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February 2, 2004

On a mission to help the handicapped

From: Montreal Gazette, Canada - Feb 2, 2004

1001 Métiers seeks to employ as many physically disabled people as possible



Monday, February 02, 2004

Few companies can boast they host the fascinating lunchtime ritual that occurs in the cafeteria at 1001 Métiers, a repackaging company in the St. Cunigonde neighbourhood of Montreal.

Half of the cafeteria is a smoking room, divided from the non-smokers' half by a transparent plexiglass wall. The folks on one side of the glass cannot hear the conversations of those on the other. But every day, the deaf members of the staff - smokers and non-smokers - are able to communicate with each other through the plexiglass by using sign language; the wall is no impediment to communication. In fact, the irony is that the staff members who are blessed with perfect hearing cannot accomplish this wondrous act.

But then, that's just one of the many wondrous things about this company, which has been operating without fanfare for the past 48 years, all the while serving as a model for how corporate Canada could be.

1001 Métiers, which is known in English as Unlimited Skills Inc. is a private, non-profit company with a social mission to employ as many physically disabled people as possible. Of the 140 employees, 30 are disabled, many of them deaf.

The company labels and repackages food, and health and beauty products for a broad spectrum of international companies.

Despite its curious status - it's been incorporated since 1956, but no one owns it - 1001 Métiers operates as any private company, competing with others to win coveted contracts.

The company's president, Paul Foster, oversees operations and is answerable to a five-member board of directors, many of whom have sat on the board for between two and three decades.

On Feb. 12, Quebec's Lieutenant-Governor Lise Thibeault, herself a wheelchair user, will visit the company. She requested the visit after meeting Foster at a ceremony at the Université de Montréal, where he was awarded a medal for his work with the disabled.

"When 1001 Métiers was created in 1956, handicapped people did not have easy access to education and subsequent employment," Foster said in an interview this week in the cheerful, light-filled building on Lionel Groulx St. "Inspired by a Second World War veteran named Harry Ward, who had lost the use of his legs during the war and founded an association for paraplegics, a group of Montreal businessmen decided they should do something for handicapped people. They borrowed $10,000, rented space and hired four or five people in wheelchairs to do stationary work, counting screws for General Electric. The company was to create work for disabled people and to be used as a trampoline so they could get work experience."

The company grew and opened a second location in east-end Montreal, which was shut down eight years ago when, as a cost-saving measure, all operations were consolidated at the Lionel Groulx building. "Over the years, the situation for handicapped people has slightly improved," Foster said. "Today, companies hire a percentage of handicapped workers, but let's call it 'tokenism.' Things are better for them, but still not very good."

Foster has expanded the business since he joined 1001 Métiers 14 years ago after a managerial career in the hand-knitting and craft industry. In addition to modernizing the equipment in the plant, he's overseen a major renovation of the two-storey facility. "We expanded the building and now have plans to build a new facility within the next three to four years," he said. A decade ago, the company became ISO 9001: 2000 accredited.

The building is spotless and the ambiance with its warm earth-tone colours is welcoming.

On a recent morning, the plant was a hive of activity as workers packaged such products as peanut butter and shampoo in various parts of the building. In one area, 10 deaf women nimbly packaged tampons, while in another, disabled workers operated shrink-wrapping equipment.

"Whenever I create a position here, I try to make sure it's for a handicapped person," said Foster, adding that the company has never received government funding or charitable donations.

Four years ago, he was on the lookout for a company comptroller who could replace a physically disabled employee who was retiring after having done that job for 40 years.

"By coincidence, I met Natacha Hyppolite, a woman who is partially deaf and was in her early 30s and had an accounting degree from l'Université du Québec à Montréal. She had done part-time work with the Quebec government and a short stint at a bank, but had never really had a job she could call her own. There were non-handicapped people applying for the job here, but I hired her."

Hyppolite laughed when she recalled her first year as 1001 Métier's comptroller.

"Finding work had always been difficult because of my disability. I had a phobia about using the phone," she said. "That first year here, I'm sure I was responsible for turning Mr. Foster's hair white. It was very difficult. Normally, in accountancy, you rise through the ranks gradually. Here, I came in with little experience and had to understand the global picture from the beginning."

But she learned the ropes and, said Foster, "four years later, I believe I have the best accountant in Montreal."

Said Hyppolite, who has overcome her fear of using the telephone: "The fact that this company has put its faith in me has permitted me to take my place in society. I plan to tell (lieutenant-governor) Thibeault when she visits that I can hold my head high."

Suien St-Jean, 24, a deaf worker who had never held a job until she arrived at the company eight months ago, will also address the lieutenant-governor through sign language. She answered a journalist's questions this week with the help of her colleague, Candice Lochan, a partially deaf woman.

"When I finished school, I had to find a job and a friend of mine who is also deaf and works here, brought me to the company," she said.

St-Jean said the presence of other deaf workers means she's not isolated because there are others she can sign with. When she must communicate with hearing colleagues, she writes notes.

Foster said the average salary for employees in the repackaging operations is well above minimum wage and benefits include a pension plan, company-sponsored health insurance and a profit-sharing program.

Other profits are used to finance 13 university bursaries at the Université de Montréal and McGill University. And recently, the company donated $300,000 to the U of M's sports facility to build an elevator for the disabled. It also bought an adapted bus so that disabled U of M students could move around the sprawling campus.

"Profits are used to advance the employability of physically handicapped people, either through job creation or higher education," Foster said.

Other projects the company funds include paying the salary of a deaf social worker to work with deaf battered women at La Maison des femmes sourds and sending health-care professionals to Haiti to fit amputees with prostheses.

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Company Bible

1001 Métiers president Paul Foster's management bible, copies of which he's bought for the dozen "highly qualified members of our management team" is The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson.

"We'd like to have an on-site day-care centre and have assembled a committee to work on it," he said.

"It often doesn't cost much more to create better working conditions and sometimes, it doesn't cost anything at all."

© Copyright 2004 Montreal Gazette