'Doing the Right Thing'

Industry colleagues, family and guests honor Kwik Trip leader Zietlow.

By  Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Content Development Coordinator

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Under a canopy of glass globes on the reception floor and in the grand ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas, 375 attendees—decked out in suits and ties for the men and sequined gowns for the ladies—gath­ered to celebrate the success of Don Zietlow, his family and the powerful work force behind the Kwik Trip convenience chain.

As CSP Business Media’s 2012 Retail Leader of the Year, Ziet­low and his accomplishments, so interwoven with the energy, talent and experience of his Kwik Trip team, were documented and honored at the annual gala event.

The head of the La Crosse, Wis.-based chain and its 433 stores rose above all others this year for accomplishments in vertical integration, foodservice commitment and devotion to people and its culture of “making a difference” in the lives of others. At the pre-dinner reception, industry peer Sonja Hubbard, CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc., Texarkana, Texas, said, “Don is so willing to share … he’s so humble. It’s all about his team. He gives them full credit and truly recognizes their value.”

“He’s an inspiration to all retailers,” said Bill Douglass, head of Douglass Distributing, Sherman, Texas. “He’s focused and dedicated.”

“Don will tell you it’s all about people,” said Randy Fulkerson, a longtime c-store veteran who now consults out of Mesa, Ariz. “When you ask ‘How’s business?’ he says God has blessed him.”

CSP Business Media honored Zietlow and the Kwik Trip chain—known locally for its $1 Wednesday cheeseburgers, glazed doughnuts and fresh fruit, with a special corner on bananas—at a formal dinner on the second evening of the annual NACS Show.

Making a Difference

Having roots early in his career as a driver for a trucking com­pany, Zietlow understood full well the hardship of a low-wage, backbreaking job. The long hours and manual labor gave him the drive to not only improve his own standing, but also to give others the right to a fair wage for hard work. With a devotion to what many simply call the Golden Rule, he set his sights on building a company that would ultimately serve both the com­munity and its employees.

To better understand both the man and the chain he nur­tured and grew, attendees saw a prepared video documenting the chain Zietlow molded in his image and its mission of con­tinual improvement and giving back.

From its internal “Families Helping Families” program to its support of organizations such as the World War II Freedom Honor Flights, United Way and Special Olympics, Kwik Trip focuses on community.

In the video, Vicky Kunz, Zietlow’s daughter and a par­ticipant in Kwik Trip’s donation committees, said the in-house organization helps co-workers who have experienced hardship in their lives such as an illness, fire or economic difficulties during the holidays.

“Part of the Kwik Trip vision and mission statement is to take care of people and make a difference in their lives,” Kunz said. “Not just in the community, but within Kwik Trip also.”

Central to the Kwik Trip culture is “doing the right thing,” said Dick Geiger, director of retail support for the company. “Our co-workers ... myself included, we always have the opportunity to, throughout our lives, make the right decision or a wrong decision. If you can help someone, make a difference in their lives.”

For Pastor Roger Sachs of the First Evangelical Church in La Crosse, Zietlow’s faith fuels much of his generosity and focus on others. “Don is a person who puts his faith into action,” Sachs said in the video. “He reaches out with love and kindness to people around him. He makes sure that everything that is done in the Kwik Trip organization is done right and properly.”

The Golden Rule is apparent at the store level, Sachs said: “I have stopped by the Kwik Trip [stores] quite often. I always have been impressed with their workers, who always seem to display an attitude of love and kindness to customers in the store.”

The sentiment resonates among the employees themselves. In the video, Cristin Schelbe, a store leader in Onalaska, Wis., called the store “a place where you can treat people like you would like to be treated … and not worry about what manage­ment is going to say.” She said employees don’t “get in trouble for doing the right thing about a guest or the people you work with. And it’s just a really good feeling.”

Doing right by the community may be ingrained into the Kwik Trip culture, but so is that competitive spark. In the video, Zietlow’s wife, LaVonne, said part of her husband’s legacy is a strong work ethic.

“You work hard, you’ll be able to play hard,” she said, citing her husband’s almost equal devotion to his spiritual faith and the importance of making a difference in people’s lives.

Vertical Velocity

The video documented Zietlow’s career, which included time in the grocery business. He spent the first half of his career in supermarkets, moving up the ranks at Gateway Foods, over­seeing operations in La Crosse, Wis., and Duluth, Minn. His 26-year history with Gateway would round out with a stint as president, ending when the company eventually was sold.

That history gave him a unique perspective when he took ownership of Kwik Trip, along with a business partner, in 1972. Not only would the c-store industry cycle back from a fuel focus to one of foodservice and grocery, but Zietlow also brought along the expertise of executives from his time as a grocer, many of whom are tenured leaders at Kwik Trip today.

With like-minded folks at the helm, Kwik Trip’s foundation was firmly set.

All along the way, Zietlow never lost sight of the company’s main asset: people. As a testament to that belief, Zietlow and his family arranged for an employee benefit package that gives 40% of annual profits to employees—almost unheard of in the c-store industry, or any other. That evolved even further to include profits from the company’s property.

Though keen on the need to take care of his employees, Zietlow knew that success in business meant knowing what the customer wanted and coming up with the best, most efficient way to deliver. For Kwik Trip, that meant doing it themselves. If the company could prove it was better taking something in-house, it would do it, making Kwik Trip by far one of the most vertically integrated c-store chains in the country.

With that supply-chain focus, its biggest gamble was with foodservice, involving millions of dollars invested in bakery, commissary and food-safety facilities unparalleled in the industry.

Balancing a competitive fire with a caring eye toward people, Kwik Trip has managed record profits the past four years, even as the rest of the economy struggled through the worst recession in decades.

Competitive and Caring

Offering additional insight, Mark Zietlow, Don Zietlow’s grandson and potentially in line to follow into the family business, says his grandfather carries a confidence in how he believes the chain should evolve. “That confidence is a tough thing to get around,” he said in the video. “It is a tough thing to build and to maintain. Just the confidence to go in that direc­tion is a tremendous quality. It’s something to be admired, and to shoot for.”

Such sentiments were highlighted as Don Zietlow’s son, Steve Zietlow, who also works with his father in Kwik Trip manage­ment, took the stage with his sister Vicky Kunz and brother Scott Zietlow. The three accepted the CSP award on behalf of his father and the company.

Steve Zietlow called the award an honor for the entire Kwik Trip team, with his father keeping the business focused on people. But he also revealed a bit of his father’s competi­tive edge. In a quick anecdote, he recalled when he and Don were waiting for a store-tour shuttle during a NACS Show in New Orleans and deciding to kill some time at a nearby casino. The two started winning and decided to push the time to see how long their winning streak would last. They kept looking back and forth from their watches to their winnings.

“Let’s just say I’m sure there’s a lot of nice c-stores in New Orleans,” Steve said. “But we haven’t seen any of them.”

And yet while a competitive person, “as much as he loves to win, what’s more important to him is seeing others do well.”

His children then called their father up to the stage.

“We’re in a great business; all our models are different, but we can be successful,” Don said. “We’ve been able to grow to be profitable and share with our people. It’s been a great evening for my family, my wife and I. We’re in a great industry. … You make a difference.”

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