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Skils’kin steps up for adults with disabilities

INBA Member, Skils’kin, has been highlighted in a story originally appearing on The Spokesman-Review, written by Michael Guilfoil, Correspondent.

Brian Behler is the CEO of Skils’kin, a community-based, nonprofit agency organized in 1970 by concerned parents, families and business leaders to provide services to adults with disabilities and physical challenges. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Brian Behler is the CEO of Skils’kin, a community-based, nonprofit agency organized in 1970 by concerned parents, families and business leaders to provide services to adults with disabilities and physical challenges. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Most businesses can be summed up in a few words.

Not Skils’kin, a Spokane nonprofit as complex as its name is unusual.

Formerly known as the Pre-Vocational Training Center, Skils’kin helps adults with disabilities in Washington, Wyoming and Montana through service contracts with government agencies and the private sector.

Brian Behler, who joined Pre-Vocational’s board in 1999 and became president and CEO of Skils’kin in 2011, acknowledges the company’s name and broad mission have caused some confusion in the community.

But that hasn’t prevented Skils’kin from steadily growing in recent years, and it’s about to expand its services to Oklahoma and North Dakota.

During a recent interview, Behler described his career route from accountant to entrepreneur to nonprofit executive, how Skils’kin has evolved during his tenure, and what can bring him to tears.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Behler: In the mighty metropolis of Clarkston, Washington (pop. 7,300).

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Behler: Baseball and building things.

S-R: What did you build?

Behler: Underground forts, treehouses, and two-by-four go-carts that would go screaming downhill until they hit a barbed-wire fence. I also helped my dad, a machinist at Potlatch, work on our family cars.

S-R: What was your first job?

Behler: Mowing lawns when I was 10. Later I delivered newspapers and, after turning 16, I drove combines 14 hours a day, seven days a week during the summer pea harvest.

S-R: Did you have classmates with disabilities?

Behler: No, but two of my neighbors had a genetic disease that caused their brains to waste. When I was about 12, sometimes I’d invite the older boy over to play pool, and I recall the immense enjoyment he got from that. Through high school and college, I never imagined myself ending up doing anything like this (job). Yet now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

S-R: Where did you go to college?

Behler: Washington State University.

S-R: What was your first job after graduation?

Behler: I went to work for Arthur Andersen, at the time the world’s biggest accounting firm. As an auditor, I mostly interacted with CEOs and CFOs. I left there in ’89, but it was a fantastic learning experience.

S-R: Then what?

Behler: After a couple of years as corporate controller for a small startup, I launched a company that manufactured espresso coffee carts. But I got bored, so I sold that and became part owner of a 400-foot fishing ship, which was a great adventure, but not the best business decision I ever made. It almost bankrupted me when the Japanese economy went into recession, because they were our biggest customer. Next, a friend and I started a Seattle soft-drink company called Frutta. Eventually we were forced out by our major investor. So I moved to Spokane in 1999 to re-create myself as an accounting professional, and took a position with Waste Management.

S-R: How did you connect with the Pre-Vocational Training Center?

Behler: They advertised for new board members in The Spokesman, and I thought that might be a good way to make connections.

S-R: Was Pre-Vocational successful back then?

Behler: Yes, but it was much smaller – less than $2 million annual revenue compared with $15 million today.

S-R: Why did the company change its name?

Behler: When we hired my predecessor in 2004, we knew our name was outdated. I was board chair at the time, and I read an article about a company similar to ours in Port Townsend (Washington) called Skookum. The story talked about “Skookum” being a Native American word, so I showed the article to our CEO and suggested we consider a Salish word for our new name. We contacted John Ross, an Eastern Washington University linguist and expert in the Salish language, told him what we did, and he said, “I have the perfect word: ‘Skils’kin,’ ” which means “a place where a person goes to seek personal identity and self-empowerment.” And it is the perfect word.

S-R: Does it confuse people?

Behler: Yes.

S-R: Then why is it perfect?

Behler: Because it gets to the heart of our mission, which is to enrich the quality of life for adults with disabilities.

S-R: But if people don’t know what it means …

Behler: That’s our fault, because we haven’t done enough marketing. Recently we’ve become much more aggressive about promoting our name, our services, our business partners and our employees.

S-R: How has Skils’kin evolved since you took over in 2011?

Behler: Very little of the organization I took over is still left. The culture is completely different.

S-R: How so?

Behler: Before there was no unity of purpose. People were here for their own reasons – not aligned behind our mission.

S-R: How did you change that?

Behler: By refocusing our workforce on our mission and corporate values – and when that didn’t work, by inviting a lot of people to leave. We’ve probably paid out close to $200,000 in severance since 2011.

S-R: What is Skils’kin’s focus today?

Behler: It’s complicated. We’re the largest employer of persons with disabilities in Spokane County, at 110. We also employee 70 in Montana and 50 in Wyoming, and later this year will launch programs in Oklahoma and North Dakota. Our biggest customer is the Department of Defense – primarily the Air Force. We also have a program that allows 29 individuals to live in the community rather than at Eastern State Hospital. And we manage finances for 900 people who Social Security has deemed not competent to manage their own finances. We make sure they have money for rent, food and medication.

S-R: What services do you provide at Fairchild?

Behler: Ground maintenance, janitorial, and attendant services for the dining hall. We also do janitorial work at the Federal Building and Post Office downtown.

S-R: Do your clients pay market rate for your services?

Behler: Yes. We’re more a business than we are a nonprofit. But even back when we were known as Pre-Vocational and collected household items, donations represented less than 1 percent of our revenue.

S-R: How much do your employees with disabilities earn?

Behler: Our janitors make around $12.25 an hour, plus about $4.50 in fringe benefits. Overhead accounts for about 15 percent of our contract costs.

S-R: What sort of disabilities do you accommodate?

Behler: Schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress, addiction, brain injury, physical disabilities. Mostly we work with cognitive and developmental disabilities, but we will work with any individual with a diagnosed disability.

S-R: Besides their disability, what challenges do they face?

Behler: Often they don’t interview well. So we’re experimenting with direct placement – encouraging companies to let us just send a person, and if it doesn’t work out, tell us and we’ll make the change.

S-R: Do you sometimes fire employees?

Behler: Oh, yeah.

S-R: For what reasons?

Behler: If they don’t show up every day and care.

S-R: What’s the shortest someone has been on your payroll?

Behler: One day.

S-R: And the longest?

Behler: We have someone who started working for us at Fairchild 38 years ago. Whether that’s great or not, I don’t know. Within the disability community there’s heated debate about what’s called congregated versus segregated – should individuals work in teams and positions that suit their needs and abilities, or should they work in the community alongside individuals who don’t have disabilities? It depends on the individual and the requirements of the job, but I believe in the power of employment – any employment.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Behler: Everything.

S-R: What could you do without?

Behler: Government overreach.

S-R: What’s the best business advice you ever got?

Behler: It wasn’t from a businessperson. It was from my mother, who used to say, “How hard can it be? Let’s give it a try.”

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Behler: Growth. We have invested heavily in people and systems, and we’re geared up to be more like a $25 million or $30 million company. We need more contracts and bigger contracts.

S-R: Is there anything about you that might surprise people who think they know you?

Behler: I cry at movies.

S-R: Such as?

Behler: The best one is “Where the Red Fern Grows.” “Rudy” – but everyone cried at “Rudy.” And I cried at “The Shawshank Redemption.” If there’s unfairness in a situation, I’ll cry.

S-R: Talk about real-life unfairness.

Behler: There’s a young man here who was homecoming king in high school and graduated with honors from EWU. Yet he couldn’t find a job. He had a business degree, which you’d think would make him employable. But he was born with cerebral palsy.

We created an HR position simply so this young man could start his résumé. The first day he came in, I said, “David, I need to hijack you for a special project. I’m going to Washington, D.C., and want you to contact our federal representatives and make appointments for me.”

He got seven out of the nine appointments I asked for, and has been a fantastic employee ever since. Yet he can’t find mainstream employment.

That’s the dysfunction in our community that we fight to correct every day.

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