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Workshop Surprise: Better Late Than Never


Russ Kuttenkuler found managing a workshop very different from his experiences in the corporate world as an engineer.
Russ Kuttenkuler discovered workshops relatively late in his career, but he’s glad he did.

Executive Director for Jeffco Subcontracting Inc. (JSI) in the St. Louis suburb of Arnold, Russ’s resume includes an impressive list of engineering and manufacturing organizations that saw him managing projects from St. Louis to Brazil. He originally earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and oversaw multi-million-dollar efforts over a span of several decades.

But he realized he wanted more. “I was debating retirement,” he recalled. “I actually tried it for a little while and felt like I wasn’t quite ready. But I did feel like I wanted more of a service, a pay-it-back type position.”

Give Workshops a Try

A friend recommended Russ look at sheltered workshops, which include an unusual combination of human services and manufacturing. He met with several managers and soon found the JSI opening not far from his home in Kirkwood. In the past four years, he’s never had a second thought.

“It’s a great job,” he stresses. “The thing I like about it most is working with our employees with disabilities. It’s the best workforce I’ve ever been involved with.”

Russ cites the daily joy he sees expressed by workers as they arrive at the workshop each morning. “They are very happy to come to work,” he said. “Very happy. You walk out (on the workshop floor) and you get ‘Hi’s’ and ‘Hellos’ left and right. On some of my previous jobs, after lunch I’d have to spend time chasing employees back to work. At the workshop, if you don’t get out of the way, you’ll get run over!”

He also appreciates the autonomy he has relative to that in the corporate world. “Of course, I report to a board,” he noted, “but I feel like I can totally impact the results.”

Versatile and Flexible

That freedom comes with a price, but it’s one he appreciates. “Most workshop directors wear a lot of hats,” he said. “There are all kinds of challenges to the position.”

Finances are a big one. Russ does most of the workshop’s accounting, although he’s the first to admit he’s not an accountant. “When I started, that was the only thing I didn’t like,” he recalls with a laugh. “But believe it or not, I kind of enjoy it now.”

His efforts with MASWM followed a similar path. Now the association’s Area IX Director, Russ resisted the call to serve for some time. “But as I looked and saw all of these other managers who were putting in time, I thought I should, too,” he recalled. “It’s an impressive group. Looking at the officers and the talent involved, it’s a top-flight group, and I’m proud to be part of it.”

One of MASWM’s strengths is the diversity of board members, which reflects the membership as a whole. Some come with a corporate background, often in manufacturing or production like Russ. Others have experience in areas like residential services, while still others have served in workshops virtually their entire career. “It’s a real cross section,” he said. “The common denominator is everyone is so helpful. Especially when I started, that was invaluable.”

First Focus

Another reason Russ waited to serve involved the situation at JSI when he arrived. “When I first came, the workshop was in a tight position.” he recalled. “I had to get my own house in order.”

Many of the challenges are similar to those faced by workshops everywhere. “Keeping the work coming and growing is a constant,” he noted. “You have to work on that every day. We’ve had nice work the last couple of years, but you have to stay focused on it. All it takes is one customer moving or changing their operation and you can be in trouble.”

He does have a “secret” weapon for selling workshops to potential customers, as well as legislators and others. “Tours of the workshop are one of the best selling points we have,” he said. “People often have low impressions of what we do, but when they come in and see all the work we do, and some of it’s very complicated, they’re impressed. The capabilities we have and the happiness of our workers surprises them.”

Keeping Active

In his spare time, Russ seems to work as hard as he does at JSI, running and biking at an impressive level. He recently ran a half marathon with the added challenge of being on a trail. Even for his 50th birthday, he did something most would consider daunting: parachuting from a plane.

“You want to keep moving,” he explained. “You always need to challenge yourself a little.”

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MASWM The Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers
If you have questions, please contact:
Executive Director Katie Jones, – (314) 369-5244 or executivedirector@moworkshops.org
President Aaron Martin – (816) 796-7070 or amartin@jobonekc.org;
or Legislative Chair Brian Hogan – (816) 483-1620 or bhogan@bvinds.org