Business

Envision takes on new ventures to support its mission

An Envision client walks with her dog on the manufacturing floor. (Dec. 11, 2014)
An Envision client walks with her dog on the manufacturing floor. (Dec. 11, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

The acquisition of a Wichita radio station by Envision is an example of how CEO Michael Monteferrante, almost two years into the job, is trying to expand the nonprofit’s mission of providing services and support to people who are visually impaired.

On Friday Envision closed on the purchase of KFTI, a 100,000-watt radio station at 92.3 on FM, from Journal Broadcast Group.

Monteferrante said the radio acquisition allows Envision to provide a different source of employment for people who are blind and low vision, diversifies Envision’s revenue sources, and creates a platform for the organization to spread awareness of what it does.

“We think it fits harmonically with our mission,” Monteferrante said.

He sees that deal as part of a broader strategic plan implemented last year that aims to broaden and strengthen Envision’s programs and services and improve and expand its business operations, which account for at least 90 percent of the 81-year-old organization’s funding.

“The mission doesn’t happen without the margin,” he said.

It’s the business operations of Envision that support its non-employment programs and services for visually impaired people. Its services include a visual rehabilitation center and child development center, both of which are housed at its 610 N. Main headquarters. The centers are in addition to programs for seniors and kids, and specialty programs in areas such as art, music, golf and assistive technology.

Monteferrante said Envision also should be announcing in January specifics on the development of a research institute aimed at improving treatment and rehabilitation for low vision and blindness.

Envision is probably best known for providing employment to people who are visually impaired and work at its facility at 2301 S. Water, where it manufactures plastic bags at a daily rate of about 2.5 million. On South Water it also has a printing business that produces more than 30 million business cards annually.

Its business operations also include Envision Xpress, which operates office supply stores – called base service centers – at 16 Army, Air Force and Navy installations in 10 states, where some of the products it makes are sold.

“We’ve relied on a fairly one-dimensional revenue source: manufacturing plastic bags and printing business cards,” Monteferrante said. “What we’re doing now is evolving, diversifying revenue streams, going into commercial products.”

Part of the evolution of Envision’s business operations has involved painful decisions such as cutting back on operations and employment as it did in early 2013, when federal budget cuts hit its manufacturing business. That necessitated the closing of its operation in Kansas City and the layoff of 22 workers there and nine in Wichita.

That evolution has also included outsourcing some printing work to Midwest Single Source earlier this year.

“We do a lot of work with them,” Monteferrante said. “There are some projects right now that are not necessarily our area of expertise in terms of looking at the most efficient way to do business. We found Midwest Single Source could to it in a more efficient manner.”

Diversification includes the expansion of plastic bag sales beyond federal and state governments to the commercial and industrial markets through Envision’s Stout brand, which sells a range of trash can liners, biohazard bags and specialty bags including plastic liners with insect repellant applied to them.

Its other commercial products include a new line of reflective pet collars and leashes called PetNV, sandless sandbags called AquaPad developed and manufactured in partnership with Global Consumer Innovations LLC, and the manufacture of products in partnership with Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Susty Party, a supplier of party goods made of recycled and compostable materials.

Commercial sales is a new area for Envision and presently accounts for less than 10 percent of revenue, said Michael Montana, Envision’s senior vice president of strategic business development. Montana said his charge is to find “places we can sell our core products to as well as expanding our product offerings.”

Susty Party is an example of that, Montana said. The company, which was featured in May on the TV show “Shark Tank,” sells its products wholesale, online and through retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain in the Northeast.

Montana said Envision worked with Susty Party to develop an “ecofriendly” tablecloth that is not part of Susty Party’s product lineup.

So far, the combination of efforts with Envision’s business operations has resulted in an improving profit margin, Monteferrante said. Envision’s margin has increased from 2.3 percent in its fiscal 2013 to 3.7 percent in fiscal 2014. Monteferrante said in fiscal 2015, he expects Envision to have a margin of 4.2 percent. Envision’s fiscal year is July 1 to June 30.

It is a team effort among Envision’s senior leadership to constantly think about “what else can we provide that we can drive additional employment opportunities,” Montana said.

Of the organization’s 433 employees, including those at the military base stores, 150 are blind or visually impaired. Monteferrante said those 150 employees are paid minimum wage or above.

And those employees’ work preferences are changing, just as in broader society, which goes back to the radio station acquisition.

Kent Wilson, special project consultant to Envision and its former chief financial officer, said younger employees who are blind or visually impaired don’t necessarily want to work in a manufacturing environment and the radio station provides another avenue for them to pursue a job.

The station also provides opportunities for Envision employees to advance.

“We have to diversify in order to give them upward mobility,” said Buddy Sell, Envision’s senior vice president of manufacturing and base stores.

Monteferrante said the radio station will be like any other commercial radio station, with paid commercials, “a very robust and exciting morning show and then an afternoon drive show.”

“This business has to be a viable commercial business,” Wilson said. “This is the same way all our business operations are.”

And like Envision’s other businesses, Monteferrante said, it will support Envision’s mission and specifically the research institute that he’s not quite ready to talk about in much detail.

“The plan is for this thing to not only provide opportunities in employment, but also provide the margin to pay for the costs of research, education,” he said.

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jsiebenmark.

Envision Inc.

▪  An 81-year-old Wichita-based organization that provides services, support and employment to people who are blind or visually impaired.

▪  Employment is provided primarily through manufacturing and printing operations at a facility at 2301 S. Water, and through 16 office supply stores it operates at military installations in Kansas and nine other states.

▪  Envision has 440 employees throughout its operations, and 204 in Wichita. Of its total employees, 150 are blind or visually impaired.

▪  In fiscal year 2014, it had $124 million in sales from its business operations.

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