Lynda Gochenouer works at the Call Center in the Lions Volunteer Blind Industries facility. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
With a new mattress factory outlet store recently opened at its manufacturing plant in Johnson City and a second store to open soon in Kingsport, Lions Volunteer Blind Industries is attempting to build on its 62-year history of providing employment opportunities for the visually impaired.
To highlight those opportunities and the challenges of LVBI’s government and commercial contract operations, the company on Monday invited Tennessee Lt.Gov. Ron Ramsey, state Sen. Rusty Crowe, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips to tour the plant and the new outlet store on Watauga Road.
LVBI Executive Director Don Britton and Trevor Southerland, director of rehabilitation for LVBI’s Opportunity East division, told the local leaders the company is the largest employer of visually impaired workers in the state. In Johnson City, the company currently employs 30 people in the manufacture of military helmet covers and about 100 workers at its mattress manufacturing facility in Morristown.
With a new $3.1 million contract awarded last week, Britton said the Johnson City work force will increase to capacity of about 50 blind, visually impaired and sighted workers within the next two weeks. At capacity, the Morristown plant employs about 150 workers.
“When military activity picks up, our orders pick up,” Southerland said.
About 65 percent of LVBI’s mattress production is government contracted for the military and for state run colleges and universities. The remaining 35 percent is driven by the commercial market and that’s where the new factory outlet stores come in.
The Johnson City outlet store opened last month at the LVBI plant located directly across the street from the Pepsi bottling facility at 2232 Watauga Road and the new LVBI mattress outlet is expected to open this fall on Stone Drive in Kingsport.
Britton told the local government leaders the company’s commercial contracting is driven by its “competitively priced quality products”.
“The quality of our mattresses equals anything you’ll find. Except we have a story to tell. When you buy a mattress from us, you’ll sleep well for more than one reason,” he said.
According to Britton, with help from the international Lions organization and private contributions, LVBI invests about $350,000 annually in payroll support that allows workers whose visual impairments reduce their production capacity to receive the same pay as workers who produce at 100 percent.
LVBI also receives $340,000 in state and federal grant funding annually to provide job training for people with disabilities, he said.
To further its vocational rehabilitation role, the Johnson City facility was expanded in 2011 to include a state of the art computer call center training facility. But without adequate contracts to keep it up and running, the all center’s 42 voice-controlled computer stations are currently idle, with the exception of a one-person, secret shopper service contracted by the Navy’s to test the quality of its off-base housing services.
Britton said LVBI has been attempting to contract phone reception services currently conduced in-house by the Tennessee Department of Human Services for about year. Crowe said the key may be to invite Tennessee DHS Commissioner Raquel Hatter to view the facility and the work that is done there.
“Getting to finally see what goes on here behind the scenes makes me proud to be a Lion,” Crowe said.
“We’ve got a good story to tell and we love to tell it,” Britton said.
Monday’s LVBI tour was part of a national awareness campaign launched last month by National Industries for the Blind, a nonprofit network of 91 organizations like LVBI dedicated to creating, sustaining and improving employment opportunities for people who are blind and visually impaired.
LVBI was founded in Johnson City in 1951 and began operations in Morristown in 1956.