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Young America Corp. Workers See Best, Worst Of Consumers

February 28, 1988

YOUNG AMERICA, Minn. (AP) _ Harlan B. Strong has seen his share of losers in his work for Young America Corp., one of the nation’s largest handlers of sweepstakes, rebates and product promotions.

But Strong says it’s the winners who stand out, especially when they’re as excited as a Detroit-area woman he called to inform that she and her family had won a trip to Disney World.

″There was this long pause; then all I could hear was this blood-curdling scream,″ said Strong, the company’s vice president of sales.

The woman put down the receiver and Strong said he could hear her running through the house yelling the good news to her family for several minutes before returning to continue their conversation.

″I enjoyed that. It was a real honest expression of joy at receiving this,″ he said.

Nationally, there are about 40 companies in the fulfillment industry, which takes its name from its work fulfilling rebate requests and product promotions and conducting sweepstakes.

Young America Corp. is one of five fulfillment companies in Minnesota, and its closest national competitor, the Maple Plain Co., is less than 20 miles away in Maple Plain.

″This is kind of the mecca of the fulfillment business,″ said Strong.

The 17-year-old Young America Corp. has grown from 15 employees to more than 1,000. That’s nearly the population of this tiny town, from which the company took its patriotic-sounding name, 40 miles west of Minneapolis.

Business became so brisk that the company had to acquire its own post office a few years ago to handle its up to 2 million pieces of mail a week, ranging from consumers’ requests for Duracell battery rebates to Campbell soup bowls to sweepstakes entries.

The 180,000-square-foot plant, which is completing its fourth expansion in 10 years, is highly automated, and that often surprises visitors, Strong said.

In one room, employees do nothing but feed envelopes into automatic slitting machines to open them.

″I think people think there are folks sitting around the table opening envelopes,″ Strong said.

That impression was closer to the reality of the company’s earlier days when Strong recalls executives taking off their coats and joining workers in packaging watches to keep product promotions on schedule.

Selecting winners from thousands of contest entries has grown more sophisticated, too.

″In the old days, we used to dump them on the floor,″ Strong said.

Now, workers randomly select 2 percent to 10 percent of the entries received each day until the contest deadline and place them in numbered boxes. After the contest deadline, workers draw numbered pingpong balls from a lottery drum and then pick the winners from the corresponding numbered boxes of envelopes.

But the prizes - TVs, VCRs, furs and jewelry and other goodies small enough to be stored at the plant - are still kept locked in a carefully guarded storage area.

The privately held company, which does not disclose its financial figures, promotes its security when selling its services to its clients, mostly Fortune 500 companies, by touting its computerized tracking of mail and products as they move through the company.

The company installed a paper shredder more than two years ago to destroy mailed-in rebate forms after people began digging through landfills to retrieve other companies’ discarded ones, Strong said.

He is proud of the company’s record of employee honesty. Young America Corp. has never had to discipline a worker for trying to influence contest drawings or stealing rebate forms, Strong said.

Young America Corp. is the largest single employer in Carver County, a dairy farming area that’s beginning to give way to the suburban sprawl of the Twin Cities. Many employees have been with the company for years, and up to 20 people a day apply for jobs there.

″If I left here to get a job with this kind of status and variety, I would have to go to Minneapolis,″ said Jan Feltmann, a senior client service representative who began working for the company 14 years ago a few hours a day at home.

″I was a young mother and had a college loan to pay and I didn’t want to have my husband pay for that,″ said Mrs. Feltmann, 35.

Company officials were so impressed with her work that they brought her to the plant, where she now supervises others.

About 600 employees are home checkers and home data entry personnel, verifying customers’ entries, rebates and order forms and typing the information for entry into the company’s computer system, which is capable of canceling multiple requests from the same household.

Customer service, where 30 people respond to incomplete rebate forms and handle requests for exchanges on product promotions, also is a fast-growing segment. The employees answer toll-free numbers set up to handle customer inquiries. A wholly owned telemarketing subsidiary, Young America Direct in Edina, was formed last year and already employs about 100 people.

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