Lloyd Lewis—president and CEO of arc Thrift Stores—has a lot of those typical chief executive traits. He’s intense, energetic, and hurried. “I’m a pretty Type A guy,” Lewis admits.
Prior to joining arc Thrift, Lewis worked in the financial world. “It was all about trying to be the smartest,” he says. “Now, I recognize that being smart isn’t necessarily the greatest quality. Maybe the greatest quality is kindness.”
Life shaking epiphanies like that one usually require a catalyst: Enter Kennedy, Lewis’s second-youngest son, who was born in 2003 with Down syndrome.
Learning About Down Syndrome
Lewis didn’t know that his fourth child was going to have Down syndrome. Shortly after the delivery, a doctor whisked Kennedy away for “observation.” An hour later, the doctor told Lewis, “we have no good news to tell you about your son.” Lewis” first thought was that his son had died. The doctor clarified that Kennedy had Down syndrome.
“When I asked for more information,” Lewis says, “I was only told that it’s like ‘mongolism.” ” But Lewis knew that wasn’t right, and he got some real information from attending nurses. They explained that Down syndrome is the presence of an extra copy of Chromosome 21, the smallest chromosome. The nurses also told Lewis that his son’s chromosomal condition was common, occurring in one out of every 700 babies in the United States annually.
“I was a pretty tough CFO at the time,” Lewis recalls. “I think a lot of people assumed I wasn’t a good candidate for being a parent to a child with Down syndrome. For whatever reason,” Lewis continues, “I concluded that Kennedy was a great human being, and would always be great—and this started my journey in the field of advocacy for inclusion and acceptance of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.”
A Career Shift
The businessman started doing as much research as he could. Before long, he met scientist Linda Crnic—namesake for the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome—and traveled the country with her, speaking out about the need for additional research and funding for Down syndrome.
“When my friend Linda Crnic passed away, I decided to take a hiatus from research,” Lewis says. In 2005, he joined arc Thrift Stores, one of the largest employers of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the state of Colorado.
The idea behind arc Thrift is straightforward. The organization operates 26 thrift stores and 16 donation stations throughout Colorado. “We collect donations from the public to fund arc advocacy chapters across the Front Range and on the Western Slope, and those chapters help people with disabilities find jobs, housing, medical services, and school services,” Lewis explains.
In addition to collecting clothes and household items, arc Thrift also manages a vehicle donation program and a food collection program, the latter of which brings in nearly 200 tons of food annually, for Meals on Wheels and local food pantries and soup kitchens.
The organization collects more than 100 million items annually, and it has grown considerably under Lewis” guidance. In 2005, arc Thrift employed 500; today, it has 1,600 employees. “We had 10 employees with disabilities when I started,” Lewis says. “Now, we have well over 300 who work in all aspects of the business.”
Lewis works hard, but it’s his role as a father that really defines him. “I’m usually home by 5 p.m.,” he says—to take Kennedy to speech therapy, or help his children with their schoolwork. “I”ve always believed in being very efficient during the day,” Lewis says, noting the importance of prioritizing and delegating tasks. “I get a lot done in the course of the day. When I’m done with work, I’m able to focus on my kids,” he adds.
And those kids are worth the attention. Kennedy, for example, just turned 14. Anything he lacks in traditional bookishness, he easily makes up for with his big personality. “Kennedy loves to tell knock-knock jokes. He’s a hugging machine,” Lewis says. While you probably won’t see Lewis dancing anytime soon, the CEO’s son isn’t afraid to bust out his favorite moves when the mood strikes.
“He’s a showboat,” Lewis says, pointing to a recent luncheon at Kent Denver School. When the lector asked if anybody in the audience wanted to speak, Kennedy and the CEO of Western Union stood up at the exact same time. “Western Union’s CEO sat down, and Kennedy gave a very involved speech about working at a concession stand and how to balance a basketball. The speech concluded with lessons on applying shampoo,” says Lewis. “That’s just typical Kennedy.”
Thanks to Kennedy, the intense, Type A CEO that Lewis once was has changed—a lot. Says Lewis, “I think Kennedy and others like him were put into my life to give me more perspective and more qualities that are humane.”
Learn more at arcthrift.com
Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer and mother.