Lois Osorno had one rule for the financial education program for employees at Aloha Petroleum Ltd., Honolulu: “No PowerPoint presentations.”
Ms. Osorno, director of human resources for the operator of gas stations and convenience stores on four of Hawaii's islands, wanted straightforward statements packaged in a conversational tone.
The approach was necessary, she said, because the predominantly low-wage workforce includes many immigrants for whom English is a second language. Relatively few employees have comprehensive computer skills or home computers.
So she chose a Hawaiian tradition — a talk story — to deliver the message. Talk story, which Ms. Osorno described as “similar to a parable in the Bible,” involves people sitting in small groups around tables, rather than assembling for a formal, structured meeting.
Aloha also brought 21st century technology to reach employees at remote locations through Skype. The employees would congregate around a store manager's computer to hear the presentation.
The Skype meetings enabled Aloha executives to study participants' reactions, picking up on non-verbal cues to determine participants' understanding, and to immediately address questions.
The meetings were mandatory, and Aloha paid each employee $20 because they were attending on their own time. “That's more than many make per hour,” Ms. Osorno said.
The information was presented at the meetings using everyday examples, such as the cost of a lunch or the price of two packs of cigarettes, to describe payments into the 401(k) plan. And the plain-talk approach was extended to describing features of the 401(k) plan. The corporate match, for example, was advertised as “free money.”
The strategy worked. The participation rate in the Aloha 401(k) plan jumped to 68% from 38% within six months of the campaign's launch; it is now nearly 80%. Plan assets climbed to $10.4 million from $1 million.
The strategy, execution and results earned Ms. Osorno the Innovator Award for education and communication.
Aloha tried to enroll employees immediately, providing enrollment forms at both the group meetings and at the Skype sessions. “We had to grab the audience when we had their attention,” Ms. Osorno said. “We didn't want to say "Go home and call this number when you decide.'”
Instead of automatically enrolling employees in the 401(k) plan, “we wanted to make them understand the benefit, rather than just giving them something,” she said. “If we get them to understand, they might contribute more. We were opposed to force-feeding the idea of savings.”
Working with Bank of Hawaii, the plan's financial adviser, and Lincoln Financial Group, the record keeper, Aloha took these steps to “be an employer of choice,” Ms. Osorno said. “Work for us rather than a competitor.”
Innovator judges were impressed by the style, substance and results.
“Who would have thought that gas station employees with such diverse backgrounds and probably not so tech savvy could have kick-started their retirement outcomes with this simple, but well-thought-out, strategy,” one judge wrote. “If I knew how to say "bravo' in Hawaiian, I would add that here.”