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How Debbie Shelton’s Career at TA Changed Her Life

Vice president of retail operations support began at the convenience-store chain 25 years ago
Debbie Shelton, TA
Photograph courtesy of TA

Twenty-five years ago, Debbie Shelton started as an assistant restaurant manager at TravelCenters of America in Franklin, Tennessee, after the “lowest point” in her life, she told CSP.

Shelton had been living in a camper with her daughter and didn’t have a job.

“I held her and made her a promise that [she would never] feel the way I felt or have to live that lifestyle,” Shelton said.

After she began working in a grocery store bakery, where she met her husband, they moved back to his hometown, where she stumbled upon TravelCenters of America, which has since been purchased by Chicago-based bp.

“I said, ‘this is a convenience store; that’s weird,’” she said. “I got on the highway, and I was going to drive back home, and then I thought, ‘you better turn around and go back—you need a job.’ I turned around and went back.”

Shelton was hired on the spot and used her background to design the new site’s bakery.

Her journey throughout TA has included roles as assistant restaurant manager; store manager; manager of hospitality, learning and development; director of retail operations support; and her role today—vice president of retail operations support. Shelton shared how she transitioned throughout her career.

Shelton loved overseeing TA’s restaurants, but the owner of the franchise asked her to manage the store and the fuel desk.

“I went kicking and screaming, and I fell in love with retail,” Shelton said.

Shortly after, the franchise owner sold the site back to TA, and the corporate office, based in Westlake, Ohio, brought in systems that Shelton had no experience with.

“I felt buried at first, but there was good training and a lot of encouragement,” she said. “I shocked myself, but I was able to learn, and I would say within six months my store specialist asked me if I was ready for a bigger store yet.”

This time, Shelton was ready for the transition, which required her to move to Ohio. Although the location wasn’t her first choice, she saw it as an opportunity.

“I’d stay there for a couple of years tops and then go back south where it’s warm,” she said.

But as her kids grew, she saw the value in staying in one place for their sake, recalling her promise to her daughter of a better life.

The Lodi, Ohio, store was the flagship, and there were people there from the support center every day.

“I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them,” she said. “It was that whole imposter syndrome before I even knew what impostor syndrome was,” she said about not feeling like her success was legitimately achieved or deserved. “I would hide in the cooler stock, but eventually, you have to come out, and you start to meet people and build relationships. When they ask your opinion, you actually give it to them. I started to feel valued and respected and [that] maybe I have something that I could offer.”

That’s when she grew interested in becoming a site general manager, so she began learning from her general manager and enrolled in a general-manager-in-training program. She was promoted about a year later when a role opened.

Next, she moved to manager for hospitality, which was a new world coming from operations, she said.

“I was undervaluing [myself], and I think that it took me getting into this role to really start to see the value of operations experience,” she said. “That knowledge helped me in learning and development and then in this [current] role as vice president of retail operations support.”

When companies like TravelCenters of America invest in team members, it’s a win-win, she said.

“You already know their work ethic, and you already know that they're loyal. When you offer them that opportunity for advancement, it’s not just to advance their career, it’s to advance their lifestyle,” she said. “And once you do that, you get that person that would move mountains for you.”

Shelton advises team members to “learn everything that you can about any position and stay humble, but also know your worth.”

Shelton was apprehensive about building relationships at the beginning of her career because of her past.

“But relationships are so important, so foster those, and collaborate with your team,” she said. “You can have a great idea, but when you bring it before your team and get their input on it, it turns out so much better than you could have ever imagined.”

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