The People Difference | NACS Online – Magazine – Past Issues – 2015 – November 2015
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The People Difference

One retailer boosted culture by hiring individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

​By Sarah Hamaker

Imagine an employee eager to restock your shelves, not just on day one, but 365 days a year. That’s just one reason why Verc Enterprises employs individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). “These people come to work happy and glad to work, just thrilled to be there,” said Leo Vercollone, president and CEO of Duxbury, Massachusetts-based Verc Enterprises and a current member of the NACS Board of Directors. “They are so enthusiastic about working in a convenience store that it’s contagious and spills over to the other workers.”

That enthusiasm has made Verc stores warm inviting places for both employees and customers. (Verc Enterprises is one of nine companies featured in NACS Ideas 2 Go, available for viewing and purchase at www.nacsonline.com/ideas2go2015.)

A Caring Culture
Yet company culture wasn’t top of the list of priorities when Verc Enterprises opened its doors 40 years ago. The company, founded by the Vercollone family, grew from a single gas station and car wash to today’s 26 locations in the Boston area and southern New Hampshire. When Leo Vercollone took over in 1980, he began to focus on staffing and company culture.

But he hadn’t considered hiring employees with disabilities as part of that emphasis until a friend who worked at the Cardinal Cushing School in Hanover, Massachusetts, which trains adults with disabilities, asked him to consider hiring one of the students. “I hired John Burgess,” said Vercollone. That was 20 years ago and Burgess is still with the company, along with several dozen other adults with IDD.

The employees with IDD, who range from one to four per store, are matched with jobs that best suit their skill set, such as stocking shelves, cleaning the store and parking lots, or working the register. Typically, an organization that works with individuals with IDD provides an on-site job coach to assist the employee with learning the tasks and providing additional support as needed. “As with any individual, there are challenges, but these job coaches come alongside and take care of training,” said Vercollone.

What Vercollone hadn’t expected was the positive change in company culture. “I didn’t see it at the beginning, that having someone like John working with others would transform our stores into caring, helpful places—not just with customers, but with the workers too,” he added.

The difference has been astounding. Employee retention has been more than 35% over the past five years, a huge savings in both time and money for the company. “We don’t have the high turnover most convenience stores experience in our business. Instead, we have three times better retention of our workers,” said Vercollone. “I think it’s because our employees feel more engaged in their work, in large part to our IDD workers.”

He credits the skills of employees with IDD—the smiles and hugs given out so freely, the enthusiasm for repetitive tasks, for example—as empowering other employees to be more helpful and courteous to customers and team members alike. “Our employees really like working with our IDD staff and really want to help them succeed,” he said. “That adds such a flavor to our chain and our individual stores.”

Into the Future
Vercollone has cultivated relationships with about 20 organizations throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire, such as Best Buddies, Minuteman Arc, Eastern Middlesex Arc, Road to Responsibility, Vinfen, May Institute and the Charles River Center, with a goal of having 20% of the company’s 250 employees as individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Every time we open up a store, we hire at least one IDD adult,” said Vercollone.

Verc’s commitment to supporting the IDD community recently received recognition. On October 1, Vercollone served as a guest speaker at an event to kick-off the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress’ (MDSC’s) “Your Next Star” campaign (mdsc.org). This campaign seeks to open employers’ eyes to the power of people with Down syndrome as well as other disabilities in the workforce. “Their poise, presence and self-satisfaction shine through, just the same as anyone who enjoys and takes pride in their work,” said Vercollone.

Vercollone and Nicole Coppens, an IDD employee who has been with the company for 14 years, are featured in the MDSC campaign’s centerpiece video. “It’s absolutely important in today’s world to have a diverse workforce because our society is diverse,” said Vercollone. “When you have people who have a positive attitude and like coming to work, it’s contagious. Nicole is one of our leaders when it comes to that.”

He would love for more companies to hire workers with IDD. “There’s certainly a need for jobs for IDD adults, and these organizations offer plenty of support to help those individuals succeed in their jobs,” said Vercollone.

“I challenge you, my fellow convenience store operators, to hire just one IDD employee. If you do, I bet that within six months, you’ll have a different, more positive company culture.”

Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and NACS Magazine contributor based in Fairfax, Virginia. Visit her online at www.sarahhamaker.com.