‘Leading with Character’

Friends, family, co-workers honor 7-Eleven boss DePinto.

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

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Chicago is Joe DePinto’s kind of town. It’s where he grew up, in Des Plaines, Ill. And with a rendering of the city of big shoulders as a backdrop, the president and CEO of 7-Eleven accepted the award of CSP’s Retail Leader of the Year in October before about 400 industry leaders, spouses and supplier partners.

The 48-year-old son of a middle-class family, DePinto accepted the award on behalf of his wife, family, friends and the management, field staff and franchisees that make up the world’s largest convenience-retail network.

Before a sea of suits and gowns, chandeliers above and the presence of beloved family and revered colleagues, DePinto described feeling overwhelmed. “I’m truly honored for such a special recognition,” he said after the cocktail reception and dinner at the Four Seasons. “It’s humbling.”

The presentation portion of the evening began with Sonja Hubbard, CEO of Texarkana, Texas-based E-Z Mart Stores Inc., describing the supplier cruise that brought her husband, Bob Hubbard, and Joe and Ingrid DePinto together. Sonja and Ingrid hit it off right away. Instead of sitting at their assigned tables, they moved their place cards around so the couples could have dinner together.

Sonja described the passion Joe DePinto brings to the industry, as seen in Dallas-based 7-Eleven’s effort to garner 1.3 million signatures toward swipe-fee reform. But Hubbard also talked about the amiable, approachable DePinto. “There are no secrets with Joe,” she said.

That openness puts people at ease and helps build trust, said executives quoted in the evening’s video tribute. Time and again, people referred to DePinto’s Midwestern values of fairness and sincerity and his “do-unto-others” credo.

“He has empathy for people,” said Darren Rebelez, COO of 7-Eleven. “He takes the success of our franchisees personally.”

“Being president and CEO gave him the opportunity to take all his experience, his passion and ability to communicate with people to … form a culture of how to lead through service, not from the top down,” said Jesus Delgado-Jenkins, senior vice president of merchandising, marketing and logistics for the chain. DePinto initiated a culture change that “turned the pyramid upside down,” executives said. Since joining the team in late 2005, he has created a mindset wherein corporate staff exists to support employees and franchisees in the field. Based on his own military background and its focus on team building, DePinto developed a strategic plan for change; created processes, metrics and incentives designed to enforce team-building values; and led transformations that touched everything from merchandise mix to store growth.

Franchisee Faranzana Mannan, who runs a store with her husband, Mickey, in DePinto’s current home of Southlake, Texas, said a “big, big change” has occurred under his tenure. In the video tribute, she said, at first she had mixed feelings about what he would bring to the organization.

However, “He really showed what he meant by being the servant leader,” Mannan said. “I feel like people [at corporate] are listening a little more closely now that he took over. In fact, this store is his store in a way. He lives close by and he comes here to get his coffee. And you won’t even know he’s a CEO … he is so low-key.” His wife underscored DePinto’s mission. “It was really important for him to have the right culture,” she said in the video. “Because I think he feels like if the right culture is in place, then the success is going to come. The people are happy. They feel like they’re being treated properly and fairly.”

The ‘Boss’ Man

For DePinto, change, both internal and external, became a battle cry, and he took on the challenge of communicating this message in numerous ways—the most visible coming in 2010. That year, CBS asked DePinto to be the first subject of its new reality series, “Undercover Boss.” Though reluctant at first, DePinto saw it as a way to not only showcase the chain’s fresh coffee and pastry offers, but also to communicate internally the newfound drive to better serve franchisee needs.

Among other things, the TV segment showed his human side, with DePinto spilling coffee during a store shift. “He’s not going to be barista of the year, I can tell you that much,” joked George Arvanitis, a close friend who has known DePinto since junior high. But the TV segment also showed DePinto being impressed, even moved, by the rank-and-file people he met. That care and stewardship manifested itself in other ways. In the evening’s video tribute, Arvanitis reminded the audience that DePinto’s leadership has resulted in a significant pay-down of debt and an extensive expansion in store count and profit.

Testifying to DePinto’s effectiveness, Jeff Morris, vice chairman of Dallas-based Alon USA, which operates an extensive affiliated 7-Eleven network, said in the video, “I’ve met with him many times. We’ve had lunch and meetings … and as I have watched him at work, I’ve learned a lot more about [his commitment to servant leadership], and that’s probably the attribute that I most admire in Joe.”

While other company presidents and CEOs may pick up books and talk about servant leadership, “Joe’s the first leader I found that actually does it and expects his organization to do it,” Morris said. “I’ve heard many people … whether executives or CEOs, say, ‘Well, our customers come first or our employees come first.’ Most times it’s not practiced very well.”

That commitment to this particular brand of leadership has its roots at home, where DePinto grew up in a humble, middleclass environment. His father, John, said Joe looked up to his elders. “His grandmother taught him a lot of common sense,” he said. “She taught him where he came from and who he was. You give your word and that is the type of man you will be. … He got that from her and it followed through to his mother [Ann]. His mother, of course, is the same type of person.”

Younger brother Dave DePinto said the qualities people praise in Joe DePinto came from his father and their tight-knit family upbringing. “He talks a lot about his people and that people are what make the company great,” he said in the video. “It’s opening up their ability to shine. Those qualities come from what we were raised with. ... We’re a tight family.”

Pete Roche, a former hockey coach of DePinto’s, underscored the honoree’s dependability. As the team’s goaltender, DePinto had the appropriate qualities of being “very calm and very collected,” Roche said. The goalie’s position “is like a fireman,” he said in the video. “You do not need them that often, but when you need them they better be great. Joe had that kind of personality already. … When you need him to be good, he was ready to go.”

The themes of dependability, resourcefulness and teamwork continued throughout the night. One of the more telling stories came from Arvanitis. It was right after after high school, and Arvanitis, DePinto and two other male friends were ready for a night out, dressed in 1980s leather jackets and moussedup hairstyles.

“It was about 30 degrees below zero. We were all dressed up. We did not have any hats or gloves and we got a flat tire,” Arvanitis said. “Nobody wanted to get out of the car to fix the flat, so I jumped out. It was so cold I couldn’t even hold the lug wrench. As soon as I jumped out, Joe jumped out and he said, ‘Here is what we are going to do. You … do as much as you can and then you come in and then I’ll go out.’

“So while the other two guys sat in the front seat with the heat going, Joe and I were out there with leather jackets, dressy pants, dressy shoes. No hats, no gloves. Each one of us lasted about 30 seconds out there. We went back and forth and we changed the tire.”

Strong Roots

When the initial video concluded, DePinto’s four young sons, John, Nick, Joey and Danny, took the stage. The eldest, John, dressed in the white uniform of his father’s alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and now enrolled there himself, said he had always admired his father, even as a little boy wanting to fit into his dad’s oversized fatigues.

“He talks about service and leading with character,” John DePinto told the audience about his father. “And that resonated with me.”

Many thoughts of support and thanks followed during the video presentation, none more touching than from his parents. His mother said, “He is gentle. He is a good guy. I love him.”

“He has grown from child to a marvelous adult,” John DePinto said, with both pride and tenderness in his voice. “And I love him dearly.”

Not to be outdone, Ingrid DePinto said, “Hi, honey, we are so happy to be here tonight to honor you and think you are so deserving of this award. And we love you and appreciate everything you do for us. We just want you to enjoy the evening—I know this is not your favorite thing, but I think tonight you should just shut up and enjoy your award.”

One of the more humbling sentiments came from childhood friend Arvanitis: “Joe, I can tell you this, I’ve got all the dirt on you. So if your head gets too big, I want you to know that I can take you down. So I’m watching you. You’ll be out of the house in Southlake before you can say, ‘Slurpee.’ You’ll be back delivering pizzas riding a bicycle. So keep your head on straight and continue what you’re doing. We love you, and God bless you.”

When it came time for the honoree to take the stage, DePinto turned the spotlight back onto his family, 7-Eleven and the industry. He acknowledged and praised his executive team, including Rebelez; Delgado-Jenkins; Stan Reynolds, the company’s CFO; Dave Fenton, general counsel; Chris Tanco, international vice president; and Krystin Mitchell of human resources.

He also featured the leadership within 7-Eleven’s national franchise organization, Bruce Maples and Dennis Lane. DePinto then tipped his hat to the chain’s founders, the Thompson family—a representative of whom was in the audience—for the concept of selling milk, bread and eggs off the dock of an ice house. Finally, DePinto had everyone in the room affiliated with 7-Eleven stand and be recognized.

“To quote [basketball legend] Michael Jordan: ‘Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence make champions,’ ” DePinto said. “Tonight, I feel like a champion.” 

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