Weighing in on Leadership

Petrowski extols virtues of size and scale, confesses "what keeps him up at night"

Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations

CHICAGO -- With almost-expected self-deprecation about weight and his penchant for food, Joe Petrowski, the gregarious CEO at Cumberland Gulf Group, shared essential ingredients about what makes an effective leader--and it's no longer hanging out in the company's kitchen. "They're not using me there anymore," mused the New Englander with a portly offensive lineman's profile.

Rather, Petrowski these days is sizing up a company that in recent years has fused an oil brand and convenience store concept, successfully growing both while demonstrating a keen awareness as to [image-nocss] when and where to unite the two and where to keep both operations separate.

In the past three years, Petrowksi has helped buoy Cumberland Farms, a venerable East Coast chain, to nearly 600 stores across 11 states, including an ambitious remodeling program. At the same time, he is guiding Gulf into a national brand, stepping in where major oil brands are exiting.

Describing before a packed room at the NACSState of thje IndustrySummit his early days with the Massachusetts-based company, Petrowski talked about 68% turnover rates under the former ownership, and an office culture anchored in top-down thinking and cluttering work stations. Aiming to foster more openness, he removed the cubicles and also sought to transform the company's culture from petty politics to sharing and team-building.

"I like people who talk...people who communicate. When we recruited we recruited for character," he said of his earlier years as CEO and president at Louis Dreyfus Energy Corp. "That will protect you more than any accounting system--having an environment of social character is critical."

Petrowski, regarded as one of the more affable and open executives in the retail petroleum/convenience channel, was tasked to talk about what keeps him up at night and the challenges facing today's leaders.

He touched on six key foundations: Strategy, HR management, avoiding major risks, directing a relentless focus on key drivers of profitability, serving as "cheerleader in chief" and, as he described it, avoiding the temptation to screw things up.

"It's a tough business," he said of the c-store industry, citing a litany of daily challenges from swipe fees to competition to labor concerns. "But we've grown and survived."

Beyond the fundamental externals of delivering the right products at the right price and hiring the right people, Petrowski accentuated the importance of site selection and facility design. He noted that, for instance, Cumberland Farms had planned a major chainwide renovation, costing roughly $500,000 per site. Since then, it has hired a site developer who is now recommending that perhaps only half of the sites justify such an infusion of capital.

As well, he said, CEOs should focus on the big picture and the big issues that will truly advance the company, while allowing department heads to manage the daily details. "The really big things that move the needle are growth" and leveraging size--not exercising excessive hours firing "the clerk paying solitaire."

Reversing the original question, Petrowski concluded, "What will keep me sleeping at night? If I feel we have the right culture and the right people."

Mitch Morrison Winsight CSP By Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations
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