Humble Success

C-store greats share challenges during Outlook Conference

SALT LAKE CITY -- It's easy to forget the greats weren't always great. Perhaps that was the lesson to Monday's engaging session with three universally recognized gold-medal convenience chains at the Outlook Leadership Conference, which ends today in Salt Lake City.

Consider: When did one last hear about Sheetz Inc. as a business fighting for its very survival? Yet, as company president Steve Sheetz recounted in response to a question about the chain's relentless passion for customer satisfaction, rarely a day passes when he's not thinking about the pitfalls [image-nocss] of arrogance, as if a retail empire is endowed eternal success.

Can you be great without possessing passionate obsession for the customer, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, asked him.

It wasn't always a core value for us when we almost sunk in 1984 to '88 when it was questionable we'd survive, Sheetz said. We knew what we were doing was not right. At that point we turned to the customer.

He elaborated about the pursuit of store expansion without significant regard to the shoppers.

During that growth period, we lost our customer focus. So from that day forward, it became a core value. It had to get so bad we knew we had to stop expansion, he said. What I do now has to reflect the passion for the customer. I have to go to the stores, talk to the customersour people and customers first. I lost that some time in the '80s.

With Collins, a keynote speaker earlier in the day, serving as moderator, four executives discussed their companies' evolution and their challenges to remain among the elite. Joining Sheetz were Terry Carter, senior vice president of finance/CFO at Quik Trip Corp.; There duPont, president at Wawa Inc.; and Mark Schortman, chief customer officer and vice president of North America sales, Coca-Cola Co.

Among the highlights:

Carter, asked to explain Quik Trip's enormous success in an industry where its two revenue pillars, fuel and tobacco, are being squeezed, attributed it to a reversal in thinking that put the focus on buying, not selling. The better you buy, the better you sell. It was kind of a reverse relationship for us; we thought it was the opposite, Carter said. We understood we needed to lower our costs of doing business. We had to be willing to accept lower margins. Wawa's duPont discussed what drives his group's passion. Value people and delighting customers, he said. Power of the brand for us is having brand ambassadors. That's 16,000 (people) out there day to day. Each one is a touch point. Coke's Schortman described the radical shift in Coke's strategic outlook, moving from king of carbonated soft drinks to seeing itself as a more modest, albeit powerful, player in the multi-segment beverage business. We had set and looked at the beverage landscape in a very narrow fashion of CSDs, missing out during the rise of Gatorade and Red Bull. So we've moved to an abundant strategy. We are now setting up an organization willing to take risks.

Look for complete coverage of the Outlook Leadership Conference in the October issue of CSP Magazine. The Outlook Leadership Conference is put on by Leadership Network Corp. CSP Information Group is the founding sponsor.