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Happy Retirement, Dan!

 

     After 36 years of an evolving role at Attainment Company, Dan Hanson chose to retire at the end of 2017. Dan has been an integral part of Attainment and has helped to make the company what it is today. His position was an invaluable trifecta: Vice President, Director of International Sales, and our Human Resources Manager.

      Autumn Garza, Attainment Company’s President, shared: “I’ve always been amazed by the many hats that Dan has worn, but since assuming my new role at Attainment, I’ve been completely blown away with all that Dan has accomplished in his time here.  His background knowledge, passion, wisdom, and reasoning have been so impressive to me and I’ve gained so much insight from him as one of my mentors.  I know he’ll be sorely missed by me…and many others."

 

In honor of his retirement, we wanted to share Dan's story with Attainment from his perspective!

There really was no Attainment Company when I first got involved. Don (Attainment's CEO) was working on a product idea, which honestly I didn’t quite understand. I figured, wrongly, that if there was a need or demand for such a product, it would already have been produced by some of the big players in the education business. The needs of kids in special education with more than a mild disability were only beginning to be addressed. Well into the 70’s, kids with significant disabilities were “taken care of," but not really educated or trained to do much. That was starting to change, and that’s the change that Don saw, along with the pending need for products. Teachers and therapists who were trying to educate or train kids with significant disabilities were pretty much creating their own products, or doing without.

I typed up the first work activities task descriptions on my Sears electric typewriter, while we were roommates, before there was an Attainment Company. I was actually involved in the discussions of what to name the new company, Bastian Enterprises or Attainment Company. I voted for Attainment Company as I thought it would have more general appeal and seem more like a special needs company. That became official when Don's mother cross-stitched some coasters with the Attainment Company name.

My first (sort of) official involvement with Attainment Company was after I had been laid off from a federally-funded Employability Skills program for ex-offenders and welfare recipients. While looking for another job, I went with Don to an exhibit in Lake Geneva to show the new Work Skills Package.  It must have been the WI CEC or something like that. I saw that there was interest in this kind of pre-voc training, or at least some curiosity about it. This was also the opportunity for the first philosophical/marketing disagreement between Don and me. He had the pre-voc tasks on industrial shelving and cardboard boxes, with the idea that if this was to train for industrial work, or at least toward that goal, the package should look industrial. I thought they should be presented in a more “commercially appealing” way. Gradually that did happen as we found better looking industrial quality bins, and wooden bookcase shelving rather than metal shelves.

Initially, I didn’t think much about the mission or goals of the company. It just seemed that there was a need for some materials to address the needs of kids with significant disabilities, and Don had created something that helped. And I needed a job. The first three months I volunteered at Attainment, still on Unemployment Compensation, but working for Attainment which couldn’t afford to pay me in any case. After three months, we had enough sales to hire me. . .and the rest is history as they say.

The continuing motivation was the excitement of building a business from the ground up. The fact that the business was selling something really worthwhile made it possible for me to be involved. If Don had been trying to sell a new and improved way to some household task, or office function, or something, I don’t think I would have been interested in participating. In fact, when we first talked about my working with the company, I told Don that I’m not and don’t want to be a salesman. I can’t talk people into things, and don’t want to. He said, “You’re a teacher. Go out and teach people about these products.” That set a light off in my head and I was suddenly eager to teach teachers and administrators about the need to increase expectations and expand training for their lower level kids: This new package of materials would make pre-voc skills training possible. So I went out and “taught" people about Attainment products, initially mostly in Indiana, Ohio, and Texas because I had friends or relatives there where I could stay for free. . .and that was our marketing budget: free.

As time went by, there were two practical and philosophical items for the company to address. One was the kind of products to produce and where and how to market, and the other was what kind of company would we be...how to we hire, train, promote and pay employees. For the products, we decided our “niche” would be age-appropriate basic skills products for student with significant disabilities. This was a market that was not being served since it is such a small part of the education market. So focusing on that market filled a need and was also a fairly safe market for a very small company. It was unlikely that the big guys would ever bother with that small slice of the education marketplace, so that became our market. We also made a conscious decision to create products that were teacher-friendly, written in an accessible way for teachers of all experience levels. Rather than trying to impress people with our knowledge and education, using the most professional and academic language in our writing, we chose to be clear and approachable. First, the illustrated cookbook, then, the personal skills series...Looking Good, Keeping House, etc. Then, Stepping Out, and then, an expansion from just print into software. (There was a period in the 90’s when many schools did not have funding to buy print material, only software!) And then on to communication products. All of this with the primary focus on kids with significant disabilities. People have learned to look to Attainment for practical products for their lower-functioning kids, and we have learned that’s what works for Attainment Company.

The reward for all of this was hearing time and time again, “Thank you for creating these products. It saves me soooo much time. Until now I’ve had to try to cobble together some of these things.” Or simply, ”I LOVE your products!” No need to “sell” these products, only let people know they are available. And while feeling good about providing helpful materials to teachers and therapists, there was also the good feeling of helping to grow a small company, employing more and more people with good employment.

And that was the other part of creating and growing the company. Would it be one where management and senior employees make the big money and “workers” are paid only what’s necessary? Would management give the minimum benefits and be tight on structure with managers managing and workers working?  Or would it be a company where the top folks make a good enough living, but with money left for the lower earners to still make a decent living? And with good benefits, family-friendly flexibility. . .and hiring some people with special needs who might not be “worth it” in purely financial terms. Of course the latter was chosen. We had work-life balance, before the term was even conceived. Producing good products that do good, while growing a company that respects and involves all employees was continually motivating. I once heard you can tell a lot about a company by how non-management employees describe the company. When talking about the company, do they say “They make widgets." Or do they say “We make widgets."? Big difference. I think most Attainment employees think that “We make widgets.”

I guess I would have to say my biggest surprise working at Attainment is the fact that we made it through those early years. Most small business fail in the first five years, and Attainment’s first five years coincided with the years of the Reagan budget cuts. So to survive and grow a start-up business in that environment was certainly not a sure bet. There are lots of things I am proud of, like the great products, the appreciation from customers, the dedication and loyalty of staff, the international reach of our products. . .but I’m not surprised by any of that.

I had varying favorite parts of my involvement with the company over the decades. Initially it was the opportunity to travel to many places around the country, even if it meant driving in a poorly functioning, un-air-conditioned small pickup truck to Texas in hot weather. Then, it was helping to structure the growth of the company, especially finding a place to build our first owned building, and then designing and contracting the construction of the building. That was a big milestone for the company. Then, trying the international market. We got a $5000 grant from the state of Wisconsin to go to an international expo, REHACARE in Germany. In the grant request, our goal was to increase European sales to at least $50,000/year. Within a few years our international sales, mostly to Europe, totaled over $1,000,000/year. This involved setting up re-seller relationships with many companies all over the world, mostly small companies dealing with assistive technology. After many years of online contacts, and with some personal contacts at conferences, many of those re-sellers have become friends, which is definitely a favorite part.

I couldn’t come close to choosing a single best memory. There are too many. Getting to actually USE the German I learned 40-50 years earlier, spending time with our re-sellers and AT/AAC experts from all over the world are many of my favorite memories.....Jarek and Ola, Tonolli and Rita, Dominik and Fiore, Andrea, Aldona, Norma and John, Sinan, Victoria, Ted, Efraim, Camille, Miwako, Patricio and Claudia, Jin, Rabbe, Yizhak, Barbara and Michael, Erna, Martin and Roger and company, Eelke, Holger, Borja, Luis, Stefan, Theo, Lucie and Jana, all of the Rehavista folks and others. The single best conference/exhibit had to be the SPECTRONICS conferences on the Gold Coast of Australia. Those folks knew how to put together a conference with great sessions, valuable information, AND a whole lot of fun! I loved the Central and Eastern European AAC conferences because AAC was pretty new and people were SO eager for information.....and they were held in places like Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, which I didn’t mind visiting. There are big memories, too, that aren’t really best memories...the transmission falling out of my rental car in Laredo, TX, 400 miles from where I rented in Dallas, doing an in-service in Gary, IN and then having the company van not start as teachers scrambled to get the hell out of there before dark, leaving me alone in a parking lot...it finally did start, arriving in Almaty, Kazakhstan after midnight in a blizzard with me scheduled to begin training at 8:00 that morning, being in a plane struck by lightning over Canada on the way back from London, being careful but apparently not careful enough about eating in New Delhi. . .you don’t want the details.

Also, best memories come from within the office. . .the trust people put in me during confidential conversations, the weddings, the babies, and seeing people develop their skills and careers.

I don’t know if people would be surprised. . .I think most people one way or another learned or figured out I’m gay. That was an ongoing issue with international sales. Gay rights vary tremendously from country to country, culture to culture. So I kept that fact about me rather vague most of the time. That led to some awkwardness when socializing, and in retrospect, I wish I had just been totally open. I was afraid that might hurt our business in some places, but I should have decided “too bad” if it does.

Advice for new employees, at Attainment or elsewhere. Be interested in your job. It will make your job more enjoyable, and the chances of advancement greater. There are no unimportant jobs, so take pride in what you do and do it to the best of your ability. Good things will happen from that.

To close the interview, I wanted to share a couple of my favorite quotes.

From Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

From the Dalai Lama: "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

 

Thanks, Dan, and best of luck! Attainment Company sure will miss having you here each day! 

4 thoughts on “Happy Retirement, Dan!”

  • Sherri Erickson April 6, 2018 at 7:11 am

    Hi Dan,
    I'm very glad you are finally able to spend more time with Jose and Sophie, but selfishly wish you were still here so that I could come to your office doorway with a quick question, and end up standing there totally engaged in conversation (and way longer than a couple of minutes!) with one of the best people I've ever worked with. You were technically my immediate supervisor, but I never once felt as though I worked under you, Dan, but with you. And I wish you were here so that Attainment's new people could have you on their side, too. You were always on mine, and I am so much better for that. Thank you so much, and enjoy all of your days ahead!

    Reply
  • Wonderful, heartfelt message, Dan! You did good---and did well, too!

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  • This blog was so you, Dan, and made me miss you a ton. I did get wildly jealous of your travel and experiences, but when you pointed out the miserable things that happened, it helped ... a bit. And I was fascinated to hear tales of the early days from your point of view. I was glad, though not surprised, to hear that the work-life balance of this company was intentional and planned. It is why Attainment is such a special place to work, and your influence was such a big part of that. Please keep influencing us! Much love to you and Jose.

    Reply
  • Thank you for helping our students at Tedder Elementary School!

    Reply
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