ATLANTA — Frank Gleeson has approached the U.S. convenience market with a fresh take—one from across the pond.
Gleeson, president of Aramark Northern Europe, Dublin—a convenience retailer operating not only on street corners but also in universities and hospitals and even on oil rigs—was the first European-based chairperson for NACS when he took over last year. In that time, his immersion in convenience retail in the United States has given him a broader perspective on new strategies, online disruption and where the channel is headed.
Here are a few insights from the outgoing NACS chair.
Q: What were a few highlights of your time as chairman?
A: One obvious personal highlight was the incredible pride and excitement I felt to be at the NACS Show last year with my family—not just to share special moments with them but to also allow them to see firsthand how amazing our industry is beyond what they know about what I do at Aramark.
The other highlights are about context. The NACS chairmen don’t set a specific agenda—the organization’s strategic objectives are part of long-term planning—but when you are chairman you see things differently, just by the nature of the position and who you meet. And that experience is amazing, both in terms of what I have learned to take back to my business and in enhancing my commitment and connectivity to this industry.
Q: What are the industry’s main concerns?
A: While competition is always a huge concern, the pace of competition has intensified in recent years, primarily because of new entrants and disruption in the market. The online experience is all about convenience, but so is every other brick-and-mortar channel. After all, everyone sells convenience, including food operators and drugstores.
The key is to provide not just convenience but an experience, which can be as simple as a smile at the checkout [or] to literally provide “theater” in the store in how you prepare and showcase your food. Storytelling is such an integral part of today’s retail experience. And we need to tell our story to not just our customers but to government officials and to community groups, so they understand the important role we play. A great example of this was the recognition that NACS received for our work with Partnership for a Healthier America.
Q: How do you see the future of the industry?
A: As NACS CEO Henry Armour will often say, the future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed. And that is certainly true in our industry, and we saw that in two NACS events. At the Convenience Summit Asia in Shanghai you could clearly see “new retail” on display: the seamless integration of the in-store and online shopping experience. And at the Convenience Summit Europe in London and with market tours that followed in Amsterdam, we saw some of the most progressive foodservice operators in the world.
Variations of both cutting-edge concepts will be coming to virtually every store on every corner of the globe, as well as other retail excellence found throughout the world. It’s just a matter of time.
Convenience retailers must evolve and adapt all the time to stay in business. Just as Charles Darwin said: It’s not the strongest that survive; it’s the most adaptable to change.
Q: Any advice for fellow retailers?
A: It’s imperative that you become engaged, curious and participate in NACS simply because you don’t need to find all of the answers yourself.
I think I’m a perfect example. My first real engagement with NACS was going to the NACS Show. Then I went to Ithaca, N.Y., to attend the NACS Executive Leadership Program at Cornell University. That one week changed me from a manager to a leader and made me think differently about how to solve problems. That led to something else, which led to something else … and now I’m chairman. I’m not suggesting that will happen for everyone, but what I am suggesting is that becoming engaged will certainly help change your business. And it’s more fun and will help you stay ahead of your competition.