John Theisen was 47 years old in 2000, chief operating officer of Seattle’s Best Coffee, a business executive whose previous successes with Westin Hotels and Restaurants Unlimited trailed him like so many brightly colored streamers.
But success in the for-profit business world often demands of its leaders time on the road, and a lot of it.
In Theisen’s life, the rigors of work often interposed hundreds or thousands of miles between him, his wife and their two young children. And that was not OK.
Weary and restless one night, taking a hard look at his life and potential legacy after yet another cross-country flight home to his family, Theisen unburdened himself to his wife as they lay in bed.
“I hope when I’m dead and gone, my tombstone says something other than, ‘He roasted good coffee,’ ” Theisen said.
When Seattle’s Best Coffee sold, Theisen began looking for work with a company engaged in a social mission, a position that would allow him to take the expertise and hard lessons he’d learned in business and put them to bettering the lives of other human beings, and no longer to the service of pleasing stockholders.
What he found, or what found him, was a Federal-Way based nonprofit called Orion Industries, today settled in just north of the park and ride on 15th Street Northwest in Auburn, where it provides job training and community job placement.
In his Auburn office last week, the president and COO of Auburn-based Orion Industries described his life today.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Theisen said.
“In 2016, we placed 157 people into community jobs, compared to 17 in 2000,” Theisen said. “These are individuals who have never worked or thought they’d never work again, people that a lot of employers would have considered unemployable. But they come into Orion and get two kinds of training: training in technical skills for one, but they also get what we call soft-skill training. People that lose their job, it generally isn’t because of their lack of technical skills, it’s because of the soft skills: showing up on time; how to interface with a team and with a supervisor; productivity, quality and things like that.”
“Our mission today is we serve a broader range of people,” Theisen said. “Our mission no longer reads ’people with disabilities;’ it reads ‘people with barriers to employment.’ We still provide services to people with disabilities, but we also work with people who are transitioning out of homelessness, people transitioning out of the criminal justice system and transitioning out of drug and alcohol programs.”
And for the job he does, the Auburn Reporter has named Theisen, “an operations guy,” its 2017 Person of the Year.
Under Theisen’s turn at the tiller, the three divisions of Orion Industries — aerospace manufacturing, contact center services and the training and employment division — offer job training via mentor-ship programs.
Orion uses its manufacturing division as a platform to teach people with barriers to employment vital job skills through paid training, mentoring and internship programs, to meet the hiring needs of local employers. Each person who enters the program is assigned a counselor, and all counselors have masters degrees in employment rehabilitation
Orion Aerospace is a leader in the manufacturing and finishing of precision metal fabrication parts and in the production of wire harness-cable assemblies for the aerospace and defense industries. It offers not only machine fabrication but also mechanical and hydraulic assembly, kitting and integration services.
Which is to say, Orion has come a long way since 1957, when a group of parents in the Lake Washington School District, concerned about their kids’ employability after high school, founded a vocational school for students with disabilities to prepare them for jobs in their communities after graduation.
One of the founding principles of the company, then and now, Theisen said, was that the business side would sustain the work of the company’s mission – that is, the company would not be a fundraiser; funding for the programs would come solely from operating the business side successfully.
“That has become a model that many human service organizations are trying to follow,” Theisen said.
Theisen recalled how his job recruiter brought Orion to his attention.
“The good news is it’s nonprofit,” Theisen recalled the woman saying. ‘“The bad news is it will have been the smallest company you’ve ever worked for. I looked at their website, and it was almost a why-bother website. But she encouraged me to talk to the board, which I did. There were three candidates for the job. The board was smart to give all the candidates total access to the company books and staff members, so I had a ton of information. What I saw was a company with a 45-year relationship with Boeing, and though the company was small, there was a chance to grow the business.”
And grow the company he has in the last 17 years.
“We were in four buildings in Federal Way, scattered around, and we were looking for a way to get back under one roof, and we still needed more room to grow,” Theisen said. “The four Department of Vocational Rehabilitation offices Orion provides services to are in the cities of Kent, SeaTac, Puyallup and Tacoma, so we wanted to stay between those. We needed 7 acres, and that would allow us to build a 700,000-square-foot building and 200 parking spaces. We would have leased a building, purchased a building, or built a building. The problem was that a lot of our program participants don’t drive, and a lot of our staff don’t, either. We were looking to up our game with access to public transportation. I looked for a year, and couldn’t find anything to buy rent or build.”
Then came the day Theisen got a call from Doug Lein, economic development director for the City of Auburn, who informed him that Metro, having completed the Auburn Transit Station, was planning to surplus part of its underused Park & Ride on 15th Street Northwest to reduce its operating costs. Oh, and there was a 7-acre parcel just behind the lot.
Interested? Yep. Took a bit of doing to bring it all about, but Theisen could not be happier with the result.
“… As cool as the business is, we also run really good businesses. We’re a three-time, Boeing Global Supplier of the Year, so that’s out of something like 17,000 companies in 52 countries,” Theisen said. “We also received a Microsoft Excellence Aware last year because we have a second contract with them. Microsoft came to us and said, ‘We’d like you to hire deaf Contact Center agents to provide IT desktop support to deaf Microsoft customers, using American Sign Language over Skype.’ And we’ve been doing that for two years now. For that contract, we’re also a Puget Sound Business Journal Innovation Award winner.”