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The Wall Street Journal - California Journal


Here's a Businessman Who Knows Value Of a Second Chance
Gerald Chamales Hires People With Troubled Pasts -- And Give Them a Future
By Julio Laboy
CARSON — When authorities sent Jennifer Lynne Carez from her Los Angeles halfway house six months ago to spend the day searching for work, she was determined to try to rebuild her life.
But as she got closer to her first job interview, the 28-year-old mother of seven became increasingly fearful of the questions swirling through her head.
Who would hire a person, she wondered, serving 11 months in state prison for writing bad checks? Who would offer a second chance to a recovering substance abuser whose two-year-old daughter was born addicted to cocaine? Who would give an opportunity to someone who had long depended on welfare for cash and food?
At Carson-based Omni Computer Products Inc., she found the answer.
Despite her stormy past, Omni offered Ms. Carez a position in telemarketing, paying her $250 a week plus commissions. “I didn’t think I would get a job. I mean, not a real job at a real company where I can move up,” Ms. Carez says.
She is, however, hardly alone. Omin, a recycler and manufacturer of computer- related products, says that 75 people — or an extraordinary 30% of its 250-member work force — have been hired from halfway houses, welfare rolls and drug-treatment programs. Some of these employees work on a factory assembly line that recycles toner cartridges, while many others are in telephone sales. A few have even made it into management.
Model for Transition
The 16-year-old company, which posted $25.5 million in sales in 1997, is seen by social-service providers as a model of what needs to happen elsewhere in the corporate world as some 650,000 Californians begin the government-mandated transition from welfare to work.
If there were more companies like Omni, “people would get off welfare and start changing their lives,” says Almarie Ford, a job developer for Inglewood-based Cornell Corrections Corp., a work-furlough house where state prisoners spend the last four to five months of their sentences. Although Ms. Ford places inmates at many companies around Los Angeles, “Omni leads the pack,” she says.
Of course, Omni executives would be the first to admit that bringing in recruits from the streets isn’t easy. There are very real problems, and “we have to keep a very close eye on some people,” says Gerald Chamales, Omni’s president and founder.
The biggest lesson he has learned, he says, is that people who are struggling to lift themselves up from the bottom of society often need more than just a second chance. You have to “give them a third, fourth and sometimes fifth chance, too.”
Mr. Chamales notes that he has endured death threats from unstable workers who were fired; evacuated the entire Omni staff into the street following a bomb scare from a disgruntled employee; posted ball for some on his staff; and even attended substance-abuse recovery programs with new hires. In one case, just two weeks after Mr. Chamales had brought in a new salesman, he personally escorted this worker to a 12-step program.
“I was a wreck,” recalls the worker, Al McGreevy, who has now been with Omni for five years. “I didn’t even have enough clothes, and here’s the CEO taking me to a recovery program.”
The CEO, though, had been there before. The 46-year-old Mr. Chamales is himself a recovering alcoholic who worked his way into the executive suite from a life of poverty, welfare and food stamps. “I know what it’s like to be ... at the absolute bottom,” he says.
Having a boss with his own troubled past certainly makes it easier on his workers. “I was 42 days sober when I came to work here,” says Joe Hiller, Omni’s senior vice president of sales and a recovering alcoholic and former drug addict. “I was in a fog. I had nothing. Gerry was this energetic guy who used to share about his own struggles. I realized there was some hope.”
Mr. Hiller joined Omni’s sales team in 1984, working strictly for commissions at first. His first check amounted to $29.70 for two weeks of work, but he kept at it. Today. Mr. Hiller earns well into six figures, and with a loan from Mr. Chamales was able to purchase a home for $580,000.
“We find people who have high-energy enthusiasm,” says Mr. Chamales. “They want to rebuild their lives. We give them a platform and many are successful. Work can be the best therapy.”
For Mr. Chamales, it was a long, rutted road from alcohol-filled nights at a grungy one-room, Venice flop house — “where the debris meets the sea,” he says - to his current 13,500 square-foot home in Brentwood. His English-style country mansion boasts four-levels, 18 rooms, 10 baths, a tennis court, two-level detached guest house, pool and Jacuzzi. His next door neighbor is Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
“This is really something. This is an entrepreneurial success story that can only happen in America,” Mr. Chamales says as he guides his black Mercedes through the narrow streets of Venice where he remembers wallowing in drugs and self-pity.
As a child, Mr. Chamales bounced from one foster home to the next. He really didn’t know his father, Tom T. Chamales, a writer whose novel “Never So Few” was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1959. His father published another book before reaching age 36. That’s when he died in an alcohol-related accident.
In those earlier days, Mr. Chamales went from recovery programs to psychiatric facilities and was even forced into isolation at a Santa Monica hospital, he says. But over time, he pulled out of his tailspin and started getting odd jobs through a social-service agency. Eventually, he joined a telemarketing firm and peddled computer products by phone. That was 1978.
By 1979, he became a top salesman at the company, Pacific Computer Products, and saw a brighter future in starting a similar business of his own. He did just that, launching Omni with $7,000 in savings. Despite some early hurdles, his one-man operation took off.
Through the 1990s, 0mm has grown at an annual rate of 20%, and now has more than 35,000 accounts. It began its efforts to hire welfare recipients and other people who are struggling about 12 years ago.
The company has two main lines: It manufactures ribbons for computerized printers and recycles laser toner cartridges. Everything is sold under the Rhinotek brand name. (The company donates $25,000 a year to a rhino refuge in Kenya — one of Mr. Chamales’s passions.)
But Mr. Chamales sees himself recycling more than just toner cartridges these days. “It’s like we’re helping recycle people along with these products,” he says, standing in his mansion’s library surrounded with art from Asia and rows of books. “Sometimes I look at what I’ve got here, and I really have to pinch myself to make sure it’s not a dream.”


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