A Legacy of Community Engagement
Above: Wills Group employees help harvest produce during a Farming 4 Hunger event in October at Serenity Farm in Hughesville, Maryland.
Like many convenience store chains, the Wills Group and its family of companies strive to deliver an excellent customer experience at its 277 retail locations across the mid-Atlantic region, including 54 Dash In convenience stores, 13 of which are corporate stores with the remainder franchise-operated, 51 Splash In ECO Car Washes and SMO Motor Fuels. While the Wills Group continues to focus on improving and growing its business through opening new locations, rebranding legacy stores and launching a new loyalty and rewards program in early 2023, the company also has a heart for community engagement.
Since its founding in 1926, the Wills Group has made giving back to its local communities a top priority. “My great-grandparents donated a park to the town of La Plata, Maryland, where we’re headquartered,” said COO and President Julian B. (Blackie) Wills III. “We’ve always been heavily involved in our communities, and we’ve stepped that up in recent years.”
Part of the company’s Community Engagement work includes several yearly events. These include regular employee volunteer opportunities, an annual charitable match campaign to support employee giving and the annual Blackie Wills Golf Classic in September, which raised over $342,000 this year for the Blackie Wills Community Leadership Fund. The fund supports the company’s two signature programs: Nourishing Children and Families and Reimagining Outdoor Spaces.
Now, we’re focused on working with our food bank partners to develop community education initiatives that solve food insecurity, such as community gardens to teach families to grow vegetables.”
MEETING BASIC NEEDS
The company has long supported regional and local food banks under its Nourishing Children and Families program. “So many people struggle with food insecurity, and since a big part of our business is serving food, working with food banks is a great natural tie for us,” Wills said. “It’s one of those core needs we think can’t be underscored enough, and we want to support local food banks within our communities as best we can.”
The Wills Group began its partnerships with food banks by providing food, employee volunteer hours and grants to purchase food for their clients. “Now, we’re focused on working with our food bank partners to develop community education initiatives that solve food insecurity, such as community gardens to teach families to grow vegetables,” he said. For example, the company has given grants totaling more than $150,000 to Farming 4 Hunger, which hosts more than 5,000 volunteers, groups, individuals and families at Serenity Farm, and provides 26% of the fresh food that goes to the Maryland Food Bank.
“We want to go beyond providing food alone and work with our partners to solve the problem of food insecurity at its roots,” he said. This fall, the Wills Group employees volunteered during the fall harvest at Serenity Farm. “We like doing this kind of hands-on volunteering so our staff can see what our partners do up close and personal,” Wills said. “This can stir their support for our local causes.”
A second major focus of its Community Engagement is the Reimagining Outdoor Spaces program. “Near our Dash In stores, we find community gathering places, such as parks, that need updating or refurbishing,” he said. This past summer, the Wills Group, along with community officials and members of the Phoenix Run Park community, dedicated the reimagined park in La Plata. The Wills Group invested more than $130,000 to transform the park, supported by hundreds of volunteer hours across the Phoenix Run Park community and Wills Group employees. Community groups provided input into the park design and enhancements, as well. The revitalization took two years to complete and now includes vibrant, art-inspired basketball courts, walking paths, landscaping and seating areas that create a destination for families.
The company has a second location lined up for its Reimagining Outdoor Spaces program—Tanglewood Park in Clinton, Maryland, near a Dash In store that opened in October 2021. “We’re communicating with the neighborhood to find out what they want in a park, with completion targeted for the first quarter of 2023,” Wills said. “Our goal is to have two Reimagining Outdoor Spaces projects done per year.”
“We hold out these signature programs as our beacons for where we want to spend our time and resources,” said Rayma Alexander, director of corporate communications and DEI at the Wills Group. “We do our community work geographically near our Dash In stores, so we can make a community impact where we work, live and shop,” Alexander said.
“In recent years, we’ve been a lot more intentional to ensure opportunities align with our two signature programs,” Wills added. “While national charities are great causes, we want to strengthen the natural ties to our business through supporting local food banks and community spaces.”
The company also has regular opportunities to both give funds and raise charitable funds to support to its partners. For example, at each Dash In grand opening, “we celebrate with targeted grants to local schools and fire departments, as well as ongoing support for food banks,” Alexander said. Typically, grand opening gifts include $5,000 to a food bank, $1,000 to a school and $500 to a fire department.
While national charities are great causes, we want to strengthen the natural ties to our business through supporting local food banks and community spaces.”
From August 1 to October 31, the stores participate in Shell’s annual The Giving Pump campaign, designating one pump per station for community giving. “One cent per gallon pumped at that pump is allocated for our food bank partners,” Alexander said. “Over more than two months with 220 pumps, that adds up to several hundred thousand dollars.”
Part of the mission focuses on getting staff involved in company campaigns and volunteer opportunities. The company provides each full-time employee with 16 hours of paid time off for outside volunteer work. “We offer three to four company-sponsored volunteer opportunities each year, such as the farm harvest, and also encourage our workers to volunteer at the nonprofit of their choosing,” Wills said.
An annual matching campaign asks employees to designate payroll deductions for charities, and the company matches dollar for dollar. “We regularly raise more than $100,000 this way, and the staff elects where the donations go, so it’s a nice way to get employees involved in giving,” he said.
To facilitate employee involvement in Community Engagement, the Wills Group has a community leadership team with staff seats on committees within that team. “We really want our employees to have a forum to share their ideas because we think it’s important for them to identify opportunities for us,” he said. Those efforts have worked because 70% of employees on average participate in volunteerism throughout the year, with 90% employee participation in the Wills Group’s annual employee match campaign.
Its Community Engagement component also has driven employee retention and hiring. “Current employees and potential workers can see how we engage in our communities ... that it’s not just words for us but true company values,” Alexander said. “Everything ties together to support our diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and translates into a better experience for our customers, too.”
Current employees and potential workers can see how we engage in our communities … that it’s not just words for us but true company values.”
Alexander pointed to the Wills Group’s receiving a Great Place to Work Certification in February 2022 as evidence of its success in making employees feel welcomed and noticed. “This is based on feedback from our staff, and it’s something we’re very proud of and will continue to work on keeping the certification,” Alexander said. “We recognize it is our employees who make this a good place to work, and offering them opportunities to better their communities is part of that equation.”
For the Wills Group, being involved in its communities is simple. “To me, our business is not going to be a success or thrive without the support of the community,” Wills said. “We’re never going to be the only option in town. Building a lasting relationship with the community through these efforts will eventually pay us back,” Wills said.
“Community engagement is also critical for employees because people want to work for companies who care for their communities,” Alexander said. “It’s both the right thing to do and makes employee life at work more enriching. When we interview potential employees, one of the top things that come up in conversation is where can they volunteer? It’s great that we have a story to tell and invite people to join us on this journey.”
While the Wills Group will continue to support its food bank partners and seek new outdoor spaces to reimagine, Wills is already considering the next iteration of Community Engagement. “We have two good programs, and we’re looking at education and how we can incorporate that into those initiatives as well,” he said. “We’re also considering our geography here in the mid-Atlantic region near the Chesapeake Bay, so we might be branching out into some environmental initiatives in the future. What we do know is that our Community Engagement isn’t static—as our organization grows, we want to do more for our communities.”