Successful defense subcontractor uses disabled workers




April 07, 2003




After Greg Percosky injured his back in an accident, he knew he couldn't return to his job in the 4-high seams of a coal mine.
So he helps make some of the U.S. military's most sophisticated equipment and weapons instead.


Percosky is production manager at Kuchera Defense Systems, a company that has grown from five employees and about $100,000 in sales when it opened nine years ago, to an estimated $40 million in sales this year.


Assembling circuit cards and electronic cables as a military subcontractor, Kuchera Defense, which is housed in a warehouse in Windber, a rural borough of 4,400 people about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, has worked on components for many of the weapons being used in Iraq, from Tomahawk and Paveway missiles to Apache helicopters.


More than 40 percent of the company's 150-plus workers are disabled.


"For more than a year, I tried to find work. You were kind of labeled as handicapped. It felt like your application and resume got pushed to the side," said Percosky, 44.


That experience changed once he heard of Kuchera. "Nobody looks at us differently at all."


The company enlists disabled workers to churn out ready-to-assemble products for big-name contractors including Raytheon, McDonnell Douglas and Northrop Grumman. Without them, the business might not have been possible.


William Kuchera, the company's president and CEO, already had an electronic manufacturing service operating in Windber when he decided to start a side business involved in defense work. The problem was how to go about it.


He learned about the Department of Defense's Mentor-Protege Program, which provides incentives to contractors if they help aspiring subcontractors who qualify as "small disadvantaged businesses." To qualify, a business needs to be owned by a woman or have at least 20 percent of its jobs filled by disabled people.


Kuchera Defense joined up with what was the defense branch of Hughes _ later acquired by Raytheon _ receiving surplus equipment, instructions and orders for work. The government (Kuchera is part of the Navy's Mentor-Protege Program) put up $7 million for training of workers, much of it at an occupational and rehabilitation center in nearby Johnstown.


"Now, we're building the electronic guidance equipment for four missile programs," said Carl Sax, executive vice president and general manager at Kuchera Defense.


Much of the work done at Kuchera Defense involves sensitive equipment; Sax is quick to ask a photographer not to take close ups of the circuitry being assembled for one missile system.


Last year, the company and its sister business, Kuchera Industries, received a $44-million, five-year contract through Raytheon to assemble improved surface search radar systems for the Navy that can detect and track 250 ships at a time.


Terry Downing, program manager for special projects at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, said Kuchera Defense has been a success, winning awards as one of the best subcontractors under the Mentor-Protege Program.


At present there are about 150 active mentor-protege agreements nationwide.


"I think it's gone fantastically," said Downing.


Sax acknowledged Kuchera Defense can keep its costs _ and its prices _ lower because of its participation in the program. Its overhead and equipment costs have been helped by getting supplies from Raytheon; he said salaries are competitive in the rural area.


The employees say they are just glad to be working. One worker suffers from spina bifida. Another has cerebral palsy. One worker has a disability that makes it difficult for her to remember how to perform repetitive tasks for more than a half-hour, Downing said, but she can work on a computer. Now she helps buy materials for the company.


Downing also says Kuchera Defense has one of the most productive testing technicians he has ever met, who happens to be deaf.


"You take pride in your work," said Rick Robb, one of the workers. A few years ago, he was folding napkins for a social service group. Now, he's in data entry at Kuchera Defense.


Some of the credit goes to Rep. John Murtha, a Johnstown Democrat, who has used his contacts as a member of the Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on defense spending to tout Kuchera's work, Sax said. In eight years' time, the company has done $103 million in orders, including about $30 million last year.


"The work they do with the handicapped is pretty phenomenal," said Glenn Delgado, Mentor-Protege program manager for the Navy. "They have never had a mis-delivery and the work has been of high quality."


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On the Net:


Kuchera Defense Systems: http://www.kuchera.com/kds


Raytheon: http://www.raytheon.com


Dept. of Defense Mentor-Protege Program: http://www.acq.osd.mil/sadbu/mentor_protege/index.htm


©NEPA News 2003