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St. James Business Owner Builds His Company With Second-Chance Employees

Phil Cohen with two of the toy trucks he made when he started woodworking. It was his escape from a life of drugs and crime, and now he hires people with similar backgrounds to work at his business.
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Phil Cohen with two of the toy trucks he made when he started woodworking. It was his escape from a life of drugs and crime, and now he hires people with similar backgrounds to work at his business.

Phil Cohen didn’t think anyone would want to work for him at the cabinetry company he opened in St. James in 2004. He was recovering from being addicted to drugs and had been in trouble with the law. He didn’t know much about business. His plans were largely built on faith.

So he hired people like him — former criminals and people who had been drug addicted who were turning their lives around.

“I hired the kind of people that couldn’t find a job and they would have to work for someone that nobody else would work for,” Cohen said.

Cohen had a tough childhood. He said his father was physically and emotionally abusive, and Cohen turned to drugs and alcohol to try to numb the pain. He experimented with many different things ranging from witchcraft to a hedonistic lifestyle to find happiness. 

But when Cohen was living in a commune, he said, prayer led him to the right track and to woodworking,

“There was this thing about working with my hands. I found a lot of relief in it. I kept gravitating toward working with my hands,” Cohen said. “I found sanctuary in that.”

Cohen left drugs and crime behind and started making things. He made pigpens for farmers, birdhouses and wooden toy trucks. 

Eventually he moved from Tennessee to Missouri. He heard the town of St. James had cheap land for sale if you could bring jobs. So he opened Cohen Architectural Woodworking.

Part of that business was Cohen’s practice of giving second chances to people who had been addicted to drugs and criminals. And he adopted a Bible-centric management style, looking to faith rather than business books on how to treat people. 

Cohen said his faith along with understanding of what people went through created the atmosphere of sanctuary for his employees that he found in woodworking.

“The therapeutic value of working here, and just coming to a place that they feel cared for, it’s important,” Cohen said. “You see them here in the first week after they come, or they just got out of rehab, just walking around all uptight. And then after a while, they relax, and they start trusting each other.”

Cohen Woodworking makes cabinets for medical facilities, offices and stores. Walmart is one of its biggest customers. 

The business opened with eight employees in a 12,000-square-foot facility in 2004. Fifteen years and several expansions later, the company has 75 employees in a 55,000-square-foot complex in St. James with a satellite office in Kansas. Its annual sales are over $10 million.

More than half of the company’s employees are people who were addicted to drugs or have a criminal conviction. 

Credit Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Mel Stogsdill works in the shipping and receiving area at Cohen Architectural Woodworking

One of those employees is Mel Stogsdill. She was addicted to drugs. Now she has worked at Cohen in shipping and receiving for more than two years. She is proud of what she and her coworkers have done with the second chance Cohen has given them.

“Usually people who have hit their bottom are hungry for growth, and once they start growing, within a year, you might not even recognize them as the same person,” Stogsdill said. “There’s just so much change.”

The company focuses on growth; spiritual, emotional and professional. It offers classes, group meetings and professional development. 

Stogsdill’s husband, Scott, started at Cohen eight years ago on the shop floor. He’s been promoted and now works in the estimating department. He said Cohen does a lot for people who just need a chance.

Credit Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Scott Stogsdill was hired at Cohen Architectural Woodworking after a life of drugs that included felony convictions. He's been sober for eight years.

“They look for people who are broken. And it’s refreshing to know there is somebody out there who wants to give people like me a second chance at a career,” Stogsdill said. “I have a career now. I didn’t have that before. I didn’t even dream I would have, to be honest, after my past.”

Cohen doesn’t have a formal program to bring in people with a troubled history; rather, he’s open-minded. And word of mouth has let people know it’s a place they can apply for work even with a conviction or drug abuse in their past. 

Beth Huebner, professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said businesses like Cohen’s are rare but could serve as a model to help address the problem of people with a conviction struggling to find a good job. 

Huebner said the key is for an employer to not treat someone with a past any differently.

"They do have a criminal conviction, they have been in prison, but they want, in terms of employment, the same things you or I would want,” Huebner said. “They want a community; they want goals. They want a long-term trajectory, and they want a fair wage.”

Huebner said it will take more than business owners like Cohen to fix the problem. She advocates for more government intervention, such as removing the question about past criminal convictions from job applications. 

Cohen is 69, but he doesn’t have any plans to stop doing what he’s doing. 

“It’s what gets me up in the morning, to know I can come here and change lives,” he said. 

Cohen says he may retire, but he won’t stop coming to work.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.