Randy Lewis at Walgreen Co. leads the way for other companies to employ people with disabilities, brain and behavior disorders
From The Quarterly, Spring 2011
While scientists work toward a future in which mental illness is better understood and better treated, another hope long harbored by people with mental illnesses is being fulfilled – real jobs with real paychecks in safe and welcoming workplaces. J. Randolph (Randy) Lewis, Senior VP of Supply Chain and Logistics, Walgreen Co., spoke to The Quarterly about a thoughtfully designed and highly successful program that he spearheaded to provide employment opportunities for disabled workers, including people with mental illnesses. When asked if he saw this as a responsibility for corporations – to offer employment opportunities for all people – he responded that, “Corporations only live on paper. It’s the people in the corporations. Most people want to do the right thing, most people want to help.”
Randy Lewis may be right. His program was launched in 2004 by Walgreen Co., and beyond the success within the company, it has become a model for other organizations and is being implemented by a number of major corporations, including Lowe’s, Best Buy, Sears, Clarks and GlaxoSmithKline. “And the list keeps growing,” he says.
Today he finds himself with a dual career, in his “day job” leading logistics and distribution centers at Walgreen Co. and as a trainer of this innovative and highly successful program to other corporations, even arch rivals in the marketplace. His division leads “boot camps” where managers of other corporations can come spend a week or two to learn the ropes of how it all works. “AT&T has gone through boot camp,” he says. “Pepsico brought in a group of their international operators. A Brazilian company came and is starting a program in Sao Paulo, and I’ve spoken a couple of times to businesses in Germany.”
What these executives see when they visit one of the Walgreen sites where the program is in operation are state-of-the-art, highly effective and cost-efficient distribution centers. What they may not initially see or realize is that there are disabled and able employees working side by side, often doing the same jobs, earning equal pay. At the company’s distribution center in Anderson, S.C., the first site built specifically with the program in mind, 40 percent of the 600 workers are disabled, and, Mr. Lewis says, “It’s the most cost-effective building in our chain and in the history of the company.”
Interestingly, the fact that the center is the most cost-effective building is not his primary source of pride. He says the impact on the non-disabled employees is the most important benefit of the program. “It brings out the better person in each of us,” Mr. Lewis says. And fortunately for him, that has translated into high productivity.
A second such center has since been built in Hartford, Conn., where 50 percent of the workers are disabled, and recently two of the company’s existing buildings were retrofitted for the program. These efforts, while costly, have rewarded the company, Mr. Lewis says, “with an integrated workforce that has exceeded all our expectations.” Beyond these new centers, Walgreen Co. has extended its hiring of people with disabilities, employing more than 850 people (10 percent) across all 20 distribution centers nationwide. The plan is to double those numbers in the coming years – and to roll out the program to Walgreen Co. retail stores. The first pilot is underway, with the intention to fill 1 in 10 entry-level positions with disabled workers by 2012.
Strong leadership translates a personal vision into corporate success
Randy Lewis’s motivation for starting the program was personal. He has a son with autism, and like every parent with a child with a disability, he worried for his son’s future. “Where is he going to be? Is he going to be engaged in the world, or is he going to be sitting alone all day staring at a TV or computer screen?” Mr. Lewis was certain that in his own company there were any number of jobs that his son and other disabled people could perform, “but,” he says, “first they had to be able to get in the door." What made it possible for him to convince Walgreen Co. to green light his idea was a 10-year track record at the company in a job in which 10,000 people working in 20 centers report to him.
“When we started the program for the disabled, we had three objectives,” Mr. Lewis said. “First, to keep firmly in mind that we’re a business and not a charity, we had to be able to justify it to our shareholders and our other employees. Second, we had to have a sustainable model we could show to other businesses and say this works here, and it will work in your place. That was in our planning from the start.” Finally, he and his team decided not to try to answer every question in advance.
“That third objective was a key point because otherwise we’d probably never have gotten it off the ground,” he says. “From my experience with my son, I had learned that so many of the things I worried about when he was diagnosed at age 3 – would he be able to tie his shoes, would he get toilet trained, would I have to wrestle him to the floor to get his hair cut – never came up. So we set out with the idea that we’re going to go down this road without having all the questions answered upfront. And, he adds, with the knowledge that if we fail, it’ll be the failure we’ll always be most proud of.”
By acknowledging not every question was answered, the team was prepared to adapt quickly to handle challenges. Some of the challenges, Mr. Lewis explains, required modifying company policy; no easy feat in a corporation the size of Walgreen Co. For example, applicants for employment in the distribution centers are supposed to be able to do every job in the center, whether or not this ever really proves to be necessary. This would clearly not be possible for some disabled workers. Ultimately, the company was willing to question its traditions in hiring and adapt the policies that could change without negatively impacting productivity. And they added training for the managerial staff to learn how to effectively guide and supervise people who might never have held a job before and might have low frustration levels.
Mental illness is a public health issue
In speaking about mental illness in particular, Mr. Lewis calls it a public health issue. “People don’t disclose and the mentally ill are still marginalized. It’s like the final group that still needs to overcome discrimination.” And so his part in that process is to bring the disability out in the open, to let employees work side by side as people and to recognize each other as such. “It’s about enabling full, productive lives for these people – and letting others help them get there.”
“We’ve learned that sometimes a job is a lot more than a job,” Mr. Lewis says. “Some of these folks never knew what a weekend was. For them every day was like every other day. Now they have weekends, they have income, they’re like everyone else.” And when the managers get together, they talk about how they were able to help a disabled worker. They’ll boast about the creativity they used in making that person successful at a task.
Mr. Lewis is becoming increasingly confident that his second objective for the program – its sustainability that it will live beyond him – will be achieved. “I think that now we have enough experience behind us so that this can become part of our corporate DNA. If the program is to have a meaningful impact, it’s got to outlive me and continue to broaden. This is not about me. Anybody can do it if they overcome their fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of taking a risk, fear of working with people with disabilities. That’s why we throw open our doors to other companies and tell them, ‘We’ll help and advise you if you’ll just take the chance.’ We also tell them, ‘This may not be the easiest thing you’ll ever do, but it’ll be the most meaningful.’”
In 2009, in recognition of the remarkable contribution the program he started has made in the lives of hundreds, and potentially many thousands, of people with disabilities and their loved ones, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (then NARSAD) awarded Randy Lewis its first Productive Lives Award (click to listen to Randy's acceptance speech).