Quality Connections is the brainchild of Armando Bernasconi, and his wife, Melissa, who started the agency 15 years ago while sitting at their dining room table.
Their idea was to provide environmentally friendly, remanufactured laser toner cartridges through an eventual division called QCtoner and high-quality office supplies through another division, QCoffice. Perhaps most importantly, their vision has always been to employ disadvantaged and disabled Arizonans through the QCworks vocational training program.
At the beginning of December, this successful non-profit business was awarded the largest ever set-aside contract of its kind granted by the State of Arizona.
“The agency caught a lot of momentum in the last three or four years with the set-aside contracts; this is our third one,” explained Bernasconi, who serves as CEO for the business. “The first two were only for toner contracts. This is much broader in scope.” The set-aside program in Arizona is a special purchasing mandate that works to set aside one percent of the state’s purchasing to certified non-profits that serve people with disabilities, like Quality Connections.
The one-year contract, worth an estimated $3.5 million, is to supply and deliver discounted and high-quality office supplies to purchasers.
The contract will also expand QCoffice’s reach statewide, adding service into Phoenix and Prescott to the already existing service areas of Flagstaff, Verde Valley, Sedona and Williams.
“It extends to all the public entities – universities, cities, school districts, counties, even non-profits – [that] are cooperative members,” Bernasconi said. “It’s a statewide contract. We’ll have delivery crews in every one of those areas.”
Partnerships are also a critical part of the QC story.
For example, last fall, QCoffice partnered with Yavapai Exceptional Industries (YEI!), a non-profit working with a similar mission from its established base in Prescott. Another similar partnership with non-profit VALLEYLIFE, launched in the summer of 2014, is facilitating the new QCoffice task of serving the Phoenix market.
Future goals for QCoffice include moving forward with a plan of developing additional partnerships across Arizona to reach all state offices and including schools, counties, cities and other non-profits.
Bernasconi says the QCworks division branches into every other department in the company.
“The most exciting part of the contract for me is we have the opportunity to provide up to 40 new jobs for people with disabilities across the state,” he said.
Other benefits of the QCoffice business system is the efficient methods used to receive, stock, pick, ship and track merchandise. These operatizing efficiencies enable QCoffice to process and deliver 95 percent of orders in one day and 100 percent within four days. On most orders, desktop delivery of products is free. Also, as a non-profit, the business does not have to include sales tax, which averages to a savings of nine percent for most orders.
The catalog of products provided is impressive.
Doug Arnett, QCoffice director, says that they are now able to provide 29,040 individual items to customers, including being able to offer 40 different types of brand-name refurbished printer cartridges.
“It’s a full line of office supplies, including office supply furniture – everything from paper clips to printers,” he said. “We want to become one-stop for state purchasers, with toner, office supplies as well and furniture and janitorial supplies.”
Competitive pricing is also a big benefit to QC customers.
“We offer 33 percent off of MSRP [Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price] on every single item,” said Arnett, who came to Flagstaff to attend NAU 20 years ago.
Client employees at the company stay for a short time, typically three to six months. The goal is the prepare them to move on to a good job in the community.
“We assess and train the client workers in our program, then they transfer over to QCworks, our employment division that helps people find employment in the larger community,” Arnett said. “This is the coolest part about our model. In selling office supplies to more than 600 businesses in Flagstaff, those then become our potential placements; if those employers are looking for someone, we might have a client worker who can perform that job. It’s a brilliant model, just that interconnectedness.”
One of these client workers is Bryan Edwards, who has been employed in the Quality Connections warehouse for four months.
“It’s a good job,” Edwards said, while checking in toner cartridges in mid-December. “The staff is very friendly and considerate.”
In 2013, 183 clients found employment in the community through the program, according to Arnett. “That’s an 86 percent success rate in placement in community employment.”
Another aspect of the Quality Connections mission is to promote environmentally sustainable products like refurbished toner cartridges, as well as the recycling of electronics.
“For 2013, we kept an estimated 15 tons of electronic waste out of the landfill,” Arnett said. “In 2014, we’re close to triple that. We’re really becoming a source for the community for keeping electronic waste out of the landfill.” FBN
By Betsey Bruner
Flagstaff Business News