united front

For Sunny Singh, general manager of retail operations forGardena, Calif.-based United Oil, good business sense justruns through his veins. Not only does he possess a strong business acumen, he's also intimately aware of the intricacies necessary to succeed in the highly competitive convenience storeindustry.

Singh, who hails from Punjab, India, began working in the familybusinesses, which operated factories that produced ice, ice creamand plastic bags, as well as a market that sold these products.When Singh's father passed away, he was thrust into a leadershipposition with his older brother.

Singh, however, wasn't satisfied with running the family's businesses. In 1992, he left it all behind and came to the U.S. with little more than the clothes on his back and an ambition to purchasehis own chain of c-stores.

"I've always wanted to be in the convenience store industry,"said Singh. "I liked c-stores and had learned all aspects of thebusiness from my dad and the tough market conditions in India."

Singh quickly found a job managing two Subway franchises thatwere under the same ownership. He also had an opportunity totrain at a 7-Eleven owned by the same company. The company purchased two more c-stores and five gas stations and appointedSingh as the general manager. During this time, Singh started relations with United Oil, which eventually offered him a position in1994.

"I was buying gas from United Oil for the five gas stations I wasrunning, and the company's wholesale fuel representative recommended me to the owners," Sing recalled. "After meeting withthem, I joined United Oil and the rest is history."

Singh started as the company's area supervisor before gettingpromoted to general manager in less than a year. Singh is responsible for not only ensuring operations are running smoothly, butalso maintaining the stations' appearances, handling marketingand promotions, negotiating contracts with vendors, opening stations, overseeing maintenance and sometimes setting the gasolineprices.

Under Signh's leadership, United Oil went from operating 39stations with nine c-stores and five coin-operated car washes torunning 102 stations that include 60 c-stores and 13 car washes.

Since joining United, Singh has expanded his relationship withhis primary distributor, McLane Co. "McLane has been a greatpartner in our business with its service and programs," he said.

Singh brought an innovative way of thinking to the petroleum-oriented United Oil, introducing an aggressive marketing plan thatcalls for the c-stores to function as the lifeblood of the company.

To do this, Singh organized a system that provides consistentlylow prices on all products, not just top sellers like candy and cigarettes. For example, Singh renegotiated contracts with vendors toprovide certain products at a low price year-round, instead of just afew days at a time, ultimately generating better sales than if priceswere drastically reduced for a short period.

"I believe consistency is the key to success in a c-store," saidSingh. That consistency has proven profitable to United Oil, who,after seeing how well convenience store-centric operations hasworked, decided to add c-stores to 95% of the new stations it'sbuilt since Singh's arrival. "The owners, the Appels, take pride inbuilding beautiful stores and stations that are unlike any others."

Marketing aside, Singh believes the quality employees he hasbeen able to attract has made an enormous difference at retail.

"To execute all the programs successfully and implement all thepolicies, everyone has to be onboard and happy to be a part of asuccessful organization," said Singh. "The real challenge is keeping a good team together—not to use power to terminate employees when the real reward could come if you coach them."

By being exposed to the c-store industry his whole life, Singhhas not only gained know-how for his job, but a passion for it aswell. "I came here to own a convenience store," he said. "Instead,I became a general manager and run the operations with an ownerattitude. I love what I do."

And it shows.

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