The first time Ronnie Elrod went to jail was in 1986, in Dallas. Elrod was convicted on charges of Possession with Intent to Deliver, and was locked up for 18 months. He got out on parole, kept his nose clean for about six years, but then, he says, “Life happened, and I made some poor choices once again.” The charges were again Possession with Intent to Deliver, but this time there was a gun involved, which wound up greatly increasing Elrod’s sentence. He remained in jail for the next 15 years, shuttled from one prison facility to another.
In the months leading up to his release, Elrod wound up being transferred to a prison in Sheridan, Oregon. Like any convict on his way to release, Elrod was anxious about finding work when he got out. One day in prison, he picked up a copy of a magazine and read about a company called Dave’s Killer Bread, which was run by a former felon named Dave Dahl, and which made a point of hiring ex-cons, too.
Elrod put the article down and said to some of his cellmates, jokingly, “Maybe I’ll work for Dave’s Killer Bread when I go home.”
Only it wound up not being a joke at all. Today Elrod indeed does work for Dave’s Killer Bread as a plant manager. He’s joined a staff of nearly 300, roughly a third of whom have been behind bars at some point, only to have been offered a second chance by this Milwaukie, Oregon, bread company.
Dave Dahl founded Dave’s Killer Bread in 2005. “In effect he reimagined the family business,” says John Tucker, whom Dahl later tapped to be the company’s CEO. Dahl’s family had been in the baking business for years, but Dahl developed new recipes of organic, seed-laden bread, became a hit at local farmers markets in Portland, and then began expanding in the region and beyond. A $3 million business has now grown to a $70 million one, says Tucker, with distribution currently in 25 states and with a fully national (plus Canadian) presence expected soon. In the coming weeks, the bread will enter markets in Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Through its placement in Costco and other major supermarkets, DKB is already the nation’s top-selling organic bread.
Talk to Tucker about his bread company, and he’s happy to discuss growth, expansion, recipe, and so on. But you get the sense that he’s much more excited to talk about the way DKB can make a difference in its community, by giving a second chance to ex-convicts. Not only is DKB one of few companies that hire ex-felons at all, the company also runs what it calls “partner enrichment programs” that educate these employees about how to manage a budget, resolve conflict, find housing, and so on. “A lot of these individuals face lifelong challenges that stem from incarceration and the reasons for their incarceration,” says Tucker. “We bring that support in-house. We don’t rely on them to go out and find it through public services.”
Tucker says he has a faith in business’s ability, above all, to make a difference in lives. “I call it business with a heart,” he says. “People here often hear me say I believe business has the greatest chance to make a difference in the world we live in. It’s not government, it’s not religion, it’s business that’s going to ensure we leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren.” Though Tucker is not an ex-convict himself, he says his son recently wound up in prison–a “utterly unexpected” development that blindsided Tucker after he accepted the position at Dave’s Killer Bread.
When Tucker tells people about the composition of his workforce, he’s often given the same barrage of questions, and he delights in answering. After doing some analysis with his HR group, Tucker compared the performance of the felons and non-felons among his staff. “Overall the ex-felons’ performance rating is slightly higher than non-felons,” says Tucker. “Most people think it’s the opposite: that the ex-felons are a challenge, are difficult. That is simply not the case.” Tucker says that more businesses–many more–should hire felons.
And Elrod, for his part, agrees. “I’d certainly like to see more employers being open-minded like we are,” he says. “We have an attitude of gratitude,” he says of ex-offenders who enter the workforce. “We don’t have a sense of entitlement. We’re happy to have a job.”
And if recidivism remains a problem, more often than not, it’s the reluctance of employers to take a chance on ex-offenders that plays a role in those “poor choices” that Elrod made when he slipped up again in the ’90s. “Recidivism is a problem, but the reason it’s so high is because people come home and aren’t able to find gainful employment,” says Elrod, who recently co-taught a 12-week course on entrepreneurship at a correctional institute in Portland. “Most people–especially those who have done a significant amount of time–are looking for an opportunity, and will take it and run with it.”