The Transylvania Times -

By John Lanier
Editor 

After 41 Years, Stricker To Leave 'Coolest Job' – Brevard NC

 

Nancy Stricker

Some indicators of being a successful business leader are increasing business, providing more employment opportunities, improving employees' jobs skills, and having a positive impact on the local community and beyond. Nancy Stricker, longtime leader of Transylvania Vocational Services (TVS), meets all of those criteria.

After nearly 42 years of service with TVS and to the community, Stricker will be retiring this month.

"The majority of it has been just incredibly rewarding," she said. "I think what we do is really, really cool."

What TVS does has far-reaching consequences and is the result of the efforts of dozens of people over nearly five decades. And Stricker has been there for most of it.

With the exception of working as a bank teller for a few months, Stricker has spent her entire career at TVS. She started working at TVS in 1974, just seven years after the Brevard Jaycees had begun a sheltered workshop for the disabled. The Jaycees struggled with maintaining the program, so they requested that the county government take over the program. The county commissioners, led by Bill Ives and John Folger, decided to take over the program in 1973 and renamed it in 1974.

When Stricker started working at TVS, it had 11 clients and a total budget of $56,000.

"I actually got paid out of that," she said. "Not very much. I did get paid."

Stricker had no specific training for the job and did not know much about people with developmental disabilities. She believed, however, the work would be "worthwhile" and she would be "making a contribution" to the community.

For the first three years, she worked with those who had significant disabilities and taught them basic life skills, such as crossing the street safely, as well as painting rocks and making bows for gift wrapping that they sold to local stores.

"It was the '70s after all," she smiled.

As Stricker advanced at TVS, her boss told her to contact local industries about having TVS clients do some simple, repetitive work for them. DuPont agreed to have TVS make boxes for their x-ray film, and TVS began making 50-75 boxes a day.

"That was huge," she said. "It was a big deal."

By the time DuPont closed its local x-ray film production, TVS was making 25,000 boxes a day.

In 1988 it was clear TVS needed to operate outside the government model. As a social entrepreneurship, it needed to have more flexibility to pursue business contracts in order to have a balanced budget and provide its clients with more employment opportunities, including "supportive employment" where TVS clients work outside of the TVS facility and in local businesses.

That year, with Stricker having just two years under her belt as CEO, TVS became a private nonprofit organization.

TVS had been making money prior to becoming a private nonprofit. Unbeknownst to Stricker and others at TVS, then county Finance Director Betty McGuire had established an enterprise account for TVS in which any excess revenue from TVS was deposited. When TVS became a private nonprofit, that money was given to TVS.

"We didn't know we had that nest egg," said Stricker.

For the next 10 years TVS continued working mainly with DuPont.

"DuPont was a great corporate citizen," she said. "It was a mutually beneficial relationship."

In 1998, however, an auditor told the TVS board the organization should not have all its "eggs in one basket" and should begin to diversify.

At roughly that same time, TVS began a capital campaign to purchase land and construct its own building.

When seeking funding for the new building, Stricker needed to get in contact with Congressman Charles Taylor because he was known for working on economic development projects. Stricker contacted Charles Pickelsimer, who made a sizeable monetary donation to TVS. Pickelsimer also arranged a meeting with himself, Stricker and Taylor. Stricker was relatively quiet during the conversation, but she said Pickelsimer asked Taylor if he could deliver $150,000. Taylor said he would see what he could do.

In May of that year, Taylor submitted a bill on behalf of TVS. Shortly thereafter, Stricker received a request from Taylor's office to submit a budget as to how $1 million would be spent. Due to Taylor's efforts, TVS received about $960,000 to buy equipment and train employees. Part of the money was used to invest in blending equipment, packaging equipment and training machine operators.

"It's very sophisticated stuff," said Stricker of the machinery.

In 2000, construction of the new facility on the Old Hendersonville Highway was completed.

But it was not all good news at the turn of the century as there were not-so-subtle rumblings about DuPont and Ecusta closing. And for the first time in its existence, TVS had a mortgage.

"Bankruptcy was never an option," she said.

As a result, Stricker and the TVS leadership contacted a large national nonprofit organization that served as a liaison between groups like TVS and the federal government with the hopes of landing some federal contracts.

They were offered the opportunity to package dry milk. Stricker said they were not sure what else they could do, so they told the liaison "sure, we'll package food" and signed a contract with the USDA to package nonfat dry milk.

Stricker joked that she and Becky Alderman, second in command at TVS for many years, became known at the "milk maids."

That contract helped support TVS for about six years, but then the Iraq war occurred. That meant less money was being spent on providing milk domestically and their volume began to drop.

Again, they began to look at new ways to diversify. They made products that are kosher and organically certified. They made milk in small and large bags. They made and packaged dry food.

Many of the products made by TVS are used by the military. TVS provides the military with pancake, cookie and dough mixes. It took about three to four years to land those contracts with the Department of Defense, but today TVS sells nine products to the U.S. military.

"It took a lot of work," said Stricker. "If one of our troops ate a pancake today, it came from TVS. Lord knows we did not want to feed an Army guy a pancake that would make him sick."

TVS also has been producing a Super Cereal for babies that is distributed through the USAID, whose programs help feed malnourished children around the world. The Super Cereal can be fed by spoon or water can be added so that it is thin enough to be fed through a bottle.

"Super Cereal literally sustains life for starving babies," she said.

Every month five million pounds of Super Cereal leaves TVS. Stricker is amazed that the Super Cereal made here is transported to Houston where it then is shipped to Ethiopia.

"Isn't that really cool?" she said.

Obtaining and keeping government contracts, however, requires foresight, tenacity and perseverance.

In 2006, the volume of dry milk the government needed was beginning to decrease and therefore TVS had less to package. They went to Congress to see if they could package more milk, and be given more notice in the future if the demand would decrease so they could plan accordingly.

After not making much progress with Congress, Stricker and Alderman approached former Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole, who had worked together to start the school lunch program when they were in Congress.

"I wrote to both of them," said Stricker.

At that time McGovern had retired and Dole was a lobbyist. Within a day, however, Stricker received a call from Dole's office with the message "Sen. Dole wants to help you."

Stricker responded immediately and the TVS staff provided all the required information. Even though Dole was no longer a senator, he directly contacted the Secretary of Agriculture. Two days later Stricker received a call from the USDA with a request to package more milk.

"I was just amazed," she said. "I realize they really do work for us and that change can happen if just one of them has the will. That was an incredible thing to learn."

Stricker also noted that Taylor had done some "horse trading" while he was in Congress to keep some of the contracts for TVS.

Stricker acknowledged there have been some difficult times. She recalled one time when demand was slow and they were going to have to make temporary layoffs. Before announcing the layoffs, she saw one of the TVS workers at the grocery store checking out. She knew the decision they would have to make would negatively affect him and his family.

"It just literally made me weep," she said. "Those are the things that have given me sleepless nights."

Even during the dark economic times, from 2008-12, TVS managed to stay the course.

"We've always known why we were here, " she said.

Stricker and TVS are not driven by profit, but by a mission to help others. As a result, they have been determined not to fail those they are committed to help.

"Failure just never was an option," said Stricker.

Stricker has had her own personal battles, mainly two struggles with cancer. The second diagnosis came in 2012.

"I always leave my desk clean," she said, noting that when she went to the doctor the one day, she did not return to work until eight months later.

She praised the board of directors and staff for letting her have that time off for radiation and chemotherapy treatment, as well as keeping TVS running smoothly.

When she returned, Stricker had some projects she wanted to finish before she retired. There was a long list of capital needs: the computer system was out of date, the building needed a new roof, carpet had to be replaced, the washroom had to be retiled, HVAC systems needed replacing, and the two group homes operated by TVS needed renovation.

They were also working on the Super Cereal contract and were working to enhance their financial position to borrow money if necessary.

So where is TVS now, nearly a half century after its inception? It's a multi-million dollar business operation. It employs 165 people with roughly 100 of them clients classified as developmentally disabled. It runs two homes in which some of its clients live. It provides products to our military and those who are hungry both in the U.S. and throughout the world.

While all of those accomplishments are impressive, Stricker is proudest of the number of people who have passed through TVS and learned to become productive citizens despite whatever challenges they have faced. She credits the TVS board of directors and staff for making such an impact.

"We have made a real difference in this community," she said.

Stricker credits many county commissioners, members of the TVS board of directors, local business people and TVS employers for their success.

"I've had a tremendous amount of help," said Stricker. "The people at DuPont were incredibly helpful in learning how to run a business. I've just been incredibly blessed."

"I am married to an incredible man," she said. "Dick Stricker has been my chief cheerleader."

But the success of a business starts at the top, and the traits that have helped Stricker be successful as the head of TVS were instilled in her long ago.

"I had incredibly wonderful parents who raised me to believe that you should always be willing to share, that you treat all people the way you want to be treated," she said. "This is what I was always intended to do. I believe we have a responsibility to help the least among us."

From an early age she has been an extrovert. When she was a young girl, one of her grandfathers was the mayor of Hayesville. When she visited him as a little girl, she would dress up, sit on his desk and greet everyone who came into his office.

"I probably never met a stranger," she said.

Her common sense, natural curiosity, humility, sense of humor and that she doesn't "mince many words" also have contributed to her success.

Her management philosophy is to "hire smart people and let them do their jobs."

She believes it's all right to say she does not know the answer, but she can find someone who does. And she believes that businesses must invest because "you cannot save your way into prosperity."

"We were always willing to take calculated risks," she said.

Stricker said there are not a lot of people who love their work, and she is one of the lucky ones because she is passionate about her work and loves her job.

"It's just the coolest job in the world," she said.

Stricker has not developed many hobbies over the past four decades, but she loves to read and she and her husband plan to do some traveling. One goal is to visit all of the national parks. But those national park trips may have to wait as there will be plenty of trips to Greenville, S.C., to visit their daughter Maggie, who is expecting in August.

"After that we'll just see," she said. "I'll just figure it out."

Even in retirement, Stricker sees herself as remaining involved in the community because the obligation to help others does not end "until we take our last breath."

"I think we were put here to make a contribution," she said.

 
 

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