Exponential Engagement: Tapping Into the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees

The dream of every CEO is a workforce that is deeply committed to a company’s purpose and mission.  Mark Wetterau, the Chairman and CEO of Golden State Foods (GSF), has made unusual progress on this journey.  He believes a key reason is how the GSF Foundation was uniquely positioned to tap into the hearts and minds of thousands of employees.  The story is unique and provides great learning for any CEO. 

As background, Golden State Foods employs approximately 6,000 people and was established nearly 70 years ago. The company provides food products, including protein, liquids, dairy, produce and distribution services to quick service restaurants and retail companies such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, 7-Eleven and Costco. GSF was founded on a strong set of values. These are not just ideals. They are real-world valuespracticed on a daily basis.

Golden State Foods Corporate Values Include: 

  •     Treat others like you want to be treated.
  •     Make the best product.
  •     Give the customers a fair deal.
  •     Maintain the highest standards.

Mark grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and the active philanthropic role of companies in the Midwest made a big impression on him. 

“One thing that I saw in St. Louis growing up is that the corporations and the community support each other. Companies there do a lot for those less fortunate.”

Starting a foundation appealed to Mark early in his career, while working for his father in the family business, Wetterau Incorporated.  At that time, his father chose to keep charitable efforts a priority but wanted to keep it more informal and personal. Years later, when Mark acquired Golden State Foods, he had the chance to make his vision a reality. 

Many GSF associates were already involved in charities, but they were varied and not connected in any way. He believed that a Foundation would unify the company’s efforts, get people on the same page, provide support to them and get employees deeply engaged in charitable works across their communities. 

“People were already involved in their communities and helping those less fortunate, but we needed to take a leadership role to take it to the next level,” said Mark.

He felt strongly that they could do the best, most meaningful work for their communities through their own Foundation versus partnering or investing with an outside organization to do this work. Mark is a very spiritual person, and his commitment to helping others – codified in Golden State Foods’ Values and Creed – is unwavering. These values are the cornerstones of the GSF Foundation. 

The Foundation has a clear purpose: “Improving the quality of life of children and families in need in the areas where we live and work.”  

From the beginning, the GSF executive team decided that the opportunity to participate in the Foundation would be offered to all associates, not just those above a certain level. The GSF leadership team also agreed that while they would hire someone with expertise in forming the foundation, over the long run the foundation would be led by associates, not by a professional staff.

The GSF Foundation is currently made up of 28 committees throughout the US. The money raised by each committee stays within that marketplace. Employees have the option to make weekly financial contributions to the Foundation through payroll deductions, and as many as 80% of employees participate.  All committees follow a set of guidelines established by the governance body of the GSF Foundation. Each committee is made up of 8-12 people, and they determine where the money they raise will be donated. The members rotate over time, and all members take on a role (chair, communications, annual campaign, charitable fundraising event, grants/giving, etc.).

Engagement, Generosity and Leadership

GSF conducts a survey every 18 months. One question is: “Do you believe in the Foundation and what it stands for?” Responses consistently fall in the 95% range – an incredible testament to the Foundation’s success.

The way the GSF Foundation was designed contributes to this. Associates of all levels, from warehouse workers to truck drivers have the opportunity to participate.  And the experience can be life changing.

In St. Louis, the team hosted a Build-A-Bike event to build bikes for kids in need. In addition to the community and GSF associates, GSF suppliers were also invited to participate.  A CEO of a major supplier was at this event helping an underprivileged eight-year-old boy build what would become his bike. The boy was excited about getting the free bike, but also highly engaged in learning how to build the bike and the pieces that went into it. At the end of the event, the boy went over and asked his mother if he could invite the gentleman who helped him to come over to his house for his birthday party the next day. When asked, the CEO immediately agreed.

The next day, as the CEO drove to the boy’s house for the party, he entered a neighborhood he had rarely visited before.  He realized how disconnected he was from important parts of his own community. The CEO had a wonderful time at the birthday party, and enjoyed spending time with the boy and the other kids who were there. He could see first-hand the joy the boy experienced.  At the end of the party, the mother clasped the CEO’s hand and said, “Thank you so much for coming. This is the most time my son has spent with any one man in this house.” This experience left a lasting impression on both the CEO and the family he served. It brought to life new ways to connect across many different cultural terrains.  

In another example, the executive director of the Foundation was riding with a truck driver on his route. They rode all night, not talking much at all. Then the driver asked if the executive wanted to see where he had gone to elementary school. When they pulled up and parked outside the school at daybreak, he shared that when he had gone there, he had only gone every other day, as he had needed to share one pair of shoes with his brother. That touching, honest story and the conversation that followed contributed to the on-going development of “Best Foot Forward,” a program that collects and donates shoes for first graders.

These experiences move people beyond just writing a check to truly touching hearts. People I interviewed for this article said that the work at the Foundation has deeply increased their commitment to Golden State Foods and the opportunity they have to continually give back.  It is one thing to write a check to a soup kitchen – it’s another to actually be there ladling the soup.  Many of the GSF associates have had the chance to participate in these first-hand life-altering experiences. 

“Every one of us has our stories,” Mark said.  “This Foundation is a difference maker, an enhancement of our culture. We are helping our associates understand there are people out in our communities who are in need and that we are able to help them. It’s amazing what we take for granted. Until you go out and participate in something like this, you don’t realize what a large impact you can have with your own efforts.” 

The benefits of the Foundation extend beyond what Wetterau and the team even expected. Many of the associates take their lessons learned through the Foundation home to their children and families. It often prompts them to do more in other ways and to step out and show leadership in their communities. 

Watching associates take on roles within the committees also creates a natural leadership development opportunity. GSF executives are finding leadership talent coming from many different areas of the company – and not always from where they had looked before. 

Getting Started

I asked Mark what advice he would give to someone starting a Foundation like this. 

Start slow, think it through. Engage your leadership team, your executive committee, in the process of defining what you want to do with the Foundation, what you want it to look like.” 

Bring in a professional that knows how to establish a 501c3/ nonprofit corporation. They can provide very specific advice beyond what your regular attorneys or law firm can provide. Rely on this person’s expertise and have them walk you through the full process of defining the entity.”

Be clear about the mission and purpose from the start. Ask questions about what you want it to represent. Many times nonprofits are less effective because this work wasn’t done up front to fully understand what they were setting out to do.” 

“The GSF Foundation reinforces our culture. Our associates and our communities see the value in what we’re doing. That’s great for all of them, great for business and a great way to advance our purpose. We are just touching the surface, but we feel we are making a difference. If we can get more companies involved and participating, we can really help enhance our communities.”