Columbia Industries sells records division, goes deep on service mission

Columbia Industries, a Kennewick nonprofit that funds its mission to serve people with special needs by operating a series of for-profit businesses, has sold its records business as it shifts to deepen its impact.

Memphis, Tennessee-based Vital Records Control (VRC) purchased the records side of CI Information Management in a deal finalized on March 1. Terms were not disclosed, and the sale did not include the shredding business.

“It was a good time to get out,” said Marie Lathim, chief administrative and human resources officer.

Lathim, together with interim CEO Eric Van Winkle, said the records business increasingly turned to high-tech electronics and was housed in a facility with triple security – as secure as any Hanford site, they joked.

VRC, a multimillion-dollar firm operating in more than 70 markets, approached it as part of its own expansion into the Pacific Northwest. VRC, which registered in Washington in late 2021, introduced itself to former CI Information Management customers in the Tri-Cities in early March. Records will continue to be stored locally, it said.

Columbia Industries said it is investing proceeds from the sale into the programs that support Tri-Citians with special needs. The decision to sell didn’t affect its other businesses.

The move comes as Columbia Industries shifts to a “go deeper” strategy to build out its programs serving a wide range of Tri-Citians. In recent years, it has purchased a series of for-profit businesses to support its nonprofit mission.

For now, it is done buying businesses and will focus on deepening its work, which includes job placement, training, help with housing and more.

“You’re not going to see us start a pharmacy,” Van Winkle said.

Best known for serving people with intellectual and physical disabilities, Columbia Industries also serves people with financial, housing, employment and other needs.

Its clients include veterans, homeless people, victims of domestic violence and more.

People who need help regularly arrive at its offices at 500 S. Dayton St., near Kennewick High School. It expects to have a key relationship with Benton County’s future recovery center when the neighboring Kennewick General Hospital is converted.

As part of its “go deeper” mission, Columbia Industries is stepping up efforts to tell its story and to put clients and their successes in the limelight.

To that end, it is leasing a 12-by-12 booth at the new indoor market opening at the former Welch’s-J. Lieb Foods plant at 10 E. Bruneau St. around Mother’s Day, which is May 8.

Its stall at the Public Market Columbia River Warehouse will show off Opportunity Kitchen, a training and catering program run by Columbia Industries at the Richland Federal Building cafeteria. Visitors will be able to purchase food and if they’re inclined, hear the story of Opportunity Kitchen.

In time, the market stall could lead to a standalone business, said Lathim and Van Winkle.

Opportunity Kitchen is one of the many ways Columbia Industries serves clients and it owes its existence to the agency’s “earned revenue” strategy.

About a decade ago, it began exploring ways to supplement its budget, currently $13 million, with earned income.

That led it to hire former CEO Brian McDermott, who led it through a series of surprising purchases – four Round Table Pizza restaurants, Paradise Bottled Water and a FedEx business in the Clarkston-Lewiston area on the Washington-Idaho border.

The customer-facing businesses joined the existing document business, which offered both shredding and record keeping. Today, shredding remains a major revenue source.

Lathim and Van Winkle said the water and pizza businesses struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic while the FedEx one thrived. It received Covid-19 relief funds and managed to retain all its employees, in part by stepping up its pizza delivery business. All are recovering.

All profits go to Columbia Industries and its programs.

Van Winkle is a 20-year board member with a taste for economic development who agreed to step in when McDermott left in December.

The search for a permanent CEO is being conducted in-house until it finds a candidate who understands the unique hybrid business model blending for-profit operations with a broad nonprofit mission.

Columbia Industries employs 240 through its various activities and provides employment services to 200 more. Its community center serves nearly 80 and the Opportunity Kitchen course serves 25-30 students at a time.

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