Like any budding artist, 30-year-old Craig Toczynski spends hours honing his unique people paintings, or perfectly placing shards of colored glass on a clear heart as he works in a room crowded with fellow artisans and their volunteer assistants.
And when he finished one project, he starts another one, and then another.
"The pictures take longer. I can do four of these a day, usually," he said of the hearts, a big smile on his face. "I like the money."
Mr. Toczynski's artwork - and that done by dozens of others with developmental disabilities - is just one part of the rebirth of a Toledo company that, like the region itself, paid a heavy price in recent years for relying too much on the auto industry.
Just as northwest Ohio is trying to reinvent itself with alternative energy, 55-year-old Lott Industries has discovered that diversifying out of the ashes of the North American auto industry is hard work, especially when the work force is composed entirely of individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities.
"There were a lot of sleepless nights," said Joan Uhl Browne, Lott's president since 2007.
"There are 1,000 people that we're responsible for here, and they're counting on us," Ms. Browne said. "They don't qualify for unemployment, so we spent a lot of days just brainstorming, wondering, 'What are we going to do?'•"
What Lott has done since 2008 is transform itself from a top-level automotive supplier that did a few odd jobs on the side into a do-anything-for-anybody job shop that now also manufactures and markets its own diversified line of products and services.
Plus, next month the nonprofit group will open a downtown art studio and gallery at 20 North St. Clair St., offering Mr. Toczynski's artwork along with the work of dozens of its other creative disabled employees.
Other products and services include:
•It has begun manufacturing and marketing its own lines of organic pet treats and environmentally friendly cleaning products.
•It has begun a service that scans and digitally stores old paper documents.
•It operates a recycling service for certain types of nonhazardous hospital waste that drastically reduces landfill costs.
•It handles most of the recycling for the University of Toledo.
Lott continues to assemble some auto parts and do document shredding, and other labor-intensive jobs that its business clients either don't want or can't afford to do for themselves - all while keeping its work force employed and its three area factories busy.
"It's been a needed change," said Joe Murnen, Lott's chief operating officer, who spouts what seems to be a nearly endless stream of new things Lott's employees can either make or do.
Chartered in 1955 in Toledo by Josina Lott, an educator and advocate for those with physical or mental disabilities, Lott Industries has for decades provided training and work for tens of thousands of local residents who would be unlikely to enter the work force any other way.
Lott's employees, who either make the minimum wage of $7.30 an hour or are paid by the piece at a slightly higher rate in certain jobs, have done countless tasks both within its three facilities - 3350 Hill Ave., 1645 Holland Rd., and 5500 Telegraph Rd. - and across the community as part of mobile work crews.
Through the 1980s, 1990s, and the first half of this decade, a growing portion of the work Lott's employees were doing every day was light assembly for the automotive industry. But unlike others who work elsewhere, Lott's employees don't qualify for unemployment benefits when the work goes away. The reason is that their jobs are classified as training.
Jeff Holland, Lott's chief financial officer, said the organization's revenue numbers best tell the story of what happened.
"In 2005, we hit a record: $7 million in revenues," he said, adding that about three-fourths of that money came from the automotive industry.
By 2008, the first full year after Ford Motor Co. closed its Maumee Stamping Plant, Lott's annual revenues fell to $2.4 million.
Lott's automotive industry revenues - from Ford, General Motors Co., Chrysler Group LLC, and suppliers for Honda Motor Co. - fell from $5.25 million in 2005 to just $230,000 in 2008, a decline of more than 95 percent. In 2006, Lott had a some workers earning more than $10,000 a year from piece rate work and the average piece-rate worker earning approximately $6,000. By 2009, the average piece-rate worker made closer to $3,500 a year, Mr. Holland said.
"We cried when Maumee shut down. Our people had learned that job and they did it well," Mr. Holland said.
Indeed, Ford was pleased with the work Lott had done for it over the years, even bestowing its coveted Q1 quality award to Lott, Ford spokesman Todd Nissen said.
"It's an award we give to suppliers that have achieved the highest standards of quality control. We very much appreciated the work that Lott did, and the role they have in giving their employees work," Mr. Nissen said.
But Ford's decision to close its Maumee Stamping Plant in 2007 meant that the work that Lott was doing also went elsewhere.
Lott Industries was a pioneer in what it did, and its sheltered work model was broadly copied across the country before trends moved more toward integration strategies, experts said.
"Their creation of real, meaningful work for people [with disabilities] was sort of a standard that made a lot of difference in the field over the years. They were considered quite innovative in their origins, and sort of copied," said K. Charlie Lakin, head of the Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of Minnesota.
"They've been tied to one industry, and like so many people are learning, that's sort of a dangerous place to be, so I'm glad to see they're diversifying."
Patty Zawierucha, 61, has worked at Lott for years. Last week, she was doing piece work, sliding sprigs of millet, a natural bird seed, into a small wooden jig, trimming off the excess, and placing them into a plastic bin so they can be dipped in honey, packaged, and sold by a pet supply company.
"It's a good-paying job if you stay with it," she said, her hands never stopping. "I'd rather do this to keep myself busy. The Ford job was good, but we don't do that anymore."
Ms. Browne said Lott's reinvention in the wake of loss of work from the domestic automakers was made more difficult by the nation's and the region's economic condition the last several years.
"When I took this job, I knew Ford was going away. Of course, I didn't know the whole economy was going to implode, and neither did anybody else," she said.
"We had made the decision that we were going to focus on products that were good for the community, good for our employees, and good for the environment. We've really ramped up that good-for-the-environment thing; we're keeping a lot of stuff out of landfills."
Lott's move into the art world was born from a combination of looking for new revenue streams as much as it was looking for new things to do with the recycled materials it was processing, Ms. Browne said.
Its new downtown gallery is filled with not only paintings, but also copper and aluminum dragonflies, necklaces made from recycled aluminum cans, and clocks made from the steel plates that The Blade uses on its presses.
And when the studio opens its doors in September, many of the artists who work in a cramped area in its Maumee facility will be able to spread out and create to their heart's desire downtown.
One of those is Sue Straub, who proudly painted a field of green flowers across the pink background that the 67-year-old had crafted on a sheet of recycled aluminum last week.
"This is a fun way to work," she said, happily chatting away as she carefully crafted her flowers.
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: