Weaver Has Passion For Goodwill

October 22, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Phil Weaver found the perfect fit when he took over as Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids’ CEO and president earlier this year.

A long-time veteran of executive management and corporate boardrooms, the nonprofit arena was a significant change for him. But Goodwill’s mission of helping individuals with barriers to employment find work and its employees’ passion for that mission captivated the former manufacturing leader.

The mission is one that Weaver has grown familiar with as he and his wife raise a 15-year-old son with cerebral palsy.

“When I first looked at Goodwill, I knew that they helped people with disabilities and disadvantages and I was thinking that that was something I know a lot about,” he explained. “Most of my energy and effort when I’m not at work goes to helping him and coaching him. That was one of the decision makers for my coming here. I understand, particularly for people with disabilities, the barriers they have to go through every day in their lives.

“I see the roadblocks my son meets when we travel, or just going back and forth to school,” he said. “And homework. It takes more effort to learn. Most people with disabilities are spending a lot of time and effort just trying to manage living with a disability.”

Similar barriers have kept Weaver from relocating to Grand Rapids from his current Paw Paw home in southeast Michigan. Although his family has long had connections with the community — his son plays for wheelchair sports team the Grand Rapids Eagles, another son is a senior and former basketball player at Aquinas College — Weaver has been unable to find a home that meets the accessibility needs of his family.

Weaver’s familiarity with the value of Goodwill’s mission has helped fuel a passion to meet that mission, a passion he was surprised to find was matched by the staff he inherited.

“I was surprised, frankly, by the passion that the employees have at this organization to work and do the right thing, to make the organization successful and make sure our customers succeed in life,” he said. “I never expected to see that at that level. I often tell people that if any of the for-profit companies I’ve worked for had people with this passion we’d have been 10 times as successful.”

After a stint in the military, the Royal Oak native and Northern Michigan University graduate pursued a career in education as a teacher and later administrator at Dryden Community High School.

At that time, he had never even thought of working in the private sector, but when a friend called him and offered him a part in his company’s expansion, Weaver decided to take a chance in the business world.

“When I got my first taste in the business world I never looked back,” Weaver said. “I looked at it like this: When I was teaching high school, I was teaching 17- and 18-year-olds. Now I’m teaching 30- and 40-year-olds. It really wasn’t that different.”

In 1992, Weaver had moved up the ranks through a number of different companies, and had become the director of human resources for the rapidly growing Stryker Corp. It was there that Ford Motor Co. contacted him about the possibility of building a new corporation and supplier from the ground up.

“People ask me all the time if I wish I would have stayed at Stryker,” Weaver said. “Everyone says, ‘You would have made so much more money!’ But everything is not about money. That experience taught me more about managing and putting things up and human beings than anything else. It taught me what it takes to be a good leader.”

With three others, and $25 million in seed money, Weaver launched Atlantic Automotive Components. The team chose to place the company in Benton Harbor for reasons that resonate to Weaver’s current position — it had the highest unemployment and highest minority unemployment rates in the state.

“We thought it was important that we locate the company somewhere that it could provide opportunities to those that needed them,” he said.

The company is still thriving today, although it has changed hands since Weaver’s departure.

In 1996, Weaver took a position with Triple S Plastics in Vicksburg, a publicly traded company with 18 facilities worldwide. Last year, Triple S merged with Chinese manufacturer Eimo Oyj, and the American management team was let go.

Unsure of what direction to take next, Weaver had an epiphany of sorts during a lunch meeting with a former mentor a month later.

Knowing Weaver’s history of implementing cultural changes in organizations and how he had helped develop new management strategies at each of the companies he had worked with, Weaver’s friend asked him a loaded question.

“He wanted to know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Weaver remembered. “All I’ve ever known was management and business. He asked if I ever thought about doing things I had a passion for, and I told him I thought that was what I’ve always done. Then he suggested I work for a nonprofit.

“As fate would have it, someone from Goodwill called the next day.”

Upon meeting the organization’s board of directors early in the interview process, Weaver found himself wrapped up in the primary reason for his ultimately taking the position.

“Usually board members, both profit and not, are just there as figureheads,” he said, noting what made this board different. “They really cared about what Goodwill was doing and how they could make the organization better.”

Weaver soon discovered that perspective spread all the way through the organization, something for which his predecessor, Tina Hartley, deserved much of the credit. Hartley died in an automobile accident in 2003.

“To hear from people how beloved she was and how committed she was to Goodwill and the community, and the energy she had — I knew I couldn’t fill her footsteps,” Weaver said. “I don’t think anybody could fill those footsteps. What I told the staff here in my meetings is that I’m not here to replace Tina; what I’m trying to do is carry on the passion she had and her work and move forward to continue the mission.”

As Weaver has learned the nomenclature of the nonprofit world and begun to grasp the diverse offerings and customer base of the Goodwill organization — which he explained is more complicated than any of the global companies he has worked for — he has worked to influence cultural changes not unlike those in his past positions.

“My role is to turn this organization into more of a business organization,” he said. “We’re operating by more business standards, being more efficient and concentrating on value. We have to make sure that our customers, from the people we help to donors to our manufacturing contracts, that they are all satisfied with our services.

“We need to make a difference in people’s lives,” he added. “We don’t want to be helping the same people in five years that we are now.”

Examples of these efforts include the encouragement of out-of-the-box initiatives like retail and food service expansion and employee outsourcing, as well as quality efforts like Goodwill’s forthcoming ISO9002 certification.    

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