Leisa: Hello, I’m Leisa Holland Nelson and welcome to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today is Steve Lufburrow, President and CEO of Goodwill Houston; also known as Goodwill Industries.
Leisa: Steve welcome to The BusinessMakers.
Steve: Thank you Leisa, I appreciate being here, thanks very much.
Leisa: Tell me about Goodwill.
Steve: Goodwill is a huge organization that is nationwide and now worldwide and it was started in Boston, Massachusetts in 1902 in the Methodist church of all things. It was because there was a Methodist minister in Boston who felt like he needed to do more in the mission of people and so he left his big church and fancy parsonage and took the, uh, church in the poorest community of Boston way back and – and – and as result of that he found that the people in that port, uh, community in Boston needed help to survive; they needed jobs, they needed clothing, they needed food, all those pieces. And so he went back – the first donation to Goodwill was from the Chase and Sanborn Coffee Company, it was a burlap, uh, coffee bag and so he went back to all of his friends in the wealthier areas of Boston, took the bag, knocked, uh, door to door and said I need to get things for my congregation.
They gave him things, he went back to his poor church, basically in the poor area of the community, laid the items out on the pews and invited the community in. And that was all good for your heart. Well what happened is after about a day and a half he found that the people – the majority of the people that were coming in were going on the corner, selling the things that they had just received and it’s still happening selling the things that they had just received to support their habits, uh, of alcohol and whatever of that time.
Leisa: Even then.
Steve: And so – but he didn’t give up. I like a guy that doesn’t give up. He went back and he got that Chase and Sanborn coffee bag and he went door to door and this time he came back, laid it on the pews – all the material that he had received – and he invited some of the people in his congregation that needed jobs; asked them to help clean the items, sew the items, get them ready for sale. And he brought the – the people into the church and said we’re going to sell these at a very, very small amount so that I can pay the ladies basically in those days who were cleaning and mending the clothes and that – in 1902 – is how Goodwill started. Now today, uh, Dr. Edgar James Helms is that – is that pastor who is long deceased – I’ve known his grandsons by the way wonderful people – but what happened with that vision is it’s now turned into about a 176 Goodwills across the country – each autonomous and 40 affiliates throughout the world.
It’s the largest network of rehabilitation and I say rehabilitation because that’s not really the word anymore, it’s more workforce development but it’s that kind of a program all over the world now, uh, affecting people’s lives and providing job opportunities and opportunity all around for people that may not have it.
Leisa: Tell us about how Goodwill Houston came into being and your relationship to that.
Steve: My father was one of my dearest friends who passed away in 1986 and, you know, he and I were good buddies and so I was a pretty young man when he died, I was 27. Dad got involved in Goodwill, he was a Methodist minister and we were in, uh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, uh, living in the parsonage, the whole bit and Goodwill basically came after him. They recruited him to come and take over this Goodwill in Pittsburgh. Must have been a major life change decision for my mom and dad because Dad had gone to seminary and was on his third church and all of a sudden they’re pulling him away saying you can run a business but you can also minister to people. And so they made the decision, Dad went into the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Goodwill, where I was born, and turned it around.
We came down to a conference – as a family as a vacation – but we came to a conference in Florida in 1965 and in Florida in St. Petersburg, the people from the Houston Goodwill came to that conference looking for their next leader because they had just ended that relationship with the very first President of this company and they found Dad. And they recruited Dad in and by the time we finished at that conference – 4 day – Dad had already flown over to Houston, left us there, met at the Houston club with all of these wonderful men of that time it was. They offered him the job, we were driving home back up to Pittsburgh – I’ll never forget, as a little boy – we pulled over into a rest stop, Dad went to the pay phone, we had talked about it as a family and he made the decision and said I’m coming to Houston. And so that was in June and in August we moved into Houston; we lived in the Rice Hotel for a week and a half because our moving man didn’t show up.
Leisa: What grade were you in?
Steve: I was in second grade and so it was a wonderful time in our life. I’m the youngest of 3 but we all adapted and we went to our new school and we became Texans. We didn’t even know how to say the word Houston when we lived in Pittsburgh and all we thought was cowboys and cow, you know, boots and all that stuff. Well there’s a lot of that here but it’s really a very sophisticated community and I’m happy to be a part of it.
Leisa: So Steve, you’ve mentioned the Methodist church twice already, is Goodwill still tied to the Methodist church?
Steve: No it’s not. Goodwill was started in the church but obviously has drifted away because what we have found is that all people of all faiths, all religions, need the services of Goodwill and so we – we are not tied to the Methodist church. Oh, and then I forgot to tell you, I had worked as a truck driver, a dock worker, a cafeteria worker, a maintenance man, uh, because Goodwill was very small, Dad needed help. And so I would do that on the weekends and then when I got into college I kept saying to my dad I think I want to run a Goodwill. And he kept saying no you don’t, there’s an easier way to make a living. And so when I – when I got out of college I got into Goodwill and got into the Executive Development program through Goodwill Industries International up in Washington D.C., uh, passed that, uh, was holding a staff position in Houston and then became a VP after 5 years and was running a division of the Goodwill in Houston when Dad died.
And I was the only trained exec on our staff – I was just a young guy with no experience – and this board of directors of incredible mostly men – I think they had just added women, you know, in the 80s and this was in 1986 – they met and gave me the chance of a lifetime as a 27 year old and here I’ve been. I mean, it’s been a while and here we are this many years later and, um, I’m honored and thrilled to still be here.
Leisa: Well we’re honored that you are here and I want you to say what Goodwill does today because it’s so extraordinary, people just have no idea all the things that Goodwill is doing.
Steve: Well Goodwill does do amazing things in our community and communities throughout the United States. Um, Goodwill provides job opportunities and training for people who have, uh, physical, emotional, developmental disabilities and any other barrier to employment. Let’s talk about what that means; that can be anything. That can be, um, they have a – a felony record – that can be drug and alcohol issues, that could be I dropped out of high school when I was a kid, I – I didn’t have good role models as – as parents and I didn’t know what to do and I’ve never been able to make it. Our belief is that everybody deserves an opportunity and all we can do is provide an opportunity and if they choose not to take it then we’re going to move to the next person.
But we do believe in work and we always call it the power of work at Goodwill because out feeling – and I think Dr. Helms way back in Boston Massachusetts proved it a long time ago – that nothing is free and if you’re given something free you really don’t appreciate the value of it. I think we’ve all seen that happen in some of our government programs over the years and so Goodwill believes in work and that’s what Goodwill does in our community.
Leisa: Okay, so Steve, I’m real curious about Goodwill today, what’s the makeup of the organization, how many locations are there, how many employees?
Steve: Okay, thank you for the question because when I took over we were a 7 million dollar company with about 300 employees; today we’re a 95 million dollar company with over 1,800 employees. I have over 110 locations throughout the city; we have 51 stores, we have 53 donation centers which are stand alones next to a Starbucks or whatever, uh, to make it convenient for our donors and also a pleasant experience, that’s the other thing, customer service is important. And then we have 9 job connections now. And a job connection is exactly that; you come into our job connection center and we’re going to try to connect you to a career. And that could be through training, through education, through resume help or through our contacts and that’s what Goodwill is doing throughout this community.
So we work with all different types of individuals and our receptionist is one of my favorites. Linda has been with Goodwill since 1970, she has no arms and runs the fastest switchboard in Houston. I mean she’s an amazing woman (25:41-Leisa: she is amazing). Um, drives a car on the freeways, you know, she just – she is my inspiration, uh, and there are so many other wonderful people like Linda. And then the other – one of the other things that we’re doing now is we’re one of the leading providers for veteran’s services in our city and that was not even on the radar 20 years ago and I’m very proud of that because we’re working with a lot of men and women from different generations, who are still coming to our job connections with issues. Uh, mostly, uh, post Iraq and Afghanistan men and women, very exciting.
Leisa: Extraordinary. So tell us about your journey here and the turnaround that’s taken place in the last…
Steve: I’ve had a couple turnarounds and then. We were in not-for-profits in general, and not all but the majority of not-for-profits, they run what I always like to call on a roller coaster up and down. There are good years and bad years and one of the things that we experienced were good years and bad years. We had to come up with a way to stabilize this thing. Let’s find, uh, a way to do this where we can benefit people all of the time instead of in the peaks and valleys of a business cycle. And so when I first took over, uh, was 1986 and – and how I got started in this, I was trying to figure out how to do it and, um, you know, I was still just had lost my dad and I had – I was trying to bring the staff together and trying to figure out where we were financially and the place burned to the ground. So that was my first indoctrination as the CEO.
We had a large facility out on Jenson Drive on the Northeast side of town and it was 22 acres over there and one night on June 13, 1986 – and the reason why I remember is I took over in May, about May 10th officially, I’d been the acting guy since January – June 13th was my wedding anniversary.
And so I was home getting ready to take my wife out to a fancy dinner and we had a little boy and we were waiting on the babysitter. And I was in the front yard with my son and he was, uh, 2 ½ and we looked up and saw this smoke cloud over the city of Houston; we lived way out. And so next thing I know my phone began to ring at my house and they said Goodwill’s on fire and so I had to stop those plans and basically really didn’t get home for another weeks because we had to go home – go to the office and try to save this place. And it was a scary opportunity for a young man, but we did. And I learned valuable, valuable lessons, I saw, um, I saw God moments everyday. I saw, um, incredible moments where I was taxed and called on, uh, to do things that I never thought I’d do. And so we rebuilt, uh, to make that story really short and then continued to go further.
When I took Goodwill over we were at the down cycle of what I was talking about earlier about that roller coaster. So with the down cycle in a not-for-profit you have debt, you’re, uh, revenue’s not as great, you don’t have profit; uh, in a not-for-profit you can have profit. It’s a tax designation but it goes back into your company. Well we didn’t even have nay profit when I – when I took it over and so the problem with taking over an organization from your dad in the down cycle is you can’t blame it on him because he’s your dad, and so I had to just kind of take that and deal with it and it took about 2 ½ to 3 years with the support of my board to help us pull out of that and so the 90s were pretty strong years for Goodwill Houston. Um, we were doing the way we had always done it but we were successful. And then in about 1999, 2000 we began to run into some financial difficulties.
One of them was, um, we had had a large toy manufacturer that was donating just so many toys to Goodwill and we were defacing those items so you couldn’t take them back, uh, for, um, you know, dollar back and so returns, so it was putting about 35 people to work.
And all of a sudden – that went on for 10 years, it was a big program. Customers loved it, we loved it and then that toy manufacturer out of the Northeast called one day on a Friday and said we’re ending the program. And I said why and they said because we have a new CEO, we feel we can do it differently. I said when are you ending it; today, um, come pick your trailers up from our manufacturing center and our distribution center over the weekend – which we did. Within about 3 weeks I had empty stores because we had gotten really accustomed to the toys and that was one of my first mistakes. And I think any CEO would have to learn from that – I didn’t have any product to sell and so when that begins to happen you begin to get into a spiral. And there were other things that occurred too but the major one was tropical storm Allison visited Houston in 2001. It went out over the gulf and then it came back in then it went out and came back in and it flooded the Northeast side of town.
Well it flooded Goodwill about 3 ½ to 4 feet throughout our 22 acres of facility and you picture 3 ½ to 4 feet in a room, it’s – it’s your drawers, it’s your computers, it’s all your files; it’s everything. So we had to recover from that – by now we’re in a tailspin and we had to come up with a different way. Leisa, thank God I had a great group of board members and staff who rallied around me to give me the opportunity to push it forward rather than hold me back and we were able as a group to turn this thing around, to come up with a new model. We went from a centralized processing system to a decentralized processing system, meaning now there are Goodwills all over our community.
There used to be 4 or 5 to 7 stores and so we had to change our demographic, we had to change how we collect, we had to change who we serve, how we were funding the people that were being served. We had to move from the Jenson property and we went out to a location temporarily when we sold that on Hammerly and the beltway and that kept us alive for about 6 years. And then we – part of our plan was to find a permanent home and one of my dreams for the permanent home was to be out in the city of Houston where everybody could see us, not just on Jenson Drive. Not just in an isolated community, let’s be there for all community because what I have found in my world of – of doing this so long, disability, uh, hard times, barriers, they cross all economic lines. That happens to the rich, it happened to the poor and it happens to everybody in between. And we’re here for everybody, that’s the great thing about Goodwill.
And so we’re here now for people to see us and hopefully they are noticing Goodwill has changed in our city.
Leisa: So the community that we have listening to us today are business people and entrepreneurs and I think that you probably have one or two really important lessons to share with them. If you had to tell them the top one, two or even three things that really allowed you to become so successful what are those three things?
Steve: I think people have to believe in you. If people hadn’t believed in me it wouldn’t have given me the confidence to move forward. I had a group of people that surrounded me and patted me on the back and said Steve I know this is tough but we think you can do it even when I didn’t know if I could and that helped. So that was important having the right people surround you. Um, getting over your ego; I mean that’s a hard thing to say but, you know, we had been on top of the world in the 90s; I was running a big Goodwill as a young guy, around the country people were watching what we were doing at other Goodwills and – and I was proving everyone wrong that second generation people don’t work well, you know, you hear all this stuff. And so I had to get rid of my ego. And when I got rid of my ego – it didn’t mean I lost my pride but I got rid of my ego.
My wife will tell you – we met in high school and she said I remember that cocky young guy when we were 17, um, and I said yeah, he’s still there but he just has learned now to be a…
Leisa: Yeah, right, not to let everyone know.
Steve: Absolutely. And so I think getting rid of your ego and the having I’ll tell you another thing, it has nothing to do with business but everything to do with the turnaround. I had a wife that loved me through this thing, well I had somebody that would support me no matter what and in the middle of all this Leisa – of this turnaround – my wife develops breast cancer. And so not only am I getting attacked on the Goodwill front, but I’m getting attacked on the – attacked at home because I’m – I’m helping my wife survive. She helped me turn it around and you know how? Because one day in the middle of chemo, in the middle of some of her sickest days, we were in the worst days of Goodwill and she was sleeping in our bedroom and I was kind of there, worried, didn’t know how we were going to make payroll and when she woke up she grabbed my hand and she said what’s wrong? And here’s this sick woman here and I went oh I’m just – don’t worry, I’m worried about Goodwill.
And she looks at me and she goes Steve, you have my support, why don’t you leave Goodwill if it’s killing you like it is? I said I can’t leave when it’s down and she said good, I needed you to say that; I’m here to help you do whatever you need to do. Do not worry about the burden of your home, go save that company. And when she said that to me it kind of took so much pressure off my back because she told me I love you no matter what you’re doing. And then she said I didn’t marry you for Goodwill, I married you for you.
Those words changed my life Leisa because it took so much pressure off of me and then I could – ahhh, the chains were off, bam, I could go out and really go after it more aggressively.
Leisa: Thank you for joining us today, appreciate it.
Steve: I’ve loved it, thanks so much.
Leisa: Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
Steve: Thank you.
Leisa: That wraps up my interview with Steve Lufburrow of Goodwill. This is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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