The Kids Are All Right
A new generation of leaders is taking over, bringing a tech-savvy, family-balanced, social-media swagger to the industry.
Not surprisingly, many of those interviewed see their parents as key role models who demonstrate the value of hard work and building a reputation for integrity and personal responsibility.
Ryan Sheetz, director of Sheetz Distribution Services, says his father, Louie Sheetz, is his role model in action and deed: “To see the hard work and sacrifices that he has made over the years for my family and the business is truly admirable.”
Ryan’s cousin, Adam, echoes such sentiments, citing his father, Stan Sheetz, as both his role model and a born leader. “He’s taken this company to a completely different level, as did Steve before him, as did Bob,” Adam says. “They all represent huge footsteps we only hope to emulate.”
And it’s not just those working in a family business such as Sheetz who look to the lessons of their fathers. Cory Schuh, business development manager for Barnhart, Mo.-based Home Service Oil, with 10 c-stores under the Express Mart banner, says his father “has always really stressed to me the value of a person’s word … because as soon as people start to perceive a lack in value … that’s a bad road to head down.”
In this business, female role models may be few and far between, but Lisa Dell’Alba, president and CEO of the nine-store Square One Markets Inc., Bethlehem, Pa., found one in a dance instructor named Barbara Piotrowski. While also naming her father, Gary Dell’Alba, as a mentor and role model, Lisa Dell’Alba describes Piotrowski as “very confident, with a perspective to a female side of leadership. She was very nurturing but knew how to create struc
ture and guidelines. She commanded respect but played a balanced role.”
Other retailers take a big-picture approach, naming admired business leaders as role models. For Powell, several executives come to mind, including Scott McNealy (Sun Microsystem’s founder and CEO) and NFL coach Tony Dungy. “I consider myself a student of leadership principles—business or otherwise—and it’s really the collection of those values that have shaped my belief system,” he says.
And just as parents and other business leaders inspire those now moving into higher positions at their chains, personal achievements have led to new levels of confidence and insight. Among these new leaders are marathoners, cyclists and show-horse riders. They’ve started families, earned degrees and traveled the world.
Between his time at Wayne Oil and working for a congressman, Strickland has enjoyed his share of achievements. Yet he lists a post-college bike ride as one of his proudest moments. It wasn’t just any ride: He joined a team of 20 cyclists who covered the 4,000 miles from San Francisco to Charleston, S.C., in just 62 days, raising a quarter of a million dollars for charity. He calls the 1991 journey “my one good deed in life.”
These new leaders draw strength and direction from experiences both on the job and when the workday ends. Dell’Alba, for example, feels her dance background fueled the “performance” side of her business. She sees the show floor of the store as the “stage” where customers experience friendly, welcoming service. It’s a matter of employee training and motivation that she feels is critical in competing with top-notch c-store chains in her state.
For Andrea Myers, president of the 38-store, Seymour, Ind.-based Kocolene Marketing, dba Fast Max and Smoker’s Host, riding competitive show horses teaches her about determination and the drive necessary to win titles. “I show jumping horses all over the country,” she says. “There is a definite similarity between [that] and my job: There are going to be hurdles.”
Of course, cross-country bike rides and national competitions are not the only ways this group is contributing to the world around them. For some, their greatest achievements begin and end in the home.
Eric Rush may have risen through the ranks at Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Quick Chek, but he is first and foremost a father of four.
“My children, along with my wife, are the reason I push myself the way I do,” says Rush, senior data center administrator of the 129-store chain. “I want them to be able to be proud of me and I want to be their role model.”
These new c-store leaders present a formidable wave of talent, experience and vision that will certainly prove critical for an industry in continual flux. They see their roles expanding but, at the same time, staying the same.
Myers of Kocolene sums up the sentiment, saying she thinks she’ll probably be “doing the same things, but doing it better.”
Other leaders agree. “I don’t think it’ll be whole lot of difference five years down the road,” Strickland says. “Operations, marketing, supply have their vantage points, but my job is helping to figure out how the pieces of our company integrate to service the consumer better and drive value in what we do.”
He believes customer interaction will be the critical element, influencing the shape and form of convenience retail in the future. “Until someone figures out how to download a tank of gas, we’re still a brick-and-mortar business,” he says. As dashboard technology advances, he says, cars will automatically interact with pumps to identify drivers, run transactions and even order hot dogs. “It’s how the store interacts with the car or truck or vehicle is what’s going to change dramatically.”
Envisioning not only what lies ahead but also what lies beyond may seem like the job of prophets, but these new c-store leaders are grounded, humble individuals. Ryan Sheetz admits he certainly hopes to rise within the ranks of the family business. For now, though, “All I am focused on is the position that I am in today. If I can work hard and bust my butt in order to add great value today, something good will happen tomorrow.”
Myers of Kocolene says, “I don’t ever want to be naïve enough to think that just because my last name is Myers that [being CEO] is where I should be.”
There’s no doubt that they’re a diverse bunch. However, it’s the traits they share that ultimately reveal where the industry is headed. They’re passionate about their lives and their work. They embrace new technologies. They hold themselves up to the ethics instilled by their predecessors. And they judge themselves not just by what they do in the office, but what they do in life.