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With a bit of creative thinking and the resolve to look outside the ranks of the convenience store industry, retailers can find valuable and loyal employees who make the store environment better for customers and fellow team members.
Here, we spotlight three such employees: Vinny Ursino, a graduate of the Bancroft School, which serves children with developmental disabilities, brain injuries and other neurological impairments, who has been employed by Wawa Inc. for more than three years; Carole Forman, an Army veteran who left airport security to work in VERC Enterprises' convenience stores; and Sam Magari, a former supermarket executive, who is revamping Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc.'s fruit and vegetables business.
Vinny Ursino, Wawa — Lifting morale wherever he works Vinny Ursino has changed the culture of three New Jersey Wawa stores. Ursino, who has autism, is a graduate of The Bancroft School's Sweet Success vocational training program,which the folks at Wawa helped create 13 years ago.
"When I go into Vinny's store, I see people caring about each other and doing the right thing and valuing people, which are some of Wawa's core values," said Dave Yeager, senior director, store operations, for the 550-store chain, based in Wawa, Pa. "Many of our customers know Vinny and ask for him by name."
Ursino is just one of an estimated 500 Wawa employees with disabilities. "We don't track our employees with disabilities, so I don't really know how many are working right now," Yeager said, noting that hiring is done on a local level by general managers who employ students from The Bancroft School's Sweet Success and similar programs, which Wawa helped set up to train students in retailing and other skills. "This is a real grassroots effort, not a corporate hiring program.
"We've gotten some great associates from Bancroft School," Yeager continued, noting the average New Jersey Wawa store with full-service gasoline may have more than 70 employees on the payroll and stores without gasoline typically have 20 to 30. "It makes good business sense: We get reliable employees and they get employment opportunities. Some stay with us a long time, others don't — just like any other Wawa associate."
Ursino typically works from late morning through the lunch rush, three or four days a week. "I have always wanted to work at Wawa," he said. "I feel safe and comfortable where I work. I love all my customers and my coworkers and look forward to coming to work every day."
Working from a checklist, Ursino starts the morning tending to the parking area, then comes inside to clean windows, sweep the floors and empty trash containers in the foodservice and checkout areas.
"Vinny needs routine. He's very task-oriented and helps other employees by making their jobs easier and letting them focus on customer service," said Victor Santucci, general manager of a store in Oaklyn, N.J., who hired Ursino, then 18, to work in a Mantua location. Since then, Ursino has followed Santucci to stores in Westmont and Audubon.
"I wasn't comfortable leaving him behind, and I didn't think he was ready for that yet, so he came with me," Santucci explained, adding that Ursino stayed at the store in Audubon, his hometown, when Santucci recently moved on because "he's very comfortable with the associates and customers of that store.
"Ask anyone and they will say they love working with Vinny. The other associates look out after him and he definitely has helped morale at every store he's worked in."
While in the Sweet Success program, Ursino trained in a fully operational, scaled down model of a Wawa store that serves The Bancroft School's 400 staff members and students. (Wawa supplied cabinetry and other equipment; the school actually runs the location and reinvests proceeds back into the program.) Emphasized were job-related skills, manners, appropriate work attire and interacting with customers. When he moved into an actual Wawa store, Ursino brought along a job coach, who stayed with him until he was ready to fly on his own.
"The job coach could be with the student for three days or a few months," noted Bob Lenherr, senior director of education services and principal of the Haddonfield, N.J. campus, from which Vinny graduated in June. The other variable is the store's manager. Some will assign one staff person as natural support for the student; others will assume that role themselves, as the job coach gradually lets the student fly on his own.
"It was a little rough for Vinny in the beginning," Santucci admitted. "But as time went on, everything became much easier for him."
Teaching not only the job skills, but also the ethics and behaviors of working in a public setting is key, noted Barbara Bell, Ursino's Sweet Success teacher. "Do that and match the student to the right store manager and you will have a person with a job for many, many years.
"Wawa has been committed to hiring people with disabilities for many years and it is a tremendous business practice for them. They value people and do the right thing."
Santucci added: "This is good for business and the community. These kids need something in their lives. I had one gentleman [with a disability] working for me and he would shake my hand every week when I handed him his paycheck. That meant a lot to me."
And to others. "Sometimes people don't see people with disabilities as a part of the community," Lenherr said. "By hiring Vinny and our other students, Wawa breaks down that barrier."
Carole Forman, VERC Enterprises — Military veteran brings organization VERC Enterprises, operator of 20 c-store and carwash/gas locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, strives to keep a diverse workforce, hiring people of different ages and ethnic backgrounds — and branches of the military. Last month, the operators of the Duxbury, Mass.-based chain were recognized by the state for their commitment to hiring veterans. One of those is Carole Forman.
Forman, who has worked in VERC's West Bridgewater, Mass. store for a year, served in the Army for eight years, starting in 1975. "Then I realized I wanted to do something else," the 53-year-old veteran said. "I've done just about everything: taught school, worked for the government, been a hairdresser."
Prior to her most recent job, a yearlong stint in airport security — "It was very stressful," she said — Forman worked for a nearby corporate Mobil store for seven years. "I went back, but the company didn't consider my previous work with them in my pay, so I started looking for another job."
After seeing a newspaper ad placed by VERC — and acting on the recommendation of a sandwich vendor who praised VERC as an employer — Forman applied for a job as an associate, working early mornings. "This is who I am and what I do," she said.
Hiring veterans has been a longstanding policy at VERC, said Barry Ahern, director of human resources. "We have tremendous respect for the work veterans do. These people put their lives on the line for the rest of us. As an employer, we feel a moral obligation to give back where we can, an obligation that extends beyond merely being a good neighbor in the community. We see ourselves truly as an equal-opportunity employer, and not just in name. We take our responsibility to hire a cross-section of our population very seriously. We strongly support extending opportunity to people who want and deserve it. We believe our veterans deserve every chance they can receive to re-acclimate themselves into civilian life and we believe our customers appreciate our efforts to help."
To that end, every "Help Wanted" ad VERC places contains the line, "We are a veteran-friendly employer."
"Veterans can teach our other team members much about life and business," Ahern said.
Today, 10 of the company's 160 store employees are military veterans. "They have a high degree of loyalty," he noted, "and understand the importance of an organizational structure, and are eager to contribute to the success of a company."
So far, none of VERC employees have had to leave to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of the veterans now employed by the chain are either older, like Carole, or in their early 20s. "The younger vets only know the service," Ahern said. "Some signed up for four years because of September 11 and then come back without a career choice in mind. They are often young with no college education."
Not every veteran hired, of course, becomes a long-term employee. "Sometimes they have trouble assimilating into our environment," Ahern said. "Our job is not rocket science, but it takes a special person to work by themselves, multi-tasking and communicating well with customers. But you may have these issues with anyone you hire."
Veterans returning from battle zones may find it difficult to work in a very people-oriented business. "Some of our employees just want to fill the cooler, work in the back, stock the shelves and clean the lot. That is perfectly fine, because our image is huge to us," Ahern said, noting that veterans' experience with following orders and living with a great deal of structure leaves little doubt they will quickly learn the company's policies and follow them to the letter.
"If they are expected to wear a tie and have their shirt tucked in, they will everyday," he said. "People in the armed forces are trained through repetition. In our environment, if we ask them to card every person buying alcohol or tobacco, we don't have to worry. They will do it."
Forman agrees, saying her military experience taught her "everything should be done a certain way. It has kept me to a certain standard as a professional." Though, on the flip side, she admits, "It's hard for me to see other employees not come in on time or follow directions. But I try to be a good role model."
In terms of customer service, Forman's military background gives her an opening to talk with elderly veterans and young people in uniform who come into the store. "The older gentlemen light up when you can relate to them and show them respect," she said. "It reflects on the business."
Forman, who would like to finish her college education in criminal justice, could see herself working in c-store security. "With my observation skills, I can spot a criminal a mile away," she said.
Sam Magari, Nice N Easy — Picking the cream of the crop A year and a half ago, John MacDougall, founder of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc., wasn't actively looking for "a produce guy," but he knew he needed one. The Canastota, N.Y.-based chain's foodservice offer was taking off, using more lettuce and tomatoes, and MacDougall wanted to expand its new produce business, which consisted of single-count bananas, apples, oranges, lemons and occasionally, other fruits or vegetables sold from a single bushel basket.
"We were paying astronomical prices and getting poor quality," said MacDougall, who noticed whenever he went to the local supermarket around dinner time, the express checkouts where full of customers grabbing bagged salads and other produce. "I thought, 'Why can't we provide these products to our customers?'"
About this time, fate intervened. Sam Magari, a former produce field supervisor for supermarket chain P&C Food Markets, had taken early retirement in February 2004. Looking for something more to do, Magari saw a Nice N Easy ad in the newspaper looking for a foodservice manager. "I wasn't interested in that position, but wondered if they could use agrocery buyer. I went to the office, filled out an application and gave them my resume."
MacDougall said the moment he saw Magari's resume, he thought: "This is a Godsend. Karma is working here."
A week later, Magari filled the newly-created position of corporate produce manager. "It was strictly by accident," he said. "I was surprised John was doing anything with produce at all."
"I've learned when you try to do something outside the realm of your expertise, rather than try to learn it on your own, go out and hire someone who has lived it and breathed it," MacDougall said. "I knew there wouldn't be a payoff on this position for a couple years."
When Magari started, Nice N Easy's produce business was unstructured and inconsistent. The stores carrying produce offered items of varying sizes, quality and retails. Few store employees knew how to handleproduce.
Magari visited three Nice N Easy stores, took a few photos of the produce displayed and came up with a program. Today, 13 of the chain's 82 stores have an extensive line of produce, with up to 30 different items, including bunches of bananas, bagged salad, cherry tomatoes, apples, oranges and seasonal items, such as blueberries, peaches and sweet corn.
Magari revamped the entire presentation. Euro tables replaced bushel baskets. A number of locations have refrigerated cases and most stores devote space in their open refrigerated cases for the most highly perishable items. More professional-looking, black-background signage is used.
Unable to purchase less-expensive full cases, as he was able to while working in the supermarket industry, Magari said margins were not where he wanted them to be. Today, he has increased margins by offering some higher-margin items — such as prepared fruit cups, which allows him to set retails equal to or below supermarket prices.
The chain also offers monthly specials, such as cucumbers at two for $1 or a head of iceberg lettuce for 99 cents. "I like to pick items that will give Nice N Easy a good image with the public," Magari said.
He also likes to buy extra large apples or pears, much bigger than those sold at area supermarkets, so that customers feel they are getting their money's worth.
Now, some of the high-end Nice N Easy stores are ringing up nearly $2,000 per week in produce sales. "Sales-wise, we've more than met our expectations for the year," Magari said. "Margin-wise, we are getting closer to meeting the corporate goal."
One of MacDougall's goals already has been met: "I have always tried to differentiate Nice N Easy in what we offer our customers. Sam has improved the quality and buying to a degree I could never expect. He knows his trade. No one here would have known where to go, who to talk to or how to deal with the produce vendors."
Magari said his biggest contributions include the consistency of the quality and the presentation of fresh produce and the training of employees to merchandise the items. "In the c-store industry, there are no produce people — we have to teach them how much time it really takes to merchandise produce. It's more than a 15-minute job every day. In the beginning, we struggled. Then, this year, we created produce coordinators in each store who are responsible for the section, merchandising and ordering the product and looking for off-condition products. We stress excellence in quality and presentation. Now, we are proud to be getting repeat customers."
The c-store industry has been a good match for Magari, he said. "What I like best are the people. The creativity of the store employees in developing new ideas, for example adding variety in our fruit cups, fruit bowls and coming up with the veggie cups. In my past experience, the environment was more structured. It's great to see the wheels spinning, employees eager and trying new ideas. We take those ideas and try them in other stores to see what works and what doesn't."
Have you made an unconventional hire that turned out well? Tell us about it. Convenience Store News will periodically spotlight some of the most innovative hiring ideas in the industry throughout the year. Send your suggestions to [email protected].