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A CEO's Take on the ROI of DEI

The Wills Group's Blackie Wills touts the benefits of talent attraction and retention.
Linda Lisanti

LA PLATA, Md. — At The Wills Group, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are seen as key enablers to its business strategy and operating priorities, and considered core to achieving its mission of being the preferred choice for employees, customers and business partners in its chosen markets.  

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Blackie Wills
Blackie Wills

A family-owned company since 1926, The Wills Group operates a number of businesses across the Mid-Atlantic region, including Dash In convenience stores, Splash In ECO Car Wash locations and SMO Motor Fuels. At the helm of the organization is President and CEO Blackie Wills, who recently spoke with Convenience Store News about the company’s DEI efforts.

CSN: Can you tell me about The Wills Group's DEI journey so far? 

Wills: We've had a DEI journey that's been organic for many years. But [after] the advent of the pandemic and some of the social injustices that happened, the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, we became a lot more intentional about DEI and I would say more formally established our journey, as well as some objectives. 

We started off really with our employees. We wanted to try to figure out how do we reduce this anxiety and acknowledge it being a problem. And so, we conducted listening sessions with employees just to hear them out. You know, what's going on? What are you thinking about? What are you concerned about? We also hired one of the leading DEI consultants, Korn Ferry, to help us formally establish more structure into our DEI journey. [They] conducted a number of interviews with not just executives, but across the organization, and completed a talent flow analysis.

Out of that initial endeavor, we spent time developing this diagnostic to figure out how do we advance our culture, how do we look at our talent and how do we think about this work in connection with our communities. So, that really kicked things off for our DEI journey and then, in the years since, we've focused on how do we gauge whether or not we're making progress. We know this is ongoing. There's no end to this and it's all about continuous improvement.

CSN: We often hear that DEI efforts are most successful when they have the support of upper management. Why did you decide to support DEI at The Wills Group?

Wills: Well, for one, we've always been a values-based organization. We have seven corporate core values, one of those is diversity. And we say that we embrace the uniqueness of all individuals and support equal opportunities and belonging for all. 

I think it's just the right thing to do and when you think about your organization, we've long been believers that our people are our greatest asset. So, how do you ensure that you're getting the best people, that your people feel very connected to the organization? That's always been important to us, so it's always been kind of a natural fit to pursue DEI.

CSN: In your experience, what has the ROI been from your DEI efforts? 

Wills: We've tried to gauge that a couple different ways. We're big believers that diversity can give us a talent advantage. The other piece of it is thinking about employee engagement. Obviously, the more diverse your employee population is, the more things you need to do, the more you need to be aware of. So, how do we ensure that we're attracting top-level talent and very diverse talent? We gauge that through employee engagement.

I'm proud to say that as we've looked at our advancements in employee engagement in recent years, since we've become more intentional with our DEI journey, it's translated to results. We were at 82% of employees saying it was a great place to work three years ago. We're up to 87% now. We've been very excited to see that continued growth year over year.

We also intentionally, as part of our annual engagement survey, look at some core DEI questions to assess how we're doing there, and we've been fortunate that we've been consistently able to score in the top one or two percentiles in those key areas. That's been really important.  

We established employee resource groups a few years ago. Initially, it was the Women of Wills (professional women) and Families in Motion (working parents). We've since added a third employee resource group for military veterans. We rely on those employee resource groups to provide additional thought leadership and perspective. And frankly, we've acted on a lot of things they've done that we believe are making us a better employer and strengthening the relationship with our employees.

So, a lot of [the return on investment] is about, I think, both retention of existing talent and attraction of new talent. That's one of the core components of DEI that we look at. It probably goes beyond that, but that's what we're most focused on right now, the talent advantage. 

Convenience Inclusion Initiative

Convenience Store News — with underwriting support from Altria Group Distribution Co., The Coca-Cola Co., The Hershey Co. and Constellation Brands — has established an industrywide initiative to facilitate engagement among all stakeholders in the convenience channel around diversity, equity and inclusion. This platform is designed to be a catalyst for discussion, innovation, engagement and action. 

The Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion program is part of The Convenience Inclusion Initiative, a multifaceted effort by Convenience Store News to champion a modern-day convenience store industry where current and emerging leaders foster an inclusive work culture that celebrates differences, allows team members to bring their whole selves to work, and enables companies to benefit from diversity of thought and background. 

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About the Author

Linda Lisanti

Linda Lisanti

Linda Lisanti is Editor-in-Chief of Convenience Store News. She joined the brand in 2005. Linda is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable editors in the c-store industry. She leads CSNews’ editorial team and oversees content development across all of CSNews’ print and online properties. She has covered virtually every major product category and major retail company.

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