Try empathy, Cohen Architectural Woodworking offers one solution to drug crisis

Try empathy, Cohen Architectural Woodworking offers one solution to drug crisis



CEO Phillip Cohen of Cohen Architectural Woodworking on the floor of the company’s workshop in St. James.

The impacts of drug abuse are widely known and much discussed these days in the United States. Many ideas have been put forward to curb the crisis, from locking up addicts to offering them various treatment programs. While the outside world has embroiled itself in the controversy, leadership at Cohen Architectural Woodworking has quietly pioneered an approach all their own. Put simply, it’s to give those struggling with substance abuse a job, and be part of a workplace environment which focuses as much on their personal development as their output production.

“This is really an accident the way it happened,” says CEO Phillip Cohen of Cohen Architectural Woodworking. “I started this business because I couldn’t get a job. It wasn’t so much that I had a criminal record as it was I was messed up. I was strung out on drugs, my dad had committed suicide and I grew up in abuse and violence. So I couldn’t hold a job. I started woodworking because I found it therapeutic. I started this business by hiring people like me.”

Cohen can speak to substance abuse as much as anyone in Phelps County. Detailing the trials he’s faced would take a book, and one is being written now by noted bestselling author Mark Schlabach. To put it succinctly, Cohen has survived everything from physical abuse, drug addiction, mental illness to a religious cult. Cohen’s notoriety, however, comes not from these war stories but from his success. He’s not only built Cohen Architectural Woodworking up from eight family members to more than 60 employees, but was last year named as Missouri’s Small Business Person of the Year.

Beyond the accolades, one of the most powerful insights Cohen can offer is into the true nature of addiction and recovery. What makes it all the more special is his ability to further communicate that knowledge to an audience which mostly hears about the subject through arrest reports.

“The opposite of addiction is connection,” Cohen says. “We turn to our addictions to medicate our pain and frustrations in our relationships. What we do here [at Cohen Architectural Woodworking] is we create a lot of community. We’ve generated a lot of interest, and we’ve actually had to release public statements that we don’t have a program here – it’s just us. What’s really cool is I’m the CEO but I don’t have to pretend I’m somebody I’m not. I can come here, and if I’m having a bad day, one of the guys will come up and put his hand on my shoulder and say, ‘Are you okay?’ And it’s okay, we don’t have to pretend like we are somebody we are not.”

Cohen says the roots of his and his company’s success stretches back decades.

“In the 1990s I was diagnosed with manic depression and I took the Bible and I started reading it 10 to 20 chapters in a sitting, and then I’d spend hours journaling or stay up all night praying through my pain,” Cohen says. “I’m one of the biggest religious skeptics around. I don’t have much use for religious people or what goes on in many churches. I almost turned away from God because of what happens in churches and have been excommunicated a few times. But there are events and scenes in the Bible that empathize with the dark places I’ve been, and that brings some healing and relief. That’s a lot of what the Bible did for me.

“I can remember a time when I was going to commit suicide. I was living in Miami and my only friend was a taxi driver and a heroin dealer. I went to see him and there was this prostitute on the bed getting a fix. I’d never met a prostitute, but she looked at me and asked, ‘Are you hurting?’ There was something about the connection, when she looked at me and connected there was healing. Empathy has a way of healing.

“Through the Bible, through praying, and through meeting sincere, nonreligious people, I was experiencing the events and scenes in the Bible that were empathizing with the dark places in me.”

As Cohen built his recovery on Biblical meditations, his business began to thrive through the culture shift that resulted.

“When I heard about John Beckett, a man in Ohio, who successfully tried several years ago using the Bible and prayer to run a business, I said that’s the only way I would even consider it,” Cohen says. “The senior leader of a culture determines its success, what they permit and sow is what’s going to happen. I also believe what goes on in my secret heart is what happens here. I could come in here in a toxic mood and hide it, but it would still affect everyone. It’s important I’m honest and filled with hope. The higher you go in leadership the less you can get away with. Even if you never get caught, just the fact you’re doing it will affect your culture.”

Five years ago Cohen Architectural Woodworking took one of its biggest steps in its journey.

“In 2013, we decided to become a faith-based business. We went around the room and asked everyone what they thought, and they said maybe it will work for us,” Cohen says. “I would say, first off, that means we have a faith-based culture, and secondly, it’s a sanctuary. Woodworking is healing. It’s therapeutic. When we take someone through orientation I tell them my story, and I tell them we are building palaces for our customers and our workplace is our sanctuary. When you are in the shop you treat that like it’s sacred. You treat people with respect. There is probably 100 years of jail time in this building right at this moment, and some of them are even in upper positions. People who have been broken often tend to be more grateful. A lot of them are good people but they’ve been stripped of all of their phoniness. So they can be real. We really don’t care where you come from. We look at your character, and see if you have a work ethic. You don’t need to be a Christian. But are you willing to respect our culture?”

Those looking for evidence of the ideas Cohen espouses can look no further than the success of his business and its quality products. Cohen says the cynics should also consider examining their own beliefs.

“Maybe there is something in themselves that they aren’t willing to face,” Cohen says of those who label first and love second. “I think at their core most people are addicts. They have some kind of addiction, some way of hiding away or running from reality. We have to just love people, treat them with respect and treat them like an equal. My biggest passion is to help people’s families get better. Most of the people here have never known what that looks like. There’s nothing special about me, I’m just using a business model that works.”