Most of the employees at Abcor Industries LLC, a Holland-based manufacturer of powder-coated wood products, are convicted felons. J.T. Weis, the company’s CEO and owner since 2012, said the employment of ex-offenders is part of Abcor’s triple bottom line business strategy. Weis recently participated on a panel discussion about criminal justice reform in Michigan, advocating for a bill package in the state Legislature that would expand who is eligible to have their criminal records expunged. Weis spoke with MiBiz about why he employs ex-offenders and how tapping into that workforce can address talent issues.
How did Abcor begin employing ex-offenders?
I bought the company in early 2012. We had seven employees. We had one re-entered citizen who was a convicted felon; he had been working there already. We simply said to him: Do you have any friends who need a job? And he looks at me and says, ‘Oh yeah.’ We started doing a word-of-mouth process for hiring these guys. That’s how it all started. At some point, we ran out of guys, so we started connecting with 70x7 (Life Recovery), which is a Christian-based organization that helps bridge men and women back into society. From there, it grew.
What has that experience been like?
The benefit is that the people feel a special purpose to the company. There is an additional mission here. It’s not just about making the product and making a profit. There’s the mission. We don’t want to over-exaggerate that, because we are focused on serving our customers with good products, but they do appreciate the special mission that we have helping men and women re-enter and lead a productive life in a good culture. The only negative is that some people misunderstand what we’re doing; they think we are a social services company, which is not the case. We are a dynamic, entrepreneurial organization set on disrupting the very large market of laminate.
What should people know about employing ex-offenders?
We’ve had no incidents whatsoever. We could have one tomorrow morning. I don’t worry about that. I won’t live in fear. I’ve had my daughters working in the summertime at the plant. We do have all kinds of ex-offenders. Some people might think that there’s a high risk involved, but there’s just as much risk with a normal citizen as re-entered citizens. We’re very much at peace with what’s going on.
Why have you advocated for bills that expand expungement?
I’ve always thought it was ridiculous, the question on an application: Have you been convicted of a felony? There’s so much more beyond that question that needs to be asked and delved into and understood. To rule somebody out on the basis of a checkbox is ridiculous. There’s been enough study and enough research to say that most of the recidivism happens in the first three years, even in the first 12 months. We’re comfortable with the record sealing and expungement process written into the bills. This will put us on the leading edge of the country besides maybe one or two other states.
What would you say to companies concerned about hiring ex-offenders?
I think there’s a lot of concern out there and caution, which is expected. It’s natural to have that fear. But it’s about trusting and having an exchange of dignity. You can write up a bunch of protection measures and develop a bunch of safety measures — and you should have those — but I think what you want to do is be very honest with your employees. We don’t hide anything, and we run a very disciplined organization. There’s not room for some of the cultural problems that exist in plants: sexism, and this kind of other crap. We don’t put up with it at all. It’s important to run a disciplined ship, and we do that.
How can hiring ex-offenders aide in solving the talent challenge?
There’s a lot of talent in prison right now. For instance, there’s a lot of men and women with college degrees behind bars. There’s an opportunity to bring in great talent. We provide them opportunities to grow. We should be focusing on the Department of Corrections as pure opportunity to strengthen our workforce when we’re at full employment. We need more people.
What other reforms would you like to see, aside from expanding expungement opportunities?
Much more aggressive training and bridging. Training at the end of their sentence or the whole time, and then bridging, which means setting up tax incentives for organizations who are helping these men find housing, transportation. We handle the job side, but they need a mentor. These bridging organizations can provide mentors. We should fund and support those kinds of organizations. We need to get more infrastructure to bridge these men and women back into society.