CINCINNATI – Norwood resident Sally Jones spends most of her days assembling and boxing up 30 to 40 glow-in-the-dark exit signs. Her personal record stands at 75 in a single day.
Office work burnt out the former IRS collections worker, so she made a drastic switch to manufacturing in April 2016 and started making signs with patented photoluminescent tape from the Woodlawn-based company MN8 (read emanate).
One other detail: The grandmother of five is legally blind.
Jones is one of 172 employees at the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, also known as CABVI, whose industry program cranks out products like duct tape, sticky notes and kitchen gadgets for companies that need to outsource production.
“They look past our disabilities and see our capabilities,” Jones said. “That’s what I like about (MN8), and I wish more companies would do that.”
Even though unemployment nationwide has dropped to just 4.7 percent, it stands at 65 to 70 percent for the blind, according to Bill Neyer, CABVI’s director of business development. He has a stack of resumes on his desk from men and women who cannot find work even though some have bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
These job seekers are all blind or visually impaired, often hindered by barriers to the workplace like transportation or technology.
“I don’t want people to think we’re doing this as a hand-out and as a feel-good thing. Yes that’s nice, but we’re doing it because these guys run one hell of an operation, and they do really good precision work,” said Zachary Green, the Wyoming volunteer firefighter who founded MN8. He noted that CABVI’s structured environment allows its employees to thrive and produce better quality work than MN8 could on its own.
“With us (sighted employees), we’re constantly distracted by emails and people walking over and doing things.”
Jones’ eyes have fluctuated a lot since her vision first started to go 14 years ago, but she says they’ll never surpass 20/200, the limit for legal blindness. Even though Jones had never worked in a factory setting and was a little nervous before starting at CABVI last year, she says it’s now her favorite job she’s ever had.
“They know you’re either totally blind or you can’t see very well. For the most part, they understand if you’re having a bad day with your eyes,” Jones said. “It’s not like they’re breathing down your neck pressuring you and causing things to get worse for you.”
CABVI allows MN8 to ramp up production for big national deals
MN8 got its start five years ago when Green started experimenting with strontium crystals (a silver-white or yellowish metallic element) in his garage. He created a much brighter glow-in-the-dark effect than the standard glowing stars you probably tacked up on your bedroom ceiling as a kid.
“The first time I went to a fire with the (glowing) helmet band, I literally had people trying to take my helmet off,” Green said.
That curiosity quickly turned to sales figures as Green drove from fire station to fire station selling photoluminescent fire equipment out of his trunk. It didn’t take long for Green to figure out his patented strontium formula could be put on tape to mark emergency routes down stairs, along banisters and on exit signs.
With dozens of exit signs in a standard office building or supermarket, MN8 is targeting national and international companies with the potential energy and labor savings their maintenance-free exit signs offer.
Green announced in June 2016 that Kroger would solely use MN8’s signs in all new and renovated stores nationwide, and he said bigger national retailers are in the pipeline “that will make the Kroger deal look small.” (He took a call from Wal-Mart during our conversation.)
There are simply not enough hours in the day for MN8’s 10 full-time employees to produce enough signs for the deals Green dreams of; that’s why they’ve turned to Jones and her colleagues at CABVI for their outsourcing.
“(Companies) want to make sure that this isn’t some guy still selling s**t out of his car in his garage,” Green said. “We needed a company like the Association for the Blind that has so much experience...and the ability to scale.”
Mutual growth: MN8 deal allows CABVI to expand
A typical day at work means Jones catches the No. 4 bus for the 23-minute ride from her home in Norwood to CABVI’s facility in Walnut Hills. That route to work will get a bit more complicated in June when CABVI splits off its job-related services to a newly purchased facility at 1022 Kenner St. next to Union Terminal.
CABVI has been on Gilbert Avenue since 1968, but Neyer said the building isn’t optimized for the amount of manufacturing they now handle or for the capacity they hope to grow into. They’re storing raw materials and goods offsite, the workflow doesn’t always move in one direction and safety could be improved with fewer turns, Neyer said.
“We’d struggled on what to do for expansion and growth,” Neyer said. “It wasn’t until the (MN8) Foxfire relationship developed more that we said, ‘This really is the growth product that we’re looking for that’s going to allow us to take the leap to the new building.’ Everybody needs exit signs.”
With MN8’s production providing CABVI’s manufacturing and office supply delivery service (VIE-Ability) an exit from the Walnut Hills building, Neyer said it’ll also free up more space for their rehabilitation services.
CABVI helps people age newborn through end of life to adapt to vision difficulties, including tasks like using canes and computers, figuring out bus routes and learning how to shop without sight.
“This whole sense of community that’s down here – it’s more than just a job. It’s really beautiful and you don’t see it very often,” Green said. “At some point in time there’s going to be an emergency. When that emergency happens, we’re not going to be able to see, and they just now helped us find our way out of the dark.”