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Madame Chairman

Actually, E-Z Mart CEO says "Sonja" would be just fine

TEXARKANA, Texas -- Has this apple fallen far from the tree? Well, first off, let's just say most who know her agree she's a peach, and she didn't fall; she earned her selection by peers from among the c-store industry's best and brightest.
Sonja Hubbard is the incoming NACS chairman, 16 years after her father, the late Jim Yates, filled the same position. That's right, chairman. You can slip up when you talk to her, no need to backtrack and say "chairperson" or "chairwoman." She's proud to be the first female to win the vote of the present and previous chairmen—in this case, Richard [image-nocss] Oneslager and Sam Turner, respectively—but you won't pick her out of the crowd at the next industry event by looking for the one waving a fabulously coordinated banner for her gender.Hubbard will assume the chairman role at the NACS Show in Chicago next week. Click hereto view a CSPTV interview.Not that she doesn't have an eye for color or know how to coordinate and accessorize. Hubbard has been an artist for more than 20 years—she can boast of her first exhibition this past year—and to hear past chair and her mentor Bill Douglass tell it, she "dresses beautifully."

"She buys in New York City," said Douglass, a fellow Texan.

Hubbard can afford to, as the CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc., a 300-store chain based in Texarkana, Texas. But being one of Jim Yates' daughters didn't guarantee success, and she's more proud of running a top-notch company than being the first female anything. Hubbard also sits on the boards of two local medical organizations and is a board member and past chairman of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank's branch in Little Rock, Ark.

When asked before the interview for this article how much emphasis on her gender she was comfortable with, her e-mailed answer shows her balancing act in an industry whose upper crust has been, like most envelopes, white male.

"I am not opposed to some focus on being 'the first lady,' as it would be a bit odd and even negligent to ignore, I think," she wrote. "I am not a big women's libber, though. While I support women, and celebrate our successes, I feel that what is really needed is a level playing field … but everyone should earn what they get and not be given special treatment. That said, this is a significant step forward, I hope, for the gender."

In the interview, she cites men such as Douglass and Turner, who she said are more proud of their own wives' accomplishments than their own: "As far as advocating and standing there waving a flag, that comes across usually as a negative. I've had no resistance and absolute support. To me, it would be like a slap in the face to the guys who have been gender-blind."

Hubbard's egalitarian philosophy also comes from the heart, not only hers but of her great grandmother, Lena Puckett, a nurse; her 94-year-old grandmother, Lucy Faye Wilson, who has survived three bouts with breast cancer; and her mother, FaEllen Yates, E-Z Mart's chairman.

"I never assumed women were supposed to be either the inferior or the weaker sex, because in my family they weren't," she said. "As strong as my father was [at work], and he always got his way, he never won a fight at home. He even told me once, 'I did one time, and it wasn't worth it.' "

The Same, Only Different

In the years before he died, Sonja's father would call her to discuss E-Z Mart issues, and his respect for her opinion and knowledge meant the world to her. Yet what she learned from him was less strategic and more intangible: hard work, persistence, the need for high expectations. When it came time for Hubbard to take over, she wedded those lessons to her own course of action.

"If he had been drilling, he'd have been a wildcatter," Douglass said of Yates. "He was a gutsy guy. He was always taking risks."

That approach resulted in acquisitions, and by March 1999 E-Z Mart had 525 stores. When big-box retailers moved in and began selling gas at low prices, the company found itself over-leveraged. In early 2000, Hubbard the CPA rolled up her sleeves, sharpened pencils and began to slash.

"My father was very growth-focused and thankfully got us where we are," she said. "Because he wasn't a quitter, he had a really hard time closing stores. We took a hard look at operations, and closed and disposed of a lot of stores."

Hubbard also has tapped her aesthetic prowess and has twice updated the look of the stores over the past decade. The chain has grown its foodservice offering, even opening a stand-alone restaurant in July. Ten years after Yates passed away, there are fewer E-Z Mart stores producing higher profits, and she couldn't have done it without him—not to mention an executive staff with an average tenure of 18 years.

"At home he was a very different person, a kind, gentle, soft dad that was always loving and supportive," Hubbard said. "At work, he was very supportive but he was much tougher. He was a businessman, and getting to see that side of him was sometimes tough, but I learned a lot.

"I told him on more than one occasion that I learned more from him as a leader and a businessperson than in all my years at school," she continues. "The best thing he ever taught me was that if E-Z Mart went away tomorrow, I could get a job and I'd be OK. He gave me practical business skills to survive life. He was a good mentor."

Climbing the Hill

Her father set an example through his NACS involvement as well, believing that what was good for NACS was better for him and his company, that he got more than he gave. Hubbard began working with NACSPAC, a favorite investment of time and money of her father's, then moved to government relations. NACS was beginning to make its presence felt in Washington, D.C., and Hubbard found that she had a nose for this grindstone.

"She liked the thrill of the kill," said Douglass, who has been in government relations throughout his career in the industry, first with Exxon and then as head of Douglass Distributing Co., Sherman, Texas. "She had a good time calling on [Congress] and challenging them to see it from the point of view of the retailer."

Hubbard confirms this. Ethanol, price-gouging and credit-card fees have been the focus of the past few years and, as vice chair of government relations in 2006-2007, Hubbard was in the U.S. Capitol a dozen times.

"I really do enjoy going up on the Hill," she said. "Sometimes it's ineffective, sometimes their minds are made up before you get there, but it's important for them to hear the other side of the story. With ethanol, for example, there was not a lot of foresight. Certainly everybody would agree we want to be less dependent on foreign oil, but nobody saw the impact on the food supply and even the environment, the additional requirements of water and having to harvest it.

"Those are the things that when I get up there I feel like I really do make a difference. I leave there usually feeling really good."

Hubbard was NACS treasurer this past year and her accounting, government-relations and Federal Reserve Board background will be handy for a chairmanship that will coincide with a grim economy and the immediate results of an election year that could affect the future of issues close to home. Sam Turner, another NACS chair who was a vice chair of government relations, and who Hubbard counts with her father and Douglass as her top mentors, was the one to tell her she would be the 2008-2009 NACS chairman.

"He did so by ordering us champagne, then giving me a lecture as to the position," Hubbard said. "Both were needed."

Peas and Carrots

Hubbard has always known that doing what's best for E-Z Mart and NACS are often the same, and that sacrifice is necessary—Douglass told her he spent 251 days on the road as chairman. Just as when Hubbard was growing up, business and family are inseparable: Her sister Stacie is CFO; her husband of 27 years, Bob, is COO and president; and her mother's name is on the chain's coffee brand. She and Stacie are the two "chicks" on the chain's foodservice logo; they are also neighbors with a gate between their yards and exercise together each morning.

The Hubbards' 21-year-old daughter Lauren attends the New School in New York City and writes E-Z Mart's newsletter. That's as far as she's involved so far, kiddingly cautious of how much her Mom puts into her job and NACS.

"Maybe she's not as far away as she thinks," Hubbard said.

Lauren's mother is conscious of her unique status and that she is in a position to influence women in the industry, but she also said it will be a greater day when there is a NACS chairwoman who didn't rise from a family business, who chose the business rather than being born into it.

"I don't want to have gotten this position or any position in my life because I'm a woman," Hubbard said. Then you can hear her wink. "The fact that I'm a woman is either a benefit or a detriment, depending on how you look at it."

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