At Orion We Reach for the Stars – John Theisen, CEO Orion Aerospace

Social enterprises are businesses that combine profit with a social purpose. The business skills needed to run a successful social enterprise are myriad, so it’s no wonder that many are led by people from a business background who want to use their skills to make a difference in their communities. “The Business of Social Enterprise” blog series profiles just some of the incredible leaders we partner with who are doing just that.

We don’t just make parts for the aerospace industry.
At Orion Aerospace, we make an impact.

Following a 23-year career in the private sector, in 2000 I joined Orion Aerospace, a high-tech manufacturer of parts for the aerospace industry based in the Pacific Northwest. My background in the private sector included working for companies like including Westin Hotels and Seattle’s Best Coffee. As COO, I helped Seattle’s Best Coffee grow from an $8M to a $95M company.  But I was always on the road. At one point, I began to wonder when I’m dead and gone what was going to be on my tombstone: “He brewed a great cup of coffee”?

I decided I wanted to work for a company that did more than just sell products. I wanted to make an impact in people’s lives. When a recruiter told me about Orion Industries, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.

Orion’s social good mission uses operations in its Aerospace Manufacturing Division and Contact Center Services division as platforms to teach people facing barriers to employment the job skills they need. Through mentoring and internship programs, Orion provided services to over 350 individuals in 2015. 85% of the people who graduate from our program are still employed one year later. The average hourly wage for people leaving our social enterprise is $13.41 an hour, and we place them in industries where there is room to advance their skills and increase their wages.

Orion’s board knew I had a lot of success turning around under-performing divisions and organizations. I had developed a management model that really worked, and the idea of applying it to the challenges facing Orion was intriguing. I told them my plan would be threefold: 1) implementing sound organizational processes, 2) becoming profitable and 3) growing and diversifying their sales. I guess they liked that because I got the job.

To get great results, hire great people and pay them accordingly
There’s an assumption that people working to improve society have to sacrifice their income in order to do so. I completely disagree with that premise.

Most social enterprise businesses understand that if you want great results you need to hire great people. I’ve worked hard at Orion to be able to offer competitive compensation packages. We’re competing with the for-profit world when we sell our products and services – it’s no different when it comes to the people we hire.

Don’t forget to put the profit in non-profit
Strategic thinking and strategic processes are just as important to social enterprises as they are to for-profit businesses, maybe even more important because we have a double-bottom line that we have to answer to. For any program or initiative, we have to ask ourselves–what is the return? We have to find a way to drive profit in enough areas of the company so that we can support other areas that are not as profitable. For every new program, we conduct a business analysis where we look at our ROI and the impact on our mission.

Focus on what makes your business unique
We work hard to define our USP – or unique selling proposition. Social enterprise businesses have to ask themselves what they can do that’s different or better than what’s already out there? When we look to expand Orion’s product offerings, we purposely stay away from services that are already well-covered in the sector, like janitorial and landscaping. So our lines of business include aerospace manufacturing and call center services. This specialized focus allows our employees to get more specialized training that allows them to transition into jobs with more specialized skills and therefore, higher earning potential.

Set the vision, then establish priorities
Probably the most important thing I do at Orion is to provide leadership for our strategic planning process. It’s an innovative approach that begins with an offsite board retreat. Among other things, during that retreat, we conduct a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) that allows us to establish our priorities.

As part of our long-term 2020 strategic plan, we challenged ourselves to grow the number of people we serve and the services we provide them at the same rate we grow the business. That gives us two options: we can grow horizontally—hiring and providing services to people with employment barriers different from those we currently serve, like people with more significant developmental disabilities. Or we could grow vertically, by providing more services to the people we now employ, like housing.

Grow the business
Just like a for-profit company, I’m responsible for growing the organization. One way for us to grow is through mergers and acquisitions. We have our niche and we know what we are good at, and that’s providing job training and community job placement for people who have employment barriers. On September 1st, we merged with another organization similar to Orion located near Everett, WA.  They are a social enterprise that provides employment services to individuals with barriers to employment and like Orion, they are a commercial aerospace supplier.  The merger will allow us to grow our employment services in North King and Snohomish Counties.   This plant is in an area where there are lots of aerospace employers—firms where our program’s graduates can work when they leave our program. It’s a smart business decision and a smart people decision. And that’s really at the heart of running a social enterprise.