Rise Up

John Barrett '65, '77 M.B.A., elevates the lives of others with a watchful eye on the bottom line

Peter Drucker once said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” As president of Rise Inc., John Barrett ’65, ’77 M.B.A., has made a careerout of doing the right things not only from a business perspective but also from a social one, assisting more than 15,000 Minnesotans to become contributing members oftheir communities while helping to create a nonprofit organization that, with a $28 million operating budget, is a model for success in the state and across the nation.

Rise was founded in 1971 as a grass roots effort initiated by families, community leaders, teachers and business people committed to helping people with disabilities findjobs and housing, two elements critical to their ability to maintain self-sufficiency in their local communities. Today, the organization offers more than 40 programs in 18 locations. It serves people who have a variety of challenges, from disabilities to cultural and language barriers. Thirty-five years ago, however, it was quite a different place.

John Barrett joined Rise in 1976. What he found was typical of a fast-growing organization focused more on immediate need than on long-term sustainability: chaos.Staff turnover was high, budget forecasting was minimal, and Rise’s reputation among the state agencies – upon which Rise depended for funding – was that of a well-meaningorganization that did not always meet expectations.

But one thing Rise did have was a clear mission. And Barrett was determined to leverage that mission into sustainability. “Our success,” Barrett said, “is due to the factthat, right from the start, we had a clear mission and we’ve stuck to that ever since.”

Rise programs support people who have disabilities and other barriers to employment and housing in their efforts to become more self-sufficient contributors to theircommunities. Keeping this in mind, Barrett reorganized operations to serve that mission in the most efficient way possible. He restructured jobs, hired qualified staff membersat competitive salaries and mentored staff to help them become better managers and leaders.

He also established closer relationships with Rise’s corporate clients and the state and federal agencies with which the organization worked. In 1976, there were 76participants in Rise programs in Anoka County. In 2007, more than 3,000 participants benefited from Rise programs in Anoka and Hennepin counties, and Central andEast Central Minnesota.

Central to Rise’s success is the ability to serve multiple customers simultaneously. Rise has the ability to supply a company with its labor needs, but does not place anemphasis on the service aspect of helping someone who’s disabled.

“To the company,” he said, “we stress the fact that the job will be done to their satisfaction, not that they are doing a ‘good deed.’ Our ultimate success is to place someone in a job, move them into full-time employment with the company, then step out of the picture. … We look closely at working with companies and identifying customer needs – both participants and employers.

“Our customers are those in funding organizations, participants and companies who offer jobs to those participants. If we do our job well, everyone wins,” Barrett added.

Del Nickel, CEO and president of Hoffman Enclosures, agrees. “Working with Rise is a win-win situation. Rise provides competitive, quality people who show up on time, do great work and are proud of the work they do. When Rise first approached Hoffman in the 1970s, John was very compelling in emphasizing that working with Rise would be a good business decision for Hoffman. He had taken the time to get to know our business so he could speak to the ways in which Rise participants would complement that business and help us meet our goals.”

Creative problem-solving is an everyday function at Rise. Barrett and his staff are always building upon what the participant can do rather than the accommodationsthat have to be made.

“We were interested in placing a young man with a mental health disability at Cummins Power Generation because he was a good fit for the job,” Barrett recalled. “Hetypically became very agitated at interviews when he was expected to sit and answer questions. Our team talked with the HR people at Cummins and convinced them to holdthe interview in an alternative fashion, allowing the young man to walk around and answer questions so he was more at ease. They hired him. Two weeks later, his fellowemployees were inviting him to carpool with them to help ensure he was able to get to work.”

Cummins originally began working with Rise as part of a company-wide program to promote employee volunteerism, but quickly came to see Rise participants as an“untapped pool of talent,” according to Sue Piva, the company’s global community relations leader. “Rise provided an opportunity for Cummins to align our corporate responsibility initiatives with the needs of the business.” Key to this alignment was the level of service provided by Rise staff and its attention to Cummins’ needs. “This does not happen without the right person leading the organization,” Piva added.

Barrett’s in-depth understanding of the needs of Rise’s programs and participants also extends to the state and local funding agencies with which Rise works. “John’s on top ofall the latest grants being offered and regulations being passed,” Piva said. “These agencies are very pleased with Rise because of its diligence. I still laugh at his knowing all the acronyms.”

Four years as business manager for the State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and seven years as assistant director of the Occupational Training Center in St. Paul prior tocoming to Rise gave Barrett more than just a lexicon of acronyms. It gave him insight into the fiscal restrictions impacting the programs state and federal agencies offeredand an awareness of the individuals these agencies served.

As recently as 20 years ago, many of the participants Rise serves today would have been recommended for institutionalization or would have been completely dependentupon state aid. Through its programs, Rise has shown that not only can they live and work in the community, Rise participants also can thrive independent of state aid in some cases, or at least at a greatly reduced amount. Through continuously successful ventures, Barrett has demonstrated that the Rise method saves state and federal agencies money, thereby ensuring support from those agencies for Rise programs.

Barrett has found that the best way to keep Rise on track and growing is by exploring new opportunities as they arise. He’s taken pains to hire and coach people he can rely on, working closely with staff to help them grow and develop in their roles and within the organization. The result is an experienced staff, some of whom have been withRise for more than 25 years. “We try to create a culture of opportunity – hiring good people then giving them the leeway to take advantage of opportunities, develop theirabilities, and take calculated risks without having to go all the way up the chain of command,” he said.

The result is a staff ready to respond quickly to opportunities, such as a recent grant offered from the state of Minnesota and the Department of Human Services. Riselearned of the grant – designed to fund programs serving individuals in Anoka County and Central Minnesota with mental health disabilities who are homeless or in danger ofbeing so – 10 days before the deadline. Barrett’s staff wrote a proposal in four days and were awarded the funding – $600,000 over a two-year period. “We were able to respond because we have a culture that is eager and prepared,” Barrett said.

Barrett never loses sight that, while Rise is a nonprofit organization involved in what many people might consider charitable work, it must operate like a business. “Weoperate like a for-profit corporation. Unless we do, we won’t be able to meet our goals.”He faces the same issues other businesses face – creating a business and marketing plan, delivering services to meet client needs, and dealing with increased costs whiletrying to balance the budget. Working with state and federal agencies can make this already difficult task more onerous.

Rise contracts with public agencies to provide services to participants and is reimbursed for some of these services at a set rate; however, when prices to deliver these servicesincrease – like fuel prices – Rise cannot pass that expense along to agencies to cover those increases.

Creativity again plays a vital role in maintaining the fine balance Barrett and Rise have achieved. Since Rise can expect gas prices to continue to increase, and since statecontracts have only reflected a 2 percent increase in fuel prices over the past several years, Rise has launched a transportation campaign to raise $1 million over the next three years. Funds raised in this campaign will help underwrite the costs of transporting more than 600 people a day to and from work and home who have no other transportation options available to them.

Running a successful, financially viable organization, means taking risks in areas not previously explored. In the early 1990s, Rise learned of a federal grant available to fund organizations working with hard-to-place individuals on welfare. Barrett knew Rise had a good model in creating individualized service plans for each person Rise workedwith, and so decided to adapt this plan for the welfare-to-work program and apply for the grant. He and Rise program managers were told they’d never get it because Risehad no track record in this area. But collaborating with three other agencies in Hennepin County, Rise won the three-year $3 million grant to work primarily with immigrants and refugees who have limited work skills with English language barriers. To make the model work, Rise hired staff – many immigrants themselves – and helpedthem to learn how to develop and implement individual career plans and serve as interpreters and job coaches. The end result was recognized as one of 18 exemplary programs in the nation. While the grant has ended, Rise continues to contract with Hennepin and Ramsey counties for these services and the Rise welfare-to-work program has been one of the highest-rated programs in Hennepin County for thelast three years.

What is impressive about Barrett is his business acumen and broad understanding of the environment in which Rise operates. What is inspiring is the obvious compassionthat enhances and informs this acumen. Jack Grunewald is the retired CFO of Pentair Corporation and a member of the Rise board of directors. He first became involved withRise following his daughter’s car accident in the 1980s. She was left in a wheelchair and was able to find assistance and work through Rise. “The thing I like best about John is his ability to balance caring with bottom line financial matters,” he said.

Like any good CEO, Barrett has a three-year plan for Rise, which revolves around “doing what we’re doing better – better relationships with more companies; deeperimpact on the system so more people leave high school with a job, regardless of their level of disability.”

And after more than 30 years with Rise, he’s also thinking about his successor. Throughout his tenure at Rise, Barrett has tried to instill a sense of progress in thepeople with whom he works, believing that “you’re either moving forward or you’re falling back.” As Rise and Barrett move forward, each can be assured that not only have they done things right, they have done the right things.

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