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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The back part of Bones Smokehouse, left, is all that remains of the eatery. At right is the walls of the Goodwill store show extensive damage. The Chattanooga Area was hit by EF 3 tornado on the night of April 12, 2020.

Gena Weldon took over as head of the 97-year-old Goodwill Industries in Chattanooga last year and within her first four months as CEO she had to shut down all 17 of its resale shops due to the pandemic and respond to the demolition of Goodwill's top-selling store in a tornado.

"It's certainly been a challenging year," Weldon said of 2020.

But Weldon, the former chief financial officer of Goodwill Industries who succeeded the retiring Dennis Brice last year after 12 years with the agency, has responded to the challenges with a determination to make Goodwill more efficient and effective in its mission to help change lives through the power of work with other's generosity.

Goodwill was able to reopen 16 of its 17 stores a couple of months after the pandemic shut down the resale shops on March 23. With the aid of more online sales, improved operations, insurance payments and Small Business Administration loans and grants, Weldon said Goodwill Industries maintained its funding for its worker training, placement and counseling services.

In 2021, Weldon is eager to make further improvements to generate more funds to help further expand its services.

By April, Goodwill expects to reopen its top-selling store at 7601 East Brainerd Road that was toppled last April when a series of Easter night tornadoes ripped through Chattanooga. The East Brainerd store had housed Goodwill's e-commerce operations, which typically generate about 3% of its sales of the donated items given to the nonprofit agency. Online sales were especially critical when the brick-and-mortar stores were idled so Goodwill quickly shifted the e-commerce operations to its headquarters on Dodds Avenue.

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Rebuilding after the storm

That has opened up space in the East Brainerd store undergoing repairs and remodeling after the tornado for a new job connection center to be located adjacent to the resale store on East Brainerd Road. Weldon hopes the job connection center, similar to what other such centers have done at other Goodwill chapters in other cities, will aid more people to take advantage of the job training, counseling and work opportunities offered by Goodwill in Chattanooga and help more people recognize the mission of Goodwill Industries.

"It's taken us a while to settle the insurance claims and for this store to be rebuilt, which has hurt us some since this was our top-selling location," Weldon said. "But it also gave us a chance to dream bigger and to bring this new job connection center to East Brainerd. Bringing this job focus to our retail stores, I think, could be transformational."

Goodwill Industries has been a pioneer around the globe in the "reduce, reuse, repurpose" practice of environmental stewardship, recycling more than 4.6 billion pounds of goods a year around the world. Goodwill's reuse of donated goods provides jobs for workers in its stores and funds much of its diverse job training and placement programs.

Chattanooga Goodwill Industries provides job coaching, job placement services, onsite and virtual skills training, employment training, literacy training, English-language training, financial education and resume preparation for people facing challenges to finding employment, including people who are unemployed or underemployed; people with disabilities, veterans, older workers, and people reintegrating back into society.

"This is important because technology is evolving rapidly, new types of jobs are emerging, and employers are seeking new competencies and literacies," said Cindy Todd, the chief marketing and branding officer for Goodwill Industries who Wedon recruited to Goodwill after Todd retired last year as chief marketing officer for the Tennessee Aquarium.

Goodwill also operates a federally funded program, the Senior Community Service Employment Program, to provide retraining and part-time job opportunities for those age 55 and up facing job obstacles in finding a job and getting the skills for a better job.

About Chattanooga Goodwill Industries

Founded: 1923

Status: Nonprofit governed by 17-member board of directors. The Chattanooga Goodwill Industries is one of 156 independent Goodwill chapters in North America.

Mission: “With other’s generosity, we help change lives through the power of work. We provide a hand up, not a handout, to people who face a variety of barriers.”

Services: Through its resale stores that sell donated clothes, household goods and other merchandise, Goodwill employs workers and raises funds to support job training and other resources needed to find and keep a job.

Service area: 23 counties in the Chattanooga region, including 17 in Tennessee and six in Georgia

No. of resale stores: 17

Revenues: $16.2 million in 2019

CEO: Gena Weldon

Staff: 275 employees

Weldon said she hopes to continue to expand the mission of Goodwill Industries in Chattanooga, but for now she is focused on improving the operations of the stores and staff, especially during the ongoing pandemic.

Goodwill was forced to cut back its staff, which once totaled over 400 full- and part-time workers, in response to the store closings and an initial cutback on donations when the pandemic forced stores and many other non-essential businesses to close last spring. But Goodwill has quickly bounced back and Weldon said the agency has shifted to a new, more efficient model of using more full-time employees who can more effectively operate the stores with less operating costs and more sales.

"We came back with the mentality of trying to operate as efficiently as we can to generate all the revenues we can from the donations we receive," she said. "In analyzing our operations, we realized that we were sometimes operating very inefficiently and there is tremendous opportunity to do better."

Goodwill now has about 275 employees, plus 66 people who are in paid job training programs. Goodwill's workplace training programs also serve more than 700 persons a year.

Weldon is a former field auditor at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and controller at Valley Knit Inc. in Fort Payne, Alabama who joined the local Goodwill Industries in 2008 and rose through the finance ranks to serve as chief operating officer before becoming CEO in January 2020. She is focusing on improving operations and recruited a former Goodwill Industries executive from Washington state, Jim Stailey, who held transformative leadership positions in operations and mission programs for another Goodwill territory.

Weldon completed Goodwill Industries International's Senior Leadership Program and the prestigious Executive Development Program.

"I'm not going to be satisfied until every person who desires to get a job can come to Goodwill for that help and we can do everything in our power to help," she said. "We don't want to replicate other programs, but our footprint with our stores already puts us in many communities and with many people we can serve."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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