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DALLAS -- For the Southland Corp., a video presentation provided not just details of the company profit-sharing plan's 1996 performance but also a chance to reconnect plan participants to the company's roots.
"We're trying to sort of get back to the warm and friendly, what the company is about," Margaret Fuller, manager of the profit-sharing plan and trust for Dallas-based Southland, said of the video. "Trying to get people feeling part of the team again."
That was particularly important given that the company had gone through a variety of changes -- including a buyout, a bankruptcy and a merger -- in recent years that ultimately led it back to a focus on its core business: 7-Eleven convenience stores.
While providing necessary profit-sharing plan information, the approximately 10-minute video makes use of various 7-Eleven artifacts, such as smocks, pins, posters and Slurpee cups as well as historic and contemporary photographs in its transitional shots to communicate the consistent presence of the convenience stores in the company's operations and the community, even as Southland went through its organizational changes.
Meanwhile, employees talk about their own experiences with the company and the profit-sharing plan, driving home the message of how important the profit-sharing benefit is and how the company maintained its commitment to the plan even in the most financially difficult years.
"That was one of the things that we wanted to be sure to do," Ms. Fuller said. The company wanted employees to recognize that even while going through a leveraged buyout, bankruptcy and a merger, "the company continued to contribute to the plan even though there were no profits," she said.
The video won Best of Show in the audio-visual category of the 1997 Business Insurance Employee Benefits Communication Awards competition.
At the centerpiece of the video is the testimony of the company's now-former manager of compensation and benefits, Matt Sauer, who relates his experience: After starting with the company as a 15-year-old clerk, his manager encouraged Mr. Sauer to join the plan, a step that will make his retirement possible.
Kevin McDermott, a principal at Towers Perrin in Dallas who worked with Southland on the video, recalled that it "started off and historically was the facts-and-figures piece."
"I just wanted to do something more than that," he said. "You can do that in a print piece on a half a page."
"They started talking about the organization and what they were doing and how they wanted to get back to the focus on the 7-Eleven stores," he recalled.
Then Mr. Sauer offered his "incredibly compelling, interesting story, and I said: 'This is it. This is what we want to focus on,' " Mr. McDermott said. "It was pretty easy after that."
All the employee comments have a spontaneous, heartfelt feel, rather than sounding like scripted lines.
"A lot of that stuff was off the cuff," Ms. Fuller noted. While
Southland officials had drafted a list of questions "to make sure that all of the things that we wanted in there were in there," someone sitting alongside the camera would ask the questions at random to prompt more spontaneous responses, she said.
"We've used our employees in videos in the past, and it's really worked out, because some of the things they'd say you couldn't script them to say," the plan manager said. "Our lawyers said they wanted to see a copy of the script, and we said, 'There isn't a script.' "
Along the way, the video also explains the reasons for the plan's success in 1996, how it works, tax advantages for participants, the plan's investment strategy and changes in the plan's design.
The choice of video as a medium proved a good way to help reach a far-flung workforce. Southland has 24,000 employees, 90% of whom work in the company's 2,085 stores. The rest work in the corporate headquarters in Dallas.
Tapes were sent through in-house mail to local market managers to show at employee meetings.
Southland employees must have a year on the job to qualify for participation in the profit-sharing plan, and of those employees who are eligible, 7,700 participate in the plan and 7,200 do not. One of the video's goals was to increase plan participation by between 2% and 5%, a goal it met with a 4% increase in participation.
"It's worked," Mr. McDermott said. "Participation is up."
The video project costs about $27,000, with Mr. McDermott essentially serving as director and producer and hiring an out-of-house cameraman and video editing firm.
"Every year we've done videos of different sorts, and on this one we received by far the best comments of all the ones we've done," Ms. Fuller said.
In fact, the video was so well-received that Southland now uses it as a basic part of its new-hire orientation, communicating profit-sharing plan details and a sense of the company's history.