In 2018, Target caused an uproar when it announced plans to close two of its Chicago South Side locations.
One of them, the store at 87e Street and Cottage Grove, anchored a shopping center in the heart of the Chatham community for a decade and employed over 150 people.
Three years later, the 100,000 square foot building came back to life when Riverwoods-based Discover Financial Services announced plans to turn the old store into a call center that would employ 1,000 people, mostly from the surrounding neighborhood. , by 2024. .
The ambitious plan included a community centre, a technology hub, partnerships to offer free lessons and arrangements to contract with Chatham’s small service businesses.
During the 11 years that Juatise Gathings worked for Discover Financial Services, she managed call centers across the country.
Her role as director of regional operations for the Discover Customer Care Center in Chatham is something of a homecoming for Gathings, which spent part of its childhood in Chicago.
“For me, long before I was a Discover employee, I was a South Side girl first,” she said.
But it’s also something of a departure since dense, urban Chatham has little in common with Discover’s other call centers, all of which are in suburban office parks where the workforce is predominantly white.
“There’s this ecosystem, a family and a connectivity that we don’t have anywhere else, because we focus on neighborhoods and communities and our employees grow up and live in those neighborhoods. We are proud that nearly 90% of our employees live within five miles of the center,” said Gathings. “We have been in operation for just over a year, we have over 150 employees who have been promoted and some of them have been promoted multiple times since we started here.”
CEO Roger Hochschild said when Discover began planning in 2019 to open its first new call center in more than 20 years, the company took a fresh look at its approach.
“Call centers are critically important to us at Discover. We are the only major bank to offer 100% US-based customer service. We chose Chatham because we wanted to do what we could to provide opportunities for underinvested communities,” Hochschild said. “I strongly believe that something big business can do, and only big business can do, is bring jobs at scale to the community. “
“Nearly 90% of our employees here at the center are black. And so, as part of our focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and changing the racial makeup of Discover, this center is critically important to that,” Hochschild said.
Now, with around 500 staff in place after a year and a half of operation, Hochschild says the data shows their community-focused approach is paying off.
“The attrition rate is less than half of what we see at our other centers. There’s a faster velocity to proficiency, it’s our highest performing call center and I couldn’t be more excited about it,” he said.
Greater Chatham Initiative executive director Nedra Sims Fears said the community was indeed disappointed with Target’s departure, but Discover’s presence has “exceeded their expectations”. She says their annual results show it makes sense to bet on Chatham.
“We have good affordable housing stock, we have good schools, we have good transportation, we have a skilled and willing workforce, and we have good retail businesses,” Sims Fears said. “What do you want more?”
Employees at the Chatham center say working close to home in jobs with growth opportunities pays them dividends.
Team leader Katherine Bland was among the first to join the Chatham center when she applied after seeing the openings on a billboard. She said she did her interview remotely with her infant son on her lap.
“I was really, really lucky to have this available to me,” Bland said. “It was kind of like a dream come true because I could be a mom — a really, really awesome mom — and I can come to work and basically be in corporate America.”
Team leader Aaron Curtis said cutting his journey from over an hour each way to just 10 minutes meant more time with his children.
“Before, I wasn’t able to be in my family’s life at all, really. I wasn’t responsible for dropping my daughter off at daycare or picking her up because I wasn’t one of them. capable,” Curtis said. “With the hours I have now, I can pick her up. And my son, I can see him every day now.
Chaka Smith recently transitioned from a call center role to a technical apprentice, and credits Discover for allowing her to follow a new path in the enterprise technology group.
“Everything I need to know to work in the call center, they trained me to do it,” Smith said. “Everything I need to know now to do my job as a technical apprentice, they train me to do it. To be able to wake up and have a financially stable career at a big company and I only have three minutes to go? It is almost life changing.
In addition to tapping into the community for its workforce, Discover has tailored its service needs to allow it to contract with small local businesses, such as Chatham-based RB Pest Services.
“I and other businesses just want the opportunity,” said Robiar Smith, owner of RB Pest Solutions. “We don’t want handouts; we don’t want anyone giving us anything pro bono. We just want you to point us in the right direction and we’ll roll up our sleeves and show you that we’re capable of doing a job of this magnitude and even greater.
The Chatham center also has a community center, which local nonprofits can use for free for meetings and events. The rotating selection of art filling the space comes from I Paint My Mind, which curates works by local artists for business.
“They get this amazing art in their space. So they get value and this amazing service from us,” said Evan LaRuffa, Executive Director of I Paint My Mind. “But also knowing that it helps I Paint My Mind provide much-needed and often underfunded arts programs to local schools is so much more than icing on the cake for us.”
According to Discover leadership, this model of community investment as a business decision has created a new blueprint for future projects.
“That’s what allows us to translate that into good business to make sure that [employees] thrive and through that they really take care of our customers in return,” said Gathings.
“It really transformed us as a company. I like to say we get more out of it than the people of Chatham,” Hochschild said. “I think the business results again speak for themselves. As I said, this is our best performing call center. And so we are committed to Chatham for the long term.
And a year later, employees we spoke to say they’re all on Discover, too.
“Big companies are often afraid to come to communities like this, aren’t they? They’re afraid of not finding the right talent or just not being successful,” Bland said. “I think Discover said, ‘Well, we’re going to take this chance. “”
“There’s a lot of untapped talent and communities like this out there, but you don’t know it until you actually do it, and that’s what Discover did,” Curtis said.
And Smith encourages other companies to emulate Discover’s approach.
“Why not, Bank of America? Why not, Chase? What’s up, American Express? Come on board, Discover has the right idea and the numbers show it’s the right idea,” Smith said. “I can’t wait to see in a year how this has changed the community and the people in it.”