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January 13, 2014

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SEKRI’s success story in Kentucky Living magazine

CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer

For years, Southeastern Kentucky Rehabilitation Industries, or SEKRI, has been making clothing and products for our nation’s military.

But management was surprised that many people had no idea what the company did or made.

So they went out to tell their story to the outside world.

One area company was quite impressed, and they let Kentucky Living magazine know about it.

As a result, the story of SEKRI and their employees is featured in the magazine’s January edition.

“Fabricating Passion and Purpose,” written by Debra Gibson Isaacs and photographed by Tim Webb, can be found in the middle of the magazine, which is published by the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives.

One of the association’s members is Cumberland Valley RECC (CVRECC), based in in the Knox County community of Gray.

The story chronicles the pride and passion SEKRI employees, staff and management put into their work.

Both Isaacs and Webb went to the company’s two Corbin locations — the 30,000 square-foot factory off the Corbin Bypass and SEKRI’s 66,000 square-foot distribution center — as well as their factory in Paris to write about the company’s dedication to details and get a glimpse of the people who make the military garments and first aid kits.

“We look at our workforce. We don’t look at it as one big group of workers. Instead, we look at them as individuals. And we willingly and gladly make accommodations to the work environment so they can achieve their greatest opportunity of success,” SEKRI’s executive director, Norm Bradley, said Friday.

Four Corbin plant workers — Don Hill, Carrie Frazier, Jack Engle and Mark Steelman — were among those SEKRI employees featured in the article, which Bradley noted has already been well received.

“It’s been very, very positive. We’ve had many people tell us how much they appreciate it, and how it explained our people and our purpose. The feedback was good, and the level of pride the employees got from the story is tremendous,” he said.

As one of the largest AbilityOne defense contractors in the clothing and textile division, contracts issued through SEKRI require that 75 percent of direct labor hours be performed by persons with disabilities.

According to SEKRI, around 80 percent of the employees have a disability.

“We want to provide employment for people with disabilities, but we accentuate the abilities they have. We have a strong engineering department and a strong rehabilitation services department. We’re here to provide jobs and training, and SEKRI gets the greatest benefit. It circles around from employees and management,” Bradley pointed out.

The roots of the SEKRI story were planted in 2009, at a meeting of the Knox County Chamber of Commerce.

SEKRI’s management representative, Stan Baker, remembered speaking to the chamber.

“We’d made a corporate decision to get out to the civic clubs and the communities we serve, and tell people about SEKRI. And an astounding number of people didn’t know that we manufacture military clothing and supplies. One of those in the audience was Rich Prewitt of Cumberland Valley RECC. He listened to the presentation, and talked to me afterwards. He was taken with SEKRI’s mission and purpose and people. And he asked me what they could do,” said Baker.

In a phone interview Friday, Prewitt added, “Stan was the presenter that day. He passed around a packet of garments the company makes. This was the same gear our heroes in the military wore to protect themselves. I found out that these workers at SEKRI do amazing things.”

Over the next few months, Prewitt — who is director of member services for Cumberland Valley RECC — kept in touch with Baker and Bradley.

He also got an appreciation of the job SEKRI does.

“The thing that struck me the most was their model of how they treat people and do their business. They treat everybody with dignity and respect. Their people do quality work and they’re well taken care of, and the employees have a lot of self-esteem. It’s very similar to how Mr. Hampton does with Cumberland Valley RECC. We’re a cooperative and we provide a service. SEKRI’s work model is very similar to ours,” he stated.

Kentucky Living would later come down to work on an advertisement about business relationships. One of the CVRECC’s customers was SEKRI, because the cooperative provides electricity to their plants in Corbin and in Cumberland, in Harlan County.

The magazine was impressed with the workers, administration and the products they produced.

“They felt SEKRI was a hidden gem, and they wanted to get the word out. So they decided to do the story,” Prewitt recalled.

Said Baker, “The magazine’s publisher, Paul Wesslund, came to our plant in Williamsburg, liked what he saw, and said he’d like to do a feature on us at some time. We didn’t expect it to be so fast.”

Bradley added they found out the story would be in the magazine this past September.

“It usually takes about a year for the article to be published, but this was an exception.”

Along with the positive reception and feedback the company is getting from the Kentucky Living story, Bradley mentioned another benefit coming it.

“There was a great deal of employee pride from the article.”

Prewitt noticed that too.

“SEKRI employees had pages of the article posted at their workstations. I can see why they operate the way they do,” he said.

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