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Gas station owner helps young workers save, plan education

By ED RUSSO
Of the The Register-Guard

CRESWELL — During the holidays, Bill Spencer thanks his mostly young employees by giving them turkeys, Christmas bonuses and gift cards.

But Spencer, who owns the Union 76 gas station and convenience store in downtown Creswell, is known by the city's residents for treating his workers well all year round.

Of the station's 22 employees, 19 are younger than 25 years old, reported The Register-Guard (http://bit.ly/2ibXmJ4).

Spencer, a longtime supporter of Creswell High School athletics, intentionally hires young people. He finds that many are eager for part-time work that fits their school schedules. He said they also are receptive to his training, which emphasizes customer service.

And Spencer offers employees an unusual benefit for the gas station industry: For every hour they work, employees can put $1 of their pay into a savings account. They can use the money any way they want, but for each dollar of the savings they spend on educational expenses, such as college tuition or books, Spencer gives them 50 cents.

“If they spend $600 from the savings account on a $1,000 college bill, we will put in $300,” Spencer said. “We see it as one of the things that encourages them to further their education.”

Spencer began the savings program in the mid-1990s, inspired by his Eugene-based gasoline supplier, The Jerry Brown Co., which provided a similar benefit.

Residents appreciate Spencer's generosity.

Dean Smith, a local businessman who was filling up his gas tank at the Union 76, said locals are drawn to Spencer's business.

Spencer's workforce started to become more youthful about 25 years ago, after his oldest son, Don, then at Creswell High School, suggested some of his schoolmates would make good employees.

“After a while, I got to realize that I had hired doctors, lawyers and teachers before they became that,” Spencer said. “Then our customers got used to the fact that we basically had 16-to-25-year-olds working. And they realized that there's a lot of good kids in this town, just like there is anywhere.”

Spencer starts workers at the state minimum wage of $9.75 an hour. Later, they can get performance-based pay raises, he said.

He said he typically gives $100 or $200 bonuses in December and March to employees who are doing a good job.

Since Spencer began the education savings program, a total of 188 employees have put a portion of their pay into a savings account, he said. Of those, 89 — almost half — went on to college and took advantage of Spencer's offer to pay for some of their related costs. In the 20-plus years, Spencer said he has contributed a total of $57,574 to employees and former employees for education.

Kayla Stram had worked full time at the station for three years. She used the educational savings plan while attending Lane Community College, where she remains a student.

Stram, 23, now works as a barista at Creswell Coffee Co., but occasionally fills in at the station.

The savings plan “set (the money aside) without you having to consciously think about it,” she said. “It gives you a sense that your community wants to give back to you.”

Stram mostly used the money to buy books.

“It really helped me out, because I had to work a lot and go to school a lot, and anything helps if you have to pay out of pocket,” she said.

Spencer's proud of the educational savings program, but he says it's a small part of what his business offers young people.

“The life skills polishing, developing their ability to talk to adults in a positive, respectful way, and learning to be a team for the cause of serving our community are probably the things that are biggest,” he said.

To Spencer's disappointment, fewer of his workers are using the education savings plan than before.

“I have to sell it harder than I ever had,” he said.

Employee Hunter Patrick, 19, is taking courses at LCC to become an emergency medical technician, but he's not saving money through the plan.

“I live on my own, and I need as much (of my pay) as I can for rent,” he said.

Spencer, 68, has operated a gas station in Creswell since 1974. He's employed generations of the same family, and estimates that he's hired close to 1,000 people.

He views his business as a way to help young people become adults. “We take up where the parents left off,” Spencer said.

"Parents have been yelling at their kids to get up on time for a long time. We take it to the next level. So if (employees) are late to work, there is a report they have to fill out. And on that report it says ‘What I'm going to do so I won't be late again.'

“And we expect a serious response on that report,” Spencer added. “We are not interested in firing somebody; We are interested in making them a quality employee and getting them ready for the rest of their employed life.”

Spencer said he tries to hire courteous individuals, “people who have been raised to be polite.”

But much remains to be taught in employee training, he said.

There's a preferred way to direct motorists to the correct gasoline dispensers; how to approach a customer waiting for service from the front of the vehicle, not from behind) and to say “Thank you” or “You're welcome,” instead of “No problem.”

Spencer also is part owner of the Point S tire store and auto repair shop, at southwest Oregon Avenue and Mill Street, across from the Union 76 station.

For years, Spencer has been an unpaid assistant basketball coach at Creswell High School. His gas station manager, Jesse Thomas, is the Bulldogs basketball coach.

A few years ago, Spencer donated half of the $7,000 cost of a new basketball scoreboard in the Bulldogs gym. The Jerry Brown Co. got Union 76 to pay for the other half, Spencer said.

A few basketball seasons ago, Spencer began donating the prize money for the halftime half-court shot contest during Bulldog basketball games. “It builds interest in the games,” he said.

During the holidays, Spencer's wife, Pam, hangs Christmas stockings for employees in the station filled with gift cards, candy and other presents.

“We encourage employees to give each other presents,” she said. “It's just a fun way to enjoy the holidays.”

Sara Scott, 36, works part-time as a cashier. She has another part-time job as a bookkeeper.

“I'm one of the more senior age people here,” she said, with a laugh.

“It's nice to be able to work in an environment where you can mentor young people,” Scott said. “We have tons of loyal customers. Aside from the service they get, they come here to support the kids, to encourage them and build them up, and show them that there is an environment out there that is going to build their futures.”

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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