At a Glance: Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores
Founded in 1964 by Tom Love, Love’s generates approximately $12 billion in annual revenues and has aggressive plans to grow 15 stores annually.
Headquarters: Oklahoma City
Number of Stores: 200-plus in 33 states
Foodservice Brands: Love’s operates 120 QSR’s under multiple national brands including Taco Bell, Arby’s, Carl’s Jr., Chester’s Fried Chicken, Sonic, Godfather’s Pizza, Hardee’s and McDonalds’s.
It was an interstate phone call from Oklahoma to Kansas on Christmas Day 2006 that locked Mireya Crawford’s loyalty to the Love’s Travel Stop & Country Stores brand.
It lasted a few minutes—Love’s CEO Tom Love on one end, newly appointed store manager Crawford on the receiving end at a Love’s store in Kansas. It probably cost the Oklahoma City-based retailer a few bucks, tops, for long-distance charges.
Ask Crawford, she’ll tell you it was worth every penny. “I get this phone call from Tom Love wishing everyone a Merry Christmas,” she said. “I’ve never had an owner of a company do that for me.”
Crawford had been a store manager for about two months by Christmas 2006, so that holiday call came entirely as a surprise. Years later, the store-turned-district manager said the simple gesture from her boss was “one of the biggest things that had an impact on me.”
Veteran employees at more than 200 Love’s stores nationwide, however, are less surprised—though no less appreciative—when Love or one of his family members or executives call or stop by the 24-hour stores on major holidays.
“I’ve been at Love’s 13 years,” said district manager Tye Wilks. “They’ve done that every year.”
Crawford’s tale offers a microscopic snapshot of the Love’s culture, but it’s illustrative of the greater ideology Love’s employees said permeates the company. “We take a lot of pride in letting our individuals know that we care about them as a person,” Wilks said. “That carries all the way up to Tom Love.”
It would seem a $12 billion chain with stores in 33 states would more readily measure its progress by way of store count, gross margins and the mishmash of other tangibles the business world can wrap its mind around.
To be sure, those figures are prevalent. The Love’s chain is growing by about 15 stores each year and it’s consistently on Forbes magazine’s list of the Top 500 largest private companies in the U.S.
Started in 1964 by CEO Tom Love as a single filling station in western Oklahoma, the chain now has more than 200 stores—both c-stores and travel stops—averaging in size from 2,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. Each c-store employs seven to 10 people, while each travel stop employs 30 to 50. Company-wide, the total is upwards of 6,000.
Three of those people include district managers Naomi McWilliams, who oversees 10 Love’s stores in western Oklahoma; Wilks, who oversees 13 stores in eastern Oklahoma; and Crawford, who manages a handful of stores in Kansas.
All three women attest to Love’s ferocious commitment to its employees, be it in training, rewards for strong performance or general recognition to foster retention, an area the retail world’s frontline managers are striving perpetually to improve upon.
“In my area, the biggest challenge is finding quality people,” McWilliams said. “Western Oklahoma has a lot of oil, but not a lot of people to pick from.”
To help district managers staff their stores, Love’s provides management with tried-and-true tools: referral bonuses, generous benefits, aggressive job recruiting and strong emphasis on promotions. “Promotion from within is a big deal with Love’s,” McWilliams said. “We look for people who can be developed to the next level.”
To refine its hires, the chain’s training program includes a 10-day test, 30-day test and 90-day test, with each store setting its own customized rewards system for workers who pass the bar.
Interestingly, Love’s doesn’t differentiate its hires as foodservice or c-store workers. Their roles are essentially interchangeable. “We don’t separate the concept,” McWilliams said. “Everyone works together.”
The company runs a proprietary Love’s Subs foodservice program, while about 95% of its quick-service concepts at the travel stops and convenience stores, including popular national brands like Subway, Chester’s, Godfather’s Pizza, Hardy’s and others, are run by the chain itself.
“There’s certainly more involved when operating another brand, and it adds a little more work, but at the same time you get more people working together,” McWilliams said. “So it’s easier in that way. Employees throughout the entire store know what needs to be done and they pitch in where they need to.”
Beyond these expected performance indicators and training programs is where Love’s truly begins to stand out. To combat the difficulty of finding qualified, dedicated workers, district managers encourage store managers to think long-term.
“There’s a challenge getting the management team in each store to spend time on training and develop their staff,” Wilks said. “But once they understand how important it is—if they spend the time up front—it’s going to pay off in the long run.”
Retaining existing employees isn’t as simple as bumping up hourly wages once in a while. A little recognition and interest in employees’ personal lives goes a long way.
“I think the recognition means a lot more to them than a small bonus,” Wilks said. “Another thing people like: Give them a fair, consistent work schedule. It’s not always about pay. Some people are willing to make a little less if they have that quality time at home.”
McWilliams tested this rewards-over-wages concept at one of her stores, giving employees the option to receive a gift certificate or a copper star to wear at work that recognized them as a standout employee or a mystery-shopper winner. “(The stars) went over better than the gift certificate,” she said. “Having that little star meant more than a gift certificate, which didn’t recognize them in front of their peers.”
Mel Kleiman, president of human resources firm Humetrics Inc., said employee recognition is something retailers have 100% control over, and it typically costs them nothing. Amazingly, the majority of employers don’t bother with the concept.
“Gallup just did a study that said better than 60% of U.S. workers received no recognition last year,” Kleiman said, adding that recognition is a cost-effective, surefire way to foster loyalty. “Napoleon Bonaparte said, ‘I can get people to die for a medal, but I can’t get them to die for money.’”
Crawford said these incremental people-management tools—rewards, recognition, flexibility and such—indeed pay off in the long run.
“I had a situation where a competitor offered to increase (employees’) starting wages,” Crawford said. “I had long-term employees, so I offered them significantly higher wages. I was utterly shocked when they came back to me and said, ‘We’re not going anywhere. We love working at this company and working for you.’”