Respecting the People Behind the Counter
Mapco, SuperAmerica, Coen Oil execs share how culture sustains growth
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is not a more fragmented or diverse industry than convenience-store retailing. But whether it’s a large chain or small mom-and-pop, they all have something in common: the need to build a sustainable, rewarding culture in order to thrive.
“I don’t think there’s one right answer on how we approach convenience retailing,” said Tony Miller, executive vice president of Delek US Holdings Inc., Brentwood, Tenn., during a panel discussion at the 2015 Outlook Conference moderated by Mitch Morrison, vice president and group editor of CSP and Convenience Store Products magazines. “But the one common denominator, regardless of format, is everybody develops their culture around their goals and objectives.”
About two years ago, Delek US Holdings, which has more than 470 Mapco Express convenience-store sites across the Southeast that it obtained mainly through acquisitions, began an effort to forge a people-driven, goal-oriented, accountability-based culture. The company hired a coach to help Miller and his executive team improve their approach to leadership, one that grants employees autonomy and room to grow.
It’s an ongoing process, said Miller, and it starts at the very top. In fact, during his first week helping to lead Mapco, he decided to get rid of the large desk and credenza that filled his big corner office, and replace it with chairs, a coffee table and small conference table.
“I didn’t want to have those conversations across a big desk,” said Miller. “I wanted to have them sitting down, in a comfortable seat, talking to our team. It’s been a whole transformation. It’s breaking down barriers, putting everyone on same level in organization.”
One of the most powerful leadership lessons that Jack Helmick, president of SuperAmerica/Northern Tier Retail, Woodbury, Minn., has learned was also one of his very first. As a young man working in his father’s 7-Eleven—the first in the Houston market—Helmick's father corrected him one day for being disrespectful to the store’s assistant manager.
“I never forgot what he told me—‘Never be disrespectful to the people who work behind the counter,’” Helmick recalled. “And I’ve always remembered that and have always been a big advocate of our hourly employees.”
At Northern Tier, which has 166 company-owned and -operated SuperAmerica sites, and more than 100 franchised locations in three Midwestern states, this has meant providing an attractive place to work and paying a good wage. This past June, the company pushed through a wage increase companywide, in advance of Minnesota’s own two-step minimum-wage increase. And it tries to create an environment that makes employees feel at home.
“It’s not just about the wage you pay your employees; it’s the place they work also,” said Helmick. “Is it a good place to work? Do you post their schedule two weeks in advance? Do you give good benefits? Do you listen to them when they have good ideas for your company? Are you available to talk to the employees?”
This is especially critical considering the very low unemployment rates in some of the retailer’s markets.
“The culture of the company is getting the right people and the right process, and that will get the right profit,” said Helmick.
And at Coen Oil, culture building is also a big focus.
“We describe ourselves as a 90-year-old startup, and with that comes a cultural revolution,” said Charles McIlvaine, chairman of Coen Oil Co., Washington, Pa., which has 38 sites in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. It’s a culture driven by the people behind the counter, who are integral in building customer loyalty. And similar to Mapco and SuperAmerica’s approaches, it should ultimately result in business growth.
“Ultimately it is a customer-facing, customer-oriented business, and exactly immediately behind that is our team members on the front line,” said McIlvaine. “The products that we sell, the services we provide absolutely have to come through our team members to that customer, and feed back that loop. If it doesn’t happen that way, then it won’t work.”