At a time when most nonprofits in Connecticut are hurting for funds, cutting staff and services, and generally wondering how they will survive, Abilis is thriving.
Indeed, the Greenwich-based 501(c)(3) that provides services and support for individuals with special needs and their families has, during its three years under President and CEO Dennis Perry:
• Increased its annual revenue 125 percent to $17.5 million.
• Gone some way toward weaning itself from being entirely state-funded.
• Launched a therapy center at 1150 Summer St. in Stamford.
• Expanded its young adults Life Skills program beyond Greenwich to Stamford, Westport and Wilton.
• Added four residential homes for teen and adult clients, for a total of 34.
• Grown employment from 20 to nearly 100.
What better time, then, for Perry to retire?
“When I joined the board in 2013, I helped to develop our strategic plan,” which resulted in many of those changes, Perry said at Abilis’ Greenwich headquarters at 50 Glenville St. After being named CEO in April of 2015, Perry was able to guide Abilis in making the changes necessary to turn it from “a very Greenwich-insular organization” to one whose image is quickly growing around the county.
“The goals we set have been achieved,” Perry declared. “And I’m not saying that I did it myself — I had a lot of help. But I’m 67 years old, my wife and I have three kids who are grown and launched in the world…and life doesn’t last forever.”
Life also has a way of throwing one curveballs, as Perry and his wife Martha – now a Realtor at William Pitt Sotheby’s in New Canaan, where they reside — discovered when their middle son, Ross, was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis at the age of 10 weeks. At that time the family was in Hong Kong, where Perry served as chief operating officer and then CEO of HCL Ltd., which distributed and marketed consumer goods across the Asia-Pacific region.
Relocating to the States in 2000 for its superior approach to children with special needs, Perry said he started looking for the right organization; his alphabetical approach led him to Abilis.
“I’d never heard of it, and it had a hard-to-pronounce name,” he said. (For the record, it’s pronounced “ABLE-ISS”; a newly redesigned logo stresses the long “A.”) “But I learned what they were doing, and what their approach was — and it definitely worked for us.”
Ross has been coming to Abilis ever since, and will continue to do so in the future; Perry said his pre-Abilis CEO role as “dad and defender” will carry on after his retirement.
Perry’s executive past — he was also chief strategic officer and then global president at Bulova Corp. and a member of private equity firm Kohlberg and Co.’s senior advisory board — stood him in good stead as he effected the changes necessary to grow Abilis from a “barely breaking even” organization to one that is now financially healthy.
“These things take time,” he said. “You can’t just walk in with a mallet. You have to court people, help them understand what you want to do and why you’re doing it. I’ve watched other businesses — including nonprofits — try to redirect themselves and not succeed, and that’s often been because leadership didn’t understand that a ship can’t turn on a dime. Getting people to buy in and understand — to own it — is key.”
The organization’s culture was also more ingrained than some; Perry’s predecessor, Lolli Ross, had spent 37 years with Abilis.
“The key was taking Abilis from being a fund-based organization — where everything we did was dependent on what the state wanted — to being a needs-based organization that’s based on the needs those we serve have,” Perry said.
Abilis today receives about 85 to 90 percent of its funding from the state, with the remainder coming from private donors and other contributions. Expanding its geographic footprint has helped get more state money, he said, which in turn has helped Abilis expand its services and hire more people.
That work provides service and support for more than 700 individuals with special needs, of all ages. Programs range from early intervention and customized therapies to family education and advocacy. Perry is especially proud of its Life Services programs, which include recreational activities and the creation of soaps, candles and other consumer goods.
Job training is also available, with many of Abilis’ clients working either in-house cleaning or selling goods at its café and Gardens & Gifts greenhouse/gift shop, or out in the community doing yardwork, chopping wood and the like — all for a salary.
“It’s not about the amount of money they make,” Perry said, “but about interacting with the community.”
The nonprofit’s residential options, all licensed by the Department of Developmental Services, include intermediate care facilities, community living arrangements, continuous residential support and supported living arrangements. Depending on each individual’s needs, service levels range from 24-hour staff supervision to more flexible care. Perry said that some 110 people are now living in its 34 facilities.
As for adding facilities in towns besides those where Abilis is already established, Perry said he would prefer, at least in the short term, to improve and add to services provided in those residences rather than risk spreading its resources too thinly.
The organization has also expanded its fleet of vehicles, many of which are wheelchair-accessible, to 34, and recently made extensive renovations to its Greenwich home, including installing a new boiler, repaving its driveway, and upgrading its security and waste systems.
Gardens & Gifts has also been given a facelift and expanded from growing microgreens to growing and selling an assortment of houseplants and flowers, as well as goods made in-house and from outside vendors. Perry said it made about $25,000 last year but he expects it to end 2018 with $75,000-100,000.
As for his successor — Perry’s last official day is June 30 — he said he’s content to let the board make its own decision; a board-led executive search has been underway since the announcement of Perry’s retirement was made last month.
“They don’t need another me — they need somebody younger,” he laughed. “I’ve taught them everything I know. As a parent, I know that they’ll choose wisely.”