Putting the Community to Work

With 20% of its staff now made up of challenged and disabled individuals, VERC Enterprises has earned a reputation as a top employer.

By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor.

VERC Enterprises, an independent convenience store, gasoline station and car wash operator in eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire, has reached a new milestone by including challenged/disabled individuals as 20% of its 200-member strong employee team.

With its goal firmly reached, the company now sets its sights on helping former non-violent prisoners get a new start, as a way to further assist its local community.

Leo Vercollone, CEO of the Duxbury, Mass.-based company, said he embarked on the process of reaching out to local individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) eight years ago.

“Originally, we thought it would be a charitable thing to do. As time went on we realized we had the ability to work with these individuals and help them succeed,” Vercollone said.

Expanding the Employee Pool
The company’s first goal was to train IDD individuals to fill 10% of its workforce, which it achieved in four years. Then it set out to hit 15%, which it reached last fall, before setting its sights on 20% as it grew its store count.

VERC Enterprises currently operates 21 convenience stores and four Briteway car washes, two of which are stand-alone locations, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The company includes foodservice franchises at several of its stores, including 15 Dunkin’ Donuts, one Subway and a Gunther Tooties bagel shop. The chain’s goal is to increase its footprint to 30 sites. At presstime it was waiting to close on the purchase of its 24th site—another convenience store.

As the store count is growing, the need for qualified employees is becoming more important, Vercollone said. The company teams with local organizations like the ARC—the largest national community-based organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families—which help VERC recruit and employ IDD individuals and spread the word about the program.

Positions filled by disabled/challenged employees include stocking, landscaping and helping to bag products from counter sales.

“It’s wonderful to reach the goal,” Vercollone said. “It’s a great accomplishment, but you have to look at the store managers, district managers and frontline people because they are working with these IDD associates 2-3 to a store, and it takes a lot of patience and caring from them, so we’re really fortunate.”

Vercollone noted that the chain plans to keep the IDD employee numbers in the 20% range going forward due to the financial investment it takes to support the cause, but VERC isn’t done with its community outreach. As the No. 1 employer for the Best Buddies program, it looks to help other local businesses employ IDD individuals and achieve the same goals.

“It’s not just an altruistic thing we’re doing. Other businesses are going to find, as we did, that it adds to the culture of the store, and it’s going to add to the morale of the people,” Vercollone said.

Second Chances
During the last three years, the chain’s turnover rate has averaged 35%—something Vercollone credits to the IDD program, which helps inspire employees to stay involved in the company. With the IDD program solidified, VERC Enterprises is also turning its attention to a new community initiative—one that may surprise some other c-store operators.

VERC is now working with Massachusetts’ Department of Corrections to hire reformed individuals exiting the prison program.  
“We don’t want to bring in people that have problems, but if there are people that have changed their ways and deserve a second or third chance, we should be in a position as a company to support that,” Vercollone said.

The program has strict criteria. “We will not bring in people that have had any kind of physical confrontation or anything that has caused bodily harm,” Vercollone said. “But there are a lot of individuals out there that have committed non-violent crimes, so we’re talking about a different population here.”  

The chain is taking a softer approach with the prison initiative than it did with the aggressive push to incorporate IDD individuals. So far, as it slowly assesses the program, VERC has hired four former prisoners, two of which it has retained.

“Fifty percent of the hires are working out as compared to our challenged individuals where 80-90% work out. But (the former prisoners) can do a lot more. They can work the cash register, and do more of the daily job functions of our regular associates,” Vercollone said. “There is a big need out there in this area too, because a lot of individuals that come from the prison system have trouble finding employment, and I think we can provide a venue for them moving forward.”

Unlike with the IDD individuals, VERC Enterprises doesn’t need to provide as much financial support to assist the former prisoners.  “We don’t have to carry excess payroll to help them do their job like we do for the IDD individuals. These employees can perform at the level of any of our associates,” Vercollone said. “Initially there will be an added expense, but then these people can develop into regular full associates that can be very valuable to our company and won’t cost the company anything additional, which is great.”

At a time when many c-stores are doing extensive background checks, Vercollone isn’t overly concerned about his shrink skyrocketing with ex-convicts behind his cash register.

“My company is probably in the top quartile when it comes to eliminating shrink. We do a great job with theft in our stores, we measure shrink very closely, and we’ll continue to look at it,” he said. “I personally don’t think people that have a prison background are going to be at a greater risk for shrink than our other employees. The No. 1 cause of convenience store shrink is employees, so it doesn’t really matter if you have a past prison record or not. I think people are basically honest and reputable, and our shrink falls under the same formula as other convenience stores, which is employees, vendors, customers—70%, 15%, 15% or 70%, 20%, 10%, respectively.”

The decision to help ex-convicts get a fresh start comes from VERC’s view of itself as a family.

“Some people in everyone’s family have challenges, and that doesn’t make them bad people—that doesn’t mean they can’t be productive members of society. We’re a company that views itself as a family, and we’re going to have some members that have challenges. They deserve a second or a third chance to work it out and we should be there to support them, especially when they live in our community,” Vercollone said.

“We’re recruiting local people from our community that live in our neighborhoods. One in nine Americans have been in  jail—it could be one night or 10 years. We as a society sometimes don’t realize that. There are opportunities there because a number of them are not bad people.”  

Vercollone noted that sometimes it just takes one or two businesses to take that first step toward aiding members of the community before other businesses realize they too can be community stewards in the same way.

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