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Posted: November 01, 2013

Executive edge: Lloyd Lewis

Arc’s CEO makes business personal at his nonprofit

Lynn Bronikowski

When Lloyd Lewis goes to work as president and CEO of arc Thrift Stores, he is inspired every day by his son, Kennedy, who was born in 2003 with Down Syndrome.

“A lot of parents go through a grieving or a disappointment process; some get angry; some get depressed,” Lewis said. “But I fell in love with him from the beginning.”

Lewis, who was the chief financial officer of a high-tech company at the time of his son’s birth, threw himself into scientific research advocacy, joined the arc of Colorado board of directors and attended a national Down Syndrome convention.

“I decided I really wanted to use my business skills to help people like my son,” said Lewis, who joined arc as CFO in May 2005 and became CEO seven months later.

“I love creating jobs, driving growth, creating payroll and improving operations,” Lewis said. “Even though we’re a nonprofit, we run it like a business because my philosophy is, the more successful we are as a business, the more we can fund our programs.”

Arc raises $6.7 million annually for programs that support children and adults with developmental disabilities. That’s a 150 percent increase since Lewis took the reins eight years ago and the organization is expected to grow to $8 million next year.

In that time, the company has expanded from 17 to 22 stores, more than doubled employment from 500 to 1,200 and annually processed more than 100 million pounds of donated items. Arc has a million square feet of retail space under lease and operates the largest nonprofit call center in the state.

“Every Friday I tour three or four stores, talk to employees about how the company is doing, the progress we’re making and give out recognition buttons for good work,” said Lewis, who furnished his entire home with items from arc Thrift Stores at a total cost of $1,500. “I wanted to walk the talk and make a point that on a budget you can furnish your home relatively elegantly out of our stores.”

 A native of Tacoma, Wash., Lewis is the son of an air traffic controller and took his first job at age 10 – delivering newspapers, picking produce in fields, working in fast food and selling Fuller Brushes door to door.

“I was surrounded by people who worked hard every day and grew up with a real ethic that you work as hard as you can and try to be as successful as you can,” said Lewis, who put himself through the University of Oklahoma, working as a janitor and later earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. “I think in growing up where I was exposed to this wide stratum of different people really helps me in this job. We’re a great third- and fourth-chance employer.”

Arc is one of the leading employers of individuals with disabilities in the state. Lewis recently spoke on a panel at the United Nations as part of an international Down Syndrome conference.

“I spoke about diversity in employment and employing people with disabilities,” said Lewis, who regularly advises companies on hiring policies. “When I first started to get to know adults with disabilities, I did so because I wanted to see where my son was headed. But what surprised me is how generous, loving, kind and appreciative they were. They raise everyone’s spirits, hate to miss work and take great pride in their work.  And that’s the perfect employee.” 

Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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