Learning from the Sheetz Family

By  Paul Reuter, Chairman emeritus and contributing editor

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In the early years, the industry was much smaller and intimate. It was about a host of personalities who pioneered convenience retailing. I’m sure we’ll all enjoy a trip down memory lane this fall when the NACS Show celebrates its 50th anniversary.

And today, as I read Linda Zid’s cover story on Sheetz, I found myself reminiscing about the almost 32 years I have spent in this industry. The Sheetz family is a great example of what I have so enjoyed. And Sheetz’s passion and success has helped me—and CSP—grow.

Bob Sheetz, its founder, had just two stores in the mid-’60s when he recruited his younger brother Steve. Bob told Steve they would open 10 stores with the promise of making a “nice living.” They opened their 10th store in 1972. Steve Sheetz became CEO in 1982 and now is chairman; Bob retired in 1983. Today, Sheetz has almost 14,000 employees, does $4.5 billion in sales and is striving to open its 500th store by 2016.

The Sheetz gang, as Linda writes, spans three generations. Yet despite its tremendous growth, Sheetz has maintained the entrepreneurial spirit and close-knit culture of a small, family-owned company. CEO Stan Sheetz said when CSP honored the family as Retail Leader of the Year, “Today there are lots of cousins around that keep getting larger and larger families, so we’re growing a large crop of future executives. I love it when a cousin of mine says, ‘I want your job someday.’ I tell them: You want my job? You come in here and bust your tail and take it from me.

“We have a respect for the customer and respect for each other, whether that’s an employee or a fellow family member. It’s a culture that says we can always do a little better than we did before. A better way to say it might be: What’s good enough today will not be good enough tomorrow.”

Louie Sheetz, vice president of marketing, has told CSP, “You hear from people in other parts of the country and they refer to Sheetz as this brand. It makes you sit up and say, ‘Wow, we’ve had an impact on somebody.’ ”

So after reading our cover story, I would say that nothing has changed at Sheetz.

Our industry’s success in large part has been built on its entrepreneurial nature but fueled by its willingness to share. For years, Sheetz participated in share groups and also discussed successes and failures via the trade press and industry meetings. Sheetz was front and center in its openness. I suggest you will see that generosity in this cover story. For many years I traveled with NACS’ international study groups to Japan, Australia, Europe, etc. That’s where I got to know Bob, Steve and Stan Sheetz. From Bob I learned how an entrepreneur can transition his creation to the next generation of leadership and fully engage in retirement. With Steve, I found an energetic, inquiring mind who transitioned the company. I asked him once why he came back out of retirement to his chairman role, and when he’ll retire again. His answer? “When what I’m doing is no longer fun.” I learned from him how influential Jim Collins’ work in his books “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” was on Sheetz and later used the same teaching at CSP.

From Stan I learned that you can work hard and play hard. Sure, all the Sheetzes have fun; it’s part of the family DNA. But Stan is pushing the proverbial envelope personified.

I remember climbing the 200 stairs to the bungee platform on the Great Barrier Reef to watch Stan bungee. Why would a man afraid of heights bungee? “For the rush,” was his reply, and he convinced me to follow him off that platform. The message? Don’t be afraid to stretch your limits.

Meeting Stan can be deceiving. What you might not get about him at first is the intensity he brings to his job. I asked him once how he motivated himself to work so hard. “We are always driven to the next level, and we work scared,” he said. I think it’s also about family pride and the joy that success brings to so many.

After sitting in on industry meetings and having conversations with Louie, I’ve consistently admired his calmness and his inquiring mind, always looking to find a better way.

So for me and many others, Sheetz is a great example of why our industry is the success it is today. But I think the key learning is best summed up by Stan: “What’s good enough today will not be good enough tomorrow.” 

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