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No Horsing Around

After selling Zooms chain, Allen plans a little downtime before launching new venture
HAMPTON, Va. -- After 28 years in the convenience-store industry, David Allen is putting himself out to pasture, in a manner of speaking. Having sold his 14 Zooms stores to 7-Eleven Inc., Allen plans to take some time to enjoy his farm and five horses before launching into some new venture.

"I've got five horses and a 150-acre farm on the water," the company owner and president told CSP Daily News. "I'll be able to farm it more and take better care of the horses. I might actually ride them once in a while."

But Allen, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., will [image-nocss] get back into business at some point down the line. "I'll do something; I just don't know what it is," he said. "And now I have some time to think about that."

It's a drive the 59-year-old feels deeply, to the point that he admits letting his 14 stores gohe's maintaining ownership of the real estatewas a tough move.

"[This has] not been easy because I'm not a seller. I don't have any experience with [selling stores], and it's a difficult thing to do," he said. "Most of us spend a lifetime building a business; we don't know how to sell it."

Helping Allen through the process was the knowledge that he was working with a respected and respectable company.

"They're a good company to work with," he said, acknowledging that 7-Eleven was the only company he talked to before selling the company. "This is a real strong market for them. They've got something like 200 stores in this market. A couple of years ago they changed and started growing through acquisitions; they never did that. I wanted to keep the real estate and lease it to somebody, and they're a good company."

As reported in CSP Daily News yesterday, 7-Eleven closed on the purchase of the Zooms locations Friday. Most of them will remain shut for two to three weeks for remodeling before they reopen as 7-Elevens stores.

Although most area 7-Elevens operate as local franchises, the Dallas-based retailer will run them as corporate stores at least temporarily.

But don't mistake the sell off as a concession to the poor economy. Allen said nothing could be further from the truth.

"Sure it hurt [the area]...but last year was the best year that we've ever had," he said. "The last four or five years, ever since we went unbranded, have been wonderful."

Going to unbranded gasoline after years with CITGO, Allen said, "made a big difference.... We were able to buy at the lowest prices every day and keep our street price right, and that's what people are looking for.... When gas was at $4 a gallon, all we were selling was unleaded.... So for a while, we only sold unleaded; we didn't sell premium. But then when it dropped down to $2.50, people demanded premium again so we put it back."

In selling the Hampton, Va.-based chain, Allenwho received CSP's Outlook Award for customer-service innovation in 2001kept the needs of his employees in mind, and he said they are thrilled with the move because of the added benefits working for a large company such as 7-Eleven brings.

"First, they also were able to take all my people, all my managers, my vice president of operations," he said. "Then, 7-Eleven runs a 24-hour operation; we never did. So my managers would come in at 4 in the morning and be done at 4 in the afternoon. With 7-Eleven, they'll come in at 6 a.m. and they'll be done by 2 p.m.

"Our top-end [salary] was maybe $35,000 plus bonus; they're top end is more like $45,000. They pay another dollar or two an hour for sales associates, and their benefits [cost] half of what mine did. They have 401K matches. So for my people, I think they're one of the best, most solid companies in the country. That was important to me."

So after 28 years in the industry, what advice would Allen offer other retailers?

"It depends. It depends on what they're good at and what their strengths are," he said. "For some people, fast food is the absolute wrong thing to do. Some people are branded and they're loyal to that. But it just depends on the nature of the person, the company and the organization. There's no one-size-fits-all to anything.

"I think one of the things that we were almost religious about in the last six years is making sure that any product that was on our shelves turned and moved. Whether it was Pepsi or Coke, Frito-Lay or the groceries we purchased, we didn't take what they offered, rather we made certain that we only took the things we knew would sell. Instead of having variety, we focused on having a lot more space for the things that really sold."

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