October 15, 2019
Business Focus Took Brian MacDonald to National Braille Press

Brian MacDonald: If you don’t treat a nonprofit like a for-profit company, you won’t survive.
Little did Brian MacDonald suspect that his background selling measurement instruments, building a corporate events business, operating a consultancy, and co-owning a restaurant would lead him to become president of the National Braille Press, which is pioneering the next generation of e-Braille products.

Here is his story:

After majoring in biology at the University of Vermont, I did graduate work in environmental oceanography at Florida Institute of Technology until grant funding ended and I needed to find a job.

My wife and I moved back to the Boston area where I grew up, and I went to work for Oceanography International Corporation, selling water-quality measurement equipment. By 1983, after five years, I became their top-selling salesman nationally. To stay on I would have had to move to headquarters in Texas, and we didn’t want to do that.

I began studying for an MBA at Boston College and got a job at New England Aquarium as group sales manager. We hosted schools and private groups and I developed programs for tour operators who brought visitors to Boston. We had an outdoor snack bar that did about $700,000 a year and I was asked to expand the food business. Over time we added an indoor cafeteria and function area and a whale watch business that consisted of four vessels with internal catering capabilities. We built up to 300 corporate and private events a year and, after 20 years, were generating $12 million in annual sales, with about 100 people working for me.

Then, in 2003, the Aquarium came under stress. We had a leadership change, and an expansion project ended up costing more than expected. Fundraising couldn’t make up the difference and we had to lay off a lot of people. Eventually, my job was phased out.

While at the Aquarium I had taken on a second job, to help pay my kids’ tuition, working as the director of Essex County for the Massachusetts Special Olympics. It was mostly weekend work, plus a couple of weeks every summer, which I took out of my vacation to run events. My direct boss at the Aquarium supported me in this, and it was a good experience and gave me insight into working with another nonprofit.

Back in the late 1980s I developed a marketing and business development consulting company, working with profits and nonprofits. I also got my broker’s license to sell health and life insurance, which enabled me to help companies save money. After I left the Aquarium, I consulted full time until I got recruited in 2004 to be the CFO and COO of New Hampshire Audubon.

Shortly after, I started to phase out the consulting business. At the time, I also was part owner of an American pub-style restaurant: I was always looking for other opportunities and new sources of income to pay for three kids in college. Restaurants are a tremendous amount of work and if you don’t live the business full time it can be very difficult, so I dropped it after a few years.

In 2008, I learned that the National Braille Press was looking for a new president. I had a connection to the blind through my grandmother who lost her sight in 1918, we believe, as a result of the Spanish flu. I applied, and the board felt my background and experiences would be helpful. They hired me to increase sales, and was the reason I took the job. It turned out to be a great match.

Braille as a skill has declined tremendously over the last 40 years. Only 12%-15% of kids learn Braille today, compared to 60% in the 1970s. But knowing Braille is the only real way for blind people to write, read, and communicate and be independent.

Although it costs more to produce Braille books, we want to sell them at the same prices as other retail books, and fundraise to pay the difference. The first thing I did was a SWAT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats] analysis. We concluded to still do paper Braille, but transition into e-Braille.

To make it happen we formed a center for Braille innovation and are now working with engineers from around the world – MIT, Northeastern, CalTech, University of Tokyo, University of Pisa, among others. The team is looking at a number of technologies, including electroactive polymers.

If you don’t treat a nonprofit like a for-profit company, you won’t survive, since every nickel counts. Nonprofits have a tendency to ask their staff to solve a lot of problems. This can lead an organization to adapt to individuals instead of focusing on its needs, which can divert it from its strategic goals. Still, nonprofits today generally are stronger in their skill sets, which enables a lot of progress.

We’re developing affordable products that could be a game changer for the Braille community. It will happen if we work well as a team.

As told to Peter Lowy, May 2012. Learn more about National Braille Press.

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