Ready, willing and able Featured

9:57am EDT July 22, 2002

As 88-year-old Evelyn Cicerchi walks through Bonne Bell Inc.’s historic Detroit Avenue building, it might be easy to assume she’s on a trip to buy lip gloss or nail polish for one of her great-granddaughters.

In fact, she’s reporting for work.

Cicerchi is part of Bonne Bell’s seniors-only program, a two-year-old initiative for people 55 and older who want to hold jobs.

She, as well as 75 other seniors, arrives at Bonne Bell’s Lakewood offices five days a week to assemble, label and pack boxes for teen and pre-teen cosmetics and beauty aids. Participants are divided into two four-hour shifts — morning and afternoon — and work a total of 20 hours per week.

The initiative is a personal project for the company’s second-generation family owner Jess Bell, 74.

During a tour of the Lakewood facility, Bell, clad in a sweater and hiking boots, is spry and energetic as he discusses the program. “People like Evelyn inspire me,” he explains. “Their shift starts at 7:30 a.m. and they’re here by 7 a.m. That’s a good example for other employees.”

The concept behind Bonne Bell’s program — tapping into the senior work force — isn’t unique; large companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have employed seniors for years. Bonne Bell’s twist is that the Lakewood production line is made up exclusively of seniors.

For the bulk of corporate America, seniors remain a mostly unused resource. When you look at the numbers — an estimated 33.5 million Americans, or 13 percent of the total population, are age 65 or older — it’s hard to understand why, particularly when you consider that the percentage will increase as 76.1 million baby boomers approach retirement age.

According to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the American Association of Retired Persons, few companies have recruiting programs that target older workers. Many employers admit they’re not prepared to deal with the aging work force.

That’s why Bell is stumping his program as a model for other employers. But Bell didn’t undertake the initiative as an act of kindness; it arose from necessity.

“We needed more workers, but the avenues that were open to us weren’t satisfactory,” says Bell. “With unemployment so low, the availability of good part-time help was nil. We’d put ads in the paper and worked with temporary agencies before, but we didn’t end up with people who were a good fit for us.”

It was early 1997 when the answer finally appeared. Bell, his wife, Julie, and several other corporate managers spent a day on the manufacturing line at the company’s Westlake production facility.

“I ended up working next to a few seniors on the line,” Bell says. “After I spoke with them, I realized they had an entirely different work ethic than the younger generation. I knew it was an underutilized group, so I started talking to senior centers.”

Within a few months, 16 seniors were interested. Bell renovated a warehouse attached to the company’s corporate offices (he added air conditioning, restroom facilities, a workout room and a kitchen), then salvaged two blister packaging machines from the Westlake plant that were targeted for replacement. (He’s since added a third machine.) By April, the program was up and running.

The expenses, which Bell declined to discuss, didn’t measure into the decision to make the investment. Says Bell, “It was the prerogative I had owning a family business. I wanted to do it, so it got done. I’m not measuring this in regards to return on investment.”

That said, the results are more than impressive. “If you measure the productivity against our Westlake plant, using the same equipment and a different work force, the production is roughly the same,” says Bell. “Actually, when you consider that the equipment they’re using isn’t as new as what we put out in Westlake, I’d have to say the productivity may even be better.”

Participants in the program start at $7 an hour, and get bumped to $7.50 after a year on the job. The company pays for holidays and provides a $250 Christmas bonus, but otherwise, the operation is bare bones.

As part-time employees, the senior workers don’t get paid vacation, and there are no fringe benefits. Bell banks on the fact that program participants receive Social Security and are covered by Medicare.

Another unique aspect of the program is that the group is supervised by other seniors. That was something Bell insisted on from the start. “You have to treat them like they’re your brother or dad,” he says. “Not just another hired hand. You have to treat them with great respect.”

Bell takes the time to learn the background of each senior-age employee. “That’s important,” he maintains. “It’s who they are.” Cicerchi, for example, was a drapery maker for 45 years.

Bell says any participants who wants to work full time is given the opportunity to join the Westlake production line. “Most don’t want to,” he says. “They’re just looking for a little extra money.”

And, as the senior-only program grows — there is currently a waiting list — Bell plans to expand it, possibly moving it into the Westlake facility. “We’re looking at upgrading the equipment, and that’s the best way to do it,” he says. “Who knows, maybe one day we’ll integrate the two production lines in Westlake and bring the seniors onto it. Maybe they’ll even take over.”

How to reach: Bonne Bell, (216) 221-0800.

Challenging myths about older workers

There’s a falsehood that older workers can’t keep up with youngsters. The truth is that employers who hire senior citizens find that, while some may need additional training, they generally perform well on the job.

According to a survey of human resource professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management and the American Association of Retired Persons, 77 percent of employers say senior employees “tend to be more reliable and have higher levels of commitment to the organization than younger workers.”

Other findings:

  • 89 percent say older workers have a lower rate of absenteeism than younger workers.

  • 40 percent say older workers are more motivated than younger workers.

  • 66 percent found older workers tend to be more fearful of technology than younger workers.

  • 62 percent say the have contracted with retired employees as consultants.

  • 47 percent provide training to upgrade older workers’ skills.

Perhaps the hardest part about putting seniors to work in your company is finding them. There aren’t many effective networks of senior citizens looking for a job. Bonne Bell’s Jess Bell handled that problem by making contact with community centers, senior citizen residences and municipal programs in the communities that surround his company headquarters.