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Front Page - Friday, July 21, 2017

Their ‘biggest disability ... is us’

Morris dedicated to providing jobs for mentally, physically challenged

At the Habitat International factory on Amnicola Highway, a trio of employees with cognitive disabilities are rolling up rectangular artificial-grass golf putting greens and placing them in boxes for shipping.

Up ahead, more employees with intellectual and physical challenges are making curved “floating island” greens for swimming pools. Outside, a parade of horses, deer and other thin, oversized steel sculptures guards the entrance to the plant, while a whimsical character in a wheelchair rolls toward the road.

“Unfortunately, a lot of [able-bodied] people today want to be on their iPhones [at work]. They don’t care. But these people begged to be team members,” says Habitat owner and CEO David Morris, nodding toward the three men at the boxing station – a former contract laborer with Goodwill and two Orange Grove Center residents who lost their “day jobs” when the facility’s recycling center shut down.

“This is as good a crew as I’ve ever had. The biggest disability they have is us. Their ‘I can’ far exceeds their IQ.’”

Thirty-six years after co-founding the company, which at one time made artificial grass rugs and mats for big-box retailers such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, with his late father Saul, Morris is now a national role model for hiring the people no one else will. He has spoken at corporate events across the country (he won’t accept speaking fees, claiming that to do so would exploit his workers), helped major companies from Federal Express to Walgreens beef up their own disability hiring programs, and addressed Nashville legislators about funding for people with disabilities.

A hyperactive, painfully shy artist as a child, Morris, 61, grew up in Yonkers, New York, in a family where prejudice toward anyone who was “different” wasn’t tolerated.

He dropped out of college in the 1970s and opened a tropical plant store in Chattanooga at the same time his dad was working his way up the carpet industry ladder in Dalton, Georgia. When Saul became antsy to start his own company, he talked his self-described “radical hippie son” into joining him.

They founded Habitat International (not to be confused with Habitat for Humanity, which came later) in 1981 and soon opened a manufacturing facility in Rossville, Georgia, producing artificial grass mats, golf practice putting greens and novelty items under the Habitat name and others.

“I don’t like repetitive things. I don’t have a lot of patience,” Morris admits, noting that he hates traditional factories. “If this hadn’t come along, I’d probably be starving to death.”

In the mid-1980s, a caseworker at Orange Grove Center approached Morris and asked him to host an enclave of people with developmental disabilities. But he and his dad had misgivings. What if the clients couldn’t keep up? Or made a lot of mistakes? Or distracted his “real” workers and interfered with production? But the Orange Grove representative was persistent, and the entrepreneurs finally relented.

A job coach with a tough-love attitude who was so short she could barely see over the steering wheel of the bus she was driving arrived with eight clients, who went straight to work folding products and stuffing them into boxes for loading. It didn’t take long for them to catch on.

“Two weeks later,” says Morris, “my employees came to me and said, ‘Why can’t we hire more people like this, who care, do their work with pride and smile?’ From that day on, we never looked back. I never thought it would get this big.”

Morris and his management team began hiring people with disabilities outright and paying them far more than minimum wage. Over the years, Habitat grew to a multi-million-dollar company with three of every four workers – nearly 100 during peak production – having a physical or mental disability, or both.

Employees with schizophrenia drove forklifts next to others with Down’s syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. Recovering alcoholics cut mats and floor runners with co-workers who’d suffered severe head injuries in car accidents and others who couldn’t see or hear.

Morris and his managers became fiercely loyal to their special employees. In 1996, when Morris was invited to be an Olympic torchbearer, he shied away from the limelight and created “Habitat Hero” buttons for all his employees to wear. Two years later, when sales representatives for Habitat’s second-largest customer were insensitive to the workers with disabilities, Morris fired the sales group.

“I knew full well when I let them go that I was giving up a $1 million-a-year customer,” he recalls. “But it was the right thing to do.”

The company had outgrown its space by 2003, so the Morrises moved their operations to a much larger facility in Ooltewah and filled it with eccentric sculptures, other artwork and motivational banners. Business continued to boom, and Morris kept hiring more workers and honoring them with recognition parties, bonuses and other perks for a job well done.

Eventually, the bottom fell out, not all at once, but gradually sneaking up on Morris and his staff.

“The whole retail market changed,” he remembers. “The brick and mortar stores were no longer the major market, and we were totally focused on full-color packaging and everything.

“We were not prepared for the Amazons and Overstocks of the world and a different way of doing business, with reviews from customers instead of the shiny box selling it. We probably didn’t transition into it quick enough, but when we did we still didn’t understand it. We felt like dinosaurs.”

Habitat stopped hiring, but it was too late.

“I went a year probably with an extra 20, 30 people that we didn’t need,” Morris admits. “We didn’t want to throw them to the wolves.”

Eventually, he was forced to lay workers off and downsize, something he’d never done, even during the economic downturn in the mid-2000s.

Habitat moved to its current location in 2015, dropped the grass mat line and zeroed in on golf putting greens. But the company continued to hemorrhage money from lost sales, and Morris let all but a few employees go.

Then an unexpected break came along, just as Morris was about to close the business and sell the building. He managed to finagle a phone meeting with an Amazon buyer who agreed to distribute Habitat’s wares.

Demand skyrocketed immediately after the golf products, many of which were manufactured under the Putt-A-Bout brand, appeared on the Amazon website.

“As each product grew, five other products tagged along,” Morris explains.

Habitat also makes golf practice items for Callaway that are sold at Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods and golf stores.

Morris recently hired new workers, bringing the total to 14. Most have disabilities.

“With the closing of Orange Grove Recycling Center, and the Goodwill contract labor part closing down, we were able to take advantage of that,” Morris adds. “It takes a little extra effort, but it’s really nice having people that come in and care about the company and want to work.”

Morris notes that he tried out a few able-bodied temporary workers during the comeback.

“But they didn’t care [about the business],” he says. “These people are producing beyond my expectations. They’re the only reason I’m here.”

He is confident enough in their abilities, he adds, to take more time off than he used to. The man who does nothing halfway now has time for a new passion, creating natural sculptures from found objects near the Florida coast. Palm branches, seashells, driftwood, fish skulls and rocks blend with pieces of steel wool and cut steel to form flying birds, grasshoppers and angels.

So, how has his company has survived through economic downturns, a major recession and the shift from in-store to online buying?

“This is not the right business answer, but it was karma,” he says. “It wasn’t our time. We still had things to do.

“If you take the 36 years Habitat has been in business, we broke so many rules and we did so many things that could have hurt us, but it seems to have always worked out.

“I found a true passion and purpose,” he adds. “[The employees with disabilities] gave me something to shout from the rooftop. Some of these people have shown me a different way of looking at life.

“I don’t know many business owners who can go in to work and get a hug and a smile. I don’t think I would have had half the fun without them.”