BECKLEY, W.Va. -- "Customers like to go to what's new, bigger, brighter, safer and has more to offer--more convenience, more restrooms. We spend a lot of effort on our interstate stores, building huge restrooms for our customers. Our Flat Top, [W.Va.], store has the biggest restrooms I've ever built."
Greg Darby, president of the 110-site Little General Store chain of convenience stores, is reflecting on how the industry has changed.
Twenty years ago, he points out, a typical store was 2,000 square feet. "Now it's 6,000 square feet with a restaurant on the side, and there are 10 pumps instead of four," he told the Charleston Daily Mail recently. "The survivors have changed to survive.”
Little General tries to rebuild one store every year, he said.
"If it's a good location that could be better, you try to expand it or put a restaurant in with it," Darby said. "I think the life of a store is about 20 years. Then it needs redone."
What sets Little General apart, Darby said, is that it's a branded company, meaning it sells name-brand items.
"We sell branded gas, branded food. We sell BP, Exxon, Sunoco and Marathon gas. We operate 70 restaurants, and they're all branded food concepts."
Little General has become a major restaurateur. The company has 29 Subways, seven Arby's, 16 Godfathers Pizzas, four Taco Bells, two Steak Escapes and 11 Sam's Hot Dog stands. Little General also operates the 79er Restaurant in Burnsville, W.Va.
Most of the restaurants are either inside or attached to one of the company's convenience stores, but 14 are freestanding units.
Darby believes the company has a good reputation, which also helps.
"We're local," he said. "We try to participate in all of the local areas where we operate."
Darby has worked for Little General since 1980, when he graduated from West Virginia University with an accounting degree. At the time, the company had eight stores. In 1999, when Darby and Cory Beasley bought Little General from Robert Workman and Harold Wilkes, the company had 42 sites.
Darby is president of the company and runs the day-to-day operations. Beasley is chief executive officer. The company now has more than 1,400 employees and is the 29th largest employer in West Virginia.
In a crowded market, "you've got to pick good locations," Darby said. "We're looking at rural or interstate."
Darby said the company is expanding in several directions.
"Our northernmost store was in Weston until we began building in Fairmont," he said. "We want to fill in between Weston and Fairmont. We would like to grow toward Kentucky. We are not in Kentucky today. We are currently in southwestern Virginia and would like to grow in that market. We just opened our first store in Ohio, at Albany near Athens."