E-Z Mart's Hubbard Searching for 'Perfect Design'

Self-described "fixer" upgrading chain's c-stores, merchandise mix

E-Z Mart Convenience Store (CSP Daily News / Convenience Stores)

TEXARKANA, Texas -- E-Z Mart Inc., No. 8 on this year's list of 75 largest private companies in Arkansas, is in the midst of a companywide renovation of its stores, reported Arkansas Business, upgrades that involve not only the buildings but also the convenience stores' offerings.

"We're still searching for that perfect design," CEO Sonja Hubbard, who has been running the company since 1998, told the newspaper. "It seems every one we do we go in and we tweak it and we amend it. But I think we're getting real close."

She describes herself as a "fixer," searching for just the right mix of products and services for the company's 302 convenience stores in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. She credits Little Rock, Ark., architectural firm Williams & Dean for its efforts in developing a "more impactful" design.

"We just yesterday finished a loan agreement to allow us to expedite some of our upgrades, because we've been doing it all on cash flow," she said. "We've poured all the free cash flow for at least the last 15 years back into the company and have got now to the point I would say a good third of our stores--maybe half--are close to where we want them."

E-Z Mart has experimented with offering healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables, but the company has had mixed results. What people say they want and what they actually buy are often two different things. And the competition for the convenience store dollar is stiff.

"Maybe I'm an optimist, but I think it's beginning to catch on," she said of healthier food choices. Campaigns emphasizing better food choices will take at least a decade to have much effect, Hubbard said. "I think people still have a little bit of a hangup about gas station food. And sometimes, depending on how we execute it, we give them just cause to feel like that."

The company seeks to set itself apart also in its amenities, including clean restrooms, and Hubbard proudly cited E-Z Mart's recognition last year from CSP for having the cleanest restrooms among eight leading convenience store chains in the United States.

"We're still finding our way," Hubbard said. "I guess that's part of what's fun about this business. It never gets old because you're always learning something new."

Click here to view a Facebook photo gallery of a new E-Z mart c-store.

The reason for the store renovations is financial, said the report. Hubbard said E-Z Mart is dealing with ever higher operating costs. And "there's only so much you can do to minimize it," she said. Trimming expenses isn't enough to compensate. "You also have to earn some revenue. So we need to generate more sales and more volume."

Government regulations cost her company money, Hubbard said. But there are other factors.

The United States is a very competitive environment," she said. "We can blame and thank Wal-Mart, both, for having made so many categories competitive." Margins are thin "so we have to have more revenue to make a store work than we used to."

Despite the challenges, E-Z Mart, after time spent consolidating its stores, is back in growth mode, Hubbard said.

E-Z Mart has grown from a $574.2 million enterprise in 2004 to one reporting more than $1 billion in 2013, according to the report. Although 2013 revenue was a slim decline of 1.4 percent compared with 2012 numbers, Hubbard said 2014 is looking bright. The last couple of years have been "kind of static," but this year has started well and "I'm encouraged," she said

Click here to read the full Arkansas Business report and more about Sonja Hubbard.

Part of CSP's 2014 Convenience Top 101 retailers