“Our industry is all about ideas.”

Sonja Hubbard stood on stage at the 2009 NACS Show in Las Vegas and gave a rousing glass-half-full pep talk at the height of the recession. Despite high unemployment and low wage growth eating into retail sales, Hubbard argued that the c-store industry was proving remarkably resilient, thanks in part to industry innovation. And you know what? People believed her. At the time, Hubbard was wrapping up her NACS chairmanship. While she was the association’s first—and thus far only—female chairperson, Hubbard did not consider herself “a big women’s libber.”

“While I support women, and celebrate our successes, I feel that what is really needed is a level playing field,” she told CSP at the time. “But everyone should earn what they get and not be given special treatment. That said, this is a significant step forward, I hope, for the gender.”

Indeed, Hubbard is so much more than the token female industry executive she’s sometimes lauded as. When she sold more than 270 stores to GPM Investments LLC at the end of 2017, the industry did lose a powerful female trailblazer—but it also lost a tireless representative of rural, small-town retailers.

The first E-Z Mart opened in Nashville in 1970. Her father, Jim Yates, ran the growing business until his death in 1998. It was then that she became CEO, eventually growing the chain to more than 280 sites in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. As leader of the company, Hubbard had been laser-focused on improving the life of employees, the quality of the stores and their customer service, in addition to giving back to the chain’s local communities.

These are leadership qualities that are easy to miss when listening to Hubbard on stage. In fact, while Hubbard initially turned down NACS’ chairmanship offer because she feared it was based solely on her gender, she realized she did have a unique ability that many other industry CEOs did not.

“The best part is that I stand out,” she told Talk Business Arkansas in 2014. “I get noticed. When I speak up, people listen.”

Hubbard is undoubtedly a mentor to many men and women hoping to find their places in this vibrant industry. It’s a role she relishes. In 2015, when CSP launched its #ThankAMentor program that paired longtime industry leaders with those newer to the industry, Hubbard was a natural participant.

“That’s what is great about this industry,” she said at the time. “I’m sitting with a bunch of young people, but I’ve taken as many notes as they have, probably more. I’m learning just as much from them. We need to keep a focus on learning and building connections.”

It’s unlikely her connection to the c-store industry is totally lost. In fact, her departure leaves a footprint ready for the next generation of leaders to follow. 

1998—Year Hubbard became CEO of E-Z Mart Stores

See Power 20 2018: The Outsiders