Kwik Trip Tip Top

Retailer leads Journal-Sentinel's Top 100 Workplaces for large-employer category

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Kwik Trip Inc. topped The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's large-employer category of its second annual Top 100 Workplaces. This year's results were based on surveys from more than 64,000 workers at more than 200 companies.

For Steve Loehr, a four-week sabbatical was an opportunity for him and his wife to travel to Israel. For another 20-year employee at Kwik Trip, it might be a chance to spend a month on a house renovation project. One month off with pay for workers on their 20th anniversary, in addition to four regular vacation weeks, is the [image-nocss] newest reward for service at the La Crosse-based convenience store chain.

"We are strongly encouraged to leave the business behind and just get away," Loehr, vice president of operations support for Kwik Trip, told the newspaper. The company's owners, the family of Don Zietlow, initiated the sabbaticals last year as a way to thank co-workers for their contributions to the company.

For a business that already gives the staff 40% of pretax profits, including an ownership stake in Kwik Trip's real estate, finding new perks was a larger-than-average challenge. The family's regard for employees--they call them co-workers--is what put Kwik Trip at the top of the list of large companies in the paper's survey.

And Zietlow was particularly singled out in the survey for the confidence employees have as leader of the organization.

The company employs about 9,800 people at its 409 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, including 1,000 at its headquarters and food plants in La Crosse. In addition to operating gas station/convenience stores, Kwik Trip makes, processes and distributes most of the items sold in the stores.

Zietlow, 76, made a commitment to himself back in the 1950s, when he was frustrated with his low pay and long hours as a truck driver for Gateway Foods, that he would treat employees better if he ever were in a position to do so. He credits the company's pay and incentive programs for low turnover and a staff of motivated people who make Kwik Trip successful.

The profit-sharing plan has generated annual bonuses in recent years ranging from 9% to 13% of each employee's pay. The checks are distributed personally by the Zietlows at year-end regional meetings. Almost everyone attends, said the report.

Kwik Trip's real-estate ownership plan for workers with at least five years on the job enables them to build a nest egg in addition to the company's 401(k) plan. At five years of service, each employee, regardless of pay level, receives one unit of ownership in Kwik Trip's store real estate and some headquarters buildings.

The company pays rent to the limited partnership that owns the real estate, Convenience Store Investments. Employees receive checks each year for their share of the CSI revenue. When they leave the company or retire, they cash out the value of their stake.

"It's one of the better companies I've ever worked for," Greg Newton, store leader at the Kwik Trip in Pewaukee, told the paper. "The incentive to get the 40% back is part of it," said Newton, who has been with the company for seven years.

But the money is not the only thing, he said. "The way that Kwik Trip treats you is the biggest reason I stay," Newton added. "I don't know of any other company where I'd meet a Don Zietlow. He's just a regular guy. He comes in here and acts like you're doing something for him. It's always about the team and what these people have done."

Jeff Witon, district manager for the stores in southeastern Wisconsin, joined Kwik Trip six years ago because he was impressed by the company and the people. "Don is a humble guy," Witon told the paper. His attitude translates to a company where everybody is working to do the same thing and no one is trying to climb someone else's back, Witon said.

Kwik Trip has a program called Families Helping Families, where co-workers donate a percentage of their pay to a fund that is used to help employees who are facing serious problems. "We fund it ourselves, but Don always gives more," Witon said. When the floods hit last year, for example, some co-workers got new furnaces from Zietlow, he said. The fund helped 120 co-workers with $47,926 last year.

Kwik Trip donates $3 million to local organizations where it operates and is a major sponsor of the Freedom Honor Flights, a group that takes World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II memorial, the report said.

The company also encourages employees to get involved in politics. In 2010, Kwik Trip employees made 4,000 calls to legislators to speak against the proposed oil franchise fee, which would have cost the company $10 million if it had passed. This year Kwik Trip's goal for its Conduit Fund, made up of employee donations, is $120,000. The money will go to various legislators and political action groups.

Kwik Trip opens about 20 new stores per year, according to the report. The company could expand faster if it were not for the generous profit-sharing formula, but the Zietlows are committed to maintaining the plan and keeping the business in the family, son Steve Zietlow said. "It is a lot," Don Zietlow said of the employee profit-sharing plan. "But they made the company. Who's there at 1:00 a.m.?

"I want the cleanest bathrooms, the best stores, and for that, they should get rewarded," he told the Journal-Sentinel.

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