'12 steps' to profit: Building a $60M business with those in recovery

12 steps to profit
12 steps to profit

There may be nothing more boring than selling printer ink and cartridges. Yet there's nothing dull behind the story of Coast to Coast Computer Products in Simi Valley, California. The exciting part of the company's story is not the fact that sales reached $60 million last year, or that management has a unique compensation program: The more you sell, the less you have to work.

What's shocking is this. The most successful people here have traveled the hardest path.

"Of the top 10 producers, seven of the 10 are 12-step people," said founder Rick Roussin.

Yes, the most ordinary company in the world is run by former alcoholics and addicts. Employees are often seen at the weekly 12-step meetings held during lunch on Tuesdays.

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Roussin knows what it's like to be given a second chance (and a third). His own addiction to alcohol started as a teenager in Detroit. "I kind of came up in a very dysfunctional family, a lot of alcohol abuse, violence," he said. "When I was 15 years old, my father was on his fourth wife, and they decided that they were going to move to Florida from Michigan, and they weren't going to take me with them, so I was pretty much on my own."

Roussin dropped out of high school to earn money, and he started drinking. "The first time I took a sip of alcohol, I loved the way it made me feel, and I started drinking heavily, and then eventually, I found drugs, too."

He eventually came to California to work for a computer products company, but by then his addiction "was dominating my life." He was hired and fired three times by the same firm, and yet the CEO took an interest in him. "He called me in one day, and he said, 'You know, there's a better way to live if you ever want to find out about it.'"

It took a while for Roussin to agree he had a problem. He was at a Halloween party in 1985 "defending a keg of beer, because that's worth defending your life over," when he was stabbed in the liver and diaphragm and rushed into emergency surgery. "I should have died."

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Roussin didn't die. He recovered from his injuries, and then he began recovering from his addictions. Newly sober, Roussin launched Coast to Coast, and he began hiring people at 12-step meetings. "People were coming up to me and saying, 'I need a job.'" He said many of these people were intelligent and had a lot of drive, but they'd burned too many bridges. "I think probably one of the reasons I was willing to gamble is that people took gambles on me."

How has the gamble paid off? Roussin said over the years he's hired hundreds of people in recovery, and it hasn't hurt sales. "I'm proud to say we've grown 29 of the 30 years we've been in business."

Salesman Jeff Wentling is one example. "When I came over here, I was not sober," he said. However, he said being surrounded by people who were in recovery "and seeing the destruction that alcohol was causing in my life" encouraged him to get into a 12-step program. "I've been sober for about nine years now."

Advice to companies wanting to hire those in recovery

"Start off with one person, and find somebody who's got some sober time, Roussin advises to other managers who would like to provide second chances to people in recovery. He said that if someone has little knowledge about addiction or alcoholism, it's critical to hire someone who does. However, that first hire should be a person who has been sober for at least two or three years, someone who can interview new hires going through recovery and "be a good judge of character."

Someone like Catherine Olwell. This vice president of sales does most of the recruiting for Coast to Coast, and she, too, is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for nearly 30 years. "Rick allows me to bring in the people who would need a second chance."

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Olwell said she's even hired ex-felons, and while not every gamble has paid off, most of the people she's hired who have shown a tenacity and talent for sales have done very well. "If you give people a chance, they will get excited, and they will clean up real fast for a job like this." Olwell has exceeded even her own expectations, making more money than she ever dreamed of. "I live in the home I want to live in. I drive sports cars because I'm a car enthusiast, and we vacation a lot," she said. "I mean, my life is huge."

Advice to people struggling with alcohol and drugs

For people reading this who may be struggling with alcohol and addiction, even if you're functioning and have a job, Wentling has been there. "It can actually get better," he said. "It's one thing to just make money to provide for your family, but it's another thing to become a whole person."

Roussin said he's still friends with the CEO who hired and fired him repeatedly, the man who first suggested he seek help. He has spent decades paying it forward. "Look, it doesn't get any worse than me, so I wasn't in a position to judge where people were coming from or what their pasts were like," he said. "If you can channel that energy out of negative into positive, what you end up with is a very loyal, very dedicated, hard-working person with a lot of drive who wants to succeed."