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On the Record: Sonja Hubbard

Checking in on what’s next for the former E-Z Mart CEO
Illustration by Seb Jarnot

TEXARKANA, Texas -- For nearly 20 years, Sonja Yates Hubbard was the CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc., a family-run chain based in Texarkana, Texas. She sold the company to GPM Investments in late 2017. Hubbard has also served as chairperson of NACS and on the boards of many charitable and civic organizations. She tells CSP about her favorite artist, her “cult” workouts and what’s next for her in the industry and beyond.

Favorite artist:

If I had to pick just one artist, it would be Michelangelo. The ability to almost miraculously turn a solid piece of stone into a beautifully moving piece of art is beyond admirable. His work evokes emotions. I have drawn his David and the Pieta in differing forms and modifications along with the “hand of God” from the Sistine Chapel. Isn’t it amazing to think that over 500 years later, we can all still admire and be inspired?

Workout routine:

My husband refers to my sister, Stacy, and my workout routine as a cult. Maybe. We have been doing CrossFit for about four years. I’ve learned to challenge myself and that age isn’t necessarily a barrier to progress. I’m stronger now than ever in my life. Who knew that I’d ever scamper up a rope and knock out pull-ups?

Growing up in the c-store business:

I have loved growing up in this industry. As a child, I walked from elementary school to our first store, where my mom pulled the afternoon shift and my dad worked the morning and closing. As the business grew, I did a bit of everything. I was a confused yet pleasant receptionist, destructive clerk and an initially intimidated (then more aggressive) collector of “hot” checks.

In the late ’70s/early ’80s, my parents took us to trade events. It was there that my career in the industry was solidified. I found the business interesting, even fun, ever-changing and the people real. I’ve been involved in other businesses and industries, but none are like us. We are the best.

Biggest challenge as CEO of a family-run business:

Well, that’s obvious. Family! But I say that while at the same time knowing that I’ve been blessed with a supportive, cooperative and superior one. It does just change the dynamic of the CEO role when some subordinates, in title, are owners, family members and people you’ll have dinner with or go to bed with. The offset was that those very same people had the guts to challenge me, disagree and push back, and we got to the right decisions that way. They also have your back, every day in every way. That’s not a loyalty you can buy. Family business—I’ll take it every day.

Dearth of women in executive positions:

Women have made great strides in this industry. When I first attended events, I’d be the only woman. Then we added a few suppliers and finally many more retailers. It seems that a few years ago we really seemed to have cracked the glass ceiling, but because of consolidation and other options, we’ve lost many just this past year, including me. But that really doesn’t concern me long term. This industry favors hard-working multitaskers who like challenges, enjoy human interaction and can think on their feet. I think that describes many female specific traits. We got this!

Brick-and-mortar vs. e-commerce:

I think the convenience store industry is one of the few industries that is e-commerce-resistant. Anyone who wants a fountain drink in most of the non-high-density urban communities can’t get it timely from any e-commerce delivery. This is an opportunity to expand and fill the void between the e-commerce grocery shopping trips.

What’s next:

I keep getting asked what retirement feels like and my answer is, “How the hell do I know?” I’ve been busy both closing out the old business and starting a new one. We have a new office and will change the company name to Yates Group (a real estate management and development operation). We retained nearly 150 pieces of real estate, ranging from small land parcels to large strip centers. We’ll work to develop and optimize this portfolio, continue the Yates Foundation, and who knows what else comes next.

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