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Leadership in Benefits Series: Featuring Michelle DeNault and Wawa

An Interview with Michelle, Senior Wellbeing and Benefits Administrator from Wawa: How Benefits are Enhancing the Associate Experience

Wawa, a beloved fresh food, beverage and convenience chain in the Mid-Atlantic and Florida regions, has cultivated a reputation not just for its hoagies, coffee, and friendly service but also for its exceptional associate experience. This people-first mentality stems from Wawa’s unique culture, which deeply values its associates and store teams who interact directly with customers every day.

But how does Wawa translate this cultural ethos into actual programs and benefits for associates? Michelle, a passionate longtime benefits leader at Wawa, gives an insider’s perspective. In this interview, Michelle shares insights into how Wawa strategically leverages its benefits and perks to take care of associates across the organization and deliver on its brand promise to customers.

Read on to learn Michelle’s key lessons on using benefits to enhance associate well-being, boost engagement and retention, streamline systems and processes, and focus on frontline teams. Whether you manage an established retail operation or a growing startup, Michelle’s wisdom will inspire you to rethink the strategic role benefits can play in building an exceptional associate experience.


Q1. Tell us about your personal journey with benefits. Where did you get your start and what inspired you to pursue this discipline? What were some of the most important lessons learned along the way?

Michelle first entered the world of benefits completely by accident. She started her career as a young paralegal at a large Philadelphia law firm, hoping to gain broad experience across different practice areas. But she quickly found her scope limited to a single focus area.

Then one day she saw a job posting in the office kitchen for a benefits assistant role. Intrigued, she decided to apply, despite having zero prior knowledge about benefits. Michelle was mentored by the current benefits manager, who absolutely loved her job and took Michelle under her wing. She found the work incredibly fulfilling and inspiring.

When her mentor retired a year later, Michelle took over as benefits manager at just 21 years old. It was a trial by fire, but Michelle quickly realized she thrived on helping people navigate the complexity of benefits.

In her 30+ years in the field, Michelle has learned three key lessons:

  • Benefits are a vital complement to talent recruitment and retention. Happy associates tend to stick around longer.
  • Saying "no" on benefits claims is one of the hardest parts of the job. Benefits issues are deeply personal, so leading with compassion is crucial.
  • It's important to listen to associates’ individual stories and struggles. This builds trust and surfaces their real needs.

Michelle's journey proves that unexpected career pivots can lead to discovering your true passion. Her commitment to associate advocacy shapes her leadership approach.

Q2. What are the core tenets of building a great benefits team and function?

According to Michelle, there are four foundational pillars to building a stellar benefits team:

Passion - Team members should have a palpable passion for the mission of supporting associates through benefits. They should care deeply about making a difference.

Compassion - Because benefits involve dealing with sensitive, personal issues, compassion is a critical trait. Team members need empathy and the ability to connect on a human level.

Diversity of thought - Michelle stresses the need for diversity of thought and opinion on the team. Contrasting perspectives enable richer debate and better solutions. Groupthink should be avoided.

Open communication - For optimal collaboration and innovation, communication must be open and inclusive. All voices and input from across the organization should be welcomed, not just those from perceived "experts."

Michelle emphasizes that leaders must actively solicit ideas from all levels of the team. An atmosphere of openness helps foster camaraderie and passion. Egos must be checked at the door.

With these core pillars in place, benefits teams can thoughtfully co-create programs that best serve associates’ evolving needs.

Q3. Tell us about what makes Wawa a great place to work and what role benefits play in the equation of building and maintaining a stellar associate experience.

According to Michelle, Wawa's exceptional culture starts right at the top with the executive team. They set the tone for valuing associates by instilling a "people first" mentality that then cascades through the management ranks.

Some keyways this culture manifests are:

  • There are no "corporate-only" benefits or perks - corporate and store associates receive the same offerings. This ensures equality across the organization.
  • When considering new benefits, the very first question is always how they will be received by store associates. Their needs and reactions are the priority filters.
  • When expanding to new regions, Wawa sends seasoned associates to open stores and train staff. This embeds the culture in new locations.

Wawa's benefits strategies aim to make daily work life a bit easier for store associates, who represent the "heart" of the company's operations. The focus on people promotes a sense of value and belonging for all, we offer something for everyone.

Associates notice this genuine care at Wawa. Combined with friendly coworkers and job security, it makes for an exceptional associate experience.

Q4. What challenges did you face with voluntary benefits pre-Corestream? What sold you on Corestream as a solution? Are these common challenges?

Pre-Corestream, Wawa only offered critical illness and accident insurance as voluntary benefits. Managing these was messy - deductions were complex across multiple vendors, enrollment was through a separate system, and offerings were limited.

As Wawa also evaluated new HR systems, it became clear their setup couldn't efficiently scale. Corestream provided the solution by consolidating everything onto one seamless platform. All billing and deductions were simplified.

Specifically, Corestream offered an improved enrollment experience for associates. The administrators could easily add new voluntary benefits as needed.

Michelle says these challenges are common based on peer discussions. Many leaders struggle to streamline systems and manage growing complexity.

Corestream alleviated the headaches around billing, deductions, and vendor coordination. Associates also benefited from a better enrollment process and more options. According to Michelle, the decision to shift to Corestream solved both short-term and long-term challenges with administering voluntary benefits.

Q5. Describe the impact and results of the Corestream partnership.

By streamlining everything through Corestream's integrated platform, the administrative burden decreased significantly. Corestream consolidated deductions into a single report, rather than the tedious allocation across vendors previously required.

Just as importantly, Corestream & Wawa expanded the voluntary benefit offerings and we continue to evaluate current and new programs. Associates now have more options that meet their needs. Corestream's resources help associates better understand these options during enrollment.

The results have been extremely positive for both associates and administrators:

  • Enrollment is now a smooth, easy process for associates.
  • Associates make more informed choices using Corestream's tools.
  • Michelle only fields 2-3 questions a year from associates, demonstrating the simplicity.

Corestream delivered a major improvement by both streamlining administration and expanding offerings. This increased engagement and satisfaction across the board.

Q6. How would your associates describe their experience using Corestream? Would it be fair to say that associates are more confident, empowered, and educated when making benefits decisions?

Michelle says associates find Corestream very easy to use, with rare issues. Associates feel empowered by the tools and information they need to make smart choices. Overall, Corestream delivers a positive, hassle-free experience.

Q7. As we head to OE once again, what are the top priorities/goals of this year's enrollment season?

A priority is offering financial well-being options and a part time benefit package. We leveraged our current and new options to build out a stand-alone part time offer.

8. Sage advice for early career benefits professionals looking to grow in this discipline?

Michelle advises listening closely and keeping an open mind. Ask questions internally and externally. Know that the job can be difficult, like saying "no" to claims. But remember, you are making a real positive difference in people's lives through benefits. It is highly rewarding work. Benefits is not just processing; it is a huge expense for the company that will only continue to grow.

Closing Remarks

Michelle offers invaluable insights on strategically optimizing benefits to enhance the associate experience and performance. Her passion for caring for associates is inspiring.

Here are the key takeaways from the interview.

Takeaway 1: Lead with compassion - benefits issues are highly personal for associates and their families.

Takeaway 2: Small perks can have an outsized impact on satisfaction and retention.

Takeaway 3: Consolidating systems simplifies enrollment and streamlines offerings.

Takeaway 4: Voluntary benefits should focus on total well-being - financial, physical, and mental.

Do you think the success of benefits programs depends more on streamlined systems or culture and mindset?

What other key takeaways resonate with you from Michelle's experience at Wawa? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

To learn more about driving impact through employee benefits, explore our full library of interviews with HR leaders.

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