'Everyone's Mama'

Longtime front-line employees share passion for customers, team.

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

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People come and go. The saying definitely applies to an industry in which industry turnover annually exceeds 100%. So there’s something comforting about running into 60-year-old Susie Valenciano, who just loves it when 200 raving Texas Tech fans are jamming the 7-Eleven parking lot where she works.

In her 25 years on the front lines of convenience retail, she has become the face of that store.

“I’m everyone’s mama,” she says, tapping into that sense of place that turns a run-of-the-mill employee into a community touchstone.

To explore what motivates employees to make a career out of life at the store level, CSP sought out individuals with more than 20 years of history in ringing up sales, preparing coffee, mopping floors and taking orders, asking them what it is about this business that has kept them engaged.

Susie Valenciano

Southwest Convenience Stores, Lubbok, Texas

In 1985, Valenciano started work near Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, back when the store was a few miles from campus and fronting a fourlane highway. Today, it’s right next to the football stadium, and the road now is eight lanes wide.

She worked the deli first, at a time when they built sandwiches by hand, a practice later replaced with a commissary and direct-store delivery (DSD). It was a business crowd back then. That’s how she saw it, in any case, having opted for the 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. But the years would pass, and the importance of Texas Tech grew exponentially, with the school going from about 15,000 to 35,000 students.

Today, most of the customers are students, with a continual flow of new faces each year. But for Valenciano, “They’re all my children; I love all the kids. I miss them when they go away on break. … I get to meet all the football players after practice. I know them by name.”

She’s gotten to know several players who have gone on to lucrative careers with the National Football League. No wonder football season is her favorite. And for the big conference games, Valenciano is quick to don her Red Raiders T-shirt, claiming her spot as the team’s No. 1 fan.

 Becoming engrained into the community was no small feat. It took the first 10 of what is now 27 years with Southwest Convenience Stores, today a subsidiary of Dallas-based ALON Brands, to get to know her regulars by name. But now, “I know everybody that comes in, and what they’re going to buy.”

She lives just blocks away and enjoys the walk to work and home. “It’s satisfying to go home and know I’ve done my job. There’s not one day I don’t want to go to … the register. I put out coffee, hot dogs, clean the store, sweep, mop and do the restrooms. I love to make my customers smile. And I like it when they tell me the store looks clean, that I’ve got everything all nice and organized.”

She says she has people come from across town just to pick up convenience goods from her store. “I ask them, ‘Why do you go down here?’ And they say, ‘Because we want to come see you and your smiling face.’ ”

But Valenciano is more than just a smile. She’s part of a formidable team that works a high-volume store, especially on game days. The day starts with the sandwich and pizza setup in the back room, as well as the coffee, hot dogs, beer, water, Gatorade and ice chests.

“People will be looking for that stuff, and we’ve got to be prepared,” she says, speaking about the multiple beer deliveries, ice stocking and all of the backup that gets done Friday and Saturday before the game. “Then I go back to the register and we work just like a team—we even take turns eating.”

Todd Pitts

QuickTrip, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Todd Pitts has a theory about customer service: Give them a smile.

“I’m always smiling,” says store manager Pitts, who has spent 25 years with Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip Inc. “A smile is all they need.”

Regular customers have a tendency to look for Pitts’ signature smile—hunting him down for a hello if he’s in the back office or, on days when he’s not there, asking where he is.

“I have some customers that, for them, this is their interaction for the day,” Pitts says. “Here they have someone to talk to, and for me, it’s cool to brighten their days.”

Being personable wasn’t always this natural. Pitts remembers that at 16, when he first started at QuikTrip in a Tulsaarea store, having to talk into the store microphone “scared the bejesus out of me.” But the job pulled out of him an innate friendliness and a natural way with people. “The longer I do it, the more it seems to come out.”

Now managing a high-volume site in the middle of downtown Tulsa, he engages a diverse crowd. “I’ve got people in business suits, high-school kids, transients,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how they dress. If you treat everyone with respect, it’s amazing. They’ll treat you that way back.”

The same holds true for his employees. He considers himself not so much their boss, but more someone who supports them. In that role, he finds his greatest reward.

“The biggest thrill I get out of the job … is looking back at all the employees whose lives I’ve affected,” he says. “It’s a thrill to see I’ve had a positive impact on them, some of whom don’t work for QuikTrip anymore and have been successful in other areas.”

The importance of that daily interaction became evident when Pitts rose in the ranks to a corporate-training position. He would eventually opt to return to the store, wanting to be where the action was.

And how things have changed. Pitts has seen his job at the store evolve tremendously, watching the disappearance of bookkeeping nuisances and the rise of technology.

“Compared to what we had 25 years ago, the structure shift was unbelievable,” he says. “We now have a staffing system that tells us when we need to get everything done and how many hours we can use for part-timers. Before, it was a shot in the dark.”

During his tenure, QuikTrip has evolved from a corner grocer to a highvolume gasoline retailer, stores have doubled in size, and the new focus is foodservice.

“Not even 10 years ago, I have clear memories about not having a coffee program,” he says. “Our coffee was instant.”

But while formats evolve, what appears consistent is the importance of the people. QuikTrip these days leaves little to chance, centralizing the hiring and training process to further ensure the right fit. And the elimination of many bookkeeping tasks means more time for managers to help both customers and staff.

“They’ve enabled us to focus on the customer,” he says. “So even though it’s busy in the store, I’m still interacting with people.”

John Archer

Shell Food Mart, Hinsdale, Illinois

When John Archer was 12, he was such a regular at his neighborhood 7-Eleven that the owner began letting him pour Slurpees for customers. And so began a three-decades-long career that would lead to him owning his own location in Hinsdale, Ill.

Earning $2 an hour at the start, Archer would eventually find his path—and his future wife, Maria—at another store a few miles away. That store, back in 1982, was an ampm, pushing 500,000 to 600,000 gallons a month out of five pumps. It was cash only, with no midgrade. The owner, Marty Gmeiner, was meticulous, profitfocused and always looking for ways to improve his four-store operation.

Archer laughs when recalling Gmeiner, now retired but who still drops by, and how he was always suspicious of fuel-truck drivers—a fear with some foundation in that technology back then didn’t spot delivery discrepancies. “They’d supposedly keep a little on the truck to drop off at their buddy’s place down the street,” he says about drivers. “So no matter if it was day, night, rain or snow, [Gmeiner] would have us climb up onto the back of the truck and open it to make sure it was empty.”

What Archer took from his mentor was a retailer’s passion, something he embraces now as a co-owner, along with Robin Gabriel, of the facility.

“I could always come to [Gmeiner] with new ideas and he’d always let me try stuff,” Archer says. “Once I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to rent a movie here? You can get gas, popcorn, snacks, rent a movie and you’re done.’ ”

From 1985 to 1995, their video business boomed. At one point, they did $18,000 to $20,000 per month in rentals. And on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., he’d have a shift committed to video rental.

“We’re constantly changing the store, bringing in new items, reconfiguring aisles,” says Archer who took co-ownership in 2007. “It’s like a puzzle. And I love seeing the numbers build throughout the month. I love to see if I put this up front, how much more it’s going to sell.”

In addition to a passion for the business, Gmeiner also passed along a legacy of foodservice. Core to Archer’s business from the start was a deli that now sells three times the volume it did 30 years ago, he says, after a tear-down and rebuild brought sales space up to 4,000 square feet.

But the increase in deli space was only part of the secret, with the bulk being attention to quality meats, breads and other ingredients. So engrained was the message within the community that when a major-branded station opened up across the street with a cafe, it shut down its foodservice operation within six months.

Archer is eager to expand, working with the city to construct a drive-thru that may increase his deli business. Yet despite his success, competition for Archer is always a concern, especially when it’s coming from a deep-pocket big box or chain. To that end comes another Gmeiner lesson: Focus on people.

“Whenever you come in here, there’s always people laughing,” Archer says. “I’m always joking with customers. Robin is the same way at the deli, laughing with a customer.”

The positivity comes from a genuine empathy and caring for people, customers and employees alike, Archer says. Several working the store today have been there for more than 20 years. “Let’s put it this way: [Gmeiner] could have made a lot more money. If you take good care of good people, you’ll inspire loyalty.”

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