CSP Magazine

CSP's 2015 Retail Leader of the Year: Tony Kenney

Hard work, kindness and humility: the building blocks of the man behind the curtain at Speedway Convenience Stores

Tony Kenney is a master Pinewood Derby car craftsman.

As a Boy Scout preparing for his pack’s Pinewood Derby, Raymond Kenney watched his father, Tony, transform a simple block of wood into a sleek, swift, finely tuned racing machine.

“For days he would paint it, sand it, decal it, put graphite on the wheels, test-run it over and over, and make sure the alignment was perfect,” says Raymond, admitting that while his father was working his engineering magic, he and his brother, John, were playing Super Mario Kart in the basement. “He put weights on the bottom of it, took the weights off, to make sure it was the exact pound limit. This thing looked like an actual NASCAR car.”

On the day of the big race, the Kenney car finished at the top of the pack.

“I took all the glory,” says Raymond, somewhat sheepishly. “I said, ‘This was my car—look at this awesome thing I created!’ It was one of the fastest things there.”

It was years later, after the glory of race day faded, that Raymond realized the finely crafted Pinewood Derby car was actually his dad’s labor of love.

“He was always content to work behind the scenes, to do the work that was thankless, the day-in, day-out work that he realized he may very well not receive any praise for,” says Raymond. “But he did it out of love, out of a desire to provide, out of deeper motives than success, fame or personal accomplishment.”

This is classic Tony. Do the hard work, accept any job and keep your eye on what really matters. It crosses over into his job for the past decade: president of Speedway LLC, Enon, Ohio, the second-largest company-owned and -operated c-store chain in the country, with more than 2,760 sites in 22 states.

In a matter of months, Tony will celebrate his 40th year with Marathon Petroleum Corp. (MPC) and Speedway, where he began as an entry-level accountant and worked his way up from finance and IT through business development.

But to Speedway’s 36,000 employees, he is just Tony, humble and genuine. He was the first company president whom Sheila Wehrs, general manager of Speedway’s Beavercreek, Ohio, store, had ever met. She got to know him well when she managed the Enon store where Tony would stop in for lunch.

“He didn’t come in to ask questions about numbers,” says Wehrs. “He was just coming in as a customer, just to meet people. My employees were always like, ‘He’s so friendly, he’s so nice!’ This is a president—they couldn’t believe it.”

And he always has two things to say at the end of every visit: “Is there anything we can do for you?” and “Thank you for all of your hard work.”

“It’s unusual to have a president of a company with a financial background be that energetic and enthusiastic with the employees, and just get folks to follow where he leads,” says Beth Hunter, senior vice president, finance, ITS and CFO. “Watching how he deals with the store employees and how when he walks into the store, he brings a broad smile and an outstretched hand: ‘Hi, my name’s Tony Kenney. What have you got going on today?’ ”

Tony’s detailed yet down-home personality seems perfect for handling the exhaustive integration after Speedway’s October 2014 acquisition of Hess’ retail network, which nearly doubled the company’s total store count. As a major rebranding effort progresses, the cultural shift to one company is happening. Tony and his senior management team are aiming to create one company, one vision, out of thousands of stores in nearly two dozen states.

It is surprisingly difficult to get Tony to talk about himself, much less admit he’s anything special. But in an exclusive interview for CSP magazine’s 2015 Retail Leader of the Year, Tony generously shared details of his life, leadership philosophy and vision for a united Speedway.

It’s Whom You Know

Tony Kenney was born into a middle-class family in Parma Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. His dad worked in a warehouse for the ACDelco parts division of General Motors (GM). He taught Tony how to play golf, a sport he loves, and about work ethic and company loyalty.

“He spent his whole career—38 years—with GM, and here I am, going on 40 years,” says Tony, who started at what was Marathon Oil Co. back in 1976. “Today, you look at professional people entering the business world, and it’s rare that people talk about wanting to stay with a company all their career.

“My values were more grounded in one company, staying true to that company, being committed to it, doing the best I can.”

His mom supported labor unions in Cleveland, and she introduced him to retail. Some of his first summer jobs were through her connections with local grocery stores.

But for someone who seems like a natural-born retailer, Tony took a circuitous route to the profession. At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he first studied chemistry; his mom had suggested a career in pharmacy.

But he quickly soured on the idea. “During spring break, we had a five-hour lab that went from 1 to 6 in the afternoon when everyone else was outside, throwing a Frisbee,” says Tony. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to drop this. I’ve got to find another major.’ ” So he signed up for business school and majored in accounting, graduating in 1976.

Tony figured he’d join a big public accounting firm, such as Deloitte or Arthur Anderson. But after interviewing with Marathon, he saw several things he liked. It was based in Findlay—close to his parents and sister back in Cleveland. He also would be joining a social, “work hard, play hard” environment.

“Business was growing back then, and they were hiring a lot of kids off campus,” Tony recalls. There were a lot of after-work sports and social activities, including interoffice basketball, baseball and bowling. “Then you would do things afterward—go out to eat, stay out late and feel miserable the next morning.”

And there was a surprise benefit. At Marathon, Tony met his wife of 35 years, Jean. A farm girl fresh out of high school, Jean worked in Marathon’s accounting department when Tony moved into the cubicle next to hers. Even then, she knew he was special.

“He doesn’t just do what’s expected,” Jean says. “He’s always one who goes a little bit above and beyond.”

And he quickly figured out what it would take to move ahead at Marathon.

“You had to work hard; there was no substitute for hard work,” Tony says. “If you work hard, a mentor would find you and assist you in reaching your full potential.” He pursued opportunities to get himself noticed, including projects that required presentations to higher-level execs.

One of these people was Ron Essinger, an accounting manager a few levels above Tony—and a leadership role model. “The first opportunity I had to become a supervisor, I probably looked to how Ron was, how friendly he was,” says Tony. “He took an interest in all of the people who worked for him. He knew something personal about them. He always found time to talk, whether it was a work-related problem or a social conversation. Those sort of traits I tried to emulate.”

At the same time, Essinger was highly disciplined. He drove his employees to perform, but he earned their respect. “When you think about leadership,” Tony says, “you think about being able to balance accomplishing what you need to in a manner that allows you to be respected by your peers.”

Beyond meeting the right people, Tony also embraced the oil-company culture of embracing new roles and moving to new places.

“I never said no to any job I was offered. Over time, that follows along with you,” he says. “People know you have the ambition it takes, and you demonstrate it with your willingness and actions to go to some places that maybe aren’t as desirable as other places. But you do it, and then you get an opportunity to do something else.”

And there were some tough assignments. Back in the late 1970s, Marathon Oil had a sizable international operation, and so Tony was asked to move into international accounting, dealing with foreign countries that had different approaches to paying taxes and royalties.

One was Libya, where Marathon had an interest and a small office in Tripoli that required Tony to spend time overseas. Imagine a  25-year-old Tony, new to his career, never having been overseas, and now navigating new laws and a radically different culture.

Libyan customs authorities even detained him at the airport a few times, causing him to miss flights and question himself and his career choice.

“I thought, ‘Is this really what I wanted to be doing?’ ” he recalls.

But Tony didn’t shirk adversity or complexity: “You make do, you learn, you do the right thing, and you make it through those situations.”

Coach Kenney

Indeed, Tony came to relish such challenges, so much so that he considers them a valuable tool in developing his own employees’ careers. He even is prepared to give pep talks to those who do not feel up to the task.

“It goes something like this,” Kenney says. “ ‘You’re the right person for this job. You might not realize it, but we know what kind of talent you have, what you’ve accomplished so far, what we’re trying to achieve in this assignment. You’re the right person and you need to realize that and feel confident in yourself.’ ”

If this reminds you of your high school sports days, that’s because Tony is a coach straight out of central casting. He is feisty, encouraging and tirelessly positive.

“If you think of him as a football coach, he will give you the ball,” says Tom LeFevers, vice president of marketing for Speedway. “He’s not a micromanager, so he’ll let you run the ball, and as long as you’re progressing, he lets you run the play. He’s more of a supporter that will not only make sure you look at the next play [but] the next game, the next year, the next three to five years. So he’s very much a visionary.”

“Tony’s leadership style is pretty simple: When he expects you to do something, he expects it to get done, and he expects it to be done right,” says Glenn Plumby, the company’s senior vice president of operations. “He doesn’t follow up a lot or look over your shoulder. He gives you a lot of room to work with your job. And at the end of the day, he expects you to deliver results.”

This style extended to home life, where Tony coached his sons in basketball, football, baseball, T-ball—name a sport, and he probably coached it.

“One of his life mottos is: Individuals will rise to the expectations given them,” says his son Raymond. “He set high expectations for us that weren’t necessarily appropriate for our age level. But I think because of those expectations, we rose at a sometimes faster pace.”

His other son describes his dad as an “ice cream if you win, ice cream if you lose” kind of coach.

“He really emphasized the fun parts of sports, as opposed to those who got mad or so involved that they lost track of why you were out there—[which was] to have fun,” John says. “He’s still like that today. When we go golfing, we joke that his only goal is: ‘I just want to have fun.’ ”

But don’t mistake fun for flippant. Tony could not have risen to his position at Marathon and Speedway without being a fierce competitor, says friend and Marathon Petroleum veteran Mike Peak. He first saw this quality in action during an interoffice basketball game. Peak was referee while Tony was an “enforcer,” roughing other players up.

“He hit a guy and I called a foul on him,” says Peak. “He comes up to me and says a few things. I said, ‘Tony, you killed the guy.’ ” After a few choice words from Tony, Peak called a technical foul.

“I don’t know whether it was his Irish or Italian heritage, but at that point one side or the other kicks in and he stomps off court, and goes and sits on the very top row of the bleachers,” says Peak. Despite the bruised feelings, Tony made up with Peak after the game.

“He said, ‘I’m an idiot.’ Yeah, well, I’m an idiot too,” says Peak. “And we went out and had pizza and beer.”

Plumby witnessed this fierce competitor after playing a round of golf with Tony. The two were on opposing teams. Kenney’s partner was forced to putt, and he missed the shot. Plumby laughs at what followed: “He didn’t talk to me the rest of the round. He didn’t talk to me for three days. But that’s just the nature of Tony. He wants to win fairly and he wants everyone around him to win.”

That said, Tony has learned to accept failure as a part of the retail business, just as it is in basketball and golf, and to embrace it as a precondition of success.

“Early on in my career, the initial feeling I would have is, ‘I can’t tolerate that,’ ” he admits. “But if you don’t allow people the freedom to try something, allow their creativity to be part of what they’re doing, and then you smack them hard when something doesn’t work—well, guess what will happen next time? You’re not going to get that next idea. Maybe that’s the next big idea.”

One Company, One Vision

Perhaps nothing will test Tony Kenney’s leadership—and the mettle of Speedway Convenience Stores’ leadership team—more than the integration of Hess and Wilco-Hess’ former retail sites. It is a process that they have approached with respect and determination.

Soon after the acquisition, Speedway’s senior management team adopted a theme for the integration: One company, one vision.

It includes a logo and a directive: Get beyond Hess, Wilco-Hess and legacy Speedway. Now there is only Speedway West—the Midwest stores—and Speedway East, on the East Coast. “We’re one company,” says Tony. “We are Speedway.”

The team held town-hall meetings at Hess’ former headquarters in Woodbridge, N.J., and at Wilco-Hess’ Winston-Salem, N.C., offices to answer questions and explain next steps. The most common question: “What’s going to happen to my job?” Tony and the senior leaders were clear.

“We laid out exactly what our plan was,” says Tony. “We’re not laying off anyone. We want everyone, we need everyone. We’ll figure out what the right jobs are going forward.”

While everyone might not end up with the same job, they will be offered one with the same pay and benefits—as often as possible, in the same geographic area. In fact, Speedway will likely add positions, because Hess and Wilco-Hess outsourced many roles that may be brought back in-house.

“As it turns out, here we are a year later, and we’ve been able to offer everyone full-time employment,” Tony says.

For its size, Speedway is a fairly flat organization. While it has more than 2,760 stores, Tony has only seven direct reports.

“There is not a lot of bureaucracy in this enterprise, or a lot of red tape,” Tony says. “We’ve got goals, plans and objectives, and we communicate those so people understand what needs to be done. Then people are given the responsibility and accountability for doing that, and we respect that hugely at Speedway.

“The organization, because it’s so large, you can’t possibly try to manage it all from Enon, Ohio. You’ve got to trust someone.”

Company leaders have gone to exhaustive lengths to build trust and knit together Speedway West and Speedway East. For one, senior managers were tasked to find best practices from both organizations that could work across the entire company. One year later, they have found 400 and implemented 250 of them—a process that Tony originally thought would take three years.

For example, Speedway adopted Hess’ tradition of calling store managers “general managers” to better reflect the scope of their role. Speedway West sent its general managers to spend weeks training those in the East, and to help school them in the new technology and systems introduced as part of the rebranding: point of sale, back office, accounting, store reporting, Speedy Rewards, inventory management and more. That personal touch was key.

“It was peer-to-peer—it wasn’t a big training department coming down, going through textbook stuff ,” says Tony. “They were working on the job, side by side, talking to customers together, having fun and a good time.”

One early indicator of determining this approach’s success will be improving store metrics. There is already good news: The number of Speedway East customers using Speedy Rewards in their transaction—also known as the identification rate—has reached the same point in one year that it took Speedway West to build up in the program’s first  five years.

The early success of Speedy Rewards is especially rewarding considering that in the East, Speedway is competing against revered rivals such as Wawa, QuickChek and Cumberland Farms.

Granted, there are no prominent loyalty programs on the East Coast. Also, customers today are much more tech-savvy and therefore more comfortable using the Speedy Rewards loyalty app. But perhaps most important, Speedway East employees have been successful in communicating the program’s value to customers.

“Our business is a people business,” says Tony. “We knew the key to that success is to talk to your customers, show them and make sure you get the card in their hands.”

Of course, it is one thing to say a company is united. It is another for the culture to take root and flourish across the entire network—an endeavor that Tony says could very well have no end date.

“You’ve got to work hard at it; it’s not something that just happens,” he says. “The leaders of the company play a big part in making sure we’re staying on track for this ‘One company, one vision’ mission we have. If we are failing, there’s accountability there—I’ll know where we need to look and course-correct.”

Goal Keeper

When Tony’s sons were young, Kenney family vacations were relatively simple—visits to a water park, a zoo, the beach. And on these trips, there was always one stop they had to make: the local Speedway store.

“Dad always likes checking in—on well-performing stores to see what they were doing, or struggling stores to see how he could help,” says John.

Eventually John and Raymond caught onto this ploy and started giving their dad a hard time about making the store stops. So Tony came up with more elaborate reasons to visit the local Speedway. “He wised up and said, ‘I need a cup of coffee, to use the restroom—there’s a Speedway 2.5 miles east of here,’ ” John says. “It was the same at dinner or lunch: ‘Want to go to Speedway for dinner?’ ”

It’s a favorite maxim of Tony’s that if you enjoy your job, you will never work a day in your life.

“He never thinks he’s working,” John says. “He enjoys what he does. ‘I’ll retire when I stop enjoying what I do.’ ”

But eventually, he will retire from Speedway and MPC. His family is somewhat nervous about that prospect.

“He’s such a part of this company that I don’t think he can just stop it,” John says. “Even when he does stop, he’ll probably still be visiting Speedways.”

Succession planning is a part of life at Speedway. Tony and senior management meet two to three times a year to map out teams and talk about up-and-coming leaders, and how to help them advance. For Tony, who propelled himself up the company ranks for nearly 40 years, grabbing opportunities and positioning himself for success, the goals are increasingly less for him and more for Speedway and its 36,000 employees.

“What’s next for Speedway, and where can this company go?” Tony says. “There’s so much you can look at in terms of what you could possibly achieve, still now, given the resources that we have and the kind of company we’ve grown into.

“Our best years are definitely ahead of us.”

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a CSP member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content

Company News

'Be A Goldfish'

How a streaming comedy set the tone for RaceTrac President Natalie Morhous


City Debates Bottled-Water, Single-Use Plastic Ban

Council sends bill back to staff for further review


Leading the Charge

Ethanol and EVs stand at the head of the pack of alternative-fuel retail strategies


More from our partners