A company in Mississippi wants to change its image from being a ``nice'' molding operation run by blind people to being a world-class molding operation. The firm started by changing its name to Signature Works, formerly Royal Maid Association for the Blind, in Hazelhurst, Miss.
Howard Becker, the company's new president, said that although the name has changed, Signature Works remains a not-for-profit corporation. The new name reflects the ``desire to expand beyond the cleaning products lines'' for which the firm was known.
Becker's goal is to make Signature Works a world-class molding operation, and to prove that people with disabilities such as blindness can accomplish what sighted people can without any extraordinary costs to the company, Becker said.
``We've done a top-to-bottom review of the entire business and are in the process of evaluating to what extent we need to upgrade current equipment and where we need to replace old molding presses with new,'' said Becker, who came on board just over a year ago to replace the retiring president.
Becker has 14 years' experience in managing injection molding facilities, and is also a national advocate for disadvantaged workers. While working at an injection molding plant in New Hampshire, Becker noticed that several female employees frequently were missing work, explained Elaine Sheelay, director of corporate communications for Signature Works.
``He began investigating and found there was a lot of abuse in families,'' Sheelay said. ``He then started a program to assist battered women that has since spread to other companies in that state. He's a person who wants to make a difference in people's lives.''
The center operates 20 injection molding presses with clamping forces of 150-400 tons, making plastic flatware and other components for its products such as sponge mops.
Signature Works' 130 employees do not require many equipment modifications or specialized equipment to do their jobs. As the company moves toward newer, computer-aided molding equipment, it is working with a software manufacturer to create controls that use both icons and digital speech to assist blind operators who monitor the presses.
``We believe this will be useful not only for the blind but will benefit the sighted worker as well,'' he added, citing the low literacy rates among workers in many areas.
Becker explained that the use of braille on the control keypads would not be that beneficial because only about 20 percent of blind people can read braille.
Signature Works is expanding internationally. Last month, Becker went to Monterrey, Mexico, to announce the opening of a plant there to produce yarn mops. It also will be staffed by blind workers.
``We have 145 people wanting the five positions we're opening with,'' Becker said.
Becker said the company also is evaluating molding some of its plastic flatware in Mexico, initially using custom molders.
Currently, the firm sells 60 percent of its products to the federal government. The balance is sold commercially to retail outlets.
Signature Works had sales in 1995 of $28.7 million.