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Indie Closeup: No Mystery to Collins’ Narrative

Alabama retailer has built successful c-store business with results by several measures, including high mystery shop scores
quick shop
Photograph courtesy of Quick Shop

More than 30 years after graduating from college—with convenience/fuel retailing not on his professional radar screen—first-generation independent petroleum marketer David Collins traveled an interesting road to reach a new retail pinnacle.

The pinnacle, though, appears to have additional bandwidth and height.

The president and CEO of Birmingham, Alabama-based DC Oil Co., along with his wife and company vice president Connie Collins, recently unveiled their 14th Quick Shop convenience store, the largest, most ambitious in their network. It is located in Irondale at an impressive 7,100 square feet.

A licensed distributor of Chevron products, including fuels with Techron, Quick Shop serves central Alabama from what are largely neighborhood stores.

The confidence to expand—and go big at the same time—was triggered by a steeled confidence driven by Collins’ successful and sustained operating model. Ongoing high mystery shop scores administered by Chevron, its fuel brand, are proof that they are doing something right.

“We switched to Chevron in 2014 [from bp], and in those nine years have never been ranked lower than third within Chevron’s nationwide mystery shopper program. The ranking consists of all Chevron’s independent marketer stores, reflecting probably 1,000 or more retail units and hundreds of jobbers,” said Collins, who became immersed in the industry in 1990—fresh out of college.

That’s when he worked at a Texaco corporate store in Baton Rouge, La. as night manager, later promoted to store manager. “Frankly, it’s has been a long but satisfying road to arrive to where we are today—certainly not without its twists and turns,” he noted.

Road Well Traveled

Collins has traveled a diversified road. Collins worked for Texaco as a young store manager in Louisiana. This experience led him to a job opportunity as a Texaco supervisor in Atlanta, where he remained for six years until 1996. After meeting a Texaco-branded independent marketer with Mott Oil Co., Collins opted to take a position operating a few Mott Oil-owned stores, where he worked until 2001.

In 2002, Collins went from running these stores to becoming an independent oil marketer himself and, as a result, needed to scout for c-store and fuel supply partners for the three stores he eventually built.

“It was a challenge, to say the least,” he said. “I continued sourcing my fuel from Mott, but eventually established new relationships with various vendors. I selected W.L. Petrey Wholesale in Montgomery as my primary wholesale distributor, and they remain that to this day,” said Collins.

Over time, Collins expanded his reach, acquiring several additional stores to reach the current 14. “We went from three to 10 to 12, and then acquired a tanker truck to supply fuel to our own stores—plus service the dealer supply contracts we forged,” he said.

The new Irondale Quick Stop was actually fully capitalized in early 2020. But, when COVID-19 arrived, the “fully paid location” had to be placed on hold for about two years before debuting.

Now, Collins says the bugaboo he faces is a major road construction project outside the new unit, as of late February.

“It’s a large four-lane highway that’s been closed for a while due to this protracted construction project,” he said. “For people to get here they have to snake their way, and it’s impacted daily foot traffic. We expect the road to reopen by summer [2023].”

DC Oil employs about 100 employees on a “consistent basis,” said Collins. “We don’t really need newspaper ads to find solid people as it’s more word of mouth. We’ve been around a long time and use our employees to recommend workers.”

Some examples: the new Irondale store manager had worked for DC Oil years ago before returning. His management team consists of two supervisors, Deb Dalton and Russell Bamberg, who’ve been in the c-store/petroleum business longer than Collins has.

About the Food

The new Irondale store, in a bedroom community of Birmingham, sits on a three-acre plot, with about 2,000 square feet dedicated to the Taco Bell program and another 4,900 square feet to Collins’ Quick Shop store, which includes its own franchised Pizza Hut program. Under the arrangement, Collins leases space to Taco Bell at Irondale.

In the early going, Collins said the store is churning out 125 Pizza Hut-sold pizzas per day, on average.

The c-store is largely referred to as “Nana’s Kitchen” by locals rather than Quick Shop because “Connie’s mother is known as ‘Nana.’ We named the deli after her, and almost everyone calls the store Nana’s Kitchen,” he said.

Differentiation is also apparent with a full-service deli program where four stores dry-rub pork ribs—slow-smoked for four hours. “In one of our top stores, deli sales amount to $20,000 a week, or $80,000 a month. At our most deli stores, we have five people to oversee the effort,” said Collins.

Neighborhood Stores

At the forecourt, the new Irondale store is outfitted with Gilbarco Encore 700 S dispensers equipped with large-size display screens for customer ease and convenience.

And, customers are typically locals rather than travelers.

“We are not traditionally interstate locations, but more ‘your neighborhood-type store,’ where we have the same customers every day. I stress to our people that you can’t lose ‘one’ customer because that ‘one person’ is actually in our stores multiple times per day and per week—it’s exponentially more than losing ‘one’.”

For the remainder of 2023, Collins is settling in to oversee the entire network’s fortunes, particularly ensuring that the Irondale Quick Shop continues to hit its stride. “I don’t have any new properties in mind but am always looking. I’ve not had anything that’s jumped out at me, so this year is more about keeping control of what we have and adding some [wholesale] supply business with new dealer accounts in the area,” Collins concluded.

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