A Man of Measure: Don Zietlow

By  Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

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I’ve never met Don Zietlow. Yet my ears instantly pricked up when editors Samantha Oller and Angel Abcede blurted with excitement that they had spent more than two hours with the soul of Kwik Trip.

As our cover story reflects, Kwik Trip is the winner of our sixth annual CSPService Intelligence Mystery Shop benchmark study. It’s also Kwik Trip’s second consecutive win.

What is most fascinating about this Wisconsin-based chain is that it operates with a Walmart mentality that is highly vertical, commodity-focused and tenaciously competitive on core staples, from historic industry drivers such as cigarettes and fuel to dairy staples.

I’ve come across many small operators along the lakes of Minnesota and the suburbs of Wisconsin who have lamented their inability to compete against Kwik Trip. Indeed, after 10 minutes of ranting against Kwik Trip, one retailer paused. When I asked if she was OK, she chuckled.

“What I really don’t like about them,” she said of Kwik Trip, “is they’re killing me and they’re doing it by the rules.”

There’s no below-market pump pricing, nor any predatory pricing. Neither a scandal nor a scent of wrongdoing has wafted across Kwik Trip’s headquarters. The folks who work for the company are as honest as they are good. With its own distribution system, foodservice commissary and everexpanding private label, Kwik Trip is reaping the competitive advantages few in our channel can afford or execute.

This is part of the Kwik Trip advantage. The other is culture.

Many businesses are successful on the product but falter on the people. I’ve worked for businesses that were bottom- line-centered and sustained drastic losses in talent and cash flow because of their inattention to employee retention and customer service.

This issue’s cover story illustrates that it doesn’t have to be that way. When we notified Kwik Trip executives that they had won our mystery shop, one official asked, “How do we get copies for all of our employees?”

 “Why?” I asked. “Because without them, we don’t win.” In my 12 years in trade publishing, this was the first time I had heard of an executive not only talking a good game, but also walking it.

It is well known that Kwik Trip maintains one of the industry’s most generous profit-sharing programs, granting 40% of its pretax profits to its 9,500 employees. It also has launched a sabbatical program for all members with 20 years of experience. Not surprisingly, Kwik Trip enjoys one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry. A look at the company through Facebook or Twitter finds legions of fans, from both the employee and the customer base.

That brings me back to Mr. Zietlow. A thoughtful man of 75, he does not gallivant across the stage of success. His presence at industry events is rare, and his refusal of public accolades bespeaks a humility that is genuine.

He is blessed with a prodigious memory and a calculator’s proficiency, along with a retailer’s marksmanship that is second to none.

And, most importantly, he has honed a company rooted in the finest of all investments—his people.  

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