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Jackpot!

Reaction has been positive to the push by Alan Yandow, executive director of the Vermont Lottery Commission, to sell tickets responsibly

by Portland Helmich

That Alan Yandow is committed to increasing Vermont's lottery ticket sales is no surprise. He is, after all, executive director of the Vermont Lottery Commission. What is surprising, though, is that Yandow is equally committed to curbing ticket sales among those who are unable to "play responsibly," the well-worn message the Vermont Lottery Commission prints on its tickets and that Yandow espouses personally in radio and television advertisements.

In one television commercial, Yandow, dressed in a business suit, holds a 32-inch plastic fish. Straightforward and earnest, the director cautions viewers that the odds of winning Megabucks, a Tri-State Lotto game, are a lot longer than the length of the fish.

After 18 years at the Burlington Electric Department, Alan Yandow was ready for a change. In 1998, he became executive director of the Vermont Lottery Commission, a policy-making body appointed by the governor, in South Barre. Carole Lacasse is the organization's administrative secretary and personnel officer.

In another 30-second spot, Yandow stands in front of a haystack with a pitchfork in one hand and a Megabucks ticket in the other. Dressed in the same attire, he declares that although it's a lot of fun to imagine winning Megabucks, players shouldn't "bet the farm" because winning Megabucks is a lot like finding a needle in a "well, you know."

The spots were created in conjunction with Communicators Group in Brattleboro and closely aligned with the activities of the Vermont Council on Problem Gambling. Yandow admits to being nervous before the ads first reached the public in late 1999. "I didn't know if people would think I was too preachy or paternalistic," he says. "I thought if there was a negative reaction, who were they going to look to? Probably the guy in the commercial."

Fortunately, reaction has been largely positive. Yandow says he's been approached by strangers who tell him they'd never played the lottery until they saw Vermont Lottery's ads. Moreover, according to the 54-year-old executive director, legislators who had previously introduced legislation to limit lottery activities (the Vermont Lottery Commission is a state agency) have spoken highly of the commercials, as has Gov. Howard Dean, well-known for his anti-gambling stance.


"We shouldn't be building our profits on the backs of those who can't afford to, or shouldn't, be playing the game." — Alan Yandow


To those who feel that Vermont Lottery's "Please Play Responsibly" message scares potential players away, Yandow's response is as straightforward as he is: "If the people who need to hear that message heed it and stop playing, then that's a success. As a state agency, we shouldn't be building our profits on the backs of those who can't afford to, or shouldn't, be playing the game."

Though there is currently no way to determine if gambling addicts are playing Vermont Lottery games less often, it is clear that the ads have not hurt ticket sales. From 1999 to 2000, sales rose from $70 million to $75 million; in fiscal year (FY) 2001, they climbed to $80 million.

Sales meetings are open to office staff members, who also interface with supermarkets and convenience stores, the most common lottery agents. Pictured: Mark Cayia (left), Gweneth Dean, Sylvia Buzzell, Fran McAvoy and Stanley Roberts.

Yandow attributes the increase to "a good product presented in a responsible way." In the Vermont native's eyes, the professionalism of his 19 employees cannot be overlooked as another factor in improved ticket sales. "I have not worked with a group more dedicated and conscientious than this one," he says.

Hesitant to take more credit than he feels he deserves, Yandow admits that the reorganization he spearheaded when he became director in July 1998 has likely had something to do with increased profits. "One of the hardest things in any organization is to make change," he says, referring to signs that still hang in Vermont Lottery's South Barre offices that state, beneath the standard "No" symbol (a red circle divided by a diagonal line): "It's Always Been Done That Way."

"I tried to lighten the reorganization process by putting those signs around the office," Yandow explains. "They built awareness that just because things have been done a certain way doesn't mean they need to or are going to be done that way in the future."

Yandow, who says he doesn't believe in a hierarchical organization, is speaking of changes like opening up sales meetings to office staff members, who also interface with supermarkets and convenience stores, the most common lottery agents. "Likewise," Yandow notes, "salespeople on the road need to be aware of what we're doing back here so they don't go into a store and get asked a question about something we've done that they're not aware of. It doesn't make them, or us, look good. You have to keep the communication going both ways."

Other efforts at improved communication include unifying employee software and involving Vermont Lottery's five-person commission, a policy-making body appointed by the governor, in committees on which employees alone previously served. "Sharing information with others fosters much better working relationships," says Yandow, whose commission members have participated in selecting a new logo, a new advertising agency, and a new vendor for Vermont Lottery's on-line games (games generated from a Megabucks machine).

In an effort to increase efficiency, Yandow has combined sales and marketing into one team. He has also implemented a courier system for ticket delivery, noticing that sales representatives making rounds to lottery agents didn't have enough time to deliver tickets and talk to agents about how to increase sales.

"What I did was take a look at other lotteries," Yandow says, "and the vast majority had some form of a courier system. We went up to Maine, had their folks down here to describe how they do it, and then we developed our own system." The new system tracks sales and generates automatic requests for additional tickets, which are then sent from Vermont Lottery's warehouse to individual agents.

Started by the Legislature in 1977 after a 1976 referendum in which 66 percent of voters casting ballots in its favor, the Vermont Lottery Commission has earned more than $682 million since the first ticket went on sale February 14, 1978.

In FY 2000, 62 percent of the revenue, or $46.8 million, went to prize money. Ten percent took care of operating expenses and agent commissions, and 2 percent was apportioned for Tri-State Lotto expenses. (Vermont, along with New Hampshire and Maine, is part of the Tri-State Lotto Commission.) The remaining 26 percent, or $19.4 million, was profit; and all profits, as Yandow regularly points out in Vermont Lottery ads, go to the state education fund.

Five products are available to Vermont Lottery players today: Instant Tickets, Pick 3, Pick 4, Tri-State WinCash, and Tri-State Megabucks. Instant Tickets, scratch-off games, with approximately 50 varieties available per year, create the largest revenue for the Vermont Lottery Commission. Odds vary by game, and prizes range from $50 to $1 million. The mighty game, of course, is Tri-State Megabucks. Though the odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 5.2 million, players spent $9.9 million on Megabucks tickets in FY 2000. The largest sum an individual has ever won was a life-changing $16.4 million.

"Somebody always wins eventually," says Yandow, who admits that being a lottery director was not one of his childhood ambitions. Born in Burlington, Yandow grew up in Essex Junction and the Queen City. The eldest of three children, he graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in political science in 1972.

He later worked as assistant director and then director of Vermont Student Assistance Corp. (VSAC), developing proposals for a program called Talent Search, which made young people who lacked the financial means to attend college aware of how they could fund higher education.

While working at VSAC, he took graduate classes and eventually returned full-time to UVM, where he created a self-designed major in organization and human resource development. He graduated in 1977. "I thought it would be helpful to me in whatever career I chose after that," Yandow says.

What came next was a year at the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. Hired as an economic development specialist, Yandow developed and wrote a proposal to create a free trade zone for the Burlington International Airport. The Burlington Electric Department, however, is where the straight-shooting Vermonter spent most of his professional life.

 

Elaine Welch (left), Connie Gross, and Ellen Pulsifer are three of 19 Vermont Lottery Commission employees. "Play responsibly" is printed on Vermont Lottery tickets and is espoused by Alan Yandow in radio and television commercials.

During his 18 years at Burlington Electric, Yandow worked in a range of areas: administration, legislative affairs, and public relations. "The most interesting position I had," he says, "was manager of customer service and administration because it allowed me to be involved in government relations."

While municipal government kept Yandow challenged for almost two decades, he says he was ready for something different when he took advantage of a Burlington Electric early buyout program in June 1998. "I was at a stage in my life," he recalls, "where I felt I'd spent enough time with one employer. I really wanted to do something different, but I wasn't quite sure what it was."

Without any solid professional plans, Yandow agreed to the buyout. A month later, he landed his current position. The job plain and simple was advertised in the paper; he applied and was offered it after one interview.

Yandow, who doesn't relish talking about himself, suspects that his ability to work well with people, evidenced in his human resources and personnel administration background, combined with his experience working for a municipal agency, helped him stand out as an appropriate choice to direct a state agency.

Brian Searles, Vermont's secretary of transportation, was chairman of a small group that conducted a management review of the Vermont Lottery Commission before Yandow took over. The two had been friends since childhood, attending Essex Junction High School. Searles says he felt good that his friend would be assuming the role of executive director. "Alan's a smart guy," Searles says. "He understands organizations and how they work. He's really made sure the staff (at Vermont Lottery) has a working environment that allows them to succeed."

What Carole Lacasse, Vermont Lottery's administrative secretary and personnel officer, seems to appreciate most about her boss is his inclusiveness. "He's tried very hard to make it so that everybody has input," she says, adding that Yandow is the first executive director under whom she's worked (she's worked under five in 16 years) who has eaten lunch with staff.

This wouldn't surprise Martha O'Connor, one of Vermont Lottery's five commission members. "At our monthly meetings," she says, "Alan encourages the public, the staff, and the commissioners to participate fully in any decisions that need to be made." O'Connor says Yandow has several strengths. "He's an excellent manager," she stresses. "He has a knack for putting the right person in the right position at the right time."

In addition, O'Connor believes Yandow serves as an exceptional spokesperson in Vermont Lottery's radio and television advertisements. "He's not just a person saying the lines. He really believes them," she says. "He's brought a sense of dignity to the lottery by reminding people that it's not just a gambling game; it's a source of revenue for the state education fund."

Yandow says he enjoys changing public perception of the lottery. What he also enjoys is working with his "dedicated staff" and organizing the office "in the way I think a state agency should be run."

A special treat for Yandow is greeting lottery winners who come to claim their prize money. "It's heartwarming to see some of the stories that come in," Yandow says. "One fellow was a house painter in his 80s. He and his wife lived in the Northeast Kingdom, and he was finally going to be able to stop working."

Working for the Vermont Lottery Commission is clearly not something Yandow does because he has a penchant for gambling. In fact, staff and commissioners are not permitted to benefit financially from the lottery. For Yandow, the enjoyment comes from "the challenge of making it all work."

Earlier this year, for example, lottery directors from across the country held a meeting in Atlantic City, and Yandow attended. "I didn't drop a nickel," he says with a shrug. "It just doesn't appeal to me."

Originally published in September 2001 Business People-Vermont