Walgreens — We Go Behind The Scenes

Circa 2007

When you stop by Walgreens to pick up a prescription or a few toiletry items, you don’t see what’s going on beyond the shelves, beyond the brick and mortar. What you don’t see is that the corporation has been busy at work creating distribution centers that employ impressive numbers of people with disabilities. Chet Cooper, ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief, recently spoke with Walgreen’s Randy Lewis, the senior vice president of distribution and logistics, who detailed how his company is tapping into a new talent pool.

CC: Whose idea was it to expand your outreach?

RL: My son, Austin, has autism. He’s 19. He’s been in the school system since he was three. So he’s gone to two different schools a year for the last 16 years, which means 32 different Individual Education Plans (IEP) that have been developed for him. Every IEP is the same. You get there. You wait. You go in. You laugh. You cry. You come out. There’s another set of parents waiting.

I’ve been in his classes and I’ve seen all these kids with all kinds of disabilities, whether it be Cerebral Palsy or mental retardation or autism—mostly cognitive disabilities—and I’ve noticed when these kids get out of school, they have to compete with a group that’s much better prepared than they are. I’ve come to the conclusion that the disabled die a death of a thousand cuts. They probably don’t drive.

Transportation is limited. They probably have difficulty with the application forms. They don’t learn the way we’re used to teaching or on the timetable we tend to use. They may look different. On and on and on.

So when we started building new distribution centers with a lot of automation, we thought: Can’t we just take a different approach and maybe make this easier for people to do this job? Then we thought, Well, let’s get rid of the keyboards. What made the job difficult were the keyboards and words. So we said, ‘Let’s go ahead and make our systems with pictures and let’s use touch screens instead of keyboards.’

CC: So you already knew some of the technology was available because of your son?

RL: I knew some of the technology because I knew some of the struggles Austin had, and I happen to know the technology because that’s our business. From building distribution centers with automation, we’ve known about touch screens for a long time. I’ve learned about the icons through working with my son. Also in retail, you go into any quick service chain today, and they’ve started using icons. Plus with all the struggles with different languages, people think in pictures, not words.

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So we got down the road and we said, ‘How many people, let’s say, with autism could we hire?’ We said we were going to hire 600 people, and we just talked to somebody and said, ‘Well, gee whiz, nobody’s ever done that before.’ Without job coaches, ongoing support and peer support, how many typically-abled people would we need on the line working, side by side, for each person with autism? And the guess was two. So we said we we’re going to hire 600. So 2-to-1 means we can hire 200 people with a cognitive disability, and that was our objective from day one.

Then we started working towards that end and went to our partners. When we picked a prospective city for our operations, we went and talked to the different partner agencies and said, ‘This is our objective. We’re going to hire 200 people with disabilities—and not just the easy disabilities, but people who might not have ever worked or who have had long-term struggles.’ And they believed in it. We said we were going to make it happen, and lo and behold, we did.

CC: How did you find that many candidates for work within a geographic area?

RL: Well, first of all, we knew we were going to hire 600 from day one. We’ve got about 300 now, and about 40 percent of those have a disability. We’ve got autism, retardation, cerebral palsy and lots of physical disabilities. We started working with agencies such as Vocational Rehab and the Department of Special Needs in South Carolina. They put in a training center, found a building and staffed it, and then we put in equipment on which employees could train. As people started hearing about us, they just started showing up. We found one woman who had heard about the opportunity in San Diego, and moved across the country with her daughter. They both now work in that distribution center. The only reason I know of her is because we sent a film crew down there to talk to team members, and the filmmaker happened to come across them in the interview. In some ways it’s like that line from Field of Dreams: Build it and they will come.

CC: Typically, you’re going to be hiring workers within a certain radius so the commute is not too brutal.

RL: We started working on the transportation issue real early. We went in saying, ‘OK, when we’re done, we want to have an example to show other businesses that this is a sustainable model. This is not charity.’ So we purposely did not do things that would make the project seem like charity. For instance, we did not put in our own transportation system. We said that’s what the community is supposed to do, so we worked with the community and they came up with a busing system to help our team members get to work.

CC: There are companies, though, that run car pools, where they own their own vans and transport workers to and from work.

RL: We might do car pooling with our employees, but traditionally we have not gone out and picked up employees. I don’t think we would do car pooling in this case, unless we could make the right business case for it. So far, it’s a bridge we have not crossed.

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CC: I think the business case is that people come to work less tired.

RL: If I extended it to that community, I’d probably extend it to everybody.

CC: Oh, absolutely. You’re 100 percent right. I’m just saying—because I know of a company that recently looked into it… They decided to invest in vans and offer it to all employees. What they also considered was making some, if not all, of the vans accessible for individuals who might need a lift, so to speak. They actually came to us and asked, ‘Is there a place we could get a deal on a fleet of vans?’ But they were all over the place. They hadn’t done their homework.

In terms of the business model, have you been able to figure out whether there is a savings via your automated distribution systems compared to the conventional approach?

RL: The building is 20 percent more efficient than any other building we have. We built it that way without regard to the work force we’d be using.

CC: So you have energy efficiency as well?

RL: The greater efficiency actually comes from the level of automation we have. The deal about using people with disabilities is they can do that job as well as a person with typical abilities. The side benefit is that I think it’s a better environment because everybody treats each other a lot better. There’s more teamwork. There’s an awareness of purpose. You can’t tell who has a disability and who does not. Maybe if you spend some time talking to somebody, you would, or maybe if you watch the way they walk for a while. Everybody is different. But you really can’t tell. It’s completely integrated.

The word we use is ‘inclusive,’ not ‘diversity.’ Everybody talks about diversity, but in that building everybody focuses on what they can do, not what they can’t do. And there are more things in common than differences. That’s where the focus is: on the common humanity. And I think it brings out the best in the typically-abled. If you talked to the typically-abled there, they will say that they’ve learned patience that extends into their home lives. They’ve gotten a new view of the workplace and how things should be. It is transforming to go there and talk to people, and people with disabilities are coming out of their shell, so to speak.

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I get a weekly ‘Success Stories’ note, which is my favorite thing to read. This week it talked about how people didn’t realize that the disabled have a different Friday night than the typically abled. Our group of managers usually go out for wings together on Friday nights.

One night they said, ‘Why don’t we bring along some of the folks with disabilities who couldn’t get here by themselves?’ Now the bus that takes those folks to their home sometimes drops them off at the wings place, because now they’re part of the social fabric of the building. I’ve seen people who wouldn’t look you in the eye or speak to you, now look you in the eye and speak and smile first. I also hear the typically abled saying this is the best place they’ve ever worked.

Let me read you a little bit directly from our newsletter:

“I’ve been seeing many of our former transitional, work-group team members at Wild Wings just having a blast, with some that I would never have anticipated blossoming into social butterflies. Upon recognizing this new-found social network, it prompted me to ask questions. It seems that the always prevalent work bond that most of us have experienced with those with whom we share our professional lives, has not been overlooked … as it relates to our Anderson’s Outreach initiative. Our outreach team members have gained this aura of confidence, which we have seen grow as time passes, and this confidence has extended across all aspects of their lives.”

I get stories like that every week. And it’s gets to be overwhelming. It’s wonderful to see them.

CC: Isn’t it, on the one hand, a little frustrating to think that in all these years no one’s made this happen before, that it took this long? Right now you’re still unique. This should be multiplied around the country, around the world?

RL: That’s what we hope.

CC: Any other thoughts that you would want to add?

RL: Whatever we’ve learned, we’ll be glad to pass on. We stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us, and we’re ready to have people stand on ours. While we haven’t figured everything out, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. I mean, that’s the bottom line.

CC: Have you looked into creating a take-it-on-theroad, if you will, presentation of this, that you’d can share at different employment conferences?

RL: If there were businesses where people wanted us to speak, we’d go there and speak. We will go talk to groups. We have a website that we’re going to expand to show more of the lessons learned as we built and did the initial hiring at Anderson. It’s called Walgreens’ Outreach. We’re expanding it into Connecticut. After seeing the Anderson model, we have committed to hiring 1,000 people with disabilities by the year 2010. We wanted a clear and elevating goal, so that is it. Whatever we can do, we’ll do to help people. It’s something we enjoy.

CC: How many stores do you have now?

RL: Six thousand and some.

CC: And the distribution centers are expanding to support the expansion of the stores?

RL: That’s correct. We’ll be opening the distribution center in Connecticut in 2009, then we’ll build another one. This is the way we’re gonna build our distribution centers from now on.

CC: Are you building ‘green’ as well?

RL: Sure. We try to use solar where we can. All the landscaping is natural, low-maintenance landscaping. We still consume a lot of power because of the automation.

CC: Do you ever think about asking your vendors to green up?

RL: We care about it. But I’m more focused on how diverse they are, than how green they are.

CC: So you’re asking them about their diversity?

RL: Sure! There’s 100 things we ask them to do, but probably number one right now with our suppliers is diversity.

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