Helping Others Help Themselves

The Flagstaff Group

For almost half a century, The Flagstaff Group has provided training and meaningful employment to thousands of men and women with disabilities in New South Wales. A commercial and social enterprise dedicated to sustainable business, The Flagstaff Group has two key sites in Wollongong and Nowra. It continues to operate a number of commercial enterprises, all running as stand-alone profit and loss business units serving to employ persons with disabilities.

There is an old saying which goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Although the origins of the proverb are debatable, the meaning is clear: giving someone the ability to work is a gift with far greater and longer-lasting benefits than those that come with a one-time handout.

A social enterprise with a commercial focus and standards including promoting participation, integrity, respect, teamwork, compassion and equality, The Flagstaff Group employs men and women with disabilities, and provides them with skills that last a lifetime. “In diversifying, we’ve now been able to present an employment model that is unlike anyone else in the country,” explains Roy Rogers, who joined the organisation in 2005. As Chief Executive Officer at The Flagstaff Group for the past two years, Mr Rogers came on board to commercialise operations and to make the model more sustainable. He has since helped the group successfully apply market-based strategies to achieve a purpose for the good of the entire community: offer quality goods and services while helping disabled men and women who want to help themselves.

Spending much of his earlier career in construction and marketing for large businesses such as BHP and the Email Metals Group, Mr Rogers enjoys working with Flagstaff’s three hundred and forty employees and particularly their positive can-do attitude he sees every day. Some workers, he says, have been with the company for forty years and enjoy the self-empowerment employment gives them.

Of the approximately two hundred and fifty disabled persons working at Flagstaff, half are intellectually challenged. Others deal with physical issues, while some have mental health issues – such as brain-acquired injuries from accidents or strokes – or are impaired as a result of substance abuse. Approximately seventy-five per cent of the company’s employees have a disability and receive the Disability Support Pension. This, combined with their salary, means they have disposable income to spend at local businesses. By working closely with all of its customers, The Flagstaff Group is able to provide them with the opportunity to partner in this valuable community service.

Those who want to work are provided with opportunities at the company. Some are brought on board with the goal of increasing their independence – paying them a wage and helping them to gain confidence so those who are able can move into an independent living lifestyle. “At Flagstaff, we get them back into the workforce and bring about the dignity that work brings to us all,” says Mr Rogers of the organisation, which works with persons within three categories. These include disabled persons living at home with parents, since they are unable to live independently; disabled individuals who live in group homes with an on-site carer; and disabled men and women who are able to live on their own.

The group is operated as a business, so regardless of the division best suited to someone and his or her needs – such as paper recycling, laundry, or print and mail – working at Flagstaff is not a handout. Disabled employees are expected to conduct themselves in the same way as anyone would in a job: be on time to work, take breaks at the appropriate intervals, behave appropriately and most importantly, work safely and care for customers.

Many new workers come to the group through links the organisation has with schools, through the provision of school-based traineeships for those with a disability or learning difficulties. “We are connecting with the schools to run a workability option, so they get on the job work experience while they are at school, and then they can move into employment,” says Mr Rogers. “When they are on the job, we also run training for Certificate IIs, but there is also training in OH&S, managing themselves, getting to work and all those things. There is a lot that happens in the background as well.” Some team members come to the organisation who have never worked before or lived independently and we are quickly able to move them toward an independent lifestyle.

Constantly recruiting, Mr Rogers says not everyone wants to come to Flagstaff, as welfare options exist, but those who do “genuinely understand what work brings to your own well-being and the dignity that it brings.” Some have never worked before, and a thirteen-week training program that builds “work muscle,” and focuses on workplace responsibilities quickly transforms our employees by building confidence and independence. Success, Mr Rogers says, comes from hiring people with the right can-do attitude, but not those who are too welfare-aligned. “If they come from a welfare base, the welfare part takes over when it comes to engaging employees to learn new skills,” he says. “Some of our employees have never had the opportunity to gain a qualification in their lives. People will regress to the easy road, and if you don’t support a goal in life, you won’t achieve great things. That sense of achievement brings confidence straight away; as soon as you achieve something you feel good about it and want to take it to the next step.”

With an impressive retention rate of about ninety-eight per cent, The Flagstaff Group’s successful trainees are assessed in a number of areas, including their skills and social abilities, in order to determine where they are best suited to work. They are then moved into the sector best suiting their abilities, graded on their skills and workability, and see their pay increase as they gain skills and productivity. Grading is overseen by Human Resources support officers with production managers overseeing workers on a day-to-day basis.

Originally formed by a number of senior executives at the local steelworks in 1966 as the Wollongong Sheltered Workshops, Flagstaff initially took on persons with disabilities to make canvas covers for railway wagons hauling steel. Over the years, seven key business divisions were developed which include print and mail, electronic records management, paper to paper recycling, fine foods, laundry, engineering and coffee. By choosing these specific areas, the group has been able to diversify in ways which benefit the Flagstaff organisation, the individuals it employs, and the customers it serves.

“We wanted to diversify,” says Mr Rogers. “In most commercial operations you need economies of scale, and diversification is the last thing you want, because it doesn’t help the economies of scale. With us employing people with disabilities, it is like a little microcosm of an employment model. So a person with disability has a choice of different career paths.”

As in any business, there is careful, ongoing analysis made to determine which sectors are on the rise. Years ago, engineering was the strongest sector, but with local manufacturing on the decline, it has been surpassed by food preparation and coffee roasting, packaging and distribution, along with drinking chocolates for vending machines. Customers such as Meals on Wheels choose Flagstaff for its service, on-time delivery and quality meals, all made with the best products and carefully assembled by hand – not machine – which have earned it numerous accolades. “It’s about service and quality,” says Mr Rogers.

Among Flagstaff’s many customers are well-known businesses and institutions such as BHP Billiton, Meals on Wheels, VISY, Bluescope Steel, the National Disability Service, Medina, Corporate Express, Peoplecare and the University of Wollongong. With an approximate fifty-fifty split between male and female employees, all are assessed to determine which area best suits their physical and mental abilities and interests. “The variation in our businesses lets us give that diversity as a career path for a person with a disability,” says Mr Rogers, adding that as employees age and slow down physically, they are able to transition into less demanding jobs.

Flagstaff is proud of the many men and women it has helped over the past forty-seven years through investment in skills development and training programs, which ensure that all employees are given opportunities to develop their full potential. The Flagstaff Group employs six core strategies to deliver sustainable, long-term community benefit. These include distribution of profits, generation of the majority of income from sustainable commercial activities, generation of a social return in addition to a financial return, democratic decision-making for all stakeholders, paying all employees at an award, competency or productivity-based rates, and having employees with a disability make up the majority of the company’s workforce.

The majority of Flagstaff’s income, eighty-five per cent, is derived from its commercial enterprises; only the remaining fifteen per cent comes from government funding. All profits are reinvested, with the intent of improving the quality of life and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities through training, equipment upgrades and improvement to facilities. Recognising the importance of the commercial focus to the organisation’s continued success, Flagstaff remains committed to excellence in customer service and quality products. As a not-for-profit limited by guarantee, it has a voluntary board of about nine people from a variety of backgrounds, including solicitors, accountants, engineers, parents, carers and university lecturers. They are usually sought out for the experience and networks they can bring to the board.

In October, The Flagstaff Group was the proud winner of a state award recognising Business Achievement at the NSW/ACT Regional Achievement and Community Awards held in Newcastle, which recognises businesses that engage with their communities through innovative practices that help regional communities to thrive. It was also recognised nationally as the Winner of the 2013 Excellence Awards for Australian Disability Enterprises for demonstrating new and innovative practices supportive of the development of high quality and sustainable employment, whilst providing premium employment conditions to employees with disability.

“We don’t shy away from the fact that we are here to employ people with disabilities,” emphasises Mr Rogers. “It is about making sure that we deliver skills to better prepare people with disabilities, and to better prepare them for life and to take other employment roles – people move on from our business down the road to a for-profit business. It’s a great job. We have a great attitude with our staff and with our people with disabilities. We have a really happy workforce, everybody smiles, and it is a very fulfilling place to work.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

September 25, 2018, 8:16 AM AEST