Pushing the Boundaries of Innovation

JohnNewBy John Lofstock, Editor.

In these difficult economic times it’s rewarding to meet successful businesses that are doing things right. It’s even more gratifying when these businesses are family owned and operated. Such is the case with Family Express in Valparaiso, Ind.

I have known Gus Olympidis and his family for more than 15 years and my respect for the work his company does seems to grow more each year. Family Express operates 58 stores in Indiana, but is not nearly defined by its store count. The company is proof that you don’t need to have hundreds of stores to be great.

Founded in 1975, Family Express has been perfecting what it calls its “living brand.” The living brand encompasses all that Family Express has become, and all it hopes to be. It is the company’s connection with the community; its people; its sponsorships of local and national organizations, of which there are too many to list; its service-driven culture; and, of course, its convenience stores. The living brand is a palpable entity that connotes trust, commands respect and guarantees a standard of excellence that employees carry with pride and customers have come to expect during each visit to Family Express. It literally permeates all aspects of the chain and lives on in perpetuity through each employee.  

Emphasizing Service
“The Family Express challenge isn’t necessarily getting everyone to buy in to what we are doing here,” Olympidis told me during a visit to his headquarters in March. “The challenge lies in having the efficient mechanism in place to identify the people that are genetically and instinctively inclined towards building relationships, as opposed to trying to convince people to buy into a concept that is not compatible with their personality or their natural inclinations.”

While most companies hire with the intention of teaching new employees retail skills, Family Express won’t even talk to them until they prove that they already have those skills. And that’s why the chain’s turnover is at a near industry low of 35% for frontline employees and 6% for managers.

Having to teach employees to be friendly doesn’t cut it at Family Express. It’s a quality that must exist in potential employees before they are even granted an employment interview.

Getting to this point was very much an evolutionary process for Olympidis, who is also a tireless legislative crusader that regularly communicates with lawmakers on behalf of the convenience store industry at the federal, state and local levels.

During this pre-employment process, if the company determines that a person is not sufficiently engaging in delivering the living brand, it will cut the cord.  Family Express has found that 20-25% of folks that are invited to its $4 million, 30,000-square-foot headquarters/learning center do not graduate.

Another crucial distinctive area that sets Family Express apart is its focus on logistics and creating its own brands at its warehouse adjacent to its company headquarters in Valparaiso. By doing that, Olympidis said, it helps each store zero in on what’s really important in the convenience store business: the customer.

In addition to being a warehouse, the facility is also a central bakery where muffins, cupcakes, cookies and the wildly popular Family Express’ square doughnuts are made each night.

Everything from snacks, foodservice, milk, bread, even fresh flowers are packaged for delivery to individual stores. Olympidis described this as “a game-changer.”

At the same time, the company’s marketing team has created a series of brands exclusive to Family Express, which has helped create a unique identity, such as the Cravin’s Market foodservice line, Family Express Natural Spring Water, Java Wave gourmet coffees and teas and Buzzed Energy drinks to name a few.

So while the industry continues to feel the competitive pressures from drug stores and supermarkets, chains of all sizes can learn from Family Express. Great leadership, outstanding service and retail innovation will always prevail.

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