The Pantry's Talent Transfer

As chain replenishes executive bench, retail savvy and respect are key qualifications

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

Dennis Hatchell

CARY, N.C. -- Consider it a personality transplant.

In the past two years, The Pantry has almost completely lost and replaced its executive team. Starting with the president and CEO down through operations and marketing, the chain of nearly 1,600 stores in 13 states has seen its key decision makers resign and scatter. The attrition began in August 2011 with the resignation of president and CEO Terry Marks, a former CPG exec who in his short two-year tenure attempted to jumpstart The Pantry's foodservice offer and introduce an empowerment culture.

From there, the defections quickly grew--The Pantry's senior vice president of retail merchandising, John Fisher, and vice president of marketing Dave Henninger, both former colleagues of Marks from Coca-Cola Enterprises, as well as the CFO, head of operations and most recently, the CIO.

As of press time, Cary, N.C.-based The Pantry had refilled the CEO, CFO and operations positions. As Dennis Hatchell, who took over for Marks as president and CEO in March 2012 and just completed his first year as "Chief Roo," told CSP Daily News, he is pleased with the executive appointments thus far.

In September 2012, The Pantry named Joe Venezia senior vice president of operations, replacing Brad Williams, a long-time Pantry veteran who left the company in August 2011. While Venezia joined the company from TitleMax, a car title loan provider, he also spent four years at Walmart, where he rose to a division president, and had also served as a Procter & Gamble brand manager.

"Joe was a big hire because it fit our entire military [focus]," said Hatchell, alluding to The Pantry's annual Salute Our Troops fundraising campaign, which supports American troops and their families.

The Pantry is still finalizing its 2013 campaign, which will run from the end of June through Labor Day weekend. For this year, The Pantry has partnered with the National Hot Rod Association, and will have a dragster headlining a store tour.

Venezia is a retired army ranger and Bronze Star recipient, but also has valuable retail savvy, said Hatchell. "He brings that retail discipline and he's got brand knowledge, that Walmart background. It's very easily transferable, and he's a really bright guy."

For B. Clyde Preslar, who joined The Pantry in January as CFO, the appeal is again brand experience. Preslar was the former senior vice president and CFO at a regional freight railroad operator prior to joining the c-store retailer, but also has 18 years' experience overseeing the finances of CPG and tobacco companies such as beverage manufacturer Cott Corp. and snack food manufacturer Lance Inc.

One quality Hatchell, Venezia and Preslar all share in common, however, is a lack of direct c-store experience, which some industry observers consider an Achilles' heel for a retail chain that has been vulnerable to fuel price and margin volatility. And it's a quality that they share with the prior Marks administration, which largely had a CPG background.

But The Pantry does not purposely avoid convenience retail experience, Hatchell insisted. "When we went looking for Clyde and Joe, for example, we searched all over," he said, noting this included c-store prospects as well. "We threw a wide net--and got a lot of variety and sorted it out."

As The Pantry works to fill the rest of the bench, it has two main requirements for its hires: retail savvy and respectfulness.

On this first piece, intellectual curiosity and a team attitude are key, said Hatchell. "People who are studying the future, understand trends, the impact of decisions they're making, who are natural team builders, trustworthy, and then finally have a process to hold people and the business accountable," explained Hatchell. "That's all got to manifest itself in results. I don't know if that's in order [of importance], but that's the sum of the kind of folks we want on our team."

While the exec acknowledged that c-store retail is unique in its intimacy--"A c-store is really a personal experience and these folks who care about their stores, it's theirs"--it is ultimately just another form of retail.

"It's all about people," he said. "And then it's food safety, freshness, pricing. It's retail. It's just a different format and way to go to business. So if you have those fundamentals, I think you can transfer c-store fundamentals to grocery stores and department stores as much as it transfers. But you have to have been in the stores a good bit to get it."

Hatchell plans to bear his own considerable retail experience--on the supermarket side with Lowes Food Stores and H.E. Butt Grocery Co.--on The Pantry's strategic foodservice focus, hoping his connections with foodservice distributors will result in new partnerships and cost efficiencies for the chain. "It doesn't matter which foodservice distributor it is—they're incredibly talented," he said. "They understand menus, food costs, portion and labor costs, they understand day-parts. Everything they do has to do with saving a chef or restaurant time and money, and so we're going to wear that out first."

But while foodservice may have been a core focus for Marks, through The Pantry's Fresh Initiative, Hatchell sees it as just one more element that has to be right for the customer.

"If you put what everyone who shops this store really likes to see and they feel like it's a good offer," said Hatchell, "then they're going to buy it and keep coming back and the store will prosper."

For more on The Pantry's fight for growth, see the May 2013 CSP magazine cover story.