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Kwik Trip’s Don Zietlow named CSP’s 2012 Retail Leader of the Year

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

Don Zietlow

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- If any convenience store chain was a reflection of its owner, it would be Kwik Trip Inc. From no-charge ATMs to its generous employee profit-sharing program, Don Zietlow has built a $3.6-billion business on selling life’s simple necessities at a surprising value.

But if life were simple, assembling a 420-store, vertically integrated chain would be commonplace. And there’s nothing common about Kwik Trip, the people behind its success or Zietlow.

That’s why unlocking the secrets behind Kwik Trip’s continuing dominance starts at the top, with its president and CEO, CSP’s 2012 Retail Leader of the Year.

Oak Brook, Ill.-based CSP Business Media will honor Zietlow and the Kwik Trip chain--known locally for its $1 Wednesday cheeseburgers, glazed doughnuts and fresh fruit, with a special corner on bananas--at a formal awards dinner Monday evening, Oct. 8, 2012, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas during the NACS convention.

Having roots early in his career as a driver with a trucking company, Zietlow understood full well the hardship of a low-wage, back-breaking job. The long hours and manual labor gave him the drive to not only improve his own standing, but to give others the right to a fair wage for hard work.

With a devotion to what many simply call the “Golden Rule,” he set his sights on building a company that would ultimately serve both the community and its employees.

Zietlow spent the first half of his career in the grocery business, moving up the ranks at Gateway Foods, overseeing operations in La Crosse, Wis., and Duluth, Minn. His 26-year history with Gateway would round out with a period as president, ending when the company was eventually sold.

His grocery background would serve him well as he took ownership of Kwik Trip, along with a business partner, in 1972. Not only would the c-store industry cycle back from a fuel focus to one of foodservice and grocery, but Zietlow brought along the expertise of Gateway executives, many of whom are tenured leaders at Kwik Trip today. With like-thinkers at the helm, Kwik Trip’s foundation was firmly set.

All along the way, Zietlow has never lost sight its main asset: people. As a testament to that belief, Zietlow and his family arranged for an employee-benefit package that meant 40% of annual profits--almost unheard of in the industry--would be returned to employees. That evolved even further to include profits from the company’s property.

Though keen on the need to take care of his employees, Zietlow knew that success in business meant knowing what the customer wanted and coming up with the best, most efficient way to deliver. For Kwik Trip, that meant doing it themselves. If the company could prove it was better taking something in-house, it would do it, making Kwik Trip by far one of the most vertically integrated c-store chains in the country.

With that supply chain focus, its biggest gamble was with foodservice, involving millions of dollars invested in bakery, commissary and food-safety facilities unparalleled in the industry.

Balancing a competitive fire with a caring eye toward people, Kwik Trip managed record profits the past four years, even as the rest of the economy struggled through the worst recession in decades. In that time, the company built stores, expanded its bakery and commissary, and invested in the potential of CNG fuel. Multiple news media have declared Kwik Trip one of the best places to work in the Midwest, a recognition that translates directly to customer service. Something CSP Magazine discovered as the chain took top honors in its own Mystery Shop challenge three of the past four years.

For more on Zietlow and the Kwik Trip chain, watch for the December issue of CSP magazine.

Angel Abcede, CSP/Winsight By Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP
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