BLAST Marks 80th Anniversary Of The Randolph-Sheppard Act

Posted On: 6/20/2016

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TAGS: blind vendors, vending operator, National Association of Blind Merchants, Windy City BLAST conference, blind merchants, Randolph-Sheppard Act, National Federation of the Blind, Nicky Gacos, Jesús "Chuy" García, Leif Babin, Vistar, National Automatic Merchandising Association, Eric Dell, Barbara Kennelly

ROSEMONT, IL -- Entrepreneurs from across the country turned out in record numbers for the National Association of Blind Merchants' Windy City BLAST conference, with four days of training and networking, highlighted by the event's largest trade show since its inception in 2002. Marking the Randolph-Sheppard program's 80th year, the 2016 BLAST -- which stands for Business Leadership and Superior Training -- was held from May 17 through 20 at the Loews Chicago O'Hare Hotel in Rosemont, IL.

More than 600 industry professionals participated in the conference's extensive educational sessions and got down to business on the bustling trade show floor on May 18. They included blind vendors from an unprecedented 42 states and representatives from the state business enterprise programs that support them. Also attending were some of the industry's biggest suppliers, who showcased the latest food, beverages, equipment and technology in a record-breaking 80 booths.

NABM, a division of the National Federation of the Blind, consists of visually impaired businesspeople who are either self-employed or part of Randolph-Sheppard's vending program. The 1936 law gives preference to blind people in bidding on the provision of vending services on government properties.

vending, BLAST
BLAST SPEAKERS: Pictured at top, from left, are Nicky Gacos, Mark Riccobono, Ray Hopkins, Denise Avant and Terry Smith. Below, from left, are Chuy García, Jeff Fischer, Silas Deane, Eric Dell, Mark Manney and Leif Babin.

The Windy City BLAST kicked off with "The Disney Approach to Business Excellence." This daylong preconference session gave participants insight into Walt Disney Co.'s belief in "overmanaging" five core areas: its brand, leadership, culture, service and innovation, in order to achieve business excellence. Disney Institute facilitators David Mulvey and John Hill suggested ways in which to apply similar principles in their own businesses.

A series of pre-conference workshops immediately following the Disney presentation brought blind vendors up to speed on some of the latest apps and technology tools to help organize and enhance the efficiency of their businesses. They were led by J.J. Meddaugh, president of Kalamazoo, MI-based A.T. Guys, and Joel Zimba, reading innovations project manager for the National Federation of the Blind.

NABM president Nicky Gacos, Colorado Associates LLC (Metuchen, NJ), emceed a lively and informative BLAST opening general session on Wednesday, May 18, which kicked off with a performance by the Chicago Bears Drumline.

Joining Gacos in welcoming participants was a distinguished slate of speakers, including National Council of State Agencies for the Blind president Ray Hopkins; National Federation of the Blind of Illinois president Denise Avant; National Federation of the Blind president Mark Riccobono; and National Federation of the Blind Entrepreneurs Initiative director Terry Smith. Janet LaBrec, U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration Commissioner, participated via phone.

NABM's guest of honor was Jesús "Chuy" García, who serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. A 2015 candidate for Mayor of Chicago, Garcia finished second, forcing a head-to-head runoff vote between himself and incumbent Rahm Emanuel, who eked out the victory. García was elected to the Chicago City Council in 1986, and in 1992 became the first Mexican-American member of the Illinois State Senate.

The message to BLAST participants emphasized by all of the speakers was that blindness is not the characteristic that defines blind entrepreneurs or determines their futures, and that the National Federation for the Blind, state agencies, advocates and policy-makers are working to create more opportunities and strengthen training programs to bring blind people into meaningful employment and expanded possibilities.

Keynoting BLAST's opening session was former Navy SEAL Leif Babin. He discussed Extreme Ownership, which is the title of his New York Times bestselling book. Babin focused on the leadership skills he learned as a member of the U.S. Navy's Sea, Air and Land component of the Naval Special Warfare Command and how those skills apply to the business world. He explained that a fellow SEAL was blinded in combat, which has given him a personal connection to BLAST and its mission.

Some of the industry's biggest suppliers were among the BLAST presenters. Coca-Cola Enterprises focused on the success many blind operators are having with Coke's Freestyle fountain machine in the locations they serve, and the versatile dispenser's demonstrated ability to drive traffic by offering hundreds of customizable drinks.

Vistar's Jeff Fischer provided an overview of the nation's largest vend product distributor's "Good to Go" program, which offers operators an extensive assortment of products selected to meet the growing demand of consumers seeking to lead "cleaner," "healthier" and more socially conscious lifestyles. This ever-expanding list includes more than 2,000 products that are organic, GMO- and gluten-free, vegan, or contain zero trans fat, among other attributes. Vistar is also increasing its focus on sourcing local products to meet consumer demand. Additionally, it maintains lists of products that meet the National Automatic Merchandising Association's Fit Pick standards and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Smart Snacks in Schools guidelines, Fischer explained.

Silas Deane of VendEngine (Brentwood, TN), a provider of advanced inmate commissary, vending management and electronic payment platforms to the corrections industry, encouraged blind entrepreneurs to consider pursuing prison commissaries as an attractive profit center. In his presentation, aptly titled "Crime Does Pay: A Preview," Deane emphasized that many blind vendors may not be aware that they have priority in bidding to provide commissary services in correctional facilities in their states. Running this service can be less costly than operating a vending machine, he explained; it generally involves prepackaging for delivery directly to each inmate many of the items that operators already supply in vending machines, along with some others. These items are paid for by a special account set up for each inmate, often funded by their families.

Deane explained that VendEngine's commissary, vending management and electronic payment platforms are designed to "plug and play" with any jail management system. The company works hand in hand with operators to get them up and running, and provides the necessary support.

BLAST highlights on Thursday, May 19 included an update from National Automatic Merchandising Association senior vice-president of government affairs Eric Dell on the Food and Drug Administration's calorie disclosure guidelines for vending machines, and the industry's upcoming "Fly-In" advocacy event in Washington, DC in July. He urged the vendors to take part in this event, which increases the industry's visibility to elected officials.

National Council of State Agencies for the Blind policy advisor Catriona Macdonald updated participants on the shifting political landscape in 2016 and what it means for blind entrepreneurs.

A panel discussion highlighted the successful implementation by the U.S. General Services Administration of the National Automatic Merchandising Association's Fit Pick wellness-focused program in Illinois by working with blind vendors.

Mark Manney of Loss Prevention Results Inc. shared his long experience in vending loss prevention and maintaining a culture of control.

NABM president Nicky Gacos presented former Connecticut Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly with the association's inaugural Champion Award for her successful work in securing passage of the Kennelly Amendments to the Surface Transportation Act. These have resulted in state licensing agencies now enjoying priority in seeking contracts to operate vending machines at interstate rest areas. As a result of that legislation, hundreds of blind entrepreneurs today service vending machines at rest stops, and the income from third-party vending, in some states, is the lifeblood of many business enterprise programs.

Another highlight was an appearance by internationally known Lincoln scholar and actor Dr. Gene Griessman, in 19th-century costume, paying tribute to the 16th U.S. President's home state of Illinois. Bringing to life Lincoln's humor and eloquence, Griessman took BLAST showgoers back to the Gettysburg Address and to the moments before his assassination at Ford's Theater. He also shared the techniques Lincoln learned for dealing with the challenges businesspeople face in their everyday lives, including leadership, communication and unswerving commitment to personal achievement.

Networking opportunities and entertainment rounded out the extensive business and training agenda throughout the four-day event. These included a musical tribute to BLAST by singer and songwriter JP Williams, along with the opening night reception and Thursday night banquet, which closed the Windy City BLAST on a high note.

The next BLAST conference is scheduled for September 2017 in Nashville, TN.

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