Spirit of Continuous Improvement

Industry has room for image boost, employee engagement, says NACS chairman Carpenter

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

Dave Carpenter

Dave Carpenter

ATLANTA -- While the c-store industry has grown into a powerful retail channel, it has room for greater growth. That was the message in the 2013 NACS Show opening general session from Dave Carpenter, president and CEO of J.D. Carpenter Cos. Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa, and 2012-2013 NACS chairman. The exec told attendees that image and employees were two areas the c-store industry could improve upon.

"In business, your image is your business," said Carpenter. The former c-store exec shared the example of his company's efforts at building a new site in Colorado, where local government and the homeowners association fought the new development. They feared yet another dirty, dangerous gas station. While Carpenter understood their fears, he disagreed that no new c-stores was the solution.

"How will existing stores get better if competition is locked out?" he asked. After a tough fight, the new store won approval, and won over the locals. While Carpenter acknowledged that c-stores will continue to get resistance from opening, he noted that NACS is putting together a customizable toolkit retailers can use "that presents the story from 'not in my back yard' to 'what took you so long to get here?'."

And there is measurable success in the industry's efforts to redeem its image--for example, thanks to NACS' "Dangerfield" public relations campaign, c-stores have become less of a target of price-gouging charges.

Carpenter also hit upon the need for c-stores to broaden their customer base beyond regulars who come in for smokes and gas, both of which have seen declining sales over the past few years. While there is still a place for traditional gas stations, c-stores that embrace foodservice are truly pushing the industry's boundaries. Consider that c-stores rang up $31.3 billion in foodservice sales in 2013, besting the biggest quick-service restaurant, McDonalds, and more than the Nos. 2 through 4 biggest QSR chains combined.

"That's great news, but we have so much further to go," said Carpenter, adding it's not a matter of if but rather when the c-store channel will become the biggest threat to competitive channels.

Finally, another area for improvement: people. Carpenter, who sold his c-store business a few years ago, acknowledged that his company was passionate about great stores and locations, but did not have a committed workforce. He is now re-entering the business, and aims to build a company built by its people--citing, for example, Kwik Trip Inc. of LaCrosse, Wis., which donates 40% of its profits to its employees and enjoys incredibly low turnover and shrink.

"It's a scary step: Can I create that kind of a culture?" Carpenter asked. "I'm convinced that I will have a better business with a team that wants to succeed as much as I do."