Now hear this: Robert Coghlan, owner of Coghlan's Ltd.

Robert Coghlan, owner of Coghlan's Ltd., explains how his company is making a social difference and bringing a little joy to the lives of the mentally challenged.

A lack of skilled workers in the future was once a hot-button issue. But with a slumping economy, the issue now may be having too many. Either way, there’s a largely untapped resource out there, says Robert Coghlan, owner of Coghlan’s Ltd., a Winnipeg-based supplier of camping equipment. He tells Andy Holloway why using disabled people is no handicap.

Let’s not kid ourselves — we’re not just using disabled people for charitable reasons. There’s a business case to be made. But when you spend some time watching people work, seeing how happy they are and knowing that you really are contributing to a community that may mostly be ignored if businesses don’t step up and keep these workshops going, that is really something.

Forty-eight years ago when my father developed the camp-stove toaster, he needed somebody to assemble it. We didn’t have our own manufacturing operation, and we bought all the components separately, so we needed labour to put this thing together. The labour at that point was me and my sisters and my father and mother, working down in the basement. The volumes went up to the point where we were dealing with thousands of pieces. Well, us kids had to go to school. We couldn’t sit downstairs and put toasters together. He found what they called back then a mentally retarded workshop with three mentally challenged people and a supervisor working in it, and they were doing little odd jobs, like packaging different items. They were doing exactly what he was looking for: somebody to assemble these toasters for him. It was really a business decision, because that was the only place in Winnipeg that offered that kind of service.

From there, he started adding more items to his little company and, inevitably, he started investing in putting packaging equipment into the little workshop, and that little workshop has grown from three people to 300 people over the years. The relationship between our company and Versatech Industries Inc., which is what the workshop is known as today, is really a partnership between our two companies. We are very reliant on them, and they are very reliant on our business, but it works business-wise. They’re employing 300 people who otherwise wouldn’t have jobs, who would be sitting at home on some sort of government assistance and really not contributing to society.

A lot of the product that we package or assemble is cyclical. We might not have enough work to keep a team of people working five days a week, eight hours a day in October, but we’ve got more than enough to keep 200 people working in February, March and April, so the flexibility an organization like Versatech offers is key. We couldn’t possibly have our own assembly/packaging line here and manage the dips and valleys of our production. We do manufacture quite a bit of product in Asia, package it there, and it comes in here as a finished product. But we also manufacture 50 items as finished products here in Canada, and they need to be packaged and/or assembled. It is far less costly to do all of that here than to ship it over to Asia to be assembled or packaged and then have it shipped back.

We do the same thing in Minneapolis. Our U.S. distribution centre is there, and we’ve really duplicated what we do in Canada. We have a handicap workshop down there that assembles and packages about 100 items for the U.S. market. We use one main workshop in Winnipeg, but we’ve got small towns around here where we use workshops. Steinbach is a town of 11,000 people, and they have a workshop there. Every city would have at least one workshop, and a city the size of Toronto would have multiple workshops. Even smaller cities, like a Brandon or a Sudbury, generally, will have some kind of handicap workshop.

The workshops have a standard to meet, and they conduct quality control off the line, and then we will spot-check it as the products come in here. But they have a very strict set of standards that they watch diligently. We have, through 40 years of working with them, all the confidence in the world that they conduct the quality-control inspections, and they have proven it. We ship the product over, and the packaging, and it comes back as a finished product that’s been checked. There has never been an issue with quality in either Minneapolis or Winnipeg. Don’t get me wrong, there may be the odd time where there are 11 pieces in a case that should have 12, but it’s rare.

You have to go to one of these workshops and see how happy the people are to come to work every day and contribute like any one of us. It really is a beautiful thing. They are not paid slave wages. They can be subsidized through government agencies, United Way, things like that, but they are paid a reasonable wage for assembling products, and they are contributing, and that’s what is important to the people who work there. I might add that many of the higher-functioning people receive their training by working nine-to-five at an operation like that, and then Versatech will outsource them to companies in the general community to work.

They can have very severely handicapped people working who may not be pumping out a lot of work, but they are contributing in some way and getting better. It’s therapy for them, too. Anybody who sits and does nothing all day or watches TV, generally, their lives don’t improve. It’s the same for mentally challenged people. When they’re out contributing, learning and working, their lives become much better. They learn how to do more things independently.