Who knew working at a small local grocery store in a suburban town outside Saginaw, could end up changing someone’s life for the better, forever? That’s just what happened with Paul Hildebrant, a veteran of the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons Business Enterprise Program.
Paul has been with the Bureau, called the Commission for the Blind when he first started, his whole life due to his eye condition. He had a wonderful counselor by the name of Danielle Smith help him with many aspects of living a life with low-vision, including using accessible technology, and being an integral part of helping him get through his schooling. Despite his visual impairment, Paul was like any other teenager growing up, finding various jobs to earn a paycheck. He worked at a country club, church camp, Burger King, and Taco Bell, but it was his job at Pat’s Food Center that would be the springboard to the rest of his life. Not only did he meet his fiancée Emily there, but it was while he was working the Deli counter at Pat’s, that a friend told him about the Business Enterprise Program.
With Danielle’s guidance, Paul entered the BEP Operator Training program at the Bureau’s Training Center in Kalamazoo. There he learned the basics of running and managing his own business. The subject matter was wide ranging, from basic accounting principles, par levels, and health codes, to the technical side of vending machines.
Once he completed his training, Paul began his entrepreneurial journey in 2009 at a small snack stand inside a Flint DHS building. He was only there about 6 months before he decided to take on the daunting task of running the Michigan Metroplex in Pontiac; a massive U.S. Post Office facility in metro Detroit.
To say the Metroplex is intimidating would be an understatement. It covers nearly one million square feet, has over 1500 employees, runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will handle over 62 million pieces of mail in just the month of December. Paul’s job for the past 8 years has been to keep these employees as happy as possible by running a cafeteria and making sure his 35-40 vending machines spread throughout the facility are full and running properly. Accomplishing this feat is truly a family affair. Paul employs both of his parents and his fiancée on a full-time basis to keep the operation running smoothly.
One of Paul’s many accomplishments is developing his own version of telemetry to keep track of the product in his vending machines. He has created an Excel spreadsheet for each individual machine, broken down by the 8 breakrooms he services in the facility, with a par level set up for every item. Therefore, when he goes onto the main floor to check the machines, he can type into his tablet how many items are left in each slot, and it will calculate how many of an item he needs to add to bring it back up to par level. He then uploads the spreadsheet to the cloud where his parents and fiancée can read it and start pulling the needed product. By the time he returns to the storeroom from doing the inventory, most of the product he needs is loaded on carts and ready to be taken out to fill the machines.
Another efficiency Paul has put in placeis converting his cafeteria into a micro-market. A micro-market works similar to a self-checkout in a grocery store. A customer can come into the café, choose what itemsthey want, and since each item is barcoded, they can scan their product and pay on the spot. This not only reduces the amount of labor Paul must schedule, but takes away a great deal of stress by eliminating the prep of a cafeteria. It has afforded him the ability to take a day off occasionally and reduces his work load by 15-20 hours per week. He now works a manageable 40-45 hours per week instead of the 60 hours plus he had been working.
Over the years, Paul has certainly faced challenges. Running his own business for the first time, he has had to figure out what kind of manager he wanted to be. He’s also had to contend with the 24/7 operation that is the Metroplex, and the clientele who demand lower than average prices. With Emily and his parents by his side, he has overcome these challenges and turned his facility into a well-run, profitable business that provides a living for not only himself, but his family as well.
Paul credits the Business Enterprise Program for giving him a purpose and a sense of direction in his life. He’s not sure where he would have ended up without it. He used to jump from job to job, and now has the stability and security that comes from financial independence. The friends he has met through the program only add to the satisfaction he has found by running his own business.
When asked if he had any advice for those who have a visual impairment and want to have a career, Paul said he would certainly recommend the Business Enterprise Program. He also added some words of wisdom: “Don’t let yourself get in the way of what you’re trying to do. If you’re waiting for someone to hand your dream to you, it’s not going to happen. Find your motivation. Of course, it takes hard work and patience, but stick with it. It’s worth it.” That’s good advice for anyone, not just those who are legally blind.
Paul’s success shows he is a man who has taken those words to heart and by doing so, made his life, and those people’s lives around him, better. We should all strive to follow his example!