Retail Leader of the Year: Don Zietlow

A look at the man who built Kwik Trip into a $4.2 billion business with heart, soul and a purpose.

By
Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Content Development Coordinator

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If any convenience chain were a reflection of its owner, it would be Kwik Trip.

Don Zietlow has built a $4.2-billion business on selling life’s simple necessities and living by the simple rule of doing unto others.

But if life were simple, assembling a 433-store, vertically integrated chain would be com­monplace. And there’s nothing common about Kwik Trip, nor the people behind its success.

Since its inception in 1965, La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip has evolved into a regional icon, finding profit in knowing what the cus­tomer wants and coming up with the best, most efficient way to deliver. For Zietlow, that meant taking control of the supply chain, spending more than $1 billion on a foodservice infrastructure and pairing the Golden Rule with a hunger to be the best.

But building a complex, enduring busi­ness was never the end goal. For Zietlow, the people who work for Kwik Trip are its most vital resource and the reason the chain strives for excellence. It’s their humility, generosity and determination to improve their communities that makes Kwik Trip successful in his eyes.

To that end, Zietlow has practiced a thought­ful yet driven leadership style that led CSP to name him its 2012 Retail Leader of the Year.

One of the coolest things in Kwik Trip’s bakery/commissary/dairy complex is a new, 20-foot-tall robotic arm that picks up large baking trays with a kind of mag­netic suction and moves them from one roller belt to another. It’s like something from an automobile assembly line.

Then there’s the doughnut-glazing conveyor, the sandwich-packaging machine and, of course, the hulking device that fills thick plastic bags with Kwik Trip milk.

Not that automation is more interest­ing or important than people, but these formidable machines symbolize a busi­ness that’s serious about what it produces. Kwik Trip makes what it sells—much of it, anyway. And in that ownership, the chain transcends the mechanical and moves into that hard-fought, hands-dirty Midwestern sensibility: a pride derived from making something yourself.

That’s the innate quality resonating from the chain’s employees, its leadership and most certainly its owner and CEO, Zietlow.

To know Kwik Trip is to know Zietlow. While a humble person and one to imme­diately credit his team before taking any himself, Zietlow, 77, has made an indel­ible impression on the convenience chain he heads. Like every good leader, he leads by example, driven by a combination of simple but undeniable truths: Do unto others, be the best and make a difference.

Zietlow will talk about the backbreak­ing work he did early in his career: The job as a truck driver that had him up at 4:30 a.m. pulling loads from La Crosse to meat plants in Albert Lea, Minn., and Waterloo, Iowa. The six-day-a-week schedule that had him openly complain­ing about how hard he worked for so little. The one with the supervisor who told him to either shut up or leave. And when he decided that if he were in the position to properly reward people for their hard work, he’d do it.

But that revelation was more of a focal point, an epiphany for someone already intent on doing good.

Formative Years

Zietlow did not have an easy upbringing. His father, Elmer Zietlow, died when Don and his brother David were boys, and the struggle to make sense of the loss played a big role in who Don became, what would motivate him at the core.

He had a stutter, one his wife, LaVonne, described as keeping him from putting four words together. (Humorously, she recalls, “It took him 10 minutes to ask me out on a date.”) But it also made him a target at school. And it kept him from pur­suing the career path he wanted: ministry.

Still, Zietlow grew up with stability, raised by strong women in his mother, Helen, and his Aunt Emma, as well as her husband, Paul. And his Lutheran upbringing introduced role models in his pastors and, in a broader sense, the church community.

The dueling elements of fortitude and frailty would instill in him an internal drumbeat, a drive to produce, provide and ultimately win.

It led him into business and the truck­ing position in the 1950s that would focus his drive, taking him from meat delivery to supervising grocery stores. Oddly enough, the success of Kwik Trip overshadows his equally notable career as a grocer: He rose through the ranks to become president of Gateway Foods, then a division of Rein­hart Foodservice, Rosemont, Ill. Gateway owned five c-stores in the 1960s, which Zietlow bought with a busi­ness partner, John Hansen, in 1972. That’s when Kwik Trip’s true history begins. Reinhart remained a third partner in the business as it grew.

Reinhart would eventually sell Gateway Foods in 1989 and part ways with Kwik Trip. Hansen and Zietlow would be equal partners until 2000, when a divergence of goals—including the continuance of its already lucrative employee-benefits plan—motivated the Zietlow family to buy the company outright.

To ensure family ownership, Zietlow has already transferred the business to his three children: Steve, who manages the petroleum side of the business; Vicky Kunz, who participates in Kwik Trip’s donation committees; and Scott, who is chairman of the Kwik Trip board and a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. This move and giving the chain’s real estate to its employees helped as far as taxes due upon the owner’s death, which could potentially force a sale or raise issues with the company’s stock.

Risk Taker

In many ways, Kwik Trip became Ziet­low’s clay, an opportunity to mold a busi­ness in the values in which he so believed.

Many talk of how adamant Zietlow can be regarding certain aspects of the business, especially when it comes to visionary, big-picture elements. Zietlow’s grandson, Mark Zietlow, talks of a “con­fidence” his grandfather has about where the company should go.

“That confidence is a tough thing to get around … and tough to build and maintain,” he says. “It’s a tremendous quality, something to be admired.”

“Don is a risk taker,” says LaVonne Ziet­low. Over the years, “his partners clashed over borrowing money. Don said, ‘You have to borrow money to make money.’ ”

Yet one of the things he seems ada­mant about is being upbeat and having nice people around him. Steve Loehr, vice president of support operations for Kwik Trip, recalls a time when a journalist came to interview Zietlow. Not knowing what the Kwik Trip owner looked like, she hap­pened to meet a nice gentleman as they both entered the corporate building. He opened the door for her and started a friendly conversation. She was shocked to find out it was Zietlow.

“People are always telling us the thing about our company is: The further up in management you go, the nicer people get,” Loehr says.

But don’t mistake nice for meek. Nice as a management style, at least with Kwik Trip, means little micromanagement and a ton of trust building. “Don will be the last one to take credit when things go right and the first one to take the blame if something goes wrong,” Loehr says. “We’ll discuss what needs to get done and he’ll get out of our way.”

Where does the confidence to let go come from? As much as Zietlow exudes a genuine, caring nature, he’s also a num­bers person.

LaVonne and many Kwik Trip employ­ees attest to Zietlow’s ability to compute numbers in his head. In an interview with CSP in 2009, when the chain won the magazine’s annual mystery-shop program for the first of three times, Zietlow sponta­neously updated a company statistic in his head, adding six-digit figures and coming up with a total. So it’s no surprise to find out he enjoys numbers games and has a passion for cribbage.

All this is to say that as much as he trusts in people and his personal faith, he trusts numbers. And numbers don’t lie.Over the past four years, Kwik Trip has managed record profits, even as the rest of the economy struggled through the worst recession in decades.

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