February 5, 2012 in Business

Goodwill CEO combines passions for business, community

Michael Guilfoil Correspondent
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Clark Brekke: “We are a driving force in the economy, and we’re helping the people who most need help.”
(Full-size photo)

Five facts

1939: Year Goodwill opened in Spokane

11: Stores in Eastern Washington and North Idaho

539: Number of employees

$20 million: Annual budget

$400,000: Yearly garbage bill

Clark Brekke, CEO of Inland Northwest Goodwill Industries, wants customers to expect great deals – prices at least 70 percent below what items would sell for new.

But if someone pays a pittance for a rare book or minor art masterpiece, Brekke figures he and his staff have failed the hundreds of clients who rely on Goodwill for employment, job training and other social services.

Goodwill’s legacy dates back 110 years, when a Boston minister first collected unwanted household goods and hired jobless men and women to refurbish them for resale. His goal was to give people “a chance, not charity.”

Brekke has continued that tradition since becoming CEO four years ago. But he also incorporates the latest retail strategies, such as scanning every donated book’s ISBN number to gauge its value, and posting collectibles on Goodwill’s Internet retail site (www.shopgoodwill.com).

Brekke shared his business philosophy and observations during a recent interview.

S-R: Goodwill International is one of the largest service organizations in the world. Who are your clients?

Brekke: This year, (the local) Goodwill will pay more than $500,000 in wages to people who need to build their work skills – people who have not been successful for various reasons.

S-R: What’s it like to lead a workforce made up largely of people other employers won’t hire?

Brekke: That’s the essence of our mission. We provide coaching and lay out certain goals, with the long-term objective of helping our employees transition into the community workforce.

S-R: How successful are you?

Brekke: Last year, one of our programs – where we work with people transitioning from incarceration – had a 90 percent job placement and retention rate after 90 days. And when people have jobs, they’re less likely to return to prison.

S-R: Has the recession affected Goodwill’s sales?

Brekke: We’ve fared far better than most retailers. In-store sales are up, and online sales have grown twice as fast. As long as we can maintain the influx of donations, we’ll be OK.

S-R: When did you join Goodwill?

Brekke: I started in 1990 as a territory retail sales manager. I’d been working 70 to 80 hours a week at Shopko, and decided that wasn’t the career path for me. So I switched to a different type of retailing, got hooked and gradually rose through the organization.

S-R: Why did you switch to a nonprofit?

Brekke: I’ve always had a heart for service, but I also have a passion for business. Goodwill is a good mix. On one hand, I get the thrill of the hunt – leading and growing this enterprise – and I also get to meet people whose lives have been changed tremendously by Goodwill. Just the other day, someone on the dock said to me, “Thanks for the job. Now I can start rebuilding my life.”

S-R: When your predecessor, Bobbi Johnson, became CEO three decades ago, this Goodwill was on the brink of bankruptcy. How did she turn it around?

Brekke: Bobbi did it with tenacity and a business mindset. She had a real passion to be competitive and to be modern, and she combined that with heart.

S-R: What lessons did she teach you?

Brekke: The main lesson Bobbi taught me was that Goodwill has to do well in order to do good. If we run the business efficiently, we can generate the funds to support the activities we care so much about.

S-R: How have you improved efficiency?

Brekke: The biggest thing has been using solid strategic planning as a road map. Also, we’ve cultivated a culture of agility within our senior management team and our board, so we can respond quickly to changing needs.

S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Brekke: Probably. But as I tell my staff, it’s not about what went wrong. It’s about what we learned and how we move forward.

S-R: What has been your best idea?

Brekke: I try not to connect my ideas to success; I try to connect the team’s ideas. During my first strategic planning session, I had all of us write our names on a piece of paper, and then we put each name through a shredder. That was meant to symbolize that we were all taking our egos out of the process. It’s not about us. We’re mission-focused, and everybody is important to the mission.

S-R: What is Goodwill’s mission?

Brekke: Our mission, in a nutshell, is to help people build independence within the communities we serve. It’s a broad mission, but that’s OK. It gives us a lot of latitude to respond to community needs. Last year, Goodwill collectively helped 170,000 people earn jobs, so we are a driving force in the economy, and we’re helping the people who most need help.

S-R: Who shops here?

Brekke: We see everyone from people who drive a Mercedes to people who take the bus. But typically our customers are women ages 35 to 55 with household incomes of $35,000 to $40,000.

S-R: What donated items are most useful?

Brekke: The items most valuable to us are clothing in good condition. Last year we received roughly 20 million pounds of donations. About 30 percent of that we sold in our stores or online. Another 25 ended up in the waste stream. The rest we ran through our salvage operation and sold to vendors.

S-R: What do you not want donated?

Brekke: Items with no value left in them. For example, toasters that don’t work; clothing that’s obviously torn or stained; worn-out tires.

S-R: Do you recall any particularly unusual donations?

Brekke: Every once in a while we get something interesting, usually in the way of jewelry. A couple of years ago, we found a diamond brooch in a lady’s jacket. When that happens, we typically hold it back for 60 days in case it was donated by accident – what we call a misdonation. Often those will be from people going through a divorce. Maybe someone cleans out their ex’s closet. One lady was cleaning her garage and didn’t realize her husband had stored thousands of dollars in a jar. When he came home and saw what had happened, she called the store and we were able to find the jar and return the money.

S-R: Any big changes ahead for Goodwill?

Brekke: The biggest changes will be new fixtures and equipment. We’ve found that when we invest $25,000 in new shoe racks, clothes racks and shelving, we can pay that off in 90 days, and shoppers can surf through our merchandise more quickly to find what they want. People who haven’t been here in years may think of Goodwill as a musty, dusty, old-time thrift. But we’re very much a modern store.

S-R: What advice would you offer someone who aspires to lead a nonprofit organization?

Brekke: The most successful not-for-profit leaders I’ve seen are those who understand not only the heart and soul of their mission, but also how they are going to fund it, so they can take their vision to the next level.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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