The Kids Are All Right
A new generation of leaders is taking over, bringing a tech-savvy, family-balanced, social-media swagger to the industry.
The vision, direction and future achievements of a company rest on its emerging leaders, those whose voices galvanize, whose energy ignites action. As c-store titans of the baby-boomer set witness the growing savvy of those they’ve nurtured, these up-and-comers are grabbing the baton, running full bore into the uncertainty of fuel formulation, foodservice strategy and a new age of social technology.
“There isn’t a single area in this business [where] you can … assume cruise control,” says Allison Moran, RaceTrac Petroleum’s new CEO. She credits her father, Carl Bolch Jr., the iconic leader of the 622-store Atlanta-based chain, for helping her see the value of taking risks, making failure a friend and “constantly [striving] for improvement in everything I do.”
This new brood will “bring a renewed sense of energy,” says Steve Montgomery, president of c-store consultancy b2b Solutions, Lake Forest, Ill. “It’s very hard to maintain the high pace that this business requires. It’s not a job; it’s a way of life.”
Some of these ladder-climbing leaders talked with CSP about the future and the trail they hope to blaze in the c-store industry for decades to come.
The traits they share are many:
- Passion: They value teamwork and collaboration while developing new strategies against the threats facing the channel.
- Technology: With many having lived through the transition from land lines and PCs to smartphones and tablets, those interviewed are focusing on technology and its potential fit in the industry.
- Work Ethic: While technology is a driver, new leaders endorse traditional working values, never taking for granted what others did before them and what brought them success.
- Balance: From dance to horseback riding, cycling to running marathons, emerging leaders embrace the need to achieve on a personal level, prioritizing family and blurring the line between home and work—a hallmark of the social-media generation.
For many of these leaders, convenience retailing is in their blood; they inherited their passion from a multi-generation tradition that sometimes dates back to their great-grandparents. Others step into the c-store life with their own degrees and histories in retail, confident in the potential of an ever-changing channel.
Either way, they balance the excitement of a technology age with the weight of leadership and the double-edged sword of what could be.
John Strickland Jr., president of
Goldsboro, N.C.-based Wayne Oil Co. and a third-generation operator, sees the best chains reinventing the channel, taking the best from the gas-and-smokes stereotype to build new expectations and show customers the c-store’s true value.
“The bar for success in this industry is set really low,” says Strickland, who runs a 14-store chain under the name Ballpark Stores. “Which is why there’s a new interest in focusing on customer service and things we’ve traditionally not focused on.”
It’s a metamorphosis, he says, that starts from within.
“We have internal customers as well,” he says. “I’m always trying to figure out … how I can serve them better—teach, train and try to develop that vision—and how they can start thinking differently about what they do.”
After the Baby Boom
With the baby boomers now making retirement plans, the convenience channel, perhaps more than most retail sectors, is stepping onto the runway of change. Already, a wave of 20- and 30-somethings are catapulting to the role of category directors, and those but a few years older into the c-suite of CEOs, COOs, CIOs and CMOs.
And unlike their forefathers, this generation is decidedly more gender-neutral and embraces a capitalism that is far more complex, if not more competitive.
“Those retiring or transitioning to
their sons or daughters go back to a time when the industry was far simpler,” says Montgomery of b2b. “We’ve seen manual cash registers move to electronic and then to scanning. We’ve seen marketing go from gut to analytics. We’ve seen a well-equipped facility go from a 1,500-square-foot store with two dispensers to 6,000 square feet and 16 fueling positions.”
The new generation’s advantage is that today’s standards are all they’ve ever known, Montgomery says, emphasizing that in years past, the industry had been quick to jump on fads but slow to change its fundamental business. Today, the fundamentals are in constant flux, going from “center store to wall, replenishment to refreshment, from goods to services.”
And don’t think that family ties automatically lock sons, daughters, nieces or nephews into leadership positions. In fact, the last name Sheetz does not even guarantee an individual any position with the Altoona, Pa., retailer.
“Our family does not create positions for family members,” says Travis Sheetz, executive vice president of operations for Sheetz’s 432 retail locations, and the son of Joseph M. Sheetz. “It’s really a matter of opportunity and timing.”
Because convenience retail as a business is so hands-on, succession is a matter of personal pride and integrity. “If you’re going to turn over the business to one of your children—or to anyone, for that matter—you really want to make sure they’re ready and prepared to ensure its continued existence, hopefully a prosperous one,” Montgomery says. “No one
wants to say they turned the business over to their son and he ruined it. You spent your life building it. It’s your legacy.”
Growing up, many of the first-, second- and even third-generation leaders were advised to explore the world and develop outside careers before deciding to join the family business. “My dad told me it will take 20 years before I could provide value to the company,” says Strickland of Wayne Oil. “I was shocked. I was 22 years old and didn’t grasp the concept.”
Strickland took his dad’s advice and delved into other professions, including working for a congressman in Washington, D.C., and a stint with Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., before returning to the family business. Now, after 20 years at Wayne, his eyes are open. “It takes a long time to become a leader and to start adding value in excess of what you’re being paid,” he says.
Assuming the helm of any business, Montgomery says, means carrying the burden of the chain’s employees and their economic survival. If that weren’t enough, new initiatives and innovation require energy, confidence and determination, which require time and commitment.
For instance, any marketing project involving mobile apps may not interest someone about to retire. “But these young adults, they grew up with cellphones,” he says. “You’re going to see those kinds of things emerging [because] the new leadership will explore it and ask if we can get a payback.”
Getting a firm handle on technology may indeed be a necessity as emerging leaders face a difficult business landscape. Moran of RaceTrac cites just some of the significant day-to-day challenges: increasing competition, a more stringent regulatory and legislative environment, fuel supply and changes in consumption, and the never-ending evolution of what consumers need and want.
Tapping technology is a logical, if not necessary, first step, says Ashley Englefield, marketing manager of Englefield Oil, a 125-store chain based in Heath, Ohio. Her company has adopted a customer loyalty program, an interactive Facebook page and a recently launched mobile app.
“It is important for us to stay on top of the latest trends, but we must also be smart in deciding how to best serve our customers with this type of marketing,” Englefield says. “There is a fine line between being OK at everything and being the best at a few things.”
Englefield, among others interviewed, sees foodservice as a natural growth category. “It will be a challenge to compete with [quick-service restaurants],” she says. “But we have an advantage in that we are a one-stop shop with an overwhelming variety of products for our customers.”
Foodservice matters because of the need to diversify gross profits, says Quinn Ricker, son of industry vets Jay and Nancy Ricker, and the new president and CEO of the 50-store Ricker’s chain, based in Anderson, Ind. He believes fine-tuning the supply chain will be a key differentiator in the future, especially in developing internal capacities, joint ventures or partnerships to boost efficiency and create competitive advantages.
A third concern and potential opportunity new leaders cite is the form and formula of fuels going forward.
“Fuel and cigarettes are probably in irreversible decline,” says Adam Sheetz, director of operations for Sheetz in North Carolina, of the biggest challenges facing the c-store industry. “How can the industry remain profitable? That will represent tremendous change.”
Maintaining a profitable fuel business in the future will most likely mean embracing alternative fuels. Englefield called this prospect “inevitable,” pointing out that her chain is installing E85 pumps and may offer compressed natural gas (CNG) in the near future.
Though consumers will certainly dictate the demand for E85 and other fuel alternatives, new leaders have the opportunity to influence such decisions. Such is the belief of Trey Powell, director of marketing for Alimentation Couche-Tard, Laval, Quebec, which has more than 6,000 locations.
“The demand for convenience has never been stronger, and we have the infrastructure to meet those demands,” he says. “But as retailers, we’ve got to do our part to shape the evolution and delivery of the energy choices future on-the-go consumers will undoubtedly rely on.”