ANKENY, Iowa — Following a nearly 40-year career, Terry Handley is happy to leave Casey’s General Stores Inc. in capable, familiar hands. In late June, he passed the president and CEO duties to convenience and foodservice veteran Darren Rebelez, who now leads the chain, which has nearly 2,150 convenience stores in 16 Midwest states with almost 37,000 employees.
Ankeny, Iowa,-based Casey’s is the fourth-largest U.S. c-store chain, according to CSP’s 2019 Top 202 ranking. Rebelez most recently was president of IHOP and before that was chief operating officer of 7-Eleven.
Handley joined Casey’s and the industry in 1981 as a store-set specialist, worked his way up to an area supervisor and then played leading roles in marketing, foodservice and operations. He was named president in 2014 and CEO in 2016.
As the driver behind Casey’s value creation plan, Handley helped the chain pursue growth and profitability through price optimization, loyalty, digital and fleet initiatives. With these well underway, he began planning his retirement with board chairman H. Lynn Horak in January.
In an interview with CSP, Handley reflected on his past four decades with Casey’s and setting it up for future success.
You took over as Casey’s CEO from Bob Myers, CSP’s2016 Retail Leader of the Year. What was it like to follow him?
Terry Handley: I had worked with Bob for many years. We could literally finish each other’s sentences. We were very similar in our management styles. Bob and I had worked for Ron Lamb, the previous CEO, for many years. He expected you to get the job done and do right by the customer. That was what was most important: Always do the right thing. Don Lamberti [Casey’s founder, and CEO before Lamb] always talked about the “Culture of We.” That was quite a legacy to live up to. I’m proud that as large as the company has become, that culture has never changed. When we have new people come to the company from outside, it doesn’t take very long for them to learn that “Culture of We." Quite frankly, it’s infectious.
What has changed the most about the company at your time at Casey’s?
The most change has occurred over the years in the foodservice segment of the business. Casey’s was one of those that got into foodservice in a big way early on compared to much of the industry. We did it a little differently: the made-from-scratch pizza, the high-quality products, the doughnuts, the bakery program. I have to hand all the credit to Don Lamberti and Ron Lamb to have the vision and then the ability to execute on that vision so many years ago. And now we see the industry finally catching up to that.
The technology aspect, without question, has been a major change as well, and certainly even within the last two or three years with regard to the digital and e-commerce. That has really been a factor that all of us have to be on top of. It’s a challenge for all of us, but we’re all fighting our way through it.
What is your most important achievement at Casey’s?
Making sure we were developing the right leaders for the right times, making sure we had the right people in place to carry on the legacy of the company, making sure that we were doing what was necessary to serve the customer. Something I wanted to do when I first became CEO was a gut check to understand: Are we still providing what the consumer is looking for? The value creation plan came out of that.
Being involved in the community—that to me was another priority. Are we giving back? I didn’t want Casey’s to be seen as a company somewhere in Iowa. I wanted us to be recognized as the Casey’s store in that town. We have a responsibility to those communities.
What has been the toughest challenge?
The blurring of the line between grocery and drug and the c-store space. You have great competitors within the c-store space that you battle on a daily basis, and they only make you better. You have other retailers, such as the Dollar Generals of the world, that are finding a niche, and we have to be aware of them as competitors.
And even though the c-store industry has become consolidated, it’s still very entrepreneurial. It’s an industry where leaders come together and share ideas to make it better. That really makes it fun.
What’s the biggest opportunity that you haven’t been able to achieve in your time at Casey’s?
We need to be most aware of what the customer’s expectations are, respond to that as quickly as possible and to do the best job that we can to bring value to their day. As we concentrate on growth, sometimes we lose track of the day-to-day. It’s not about being the best c-store chain in the country; it’s about being the best to those individual consumers. That’s how we’re going to be judged.
Why did you choose now to retire?
I’ve seen others who, quite frankly, have worked too long. They didn’t get to enjoy their retirement. I didn’t want to be one of those. The team was in the right place. We set the value creation plan in motion. The board went out and found an outstanding individual to take over, and I feel very confident that all of the pieces are in place for the success of the company to continue.
What made Darren Rebelez the right choice to succeed you?
When Lynn told me they had identified Darren, I was ecstatic because I know him from when he was with 7-Eleven. He is a gentleman of great integrity, with a great personality and a good vision. He has done a wonderful job at IHOP, and his personality and management style will fit very well with the culture at Casey’s. He doesn’t want to overmanage—he wants the team to take responsibility. He’ll set the vision and allow them to execute it. That has been a style that has worked very well at Casey’s for years.
What advice would you give to him as he steps into your shoes?
He shouldn’t second-guess himself. He’s got a great team. They will be very open with him about whether they think he is on the right track, but they will also follow through on his guidance. There will be great open discussion, and I am confident Darren will be very receptive to that.
What are your plans for retirement?
I’m confident that Darren and the team are going to do great things going forward. I’m here to support them in whatever manner they feel is necessary. Casey’s is part of the Iowa Business Council, supporting the governor’s Future Ready Iowa initiative. It is also part of the Iowa Rural Development Council. Casey’s is in a lot of small towns, and rural Iowa still has a great deal to offer. I want to stay engaged with all of that.