Feb. 28, 2021 – By Neal St. Anthony

MDI, a pioneer in workforce inclusion, seeks further expansion

One morning last week, Steve Reinardy, a nine-year employee of Minnesota Diversified Industries in northeast Minneapolis, sanitized surfaces to guard against the coronavirus.

“I clean everything a human might touch,” Reinardy said.

Reinardy, who has a disability that sure doesn’t impede his diligence and enthusiasm, is also an award-winning, multiyear volunteer at the Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul.

Nearby, a group of employees with a job coach checked seals and packaged nozzles and cans of lubricant for industrial customer Graco. They are part of a customized-solutions group that recycles, refurbishes and otherwise processes and packages a few million units annually of myriad products that are shipped from the Minneapolis plant.

In a newer business, MDI’s employees use computer-driven machinery to fabricate surgical curtains. They also assemble medical devices to FDA specifications and check and package diabetes kits, surgical gloves and water-quality test kits.

MDI, a 50-year pioneer in integrating people with disabilities into its workforce, also is expanding its cornerstone business of making durable, reusable plastic containers to ship, pack and protect products for several industries.

MDI has been a good financial performer over the last decade, as well as a shining example of the power of workforce inclusion. Its leaders have plans to expand the nonprofit manufacturer that employs 562 people, including nearly 190 with disabilities.

Eric Black, 46, a veteran plant manager and former executive at Cargill and Univar Solutions, next month will succeed Peter McDermott, 70, as chief executive.

“My family is dedicated to helping underrepresented people in our community, including people with disabilities,” Black said. “I have family members with disabilities.”

Black worked for years managing plants in Iowa and Nebraska for Cargill before moving to the Twin Cities several years ago.

“This allows me to leverage my technical and managerial skills and provides opportunity for innovation and growth at a time of incredible momentum for the MDI team,” said Black, a Kansas City, Mo., native. “We are a mission-minded organization driven to provide results and quality solutions for customers and employees.”

As the Minnesota economy recovers from the recession, aging baby boomer demographics again will manifest a worker shortage in the state. As before the pandemic hit, employers will need to attract as many people as they can, including those with disabilities. The disabled are nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population, according to a 2017 report from the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

Moreover, as folks with disabilities gain employment they also need less public assistance, McDermott noted. He took over MDI in 2008 when it was struggling and its previous CEO had been dismissed.

A former finance executive, McDermott oversaw a quintupling of employment and $15 million in capital spending at sites in Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, Cohasset and Hibbing. Sales grew from $12 million to $33 million.

MDI employee Eric Black

MDI has diversified its customer base after being too dependent on a relationship with the U.S. Postal Service. It provided corrugated, recyclable plastic tubs to post offices. MDI now sells variations of those tubs to other businesses who use them in mail rooms, warehouses, stores and fruit farms.

MDI is a nonprofit “social enterprise” that gets 95% of revenue from sales. Philanthropic support accounts for the rest.

“Business, our customers, get this,” McDermott said. “Businesses come here to see what we do, including Medtronic and Andersen Windows. They have become partners.”

McDermott was paid around $240,000, according to MDI’s 2019 tax return. That’s modest by corporate standards for MDI’s long-term results.

MDI workers, including those with disabilities, start at or above local minimum wage, get benefits and are eligible for profit-sharing. It was 10% for the second half of 2020. Some jobs pay up to $20 an hour.

Black and McDermott are working to expand MDI manufacturing-and-services work to “2,500 lives by 2026,” including new and expanding customer relationships.

“We want to do that through expanded employment and services to people with disabilities,” Black said. “We will continue to diversify our product line in customized plastic products. We want to work on skill development, training with partners and expansion.

“We also have a mission to increase advocacy. Our employment-services team is talking about a service to help other employers find individuals with disabilities. We have partners. We want to create a beginning-to-end map for companies. We can coach them. We know what works.”