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CSP's 2017 Retail Leader of the Year: Prepared to Win

How perseverance and teamwork helped Ari Haseotes reinvent Cumberland Farms

WESTBOROUGH, Mass. -- Every fisherman has their white whale—the fish prized above all others because it is so tough to catch. For Ari Haseotes, it’s the blue marlin.

“The blue marlin is a very elusive species,” says Ari, who learned to fish from his father and now shares the passion with his own son. “They’re very large, powerful, majestic and fast. They’re also very smart. Tricking them into going after whatever we're trying to get them to eat is never easy.”

The key to catching one is perseverance. “You have to have all of your equipment in tip-top shape and be fully prepared,” Ari says. “You’ve got to have a crew and a team that is in complete sync and knows exactly what to do if you are fortunate enough to get one on the line. And at the end of the day, you need a little bit of luck.”

Lessons from fishing have transferred to Ari’s role as CEO of Cumberland Farms, the c-store chain his grandparents founded nearly 80 years ago. This includes keeping an eye on details, being prepared and emphasizing teamwork. He even has a motto to motivate his fishing crew and his team at company headquarters in Westborough, Mass., paraphrased from college football coach Bear Bryant: While everyone has the will to win, it’s the will to prepare to win that matters.

When Ari does catch a blue marlin, he always releases it back into the water. “You come to have so much respect for them through that chase and hunt,” he says. “It really wouldn’t ever feel right to end that battle by keeping the fish.”

The Kid’s Got Chops

It was only 14 years ago that Ari joined the family business. And it’s been just a decade since he took the helm of Cumberland Farms’ retail operations, which include nearly 600 stores in eight states. At 43 years old, he is one of the youngest executives honored as CSP Retail Leader of the Year in the 15-year history of the award. But his leadership has been no less transformative, coaxing the best out of the company and its more than 8,500 team members.

Tim Columbus, partner with Steptoe & Johnson LLP, Washington, D.C., served on Cumberland Farms’ board for several years, has represented the company for more than 40 years, and is general counsel for NACS and SIGMA. “I do work for a lot of businesses and, as a consequence, I’ve learned to recognize people who have what I call ‘the chops’ and the people who don’t,” says Columbus. “Talk to Ari for an hour and you know: The kid’s got the chops.”

He cites Ari’s intellect (he earned an MBA from Harvard University), his analytical skills and the fact that he learned the c-store business from the bottom up. Ari started in the company’s marketing department in 2003 and rose through the ranks before being named president of Cumberland Farms Retail in 2008, president of the combined Cumberland Gulf Group in 2013 and CEO in 2014.

But he has never taken the easy route, nor has it been offered to him. “Ari’s never going to ask anybody to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. That’s a sign of a great leader,” says Columbus. “Because of his leadership skills, he pulls all those arrows in the same direction—in the right direction.”

Something Meaningful

One of Byron and Joyce Haseotes’ six children, Ari had a lot to live up to. His father—one of the three Haseotes brothers to work for the family business—introduced new products such as half-gallon jugs of milk to Cumberland Farms’ first dairy store. He was also an inventor, with several U.S. patents under his name, and a fruit farmer.

While Joyce was affectionate and warm, Ari describes Byron as “a work-ethic guy,” a stoic. “He wasn’t the kind of guy to give you a big hug and tell you he loved you,” he says. “He’d show you that through the way he lived his life and the lessons he tried to teach you.”

During the summers, Byron would send Ari and his brother, B.J., into the fields of the family farm to work from sunrise to sunset. On weekends, Byron would bring Ari on visits to the stores and give him an education in retail.

“When I first took a business course, I was so far ahead of my peers because I had this tremendous education in what a business was about,” says Ari. He was not necessarily required to work at Cumberland Farms after college, but Byron expected him to do something meaningful.

Ari says, “He felt like, ‘Look, you’ve had everything, kid—every opportunity. I expect to see you reciprocate in a way and work hard.’ ”

So Ari buckled down. “I needed to be the first one in the classroom and the last one to leave,” he says. “If my classmates were going to study two hours, I was going to study four or six hours.”

It began to make an impression on Byron. “He’d say, ‘You know, my boy Ari, he’s going to run the company someday,’ ” Ari recalls, citing his embarrassment at his dad’s proclamation. He was only 33 when he became president of Cumberland Farms.

“My dad passed away about six months after that,” he says. “I was happy he was able to see me get to that level before he passed away—I think it made him pretty proud.”

Ari’s promotion to president in 2013 and then CEO in 2014 was “the natural cause of events,” says his aunt Lily Haseotes Bentas, chairman of Cumberland Farms and its CEO from 1991 to 2008.

“He was the most qualified person to take over,” she says. “There was no question in my mind—he’s extremely bright, hardworking and has a great work ethic.”

The Virtuous Cycle

Once at the office, it’s not unusual to see Ari actually running to and from meetings—not because he’s late, but because he’s motivated.

“His family legacy and the fact that his grandparents started this company is literally the reason he gets up every day and does his job,” says Ashley Haseotes, Ari’s wife. “He believes this is his duty: to protect what his grandparents started and to take care of an asset that has the potential to be even better than it is today.”

This commitment is evident in how Ari personifies Cumberland Farms’ four core values:

Never settle. Cumberland Farms’ vertical integration, which includes its own distribution centers, Culinary Center and in-house facilities team, demonstrates a commitment to meeting its own high standards.

“A lot of people in my position … would say we could just outsource that and you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” says Ari, citing the in-house maintenance staff as an example. “Maybe that’s true at some level, but somebody, somehow, somewhere suffers from doing things that way.”

Own it. Ari believes in accountability, and he takes detailed notes during meetings with Cumberland Farms’ management team. “If they tell me they’re going to do [something] by a certain date, they know when that date comes, I’m knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, where is the deliverable?’ ” he says.

“He is so detail-oriented and never forgets anything,” says Ashley. “If you say you’re going to do something and don’t, that infuriates him.”

For this, Ari is willing to put his money where his mouth is: He promises to reply to any emails, from anyone in the company, within one day.

Tell it like it is. Ari’s Cumberland Farms team members describe him as tough—but fair. “If you go into the room thinking you’re going to make Ari happy, then you’ve already lost,” says Keith Boston, director of foodservice for Cumberland Farms. “You just give him the facts—the good, the bad, the ugly—and then we sift through it.”

As an example, he mentions Cumberland Farms’ development of a private-label breakfast sandwich program two years ago. Boston’s team decided to take a risk and wrap the sandwiches in clear plastic wrap instead of the traditional butcher wrap, as a differentiator.

“It failed miserably,” says Boston. With heart in hand, he explained to Ari the thinking behind the clear wrap, and the poor sales. But instead of chiding Boston for the failure, Ari complimented the foodservice team instead. “He said, ‘You know, it was the right thing to do because we took a chance,’ ” Boston says.

Succeed together. With $3.8 billion in annual revenue, Cumberland Farms ranked 18th on Forbes’ list of America’s Largest Private Companies in 2016. And with that degree of success comes a certain expectation on spending. For example, one employee suggested: Instead of having the chain’s hundreds of store managers meet up near headquarters for the company year-end meeting, how about going to an exotic locale?

But Ari is a firm believer in the motto “Profits provide possibilities.” If the business is not cost-conscious and profitable, the company will not have the capital to build new stores or provide opportunities for employees to advance their careers. And if it is not building or remodeling stores, customers will see it falling behind in the marketplace.

It’s part of Cumberland Farms’ shared-prosperity model. “If the company continues to perform at a high level and you’re fully committed to it—you own it, you’re accountable as our values require—we’re going to invest back in you,” says Ari. “And the virtuous cycle will continue.”

How to Make a Tough Decision

A key example of this investment in employees happened in 2013, when Cumberland was one of the first c-store chains to announce it would extend health insurance to all employees, in advance of the Affordable Care Act. It ultimately reclassified 1,500 part-time employees to full-time status.

Ari, who at the time was president and COO, says the decision was easy. Cumberland Farms’ management team likens the company to a three-legged stool, supported by its shareholders, team members and guests. If the company disproportionately rewards or deprives one of those legs, the stool loses balance and falls over.

Part of the calculus was research that found a full-time employee stays with the company three to four times longer than a part-timer.

“We know it leads to a stronger company, one that’s people-centric and focused on delivering a great customer experience by being the best place to work,” Ari says.

“He puts a lot of emphasis on taking care of the co-workers,” says Don Zietlow, co-founder of Kwik Trip Inc., La Crosse, Wis., and CSP’s 2012 Retail Leader of the Year. “The company has to take care of the co-workers, and in turn they take care of the guests who come into the stores, and I think he’s accomplished that.”

Ari learned this people-centric management style from other leaders. They include the late Harry Brenner, who in 2003 became the first non-family member to lead Cumberland Farms. Another mentor was Dick Jensen, former president of SuperAmerica. They were the kind of leaders “who, when there’s a buffet and a limited amount of food, they go to the back of the line and let the team get food first,” says Ari, “and they’ll eat only if there’s food at the end of the line.”

And Ari singles out Bentas, his predecessor and aunt, for teaching him a valuable lesson in leadership.

“She’s always said to me: At the end of the day, you’ve got to look in the mirror and feel like you did the right thing,” he says. A tough decision may not always feel good at the time, “but if you feel you made the right decision, no matter how difficult it was, you can look at yourself in the mirror and feel good.”

One of the toughest decisions the management team had to make was selling Gulf Oil LP, which had been attached to Cumberland Farms since 1993. Gulf was part fuel play, part real-estate play for the Haseotes family, having brought 600 gas stations into Cumberland Farms’ network. By the time Cumberland sold Gulf Oil in December 2015 to ArcLight Capital Partners, the wholesale fuel arm of the business had grown to supply 2,300 branded outlets and 1,000 private-label sites, and it owned 12 terminals.

“For each of the companies to maximize their respective performance, it didn’t seem to me they could be together,” says Ari. “They required different things financially, different things operationally, different things culturally.

“I wasn’t convinced we could adequately provide the right amounts of each of those things to allow each company to perform at its best,” he continues. “So we made a tough decision.”

What made the decision especially tough was having to say goodbye to employees who had invested decades in Cumberland Gulf. The management team did its best, Ari says, to treat them with respect, and financially recognize their years of service and commitment to the company. “I was up many nights thinking about it,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I think we made the right decision for both companies and shareholders.”

Columbus, who was not on the board at the time, agreed with the decision to sell Gulf. In fact, he would have argued to sell the fuel arm of the business years ago. “It freed up an enormous amount of cash for them, and it provided capital for Ari and the company to do what it needs to do,” he says.

New England’s C-Stores

Nine years ago, Ari met with Marty Donohue, partner and creative director of Boston-based Full Contact Advertising. He had transformation on his mind.

“When we first met Ari, he was very forthcoming, very candid and very honest about what Cumberland Farms was,” Donohue says. “It was sort of a last-resort destination. It’s where people would go because they needed batteries at 11 o’clock at night, or diapers or lottery tickets. It was not a daily destination. He and his team set out to change all that.”

First, they reimagined the coffee offer, which moved from a typical cup of c-store brew to Cumberland Farms’ Farmhouse Blend. Full Contact oversaw the viral advertising campaign starring David Hasselhoff that helped catapult Cumberland Farms into consumers’ hearts.

“Dunkin’ [Donuts] is so prevalent up here,” says foodservice director Boston. “Everyone just assumed that no one’s going to go against Dunkin’, and Ari proved them wrong.”

Since perfecting the coffee bar, Cumberland Farms has set its aim higher. The chain has invested heavily in its c-store network, entering new urban markets and ramping up its entry into Florida. It debuted its newest 5,000-square-foot prototype in Florida this past August, featuring an expanded foodservice menu with ciabatta sandwiches, melts and frittatas, and new beverage options such as specialty coffee drinks, smoothies, frozen espressos and milkshakes, all available from self-service ordering terminals.

“[Ari] has really changed the way they go to market,” Columbus says. “It is a remarkable change. ... Cumberland Farms has really become New England’s c-store company. That’s a big deal.”

“Here’s a young guy trying to reshape Cumberland to what it is today,” says Steve Loehr, vice president of operations support for Kwik Trip, who knows Ari from their work together at NACS. “He’s had to be strong, bold and willing to face challenges. He wasn’t doing it for himself—he was doing it for the betterment of himself and his co-workers.

“I don’t hear Ari say, ‘I did this,’ ever. It’s ‘We did this, we’re doing that.’ ”

Ari would be inclined to agree. Like many Retail Leaders of the Year before him, he is loath to take credit for his company’s success, and instead considers himself working alongside Cumberland Farms’ thousands of employees to push it toward the retail summit.

“I don’t believe for a moment that any individual has accomplished what this company has accomplished,” Ari says. “We have done it as a team.”

Next: A Cumberland Farms Timeline

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