7-Eleven's Empire State Building

Wilson Farms conversions moving forward in New York; former CEO reflects on sale, challenge

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- 7-Eleven Inc. is undertaking the first of many upgrades at Wilson Farms stores in western New York, converting them to the 7-Eleven banner. Starting this month, the retailer is changing the brand and operation of nine Wilson Farms stores as a result of its acquisition of Wilson Farms Inc. and its 188 stores in New York last June.

Seven already have been converted--in Tonawanda, West Seneca, Lockport, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lancaster and East Amherst--and the other two are in Cheektowaga. Most Wilson Farms locations will be rebranded next year.

Coinciding with these changes, 7-Eleven will invest in upgrading 10 of its existing stores in the Buffalo area this year--in Williamsville, Tonawanda, Lockport, Cheektowaga (3), Buffalo, Orchard Park, Niagara Falls, Hamburg.

It did not disclose the specific costs for the conversions and upgrades.

"7-Eleven is making a significant, multi-million-dollar investment in Western New York and has recommitted to serving the convenience needs of area residents," said Mark Senay, 7-Eleven operations director. "Our intent is to provide the best of both Wilson Farms and 7-Eleven stores for the benefit of our guests."

Senay said Wilson Farms shoppers will still find the traditional grocery fill-in products, produce and f'real smoothies in the converted stores where these products were already offered. But they now can buy 7-Eleven's proprietary Slurpee and Big Gulp beverages and grill foods, like Big Bite hot dogs, taquitos and rollers. New coffee bars also are being installed with urns that maintain temperature.

Wilson Farm stores converting to 7–Eleven outlets will continue operating while undergoing changes.

The updated 7-Eleven stores will sport proprietary equipment for new coffee bars and fresh foods and will be treated to some repainting and power cleaning. Both the updated 7-Eleven stores and converted Wilson Farms locations will have fresh foods--salads, fruit and sandwiches and fresh bakery items delivered seven days a week. These stores also will start selling 7-Eleven's hot foods--pizza, chicken wings and chicken tenders--later this year.

Three of the initial Wilson Farms that are converting--in Tonawanda, West Senca and Cheektowaga--will be run as company-operated training stores for the 120 Wilson Farms store personnel who will be managing and staffing newly converted locations.

"We have a comprehensive training program that covers everything from guest relations to the proprietary technology we use in the store, from brewing great coffee that's always fresh to providing fresh foods every day," Senay said.

Wilson Farms employees will learn about the 7-Eleven retail information system and retailer initiative approach that allow store personnel to know item-by-item what's selling and to determine what they should order each day to satisfy the needs of their own store's customers, he added.

Companies supporting the daily delivery of fresh foods for 7-Eleven and converted Wilson Farms stores include Pine Hill Coffee Co. and J. Mills Distributing Co. Inc., both of Orchard Park, N.Y.

7-Eleven purchased Buffalo-based Wilson Farms and its assets from the WFI Group, led by Bruckmann, Rosser, Sherrill & Co., a private-equity firm, and the Nanula family, which together managed the stores from 2005 to this June 2011.

The Buffalo News asked Paul Nanula--Wilson Farms' former president and CEO, who has taken an interim position as CEO of Meals on Wheels--what it is like to see the end of Wilson Farms.

"It's a pretty big compliment when the largest convenience store chain in the world--not just the country, the world--[wants your company]," he told the paper. "As difficult as it is to see your brand and the hard work we put into it go away, it's quite a compliment to the brand and what we were able to achieve."

Asked why he decided to sell, he said, "Every company is really for sale, whether it's looking for a buyer or not. We weren't out looking to sell. Our exit strategy was either to have a management buyout or be purchased by a strategic buyer. Their offer was significant. Any time a strategic buyer comes in, they can afford to pay a bit more."

Asked what challenges 7-Eleven face in the local market, Nanula said, "[Its] first challenge will be to show the consumer that they are a different 7-Eleven. … The 20 stores they did have here, there wasn't a lot of investment put into them. They are going to make a significant investment in upgrading these 188 stores and at a much faster pace than we were able to. They're going to take the good things we've done and build upon them."

Based in Dallas, 7-Eleven operates, franchises or licenses more than 8,800 7-Eleven stores in North America. Globally, there are approximately 43,300 7-Eleven stores in 16 countries. During 2010, 7-Eleven stores worldwide generated total sales close to $63 billion.