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CSNews Exclusive: How Wawa Recognizes its Associates

By Barbara Grondin Francella

WAWA, Pa. -- With two innovative programs that recognize and assist its associates, Wawa Inc. has made its core values tangible.

The c-store operator gives life to its core values -- Value People; Delight Customers; Embrace Change; Do the Right Thing; Do Things Right; Passion for Winning -- through its Big Six Values program, an initiative that spotlights associates who live those values each day, noted Barbara Ennis, executive office relationship manager.

The Big Six program encourages Wawa's 16,000 associates to share examples of coworkers living Wawa's values in and outside the workplace. Those selected as Values Champions are recognized in a number of ways. Some receive customized Wawa greeting cards from President and CEO Howard Stoeckel, many with a personalized recorded message that plays when opened. They may also receive "value pins" -- which embody each value with an Olympics-like icon -- to wear on their uniforms.

These Value Champions -- there have been 3,000 peer nominations for recognition via Wawa's internal Web site in the last two years -- are spotlighted in Wawa's internal Uno newsletter and its internal My Wawa Web site. Some extraordinarily outstanding associates are invited to Wawa's headquarters for a special lunch with Stoeckel.

Each submission -- individual, store team or department -- is evaluated with Wawa's CHAMP test: the behavior has to be a Consistent action, Heartfelt, Awe inspiring, Meaningful and Progressive. Each submission is rated by an outside program partner on a scale of one to six for each characteristic, for a possible total score of 30. The score determines the level of recognition.

For example, Amanda Wynne, general manager of Store 853, was recognized after William Wright, general manager of Store 848, submitted her name for consideration. Wright noted he joined Wawa one month before his first child was born, and that going through a career change, having a child and participating in an accelerated training program was difficult. "Mande spent a lot of time making sure I understood information that I was learning, because she knew the experience of having a first child and a job transition," he wrote. "She kept making sure I was prepared, and my wife and I were able to reach out to Mande on a personal level to ask for help. I am grateful to Mande for helping me complete the training in the timeframe required, because she helped me stay focused through it all."

The Big Six program, Ennis said, is "a unique and exciting program that is a direct extension of [Chairman] Dick Wood and Howard Stoeckel," she explained. "Imagine how an associate feels when the chairman and CEO takes special notice of what he or she does. There is no ivory tower here. The Big Six Values program isn't a competition or about winning something. It's about celebrating your peers and sharing the stories of Values Champions who go above and beyond each and every day."

The ultimate recognition is to be honored by Wawa's Dream Maker initiative. "We try to make the dreams of the most deserving Wawa associates a reality," Ennis said. "We know countless associates live our values every day, but we want to identify and select a special few."

In the last two years, the chain honored three with its Dream Maker program. "The Dream Maker award goes to the associate who demonstrates our values in an outstanding way over and over, and we feel they deserve their ultimate dream to come true," Ennis explained. "We don't guess what their dream is, we speak to their families and loved ones, who know them the best."

For example, Wawa's second Dream Maker recipient, Michael Porcella, was credited by his peers with soliciting the most charitable contributions during scanned campaigns, such as paper balloons sold to benefit The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"He consistently sold between 1,200 to 1,800 units on his own during charity campaigns, the most in Wawa history," Ennis said. "His fellow associates described him as 'the poster child for our values, giving 150 percent every day.'"

Last December, at Wawa's annual end-of-year business meeting, attended by 1,500 associates, Porcella was surprised with his dream-of-a-lifetime package. "The crowd was brought to their feet when Michael, his parents and his store team were brought up on stage to learn about his dream experience," Ennis remembered.

A life-long hockey fan, Porcella's ultimate dream was to attend a Philadelphia Flyers game. "His passion for hockey began when the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974, on his 11th birthday, when Bernie Parent brought the team to victory that day," Ennis said.

To the song, "We Will Rock You," Wood, Stoeckel and Ennis revealed Porcella's winnings: a personalized Flyers jersey and Flyers hat, sticks and pucks; the American and Canadian versions of Mario Lemieux's rookie card (he had a special fondness for the Pittsburgh Penguins star); four tickets to Flyers games once a month; a chance to ride the Zamboni during intermission of a game; and the opportunity to watch a pregame warm-up from the Flyers bench.

"The ultimate experience came when we brought Bernie Parent on to the stage to present Michael with a full set of our values pins and a replica of the Stanley Cup," Ennis said.

Taking Care of Their Own
Wawa's management team's own commitment to valuing people is embodied in the chain's Internal Care department, which is devoted to helping associates facing a crisis or celebrating happier life events, such as a move into new home or an engagement.

Ennis and her team, including Joe Bendas, Mandy Lain, Jeanne Eichinger and Kathleen Monte, are dedicated to supporting associates.

"That means paying attention to all the things that make people feel special," Ennis said. "Our angels in store operations, general managers and other sources feed us information. It's about using common sense and networking to help our associates. We're so lucky, because we have complete buy-in from our senior leaders. Whatever it takes to help our associates, to show them we care, management fully supports."

Still, the Internal Care department prefers to work under the radar. "We don't seek attention other than what is necessary for communicating with our associates," Ennis said. "We aren't trying to say, 'Look how good we are.'"

In many cases, the Internal Care team steps in when an associate is suffering from an unforeseen catastrophic event he or she is unprepared to handle. The retailer developed the Wawa Associates in Need fund, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization sustained through company and employee donations and governed by an internal board of associates. It has already collected more than $600,000 to support associates with acute financial needs.

Earlier this year, an associate's son passed away and she was struggling to pay for the burial. The Internal Care department called the funeral home and paid off the associate's balance.

"We [tapped into] our Associates in Need fund. It wasn't a lot of money, but this was something that was catastrophic for her," Ennis said.

Not long ago, a Wawa general manager received a call from an associate who had been out of work on short-term disability. The mother of five was on the verge of being evicted and had no food in the house for her family. Through the support of the Associates in Need fund, a member of the Internal Care department took her and her children food shopping and paid the landlord the back rent.

Another associate was living in a tent at the back of a department store because he couldn't come up with the security deposit to move into an apartment. Ennis and her team were able to help him find an affordable apartment and pay the security deposit, again through the support of the Associates in Need fund. "He could handle the first month's rent, but the extra cost of the security deposit was beyond what he could afford," Ennis said.

"Whenever possible, we work with strategic partners to supplement the efforts of Internal Care and the Associates in Need fund," Ennis added. "With the downturn in the economy, we are seeing more stress on our associates, especially because they are getting behind on utility bills and mortgage payments. We also tap into an outside network of professionals to get our associates financial counseling, loan modifications or whatever will steer them in the right direction."

While other companies are cutting back on employee compensation and other assistance programs, Wawa's management team feels "now more than ever, we need to be one big family," Ennis said. "We care so much about our associates. No matter what the economic climate is, we are dedicated to being there for them. There is nothing more important than reinforcing our values and keeping the team going forward."

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