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On the Record: Joe Sheetz

The retail CEO on why store traffic is flat and why he’d never make it on 'American Idol'
joe sheetz
Illustration by Seb Jarnot

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Joe Sheetz has been the CEO of Sheetz Inc., Altoona, Pa., since October 2013. Part of the iconic family-run chain, Joe joined Sheetz in the 1980s, holding various accounting and operation functions while attending high school and college. After graduating from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Joe spent six years as an employee benefits consultant for CGI Consulting near Philadelphia. In August 1995, Joe returned to Sheetz Inc. and has been with the company ever since. Joe and his wife, Wendy, have two children, Delaney and Casey. He tells CSP about why traffic is flat, the good and bad of having the same name as his company, and why he’d never make it on “American Idol.”

Passion for youth baseball

I grew up a baseball kid with my father as my Little League coach. Even though he probably didn’t really have the spare time, he continued to coach Little League until I was about 26 years old, well after he had any children of his own playing. It was his passion and stress relief. He was instrumental in getting a new field built in Altoona when the old field was taken by the state for a local highway project in 1982. My son joined that league the same year my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer and I tried to carry on the tradition by serving as a coach myself. After his passing, we organized the effort to build a second field and other amenities for the league, effectively creating a youth baseball complex and naturally named it after “Big Joe,” as we called him at Sheetz.

Not your average family-run company

My uncle Bob started the company in 1952, and I am the fourth CEO, all of us being family members. We own and operate our stores, which means every senior exec (a lot of people named Sheetz) spends quite a bit of time in our stores, distribution centers and office complexes. We personally attend community events and charity fundraisers. Everybody here works hard and then parties hard. Because we plan to keep the company in the family for generations to come, our thinking is always long-term. Being a great place to work is just as important as financial success.

Same-name game

I always say it is both a blessing and a curse. I am very proud of my family’s business heritage and the company we all have built together over the years. It certainly has provided many of us with a privileged life. However, there are very few places to hide and privacy can be scarce. Everybody has an opinion they want to share with a “Sheetz,” whether you are on vacation with your family or just trying to have a quiet dinner somewhere. Overall, though, I would not change it for the world.

Why in-store traffic is flat

This has been a hot topic within industry circles. Best I can tell, we are losing trips rather than customers. People who shopped our industry four times per week are only coming three times, for example. People’s lifestyles have changed and they no longer need to leave the house to accomplish many of their regular tasks. We are often shopped on the way to or on the way home so we are getting fewer chances to capture those on-the-go-type purchases. Cars get better gas mileage and customers don’t need to visit as often. Channel blurring has attacked us on the edges. There are many reasons.

An unknown fact

When I was in junior high, I was a member of a comedy/singing group called the Comedy Boys. I can’t sing at all and I am not very funny.

How to make brick-and-mortar meaningful in an increasingly digital world

Believe it or not, people still leave their houses. Our industry is better positioned than any other to take advantage of those occasions when people are on the move. However, we need to make sure we are living up to the customers’ idea of real convenience so that they can shop us quickly and efficiently. We also need to make a real effort to connect to the local communities we serve.

Hardest business decision

Every time we pull the trigger on a new store (which is 25-30 times per year), I feel like we are making the hard decisions. This industry has become more capital-intensive as customers demand more from convenience retailers, and mistakes on site selection are very expensive.

If you could meet one person, living or dead, who would it be?

Thomas Edison would be an interesting golf partner to spend four hours with. I am always intrigued by innovation and the mindset of great inventors who really stretched the idea of what is possible.

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