Spirit of Continuous Improvement
If you could start all over again and build your company from scratch, what might you do differently?
Dave Carpenter, president and CEO of J.D. Carpenter Cos. Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa, and 2012-2013 NACS chairman, would focus on his employees first.
Carpenter, who sold his c-store business a few years ago, acknowledged that his company was passionate about building great stores and finding perfect locations, but it did not have a committed workforce. He is now re-entering the business and has a goal in sight.
“I’m on a mission to make a company built by people,” he told attendees of the 2013 NACS Show opening general session. As an example, Carpenter pointed to Kwik Trip Inc., La Crosse, Wis., which donates 40% of its profits to its employees and enjoys incredibly low turnover and shrink.
“It’s a scary step: Can I create that kind of a culture?” Carpenter said. “I’m convinced that I will have a better business with a team that wants to succeed as much as I do.”
It also requires c-store retailers to make a greater investment in their people, with the debate over raising the federal minimum wage and protests at quick-service restaurants as the backdrop. “We need to do a better job taking care of our people,” said Carpenter. “The end result is people doing a better job taking care of the company.”
While the c-store industry has grown into a powerful retail channel, it also has room for improving its image. “In business, your image is your business,” said Carpenter. He shared the example of his company’s efforts to build a new store in Colorado, what he considered an ideal site for growth—no competition within 3 miles, close to an interstate—but instead hit a wall of opposition from local government officials and a homeowners association. They feared yet another dirty, dangerous gas station bringing crime to the neighborhood.
While Carpenter understood their fears, he disagreed with their belief that a moratorium on new c-stores was the solution. “How will existing stores get better if the competition is locked out?” he said. After a tough fight, the new store won approval and ultimately won over the locals.
While Carpenter acknowledged that c-stores will continue to get resistance from opening new sites—“I always think surely the next time will be easier, but it never happens”—they will soon have a new tool to help them make their case. NACS is creating a customizable tool kit retailers can use that presents the business case for c-stores.
“We want to turn the discussion from NIMBY—Not in My Backyard—to ‘What took you so long to get here?’ ”
And there is measurable success in the industry’s efforts to redeem its image. For example, thanks to NACS’ “Dangerfield” public-relations campaign, c-stores have become less of a target of charges of price gouging.
Carpenter also hit upon the need for c-stores to broaden their customer base beyond regulars who come in for smokes and gas, both of which have seen declining sales over the past few years. While there is still a place for traditional gas stations that focus on these two categories, it is the c-stores that embrace foodservice that are truly pushing the industry’s boundaries. The convenience channel rang up $31.3 billion in foodservice sales in 2012, Carpenter said, besting the biggest quick-service restaurant, McDonald’s, with a sum that is more than the second- and fourth-largest QSR chains combined.
“That’s great news, but we have so much further to go,” said Carpenter. It’s not a matter of if but when the c-store channel will become the biggest threat to competitive channels, he said.