be a huge gap and a huge need, and I know that you’re positively impacting many lives.

For our listeners, talk to us about a few specific ways of how they can come alongside and help your efforts, and obviously, it may consist of everything from donations to shopping to other things. So could you outline a few of those ways people could get engaged?

Lloyd Lewis: There are a lot of ways the public helps us and can help us, starting with donations. So as people do spring cleaning, or they have certain household items that they’d like to clean out, all they have to do is call us at 303-238-JANE, or they can sign on to our website, arcthrift.org. We can take donations and set up pickups by our online website. So, again, we have a million donations a year, 70 million pounds of donations that are kept out of landfills, and over 100 million items donated a year, so the public is very generous. We continue to appreciate that.

In addition to donations, dollars spent in our stores are a big contributor to the funding that we do through our various programs. So they can shop any of our 22 stores. Fort Collins, Loveland, Greeley, Thornton, Broomfield, Louisville, Arvada, four in Aurora, four in the Springs, one in Pueblo, balance Denver Metro. You can sign on our website and see the locations of our stores. Open 9:00 to 9:00 Monday through Saturday and 10:00 to 6:00 on Sundays. And so shopping is a big part of the support that we get from the public.

People can send in cash donations to our corporate office, and you can find that address on our website.

We have a very large volunteering program. We have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers every week that help us in all aspects of our organization from stores and collecting and sorting and qualifying and producing product and helping out on the front end of our stores. Helping in our warehousing activities. We maintain a warehouse to store off-season product that rolls out seasonally.

We have various activities we do with our employees with disabilities. We have a lot of volunteers who are very generous and kind in assisting with that.

We just did our large annual gala this past Friday at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center and we had 600 people in attendance. A lot of volunteers helped us put that together in addition to corporate sponsors and individual sponsors.

So there’s just a number of ways that people can help. And if you go to our website you can find suggestions on how people can support us if they’d like to help.

Brian Watson: That’s wonderful. Well thank you for that.

I also just want to ask you about a few questions. Because you’re such an interesting individual and are creating an impact. And so tell us what is one of your favorite quotes or sayings that you may live your life by and why.

Lloyd Lewis: Well, there are just a lot of different quotes that I turn to and use, and use when I talk with my management group. But one that I really like is Ralph Waldo Emerson. And his quote is, The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived. And I’m inspired by a number of people who have made a big difference in the business community and the charitable community. And that’s a quote that I really like in terms of honor and compassion and the end result of our lives is trying to make a difference.

Brian Watson: Absolutely. I absolutely love it. And if all of us did our part to do that, it could absolutely transform the world for the better, that’s for sure.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Lloyd Lewis: I think the best advice I ever received was probably just to work hard. Just to try to get results. Try to get things done. Not be someone who tries to grab the limelight without real results, but just, you know, growing up – I grew up in a blue-collar family, and there wasn’t a lot of philosophizing, it was all about sort of working hard and getting results. And whether it was when I was ten when I was delivering newspapers, or in middle school when I was working in agricultural fields in Washington picking fruit and vegetables, or when I had my career as a door-to-door salesman, for me most of my life has been committed to trying to get things done to make a real difference.

Brian Watson: Yep. A lot of very good advice.

What would you say is your definition of success, whether as an individual or at ARC in your role there?

Lloyd Lewis: I measure my success in life and at ARC in a couple of ways. One is am I growing this organization, am I growing funding? And luckily we’ve been able to grow funding for our organization at the fastest rate in its 46-year history. So I look at ARC in terms of are we growing revenue? Are we growing earnings? And I just had a managers meeting before this interview and told the group that our fiscal year, which ends Sunday, will be our ninth successive record year on revenues, on earnings, on distributions to the chapters we support, on customers, on all measures that make a financial difference in growing the organization.

And then the other way I look at success is making a difference for people who just need a little extra help. So if you have an IQ of 30 or 40, you want to be included, you want to contribute, you want to be successful, but you have some boundaries that other people don’t have. So what we try to do here is to create a path and an opportunity for people to contribute wherever their intellectual level is. And we’ve created a program called ARC Ambassadors, and we do monthly social activities like movies and dinners and trips to the zoo, and just try to get to know the people with disabilities that we work with and have them feel included and appreciated.

And then the other thing we’ve created with ARC Ambassadors is something called ARC University. So with a grant from the Daniels Fund we created something called ARC University which is a series of 12 successive post-secondary-style classes on money, or computers, or cooking, or pet care, or we even had a class on sharks. And the idea is for people to have fun and learn some stuff and gain some self-confidence. They typically has less-than rewarding academic experiences in high school, so we try to create an atmosphere where they feel appreciated. And we designed it so that if they participate at all they get a certificate. They do six out of 12 classes they get a Bachelor’s, nine out of 12 a Master’s, and 12 out of 12 a PH.D. So at our last graduation with Angie Austin as commencement speaker with three or four hundred people in the audience and 100 graduates, we had 30 Master’s, 30 Ph.D.s, and ten Ph.D. emerituses. We’ll probably have to create a Chancellorship next year. And when they walk across the stage you would think it was Harvard commencement because they’re really proud.

So, on the one hand, making a difference in the business, in the way that business people look at making a difference. And then on the other hand, making a difference in the lives of the people we serve. And those are the principal ways I measure my success and the success of the organization.

Brian Watson: Those are good ways to measure it without a doubt.

If you could make one change in the world that could make the most positive impact for people, what would that be?

Lloyd Lewis: I think it would be to have even more employers jump on board employing people with disabilities. I think that by including people with disabilities in the workplace, people will get a real sense of who they are and what their potential is and what they contribute. And, you know, that used to be impossible. We’re making a lot of progress in that regard. But to have people jump on board and create their own employment programs. I’ve talked with the Chief of Staff for the Governor, and she thinks that it would be a great idea to have a task force comprised of the private sector that would tackle this problem. And I’ve talked to the candidate also running for office, the Beauprez folks, and they agree. So I’m hoping with the next term that we have a real statewide task force comprised of the private sector really looking at how do we create employment for people with disabilities.

Brian Watson: I think that would be very powerful and very positive as well.

Well, Lloyd, there’s many more questions I could ask you and I could talk to you all day because I really appreciate what you’re doing and you’re making such a positive impact, you and your team there, and I just want to encourage our listeners to think about this and to figure out how they can come alongside and help your efforts. So really appreciate your time today and look forward to support you in the future.

Lloyd Lewis: Thank you so much for your time, and I really appreciate having this opportunity to speak to your listeners.

Brian Watson: Thank you. Have a great day.

Lloyd Lewis: Thank you for all you do.

Brian Watson: Well, thanks for listening to Opportunity Coalition podcast. We’d love to have you subscribe on iTunes, or like us on Facebook. 

If you’d like more information about the Opportunity Coalition, or if you’d like to see a schedule of upcoming events that you can attend in person, please visit OpportunityCoalition.com. See you next time.