HOLLAND — He runs a business that is like no other, its challenges and rewards different from what he’s ever experienced before.
Those differences, in fact, are what drew Tom Vreeman to Kandu Industries Inc., a Holland-based not-for-profit agency that provides employment and job training to more than 300 people a day, most of whom are developmentally or physically disabled.
Anytime Vreeman feels as though he’s having a bad day, all he has to do is walk out to Kandu’s shop floor and talk to people who have been dealt a little tougher hand in life and are thrilled to have a job that provides them the dignity and independence that comes with a regular income.
Vreeman, Kandu’s chief executive officer since January 2000, calls the position the most challenging, yet rewarding, of his career.
“You just can’t get that anywhere else,” said Vreeman, who joined Kandu Industries after working for several years as an independent health-care consultant in Grand Rapids.
Weary of not feeling a connection with the work he was doing, Vreeman decided in 1999 to leave behind consulting and seek new employment.
“You spend 100 percent of your time going from place to place and end up being part of nothing,” Vreeman said. “When you’re done with a job, you’re done. You just walk away.”
As Vreeman looked for new work, an associate directed him to Kandu Industries and its vacant CEO position. Kandu piqued the interest of Vreeman, who saw the organization and its open position as a good match for his skills and background in psychology, mental health management and manufacturing. The Kandu board of directors at the time also was beginning to put more emphasis on running the agency more like a for-profit business.
“That challenge, with the combination of skills I had, was really intriguing,” Vreeman said. “It just fit perfectly.”
As CEO, Vreeman oversees operations of Kandu’s two 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facilities in Holland and Grand Haven that produce tens of thousands of wood picture frames a year. The firm also performs light assembly sub-contracting work for 70 clients, including Herman Miller Inc., Haworth Inc. and Donnelly Corp. Most of the employees at the plants, both of which are ISO 9000 certified, have developmental or physical disabilities, or are going through a period of transition in their lives and are learning new job skills.
Kandu places more than 550 people a year into permanent jobs in the community, which is quite an accomplishment given the 60 percent unemployment rate among people with developmental and physical disabilities.
The agency, with an annual budget of about $10.5 million, also operates Frame-It, a retail custom-framing shop in Grand Haven, as well as a career-assessment center in Holland. It also contracts with Ottawa County Community Mental Health to provide rehabilitation services for clients.
Vreeman took over as Kandu’s CEO after working for about four years as a private consultant in the health-care industry. He previously worked for six years with Metron Integrated Health Systems, a Grand Rapids firm that provides health-care services, where Vreeman was in charge of professional services.
The 48-year-old Vreeman began his career after graduating from Michigan State University in 1976 with dual masters degrees in business administration and counseling psychology. He also holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.
The Holland native’s first job out of MSU was as assistant director of community health in Oceana County. He later went on to open and run a private counseling practice in Grand Rapids before deciding he needed a break from the profession and wanted to put his management skills to work.
Vreeman landed as general manager at Derse Exhibits in Grand Rapids, a firm that makes custom trade show exhibits and signs. The position provided Vreeman an opportunity to learn the manufacturing principles that he uses today at Kandu Industries.
“It was perfect experience for this,” said Vreeman, who left Derse after a few years to join Metron.
That experience also is helping Vreeman cope with the effect the economic downturn has had on Kandu and its ability to place clients into permanent jobs. Kandu is also challenged by the onset of managed care in the mental health profession, which could make it difficult for organizations like Kandu to compete for service contracts with county mental health agencies.
They are challenges, however, that Vreeman welcomes as a test to his ability in a position that he says has far exceeded his expectations, both personally and professionally.
“New challenges are always good for me and I need to be in an organization where there are enough of them, which there are here,” he said.