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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: The real thing

    A health crisis convinces a former Coke exec to help fill other cups, through giving.

    During the 24 years he worked with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., Joe Szombathy learned more than he ever could've imagined from the family-owned businesses he served. According to the esteemed executive, who worked his way through the corporate ranks and became the beverage giant's group manager for independent supermarkets, he learned some of life's most valuable lessons from retailers such as Dave Skogen, Michael Bozzuto, and the late Joe Mastroianni.

    One of the most important lessons: Change, while emotional and often difficult to manage, can be good.

    At one point in his career with Coke, Szombathy took on new responsibilities when he was promoted to global account director of the company's SkyTeam Alliance. While in that new role he missed the everyday contact with independent grocers, he still found his work with several high-profile airlines, including Delta, Air France, Alitalia, Korean Air, and Aeromexico, to be extremely gratifying.

    "My career had moved along beautifully at Coke, which is one of the greatest organizations in the world, and I thought I'd be with the company forever," he reflects. "And then things changed, and one of the changes involved my health."

    The change Szombathy faced was abrupt. "Imagine going to the doctor for a routine physical and being told that you can't step foot out of the hospital because you have to undergo open-heart surgery at 6 a.m. the next morning," he recounts. "Needless to say, at age 48, I was shocked to learn that a double bypass was needed to save my life."

    Soon after his open-heart surgery, however, Szombathy began to re-evaluate his life -- especially the professional side of it. "I had loved working for Coca-Cola every single day for 24 and a half years. But change, like it or not, occurs in all of our lives. The surgery only reinforced to me that it was my time for a few changes.

    "While undergoing a double bypass was no treat, I felt fortunate in that I was one of the lucky ones who'd been given a wake-up call," he continues. "It helped me to understand that besides work, there are a lot more important things in life, including my family and community. And the support I received from friends was unforgettable."

    With the encouragement of family and friends, Szombathy, the proud father of daughters Sophia and Mina, considered a career change that also would allow him to follow in his own father's footsteps. "My dad was a football coach at Syracuse University, and I thought that maybe it was time for me to teach or coach," he recalls. "I felt this strong need to give back to my community and to help people."

    Post-recovery, Szombathy met up with a colleague from Coca-Cola who works now as an executive recruiter. It was through this former co-worker that Szombathy was introduced to the Atlanta-based organization Benevolink, which he eventually joined as v.p. of retail channels.

    Founded in 2002 by c.e.o. and president Tunstall Rushton, Benevolink is an innovative movement in corporate giving that links individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations, with the goal of improving local communities.

    Benevolink's vehicle is a loyalty marketing program that includes its own online shopping portal, The [email protected]. Benevolink is designed to drive sales and market share for member businesses, increase brand awareness, and create stronger connections with customers by allowing them to direct corporate giving to their favorite charities, schools, and religious organizations through their everyday personal purchases.

    "Keep in mind that the service is free not only for the charities that benefit, but also for consumers," notes Szombathy. "Customers seeking support for their charitable causes simply enroll in the Benevolink program, whereby they earn and can direct a percentage of their spending at Benevolink merchants to the causes of their choice -- and they pay the same price everyone else pays. They simply visit our Web site, www.benevolink.com, to enroll."

    At the end of each giving period, every Benevolink merchant forwards the monies generated by the program to the Benevolink Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, which in turn distributes funds to the qualifying charities.

    According to Szombathy, the Benevolink charitable database comprises organizations qualified to receive charitable contributions under IRS statutes, as well as the U.S. Department of Education and organizations confirmed to meet the requirements of a 501(c)(1) organization.

    Through its diverse, multitalented staff and cutting-edge technology, Benevolink appears to be revolutionizing corporate giving in America. In so doing, it has earned a vote of confidence from a number of high-profile companies, including Campbell Soup Co., S.C. Johnson, and Ukrop's.

    The Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's Super Markets chain has during the past two decades distributed more than $11 million dollars to charities and nonprofit organizations.

    "We have the fundamental position of providing a competitive edge for the retailer," explains Szombathy. "We provide a sustainable loyalty platform for our retail members, and we do it by helping to build or enhance a more intimate relationship with their customers. And having a coalition of member retailers from other segments, including mass and electronics, provides additional support for local nonprofits, charities, and communities."

    It all adds up to a potent program. "The administrative responsibility is ours, and that takes the sometimes burdensome task off the retailer's plate. This was an important factor for Ukrop's when they became a Benevolink partner this past fall. We're working directly with Scott Aronson, v.p. of marketing and analysis, and his team, to automate Ukrop's already successful Golden Gift community-giving program."

    Giving back to its communities is part of Ukrop's 68-year history in Virginia, says Bobby Ukrop, president and c.e.o. "Over the past 18 years, our customers have made Golden Gift a tremendous success by directing their funds to benefit thousands of community organizations. Partnering with Benevolink allows us to expand Golden Gift to a year-round outreach effort through its improved technology and loyalty marketing expertise."

    It could be argued that Benevolink's most crucial "customer" is the shopper. "The bottom line is that Benevolink empowers the consumer," adds Szombathy. "As every successful business owner or manager can confirm, it's ultimately the customer who generates profits for a store. And by participating in Benevolink, it's the customer who has the final say on how those profits are to be shared with the community."

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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