iron man

While Bruce Earhart may have been ready to "sing the blues" after a couple of consecutive 14-hour days, his band Eugene and the Night Crawlers hasn't yet written a song about the convenience retailing business. How he found his way to the c-store industry might offer great material, but Earhart seems to have found his groove with 7-Eleven licensee Handee Marts.

"If someone told me in my early 20s that I would be working in the c-store industry for the better part of my life, I would have told them they were crazy," says Earhart, director of marketing for Handee Marts (Gibsonia, PA). "I got my bachelor's degree in business administration and worked for 10 years as a front-line supervisor in the steel mills. There I learned a lot about dealing with unions and people.

"When the steel industry shut down in 1982, I couldn't find work in western Pennsylvania, which is where my family is rooted," he continues. "I did notice how c-stores were thriving in our area and it seemed like a good option because I like working with the public. I applied for a manager's position at Handee Marts and I've been with them for going on 23 years now."

Earhart jokes that he's held every job in the company except CEO. He worked as a store manager for four years and then moved on to district manager. From there he became foodservice manager, buyer, category manager and now director of marketing. Each position brought its own lessons and challenges, but his current position affords him the most creative freedom.

"As director of marketing I have the ability to make our company's vision a reality in our stores," Earhart says. "7-Eleven is a premier c-store retailer nationally and internationally, and working in a licensee company has given me the opportunity to get a firm grasp on how this industry works. While 7-Eleven gives us a great deal of guidance, it's up to us to meet the challenges of an ever-changing consumer base. Item by item, store by store, we have to understand what our customers want and make sure they get it."

Earhart feels he has helped his company stay on the cutting edge since the 1980s, when it first introduced its fresh coffee program. Of course, it's been enhanced over the years, but Handee Marts still utilizes the same program today. One project that Earhart takes great pride in is how his company has used its coffee program to raise money for local charities like the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Free Care Fund (see Handee Marts pours on the holiday cheer, Jan. '04, p. 68).

But what has kept Earhart from turning in his merchandising "magic wand" fora conductor's staff is seeing what his team has been able to accomplish. That,and the fact that the c-store industry really keeps him on his toes.

"The c-store industry is not for the faint of heart," says Earhart. "We'rea team-oriented company that believes the success of individuals goes hand inhand with the success of the company. This industry is always changing, so whateveryou're working on is constantly a challenge. But that's what I love about it—it'snever dull. The owners give us a lot of support and we're able to accomplishwhat we do through teamwork."

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