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Changing Behavior at Weight Watchers

July 1, 1997
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Devising strategies for keeping the workforce motivated is a primary role of HR. Nowhere is this more important than in a company at which the business itself is all about motivation. Weight Watchers International Inc. is just such a business. The 34-year-old organization relies on well-trained leaders to motivate and encourage millions of customers to change their eating habits and become healthier human beings. Brian Powers, general manager of Weight Watchers, explains below how HR fulfills this role.

What's your background?
My background originally is in education, in which I obtained an undergraduate degree. But I fell upon a recruiting assignment through a recruiting firm and ultimately ended up in HR, doing recruitment and working my way up through the ranks. Then I went for my master's degree in labor industrial relations. And here I am. That's the short version.

Over the years, I've gained a lot of experience in all areas of HR: recruitment, employee relations, compensation and benefits. I've done it all.

What's the unique aspect of HR at Weight Watchers?
All of our field personnel have been on the program. They're lifetime members. That fact, however, creates some challenges for us in terms of recruitment and selection-to have former members want to share their success with others and become part of the Weight Watchers organization. In fact, some members don't realize our leaders actually get paid to do what they do because they're sharing their success and motivating them by saying, "I've done it. You can do it, too." That passion about wanting to help others succeed is what we have.

So what strategies have you created to successfully recruit?
As soon as people become lifetime members, we send them a recruitment brochure. We have our staff talk to them and ask if they want to be part of the business and become part of the experience to help others succeed. We try to get that message out to those people. We identify those who are dynamic at speaking. Our leaders and receptionists become friends of these people. They can identify the dynamic people. We approach them in writing or just ask them, "Would you consider a position with Weight Watchers?" We put them through a complete training program to learn how to deliver our message and motivate others to do as they did.

How is human resources organized in your company?
We're probably no different from HR at other companies. We've gone through many changes within this group. We're a division of H.J. Heinz Co. So we're able to reap some of the rewards of its enhanced benefits programs. It's a $7 billion company. We have a good benefits package, which we wouldn't be able to have on our own because we're a smaller company. We provide full comprehensive medical benefits, dental, vision, life insurance and tuition reimbursement for some groups of employees.

What's your breakdown of employees in North America?
Our full-time, salaried employees include 550 people: all our administrative office personnel, field management staff, trainers and finance people. The part-timers are the 5,500 people who work between two meetings a week to 15 to 17 meetings per week. It runs the gamut. There are some leaders who are professionals in their own right and they want to share their success with others by working part time about two nights a week. Our leaders and receptionists are on the front line. They're the most important piece here.

How would you describe your customer base?
About 98 percent are women. I don't know if there's an average age. Our target age is between 25 and 55. Our service providers match the same profile and percentage -98 percent are women. Now, speaking from experience, I think men are more the self-help type—they're not as much in favor of a group-support experience. But we do have some very successful men on the program and many who are leaders.

Have you been through the Weight Watchers program?
I've been to meetings. I understand the program, but I lost all my weight before Weight Watchers. I feel that having lost weight was an advantage I had over other qualified candidates. When you deal with the field personnel, there's something to the fact that you've also struggled with weight loss. If I had been skinny throughout my life and never had a weight problem, I'd have less credibility. But I've lost 50 pounds—on my own. When people hear that, they can identify with me more. It's a matter of establishing that credibility issue. It's something to break the ice with.

The company has recently undergone a downsizing. What impact has that had on staffing and customer service?
We've had different kinds of downsizings. One was administrative. HR, at one time in the early '90s, employed 14 people. But with five HR people today, we still service the same number of employees. We've been challenged with the same edicts as other companies: How do you reduce costs and still provide a quality HR function? It's been quite an experience, but I think we've evolved into a streamlined and effective HR department.

Within the Heinz world, we shifted some of our administrative burden—benefits administration, for example—to corporate headquarters. So we didn't need the same staff as before. We have also centralized our payroll functions. We used to have five regional field offices that processed accounting and payroll. Now we have three. We've taken all of that into corporate headquarters as well. That was a lot of it—centralizing and systematizing things for efficiency.

Can you describe the culture of your organization?
Our total culture is one of empathy. We really care about what we do here. We're not making widgets and manufacturing something that's purchased and you never hear about it again. The nice thing about this business is that when people are successful, you've actually impacted their lives.

For example, our trainers really help our leaders deliver the program: the leaders learn presentation skills, how to use the tools to open up and create an atmosphere that's motivating. That's the key —- how to be motivating. People who come to Weight Watchers are looking for support. They need someone who understands where they're coming from. That's what the training programs try to teach our leaders and receptionists. Most have been there themselves. That's half the battle because our service providers have lived the program and are in the same situation.

Why and how did Weight Watchers choose the Duchess of Windsor as its spokesperson?
She shares the same public relations agency—Rubenstein and Associates. Howard Rubenstein was talking to her one time and learned she'd gone to Weight Watchers and asked her if she'd like to work with us. He put it together. And it's been a great relationship.

Workforce, July 1997, Vol. 76, No. 7, pp. 27-28.

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