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Who & What Inspires Sam Susser?

CSP's 2014 Retail Leader reflects on heroism, culture and charity

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Sam L. Susser has a framed poster of pro golfer Ben Hogan on a wall at his company's headquarters, not because he was probably the best golfer of his time, but because Hogan suffered a near-fatal car accident in 1949 and worked tirelessly to recover to play again.

Ben Hogan Sam Susser (CSP Daily News / Convenience Stores)

In fact, the next year he tied Sam Snead at the Los Angeles Open, only to lose in an 18th-hole playoff.

Susser, 51, named CSP magazine's 2014 Retail Leader of the Year, often speaks of people who inspire him. But instead of sports greats, they're likely employees at his Stripes convenience stores.

"Our culture here is first and foremost about serving the team members who take care of our customers," he told CSP Daily News. "They are our heroes."

One summer afternoon in the "war room" of Susser Holdings Corp.'s Corpus Christi, Texas, headquarters, Susser reflected on some of the more aspirational aspects of his 640-store Stripes chain, which will soon become part of the larger Sunoco network of convenience stores.

Q: Tell us about your employees.

A: We try to keep in mind the heavy lifting and hard challenges that come with operating the store environment and dealing with the general public every day. So we try to do the best we can to set everyone up on an equal footing.

Q: How so?

A: One way is we do not get a fancy, expensive, covered parking [here at headquarters]. Because our store managers don't. … We design our training, our benefits, our compensation system around the cooks and people who service the customers. We also give so many prizes and do so many crazy, wonderful things to give recognition. And we have made it clear that the last thing we will cut at this place is our programs and the incentives that are there to recognize the Herculean efforts of our front-line team members.

Q: How does that culture turn into bottom-line results?

A: When talking about tough times … we [still] believe the business has to grow. If the business isn't growing, then it's starving to death. We are driven to produce same-stores sales. Our culture is very driven by top-line sales growth. But we [have] two prisms: Is it good for our front-line employees and is it good for our customers?

Q: It sounds like it's not just about you taking care of employees, but the employees taking care of the business.

A: The job of a leader is to create an environment--a culture, systems of training, communication, policy and vision--that encourages the vast majority of folks to choose the righteous, difficult, courageous course of action each and every day, throughout the day.

Q: And that culture extends to the community at large, yes?

A: Our folks are the kind of people who also want to give back to the community. We want to be a part of the world and make it a little bit better tomorrow. To that end, we organize ourselves around two pillars: access to education and health-care initiatives for children.

Q: What would you say is the root of your success? Is it that employee attitude you speak of?

A: If I had a word to describe the people at Stripes, it would be "inspiring." We are not blessed with any unusual talent or skill, but there is an extraordinary amount of commitment … to try and build a successful, lasting business.

For more on Sam Susser, look for theDecember issue of CSPmagazine.

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