Employing a Special Workforce

Charles RobinsonIn following through with its unique hiring policy, VERC Enterprises has positively impacted surrounding communities.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

Most convenience stores strive diligently to create a working environment where employees feel wanted and useful.

VERC Enterprises Inc. has taken that page and written its own book, which began more than a dozen years ago when the c-store chain began hiring workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). It’s a program that continues to pay off for VERC in various ways.

VERC is a family-run business going back 36 years, and is currently run by the two sons of the original founder, Eugene Vercollone. Co-owner Leo Vercollone, president and CEO—along with his brother Paul—has been a particularly strong supporter of the IDD community and sought years ago to partner with local organizations to provide local people with IDD jobs within the company.

Today, VERC has met ambitious in-house hiring goals, which have earned the company accolades across Massachusetts.

Strength In Numbers
“We started about a dozen years ago and we set goals for our company—5%, 10%, and today we’re at 20%. So of 250-plus employees, about 20% consist of individuals with IDD,” Vercollone said. “And 20% is about the number because as we acquire stores and grow—and we grow about one store a year in the Boston market, we think that’s the right number—we work with them and make sure they can do the job properly and that we can oversee it properly.”

VERC Enterprises is an independent chain of 26 convenience stores, with locations throughout eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The company began 36 years ago with a single car wash in Marshfield, Mass.

The company’s outreach program shouldn’t be confused with charity. Rather, it’s a unique component of VERC’s business plan that supports local residents who want to work, but who are limited in employment opportunities.

Instead, VERC’s ongoing initiative has allowed IDD hirees to gain economic self-sufficiency and the ability to function independently. IDD includes autism and mental retardation.

“If you want to support the communities that you operate in, you have to support them financially, so we support the churches, and the schools and the local police and fire, but you also have to support the residents, and some of these residents have issues, so you need to support them too,” Vercollone said.

To further its commitment to the local community, VERC has expanded its hiring program to include individuals who had been jailed at one time. The re-entry program is facilitated by another partnering organization, the Massachusetts Department of Career Services, which pursues avenues to find meaningful work for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Over the past three years, the company has hired 25 individuals who have gone through the program; presently, VERC employs eight people who have completed the program.

The re-entry employee program has been slower to reach its growth goals because of the special circumstances that involve placing former incarcerated individuals in a retail environment, Vercollone explained. He noted that individuals with specific crimes on their records are considered, and those who are considered are vetted very carefully.

In addition, he said, no re-entry individuals are introduced into a store without the manager’s blessing.

Reaching Out
Just as VERC has become an economic contributor in the Boston area, the word has spread through communities of its hiring programs. Residents often call the c-store on the behalf of family members to see how they can join the company’s special workforce.

VERC managers started making a conscious effort to reach out to community groups to build their workforce almost 10 years ago. Now with the unique company culture firmly in place, store managers at VERC have become accustomed to looking at potential IDD hires in regards to what contribution the individual can bring to the company. In turn, VERC is a strong supporter of all its IDD employees.

Like all company employees, IDD hiring candidates are considered for their capabilities and vetted like all perspective applicants, said Barry Ahern, director of operations and human resources.

“We put the individuals through the normal interview process, which is to meet with the manager, and they also meet with the district manager, and we’ll check references,” Ahern said. “How the process works is every week, we communicate to the company what openings we have—part-time, full-time, managers, assistant managers openings—and we also communicate that information to our partners,” Ahern said. “They get a weekly email saying this is what VERC Enterprises has available. So in that sense, we don’t even have to call our partners, they respond directly to us. Their jobs are to put people into jobs, and they’re very proactive in putting people in front of us.”

When the job placement personnel have a viable candidate that matches one of VERC Enterprises’ openings, they forward their résumé to one of the c-store’s district managers for consideration. In terms of finding dedicated and capable employees, the IDD hiring program has been more than successful. For instance, one IDD employee, John Burgess, just celebrated his 22nd year with the company. Another employee has ascended to the rank of assistant manager.

There are intangibles that VERC’s hiring program has produced that can’t be measured in a data report, but Ahern said the results are just as noticeable.

“It adds such a culture to our company because they are always smiling, they’re happy, they’re thrilled to be at work and that’s infectious because it relays over to how our other employees feel,” Ahern said.

Inspiring Others
Besides appearing before state officials to recognize their work, VERC has won numerous awards, including “Best Place to Work in Massachusetts” and “Leader in Diversity” by the Boston Business Journal, and as a “Best Place to Work in Massachusetts” by the Boston Globe.
In addition to the awards and attention being paid to VERC’s hiring initiative, Vercollone said competing retailers have called to tell him that they are inclined to hire more IDD individuals at their businesses because of VERC’s results.

One firm was Tedeschi Food Shops Inc. Tedeschi operates more than 200 locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, boasting several proprietary brands that include TD’s Deli and Tedeschi Fresh Foods, Tedeschi Select and Tedeschi Fuel.

Tedeshi was interested after hearing about VERC’s six year association with the Massachusetts chapter of Best Buddies International, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that facilitates integrated employment and leadership development opportunities for people with IDD.

“President Peter Tedeschi said, ‘What are you doing down there, and I would like to learn more, and can I send my HR guy down,’” Vercollone said. “So he sends his HR guy down and he sees what we’re doing. In 2013, Tedeschi’s is named Best Buddies’ Employer of the Year. Peter called me up and said: ‘Hey, Leo I employ more Best Buddies than you.’ Is that a great story, or what?”

Besides Best Buddies, VERC’s community partners include Minuteman Arc, Road to Responsibility, Vinfen, the May Institute, BAMSI, GROW and the Charles River Center.

Though some of VERC’s personnel concerns have been addressed via its strong partnerships with local nonprofits, the company hasn’t profited financially from its singular hiring program. But, then again, it was never about money, Vercollone said.

“It’s something that we want to do, and I think it’s one of the reasons our company has continued to grow and prosper because people in the community recognize it,” Vercollone said.

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