PLS’ Good Neighbor Policy

By Bill Kunkel

When Bob Wolfberg talks about the community outreach aspect of the PLS stores he operates with his brother, Dan, it isn’t the public relations puffery one generally hears from businessmen looking to pat themselves on the back for tossing the community

a bone.

His genuine passion for PLS’ many charitable ventures is obvious in his voice, as is his belief that, in strengthening the neighborhoods in which they operate, PLS also benefits.

“It’s part of our business plan; it’s part of our mission,” Wolfberg says.

“We’ve been doing it for years. The cornerstone of our mission is to be a good neighbor in our neighborhoods. And part of being a good neighbor is making certain it’s a strong neighborhood. We need a strong neighborhood in order to survive.”

From serving as the exclusive sponsor of Indianapolis’s WRTV’s “Fan Club” to rewarding school children with free bicycles and supporting environmental causes as well as the Hispanic community, PLS is involved in so many charities that it can be difficult to keep track of them all.

The company has charitable budgets at store, regional and company levels. But who decides which events and charities to support?

“In PLS,” Wolfberg says, “decisions are not pushed down, they’re pushed up.” This trickle-up process has led to community projects that were envisioned by everyone from store managers to district managers, while some of the charities were simply presented to PLS.

“Choosing charities and choosing organizations to become involved with is done at the store team level, it’s done at the regional level and it’s also done at the support centers. It’s part of who we are. It’s not done as public relations, though it has a PR benefit. It’s just part of being a good neighbor,” Wolfberg says.

The “Fan Club,” for example, saw an Indianapolis TV station solicit its viewers to donate 20-inch box-style fans, while PLS kicked in $5,000 to purchase even more of the cooling devices.

The fans were then distributed, through the assistance of organizations such as the United Way, to poor families in the city during this past summer’s brutal heat waves.

Wide Variety

The range of projects PLS has embarked upon is impressively diverse. After the company’s logo was updated last summer, for example, PLS employees began donating their old uniform shirts for repurposing as animal bedding at the Evansville Vanderburgh Animal Control Center.

“We’ll get a lot of good use out of PLS’s shirts,” says EVACC Superintendent Monica Freeman. “We really appreciate PLS being such a good neighbor.”

In yet another creative contribution, PLS demonstrated its support of the environment by going green this past Arbor Day and donating 2,012 trees — one for each PLS employee — to American Forests, America’s oldest non-profit citizen’s conservation organization.

“We’re very proud to be associated with American Forests,” Wolfberg says. “Their good work integrates perfectly with our company-wide efforts to reduce paper use and increase recycling.”

PLS has also demonstrated support for ethnic communtiies, as evidenced by its backing of Hispanic Heritage Month held annually in Chicago’s 12th Ward.

One of the celebration’s most festive events is dubbed the “JuntaHispana” and is held in the Windy City’s Douglas Park, where PLS employees were on the scene, handing out candy.

Hometown Heroes

Given its Chicago headquarters, PLS devotes a lot of time, energy and money to helping out with other Windy City. At this year’s 7th annual “Bike the Boulevard,” for example, Chicagoans aboard all manner of ornately decorated bicycles celebrated the day by riding the streets of the Brighton Park and Back of the Yards neighborhoods. PLS supplied a booth and goodie bags, and many of its employees were participants.

PLS has also proven adept at combining business with its community-based activities. Every year, Chicago citizens experience what is known as Chicago City Sticker Day, an event commemorating June 30, the last day for Second City motorists to purchase “City Stickers” for their automobiles before facing a $40 surcharge penalty.

For those in search of their Sticker, 20 of PLS’s service centers in the Chicago area had them on sale (the price is $75 plus a $5.50 convenience fee).

“We make it very competitive between the stores,” Wolfberg says. “Which store is going to sell the most stickers? There’s a year’s worth of bragging rights at stake!”

The competition keeps the stores busy and besides, as Wolfberg points out: “It’s a lot of fun helping people avoid that $40 surcharge. And it helps keep us close to our customers.”

But the events that are closest to the Wolfbergs’ hearts are those that relate to education.

“Everything that has to do with education is so important for our communities, because the local schools must be supported,” Wolfberg says. “If you notice, much of what we do involves education. My personal favorite is a program where we give free bicycles away to students who have perfect attendance.”

Other school-related projects in which PLS has participated so far this year include serving as a sponsor of WGN-TV’s “Back to School” Kids Fair and teaming with B96-FM radio to welcome Chicago area College students back to class via the “Campus Invasion” event.

Separate Operations

PLS is an unconventional business in several ways. For example, rather than combine its check cashing and payday loan services into single stores, it operates PLS Check Cashers (check cashing, money transfers, money orders and bill payments) and the PLS Loan Store (consumer micro-loans and tax preparation services) as independent entities.

Wolfberg believes that check cashing and PDL are completely different businesses that need to be run by completely different teams that are experts in what they do.

“I was asked to address the general session at the FISCA conference in Las Vegas, and one of the things I’m going to talk about is that, if you want to be a specialist, you have to be special,” Wolfberg says.

“In order for PLS and companies in our industry to survive against the new competition from the likes of Wal-Mart, banks, grocery store, etc., you have to be a specialist.”

Editor’s Note: This is a shortened version of the cover story of the Fall issue of Cheklist. To read the entire story, subscribe to Cheklist magazine.

Posted in Fall 2010.