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How Susser Earned His Stripes (Slideshow)

Why young Sam decided to forgo golf for finance, shaping CSP's 2014 Retail Leader

LAS VEGAS -- With the opulence and marquee-status of the Wynn resort and casino in Las Vegas as a backdrop, many of the industry's most aggressive and growth-minded executives--including those from three major MLP-tied chains--gathered to honored the pioneering spirit of Susser Holdings Corp. and its astute and forward-thinking leader, Sam L. Susser.

Sam L. Susser Retail Leader of the Year 2014 RLOY (CSP Daily News / Convenience Stores)

Awarded the title of CSP's 2014 Retail Leader of the Year, Susser, 50, took his place among the industry's most recognized convenience store operators, including retailers representing brands such as Nice N Easy (John MacDougall, 2013), Kwik Trip (Don Zietlow, 2012), 7-Eleven (Joe DePinto, 2011; Jim Keyes, 2003), QuickChek (Dean Durling, 2010), RaceTrac (Carl Bolch, 2009), Kum & Go (Bill Krause, 2008), QuikTrip (Chester Cadieux, 2007), Sheetz (the Sheetz family, 2006), Circle K (Alain Bouchard, 2005) and Wawa (Dick Wood, 2004), all past recipients of the annual honor.

"We save time," Susser told the audience dressed in business suits and elegant evening wear. "That's what we do for folks. We have the best real estate … and even Amazon is not going to figure out how [to deliver] hot, delicious food using tricks with drones in a manner that's [economical]."

About 300 retailers, suppliers and industry supporters attended the Retail Leader of the Year event, which started with two separate receptions before opening up to a three-course, sit-down dinner. Among the companies represented were Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), Dallas, which purchased the Corpus Christi, Texas-based Susser Holdings in April; CST Brands, San Antonio, Texas; and Speedway, Enon, Ohio; all of which are tied to the master limited partnership (MLP) trend responsible for the three major M&A deals announced so far this year.

Photos of a young Susser involved in golf and family activities delighted guests, preparing them for a night of personal insight into a man who would inspire the channel with his embrace of foodservice and the innovative use of financial instruments.

The evening's formal acknowledgements began after dinner, with introductory words from Sam's father, Sam J. Susser, who talked about the history of the company and its roots as an operator of two gas stations and a wholesale-fueling business. Sam J. recalled how he would take his young son Sam L. on "ridealongs" to business meetings and sales calls, often pointing to different properties and imagining the types of businesses they could support.

The older Susser recalled how his son was an avid golfer and successful in local rankings, but was inspired after an opportunity to meet golf pro Jack Nicklaus to actually leave the sport. Sam J. said his son "told us, 'I watched Jack Nicklaus play today. I'll never be good enough, so I'll give up golf at the end of the season'."

That decision led to a focus on his studies, college and a position with the New York firm Salomon Bros. His Wall Street experience helped his family in the mid-1980s, when a dramatic fall in oil prices put the Susser business in jeopardy. The young Susser would return to his roots in Corpus Christi to help out, eventually encouraging the family to get into convenience store retailing. That move set into motion what would eventually lead to ETP's purchase this spring of Susser's 640-store Stripes chain and the potential for what Sam L. envisions now as a "national footprint."

Prior to a 10-minute video honoring the younger Susser and the company's history of chain growth and development of its successful Laredo Taco Co. concept, Sam L.'s daughter Sophie Susser, 16, took the stage to talk about her "thoughtful" dad.

Calling her father a teacher of life's lessons, Sophie said the most valuable lesson she received was knowing "what love looks like."

She said her father is constantly sending her and her younger brothers, Sam E., 14, and Eli, 11, texts or dropping them notes, "and thinking of cool things like bringing us hotel soap and highlighter pens."

After the video, which featured a number of company employees speaking to Sam L.'s consensus-building nature, accessibility and innate generosity, the man of the evening took the podium himself to accept the award and thank his colleagues.

He said he was proud of how his company has embraced the value of maintaining one's reputation. "It's burned into our DNA as a company that reputation is everything; that our word is our bond."

Thanking his parents, Sam J. and Pat, and his uncle, Jerry Susser, and aunt, Elizabeth, for being "perfectionists" and for prioritizing the people who work for the company, Sam L. went on to thank his top executives for their "passion to do the right things the right way," saying that in his professional life, he "trusted [them] completely."

He commended his team for 26 years of non-stop same-store growth, as well as for the support and advice of both supplier partners and his board of directors. He credited the company with its use of technology, specifically scan data, to keep the chain "transparent" and for its respect of brands--with those qualities allowing the company access to capital and the ability to "double overnight four times."

Noting that the "c" in c-store also stands for "community," he lauded his chain's efforts to support local charities focused on children's health and education. He said he was proud of his employee's "intensity to raise funds," make a difference and "be that third place for each community" to find support and assistance.

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