December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

The letter Gretchen Wollerman received in October didn’t seem foreboding at first. It merely instructed her to dial a number at Welcome Wagon Inc., the Connecticut-based company she had worked for since 1980, greeting newcomers to her suburban Chicago area on behalf of local merchants. But no sooner had she placed the call than Wollerman heard a most unwelcome taped message: Her services would no longer be needed. “Here I spend 18 years building a business based on human contact,” she says, “and I’m told that it’s all over by a recording.”

Over seven decades, Welcome Wagon employees have greeted millions of newcomers in neighborhoods across the country, touting local businesses and offering a friendly face to people who have relocated across town or across the continent. But Cendant Corp., the international conglomerate that acquired the company through a merger in 1997, this month ended the visits by Wollerman, 51, and her 2,200 cohorts. Offered a chance to stay on as an account executive when the company becomes a direct-mail marketer, she declined. “I’m not in this for the money,” says Wollerman. “I’m in this for the people.”

But Cendant, which also owns Avis, the Ramada hotel chain and Century 21 real estate, believes most women are at work these days and that Americans have grown wary of strangers—so it doesn’t make sense to continue home visits. “From a nostalgia point of view it’s all very nice,” says company spokesman Elliot Bloom, “and the horse and buggy is very nice too. But try taking one on the freeway—you’re going to get run over.”

Yet to Wollerman, who worked 40 hours a week on commission, the job served a purpose that direct mail will not. “A move is stressful even if it’s a good move,” says Wollerman, who has paid some 10,000 visits, often to people who have recently divorced or suffered the death of a spouse. Though her job is to distribute coupons and gifts from local businesses such as pizzerias to orthodontists, she often spends less time touting dry cleaners than dispensing advice to new parents or divorcees. “I’m like a psychiatrist who makes house calls,” she says. “After my visit, they usually feel a little better.”

It helps, of course, that she has been through her own ups and downs. Raised by a freight company executive and his wife in Berwyn, Ill., just outside Chicago, she married her high school sweetheart in 1969 and worked as a kindergarten teacher while raising two daughters, Megan, now 23, and Melissa, 22. Divorced at 30, she joined Welcome Wagon in 1980 at the suggestion of a friend. “I thought I’d try it for six months and see what it was like,” she recalls of her first post in suburban Western Springs, Ill., where she came to love the contact with families in transition. “It gets in your blood,” she says.

After remarrying in 1985, she moved with her daughters and her new husband, Rick Wollerman, 52, a chemical company marketing manager, to the booming suburb of Naperville, where she became one of five Welcome Wagon reps. Making up to 60 home visits a month, she worked to connect people, matching one new mother with another or giving reassurance to a new widow. “I try to share my life experience,” she says, “and tell them things aren’t as bad as they seem.”

But Cendant’s executives didn’t see that as the best way to earn advertising dollars. “What we’ve done is to find a better, more effective way of reaching consumers,” spokesman Bloom says of Welcome Wagon’s venture into direct mail.

After 18 years on the job, Wollerman isn’t so sure. In January she and her four Naperville colleagues are launching Welcome Home Greeters, which will continue to send representatives bearing gifts to the doorsteps of new transplants in Naperville. Though her contract with Welcome Wagon prohibited such competition, she isn’t concerned about legal action. “Why would a giant, multibillion-dollar corporation want to bother with us?” she says. Nor is she concerned that newcomers will stop opening their doors. “People haven’t changed,” says Wollerman. “They’re as nice as ever.”

That was apparent on Dec. 4, the day she made her final three calls for Welcome Wagon. One visit was to Leslie Waites, just arrived with her husband and two young children after his new bank job required the family to relocate for the fourth time in 18 months. “It has been horrendous,” said Waites, whose house still had its share of unpacked boxes. “I feel like Gretchen has been a Good Samaritan.”

And Wollerman plans to keep right on being one. “This is what I do best,” she says, “and no big corporation can stop me.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

John T. Slania in Naperville and Liza Hamm in New York City

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