Keller said Cascade's welfare-to-work effort began in the mid-1990s. He hired Ron Jimmerson, a religious man and social worker, to lead the project.
Through one of Jimmerson's connections, Cascade worked with a nonprofit called Faith Inc. that recruited unemployed and homeless individuals on welfare. Faith Inc. did some pre-employment training and the state of Michigan subsidized a van to pick up and drop off the program participants from work. But the van program privileges were abused in some cases and didn't work out well.
A few years later, Keller said, he teamed with a friend who owned area Burger Kings; the idea was he would first hire them for the fast-food outlets, get them basic job skills and then Cascade would hire them for higher pay.
It was a good idea, Keller said, but the people faced a lot of barriers. Cascade leaders had to try learn about poverty. They read the book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne. "We were able to change our culture from more or less of a judgmental culture to a supportive culture," he said.
The company paid $40,000 a year for a government social worker, based on the factory floor. For company management, it was not an easy process.
Keller spelled it out: "When you think of how people respond in poverty, it's a different frame than what we're used to in the middle and upper class. A couple of cases: If you think about food. When you're in poverty it's all about quantity. When you're in middle class it's about quality. And you know if you're in the upper classes, it's about presentation.
"If you're thinking about money, if you're in poverty it's to be spent. You don't know when you're going to get your next dollar. Now that sounds counter-intuitive to us because, if you're in the middle class you think about managing your money. And if you're in the upper class you think about investing your money. These are different ways in which we view the world, and having that understanding was really critical to us to be able to be supportive of the folks that were coming to us in poverty."
Making the effort to hire these unconventional workers has paid off, mainly in reduced turnover, which Keller said can be high when using standard temporary workers. Cascade's retention rate for its Welfare-to-Career program, on a monthly basis, is more than 97 percent, and its annual employee turnover is less than half the national average for manufacturing.
Keller's presentation was an onstage chat with Robert Grace, Plastics News' associate publisher, editorial and conference director. Grace cited a 2012 Aspen Institute study that showed Cascade's efforts in 2004 and 2005 saved the state of Michigan an estimated $975,000 in welfare payments, food stamps and child-care vouchers. At the same time, it also provided Cascade with estimated net benefits of more than $500,000 over five years.
Keller also told how he hired a 36-year-old ex-con who had never before held a job, but had worked in a prison release program to get one and retain it. He moved up to become a supervisor at one of Cascade's plants.
Keller said he has worked hard to sensitize all employees to racism. The goal is to let each employee know he or she is valued as a person.
"We're trying to create a safe place where you can talk about race. Where you can have a safe discussion about it," he said.
Most important, Keller stressed, is to understand that while these various initiatives may be motivated by the desire to do good morally, ethically and environmentally, they unquestionably have translated into good business. Cascade's revenues have grown from $232 million in 2006 to more than $300 million in 2012, and the company has extensive metrics to document its progress.