Building the Business

Quality employees and customer service are the backbone of the convenience store and petroleum industry. All you have to do is observe how top quartile companies treat and respect their personnel to understand what kind of asset frontline employees can be to a successful company. It’s no accident that these operators are outperforming their competitors across all retail channels.

I had a wonderful opportunity in November to spend a week interacting with hundreds of employees at Thorntons’ annual meeting in Louisville, Ky. From Matt Thornton down to third-shift clerks, the company exudes confidence and clearly demonstrates a healthy respect for each other and the task at hand—to provide outstanding service. This isn’t just some mission statement hanging on a plaque at corporate headquarters. It’s a culture that permeates the entire organization and is as contagious as the radiant smile on a customer service clerk on an otherwise cold Louisville afternoon.

“The recruitment process plays an important role in our customer service strategy. We believe in hiring for attitude and training for success,” John Zikias, Thorntons’ vice president of marketing told me as we discussed the company’s palpable service-first culture. “Throughout the hiring process and background checks we evaluate the attitude of prospective employees. Whether it’s a customer service representative or the maintenance crew, all employees must be service driven.”

Low turnover is a welcomed byproduct of this commitment to employees. As respect for employees has grown, so has employee retention. At its worst five years ago Thorntons suffered from turnover of 157% for front counter employees. Today, it comes in at 81%. For management positions the turnover rate is an even more impressive 15%, down from 70% in 2006.

“These results are contagious and inspire employees to work hard in order to advance within the company, and it motivates us to keep training them to take on new responsibilities,” said Tony Harris, vice president of operations for Thorntons, who has been with the company for 16 years. “There’s not a much better indicator in terms of how people value the company they work for.”

I’ve know Tony for more than a decade and I can honestly say there is no one more qualified to lead employees. His success in this area—itself a testament to Thorntons’ ability to cultivate strong leaders—is not surprising. They are simply experts at attracting and retaining quality individuals across the board, and that’s something all companies in this industry must aspire to.

The service culture certainly has its rewards. The 165-store chain now boasts annual revenues of more than $1.4 billion. Despite the global recession, the company is on pace to build about 10 new stores in 2011 and fully renovate 12 more. As Matt Thornton said, “Business has been good at Thorntons.”

Giving Back
As business has picked up, so has the company’s charitable efforts. Thorntons supports dozens of local and national charities like The Salvation Army, United Way, Girl Scouts and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

Locally, in the last two months of 2010, Thorntons made two separate $1 million donations to 21st Century Parks, a nonprofit organization that creates new parks in Louisville, and the Speed Art Museum to fund the expansion and renovation of the facility also in Louisville.

In 2010 Thorntons also created its first internal charitable organization, Champ Cares, to support team members impacted by a severe hardship—another example of how the group works together out of mutual respect for one another.

“We have created a wonderful team that is focused on service, but we are always looking to get better,” Zikias said. “This industry is extremely competitive. You can’t let your guard down for a moment or you will lose that momentum and eventually your customers. That’s great motivation to keep improving.”

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