Celebrating a Leader

Gala night celebrates Zietlow, Kwik Trip family

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

Don Zietlow

LAS VEGAS-- Under a canopy of glass globes on the reception floor and in the grand ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, 375 attendees--donning suits and ties for the men and sequined gowns for the ladies--gathered to celebrate the successes of Don Zietlow, his family and the entire Kwik Trip convenience store chain.

As CSP's 2012 Retail Leader of the Year, Zietlow's accomplishments, so interwoven with the energy, talent and experience of his Kwik Trip team, were documented and honored at the annual gala event. The La Crosse, Wis.-based chain of 420 stores rose above all others this year for its accomplishments in vertical integration, foodservice commitment and devotion to its people and culture of "making a difference" in the lives of others.

At the pre-dinner reception, industry peer Sonja Hubbard, CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc., Texarkana, Texas, said, "Don is so willing to share … he's so humble. It's all about his team. He gives them full credit and truly recognizes their value."

"He's an inspiration to all retailers," said Bill Douglass, head of Douglass Distributing, Sherman, Texas. "He's focused and dedicated."

CSP Business Media honored Zietlow and the Kwik Trip chain--known locally for its $1 Wednesday cheeseburgers, glazed doughnuts and fresh fruit, with a special corner on bananas--at the formal awards dinner this past Monday, the second evening of the annual NACS convention.

Having roots early in his career as a driver with a trucking company, Zietlow understood full well the hardship of a low-wage, back-breaking job. The long hours and manual labor gave him the drive to not only improve his own standing, but to give others the right to a fair wage for hard work.

With a devotion to what many simply call the "Golden Rule," he set his sights on building a company that would ultimately serve both the community and its employees.

Such sentiments were highlighted as his son, Steve Zietlow, who also works with his father in Kwik Trip management, took the stage with sister Vicky Kunz and brother Scott Zietlow to accept the Retail Leader honor.

Steve Zietlow called the award an honor for the entire Kwik Trip team, with his father keeping the business focused on people. But he also revealed a bit of his father's competitive edge. In a quick anecdote, he recalled when he and his father were waiting for a shuttle during a NACS show in New Orleans and deciding to kill some time at a nearby casino.

The two started winning and decided to push the time to see how long their winning streak would last. They kept looking back and forth from their watches to their winnings.

"Let's just say I'm sure there's a lot of nice c-stores in New Orleans," Steve Zietlow said. "But we haven't seen any of them."

And yet while a competitive person, "as much as he loves to win, what's more important to him is seeing others do well."

His children then called their father up to the stage. "We're in a great business--all our models are different, but we can be successful," Don Zietlow said. "We've been able to grow to be profitable and share with our people. It's been a great evening for my family, my wife [LaVonne] and I. We're in a great industry … you make a difference."

Attendees also viewed a prepared video documenting Zietlow's accomplishments and the history behind Kwik Trip. The video documented his career, which included time in the grocery business, giving him a unique perspective when he eventually took ownership of Kwik Trip, along with a business partner, in 1972. Not only would the c-store industry cycle back from a fuel focus to one of foodservice and grocery, but Zietlow brought along the expertise of executives from his time as a grocer, many of whom are tenured leaders at Kwik Trip today. With like-thinkers at the helm, Kwik Trip's foundation was firmly set.

All along the way, Zietlow never lost sight its main asset: people. As a testament to that belief, Zietlow and his family arranged for an employee-benefit package that meant 40% of annual profits--almost unheard of in the industry--would be returned to employees. That evolved even further to include profits from the company's property.

Though keen on the need to take care of his employees, Zietlow knew that success in business meant knowing what the customer wanted and coming up with the best, most efficient way to deliver. For Kwik Trip, that meant doing it themselves. If the company could prove it was better taking something in-house, it would do it, making Kwik Trip by far one of the most vertically integrated c-store chains in the country.

With that supply chain focus, its biggest gamble was with foodservice, involving millions of dollars invested in bakery, commissary and food-safety facilities unparalleled in the industry.

Balancing a competitive fire with a caring eye toward people, Kwik Trip managed record profits the past four years, even as the rest of the economy struggled through the worst recession in decades.

Oak Brook, Ill.-based CSP Business Media LLC, publisher of CSP, FoodService Director and Restaurant Business magazines, is a business-to-business communication company specializing in the convenience retailing, restaurant and on-the-go food industries. In addition to its print products, CSP Business Media's two divisions (Convenience & Petroleum Retailing Group and Foodservice Group) produces multiple e-newsletters (including CSP Daily News), websites, CSPNetwork CyberConferences, CSPTV, CSPedia, CSP Leadership Conferences and CSP Custom Solutions. Visit www.cspbusinessmedia.com and www.cspnet.com for more information.

Angel Abcede, CSP/Winsight By Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP
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