applauding the qt culture

Spend just a few minutes inside a QuikTrip convenience store and one thing becomes immediately clear: there seems to be a vibrant energy that is shared between customers and employees. This is no accident.

The privately held Tulsa, Okla.-based chain has dedicatedvirtually all of its 49 years to cultivating this bond between customers and employees. It’s the very essence of what the companydoes. So while many chains look to sell customers more stuff andgenerate higher revenues at any cost, QuikTrip fosters relationships with its customers, its employees and with the communitiesit serves.

And it shows. With 476 stores in nine states, the chain owns No.1 market share in the Wichita, Kan.; Tulsa; Kansas City; Atlanta;Des Moines, Iowa and St. Louis markets. It is pushing towardthat in the Dallas, Phoenix and Omaha, Neb. markets next. Notbad considering it’s a relative newcomer in Atlanta and St. Louis,moving into those markets in 1986. The company was co-foundedin 1958 by chairman Chester Cadieux. His son, Chet, now runs thecompany as president and CEO.

“Our focus isn’t on trying to make a quick buck. We are laying roots. We like to take short steps, but they are very measured,” said Mike Thornbrugh, QuikTrip public and governmental affairs manager. “After a while, you evaluate those short steps and realize you have gone a long way. That’s how we like to do business.”

Don’t mistake this disciplined approach for a lack of an aggressive business sense. Sales at QuikTrip grew 20% last year and more than 10 times since 1991. It is now a $7.2 billion corporation.

Being a private company affords QuikTrip the opportunity tomove at its own pace, but it also allows the company to sustainsmaller profit margins in part to pay its work force better. As aresult of not being under any time constraints, QuikTrip is verymethodical in its retail approach.

“There’s no question that if we had to answer to shareholders on Wall Street, they might want to fire us all,” Thornbrugh said. “We are not going to let that influence how we do business. Until we are satisfied with something, it doesn’t matter what it is, we will not roll it out. You get one shot to make a good first impression, so you better do it right.”

Retail Commitment
When it comes to mapping its retail strategy, QuikTrip emphasizes two areas: finding a competitive location and staffing the store with employees that can handle the challenge of making a good first impression.

The company’s unwavering commitment to customers and employees, which it refers to as its “special sauce,” helps the chain stand apart from its peers. Under any label, the commitment is envied by most, but duplicated by few.

Need proof? In February, QuikTrip wasnamed one of the 100 Best Places to Workby Fortune magazine. One year on this listis considered an honor. It was QuikTrip’sfifth consecutive year. What’s even moreimpressive is that the honor comes at atime when gas prices are among the highest they have ever been, and competitionfrom supermarkets and hypermarts isas fierce as ever. Yet, QuikTrip employees take it all in stride and continue todevelop relationships with customers thatkeep them coming back time and again.

“Five years in a row is a validation of our consistency,” said Debi Friggel, manager of corporate community relations. “It also speaks volumes of the company’s leadership. Over time, this message spreads throughout the community and becomes a powerful recruiting tool for the next class of great employees.”

The obvious question is, “How does acompany of this size—with nearly 9,000employees—continue to attract and retainquality employees when so many companies are struggling to find a warm body tofill day shifts?” The answer isn’t as complex as one might think.

Finding upper echelon employees is a lot easier when you have strong recruiting tools. For QuikTrip, that means not only offering a brand with a reputation as a top employer and solid corporate citizen, but that each new hire is considered more than an employee. They become a company owner.

Clerks start at $7 per hour, considerably higher than the average startingwage in the industry, and are eligible fora benefits package including health insurance, inclusion in the Employee StockOwnership Plan (ESOP) and are given afirm promise that the company promotesup the corporate ladder from within.

Employees hold almost half ofQuikTrip’s stock, either directly orthrough ESOP or its profit sharing/401kplan. The founding Cadieux family controls most of the remainder.

As talented and energetic clerks begin to standout, they are typically asked if they want to move up to assistant manager. Assistant managers earn an average salary of more than $38,000; managers earn an average of $61,000. Two-thirds of the top 100 managers in the company started at an entry-level position in the company.

“One of the biggest things people recognize right away is that we promote fromwithin, so you may start as a second assistant, but if you work hard and smart, theopportunity for you to move up in anyarea is strong,” Thornbrugh said. “Andquite frankly, one of the reasons we aim tomove into new markets is to continue giving other people the opportunity to moveup. It’s been very successful for us.”

So would the company build a storeon an outstanding piece of property ifit wasn’t sure it could properly staff itup to its high expectations? The answer,Thornbrugh said, is no way. “We couldbuild as many stores as we want. That’snot an issue,” he said. “The question wefirst ask ourselves is, ‘Are we satisfied thatwe can find the right employees to carryon the QuikTrip tradition?’ If the answeris ‘no,’ it will delay our plans until staffingis no longer an issue.”

This stems back to its “people-first” culture. “We want employees to succeed and do well. To do that, you have to give them the tools they need and that begins with a good store in a great location,” Thornbrugh said. “There are many pieces of land that are available today, but they don’t fit what we are trying to accomplish.”

Thornbrugh admits the company hashad some luck bringing both strategiestogether to form an outstanding marriage of convenience. The result is thatthe QuikTrip culture has become an entitythat seems to galvanize employees, andperpetuates itself from market to marketand generation to generation.

That’s a powerful message for a company QuikTrip’s size. “Transferring the culture is huge,” Thornbrugh said. “We have set the bar pretty high and have standards for employees at all levels that we will not compromise.”

Growing The Business
QuikTrip’s stores, which average 4,200 to 5,000 square feet, feature the company’s own brand of gas, proprietary and national foodservice items and an extensive line of private-label beverages such as Hydr8 sports drinks and fitness water, Freezoni frozen carbonated beverages and QuikShake ice cream shakes.

About four years ago, it completed a multimillion-dollar drink initiative to overhaul the beverage offering at each of its stores. The project was designed to give customers more choices at the coffee bar and soda fountain to include new items like cappuccinos, smoothies, iced teas and frozen carbonated beverages.

One of the lessemphasized effectsof the remodel wasthat it segmentedthe different beverage destinations andopened up some floorspace in betweengiving the companyan opportunity tocross merchandisehigh-impulse itemslike candy, bakedgoods, Hotzi breakfast sandwiches anda roller grill programthat features hotdogs and Taquitos.

Now the company is pushing a massive foodservice initiative to supply its stores with fresh sandwiches, wraps, salads, fruit and baked goods that it prepares in its own commissary called QT Kitchens. The program rolled out last year to its 55 Tulsa stores. It is expanding to Kansas City stores this
summer, to Des Moines, Wichita and Omaha in the fall and to all remaining QuikTrip markets over the next two years.

The company’s constant investmentin new retail programs shows how it ischanging to meet customers’ needs acrossall demographics.

“Everyone seems to be doing a lot moretoday than they were doing 30 years ago,Friggel said. “As a result, it’s importantwe have something for mom and the kidsthat they can pick up on the way to schoolor soccer practice, while remaining loyalto our more traditional customers lookingfor coffee and a pack of cigarettes.

“Plus, we can do it without forcing themto wait in line to pay $3 for a cup of coffeelike they would have to do at Starbucks.”

For the record, QuikTrip’s brew is just79 cents, as it has been for the past several years.

Giving Back
Satisfying everyone is a theme that permeates QuikTrip’s culture and it spreads to its charitable contributions. It donates 5% of its net profits to local charities. When you consider the company generated $7.2 billion in overall sales last year, that’s a pretty hefty sum.

But don’t look to see the QuikTripname in lights at a local theater or operahouse. Such opulence has its place, justnot the financial support of QuikTrip.Nothing personal, Friggel said, but whenweighing the plight of the terminally ill,runaway teens and people in need, thearts are forced to take a back seat.

“We get more than 1,000 written grant requests a year, but Chester Cadieux’s philosophy from the very beginning has been to focus on people at risk for survival,” said Friggel, whose job it is to oversee QuikTrip’s charitable efforts. “It is an incredible show of humility that reflects the hard work and struggles he endured in his own life.”

That philosophyhas carried over toChet. “You neverknow what’s going to happen when youstart transitioning to the next generation,but Chet shares the same genuine, caringconcern for those less fortunate,” Friggelsaid.

For example, Chet is extremely committed to agencies that work with earlychildhood issues, brain developmentand educating families with children thatare right on the cusp of breaking out ofpoverty.

Aside from the United Way, one of thebiggest benefactors of QuikTrip’s generosity is National Safe Place, a youth outreachprogram that educates thousands ofyoung people every year about the dangers of running away or trying to resolvedifficult situations on their own.

Safe Place creates a network of “safelocations” at youth friendly businesseslike schools, fire stations, libraries and,for the past 15 years, QuikTrip stores,where kids can go in a time of crises withno questions asked. Safe locations areadorned with a distinctive yellow andblack Safe Place sign.

Troubled teens are able to access immediate help wherever they are. Some programs are set up to serve younger kids and others will still be able to refer other age children to appropriate agencies for help. QuikTrip’s employees are trained to embrace these kids with open arms by offering them a beverage and a bite all in an effort to keep them comfortable, and more importantly, keep them safe until a trained counselor can arrive. A 24-hour Safe Place emergency telephone number is posted at the front counter of every QuikTrip store.

To know this organization and some ofthe heartbreaking cases they have encountered over the years is to understandwhy QuikTrip is such a strong supporter.Every year, dozens of kids seek shelter ata QuikTrip. They are runaways, victims ofparental abuse and neglect or kids, someas young as five or six years old, that havebeen cruelly discarded by an abusive, drugaddicted parent or sibling. Since QuikTripbecame involved with Safe Place in 1991,1,065 youths have gone to one of its convenience stores to ask for help, said SandyBowen, executive director of the Louisville,Ky.-based organization.

For example, instead of celebrating a Sweet 16 birthday party a couple of years ago, a teen showed up at a QuikTrip carrying all of her clothes in a basket and the rest of her worldly possessions in a duffle bag. When a Safe Place counselor arrived, the girl said she had two older sisters that were kicked out of the house when they turned 16 and for as long as she could remember, she knew she would have to seek shelter at a QuikTrip the day she turned 16.

“Here is a girl who had no criminal record, no drug problems and only wanted to finish high school,” said Friggel, who also serves on the National Safe Place Board of Directors. “Through Safe Place, they were able to place her in transitional living until she could complete high school.”

Or consider the plight of an abandoned preteen that wandered shoeless intoa QuikTrip hoping just to get a bite to eat.Before the Safe Place counselor arrived, aclerk had the boy stand on a piece of paperand traced his foot in order to buy him apair of tennis shoes.

“We are not supposed to get involved in the process after the counselor arrives, but the employee was so touched that he brought a new pair of shoes down to the agency and made sure they were delivered to this boy,” Friggel said. “That’s the kind of people we have in our stores. They want to help each other and they want to help those in need.”

As a result of these firsthand experiences,QuikTrip volunteers have branched out ontheir own to support other needy charitiessuch as Thomas J. Pappas Regional Schools,a Phoenix-based group that provides aclassroom education for homeless children,some of whom are forced to move fromfoster home to foster home three or fourtimes a week, and Operation Breakthrough,which provides infant and child care services for children of the working poor inKansas City.

“It tugs at your heart strings and I’m so proud of our people that take the time to be part of the solution to improve people’s lives,” Friggel said. “This isn’t something we force on them. They are taking the initiative and we are just fortunate to hear about it.”

Q&A With QuikTrip President and CEO Chet Cadieux.

QuikTrip operates large stores in some of the most competitive markets in the country, yet it’s able to provide outstanding service with virtual ease. How are you able to do that?
“We are very particular about who we hire. Then we provide effective training, pay them well and promote them based on their job performance. As a result, we are blessed with great employees that embrace our culture. In all reality, they truly have a very hard job and they make it look easy. I am very proud of the customer service that QuikTrip provides day in and day out.”

QuikTrip has a wonderful reputation for giving back to the communities it serves. Why is this so important for you?
“It is extremely important to give back to the communities where QuikTrip has a market presence. We recognized a long time ago that making a difference and extending a helping hand was simply the right thing to do. QuikTrip sets aside 5% of net profit each year for charitable giving. We match our employees’ United Way giving, dollar for dollar, and they have all been very generous. We also encourage all of our employees to volunteer their time for a cause they believe in. We want to make sure that we are giving back to the communities that make us successful.”

What corporate events or charitable organizations are special to you and why?
“QuikTrip is a huge supporter of the United Way. We also focus significant giving to programs for at-risk kids. Safe Place is another program that is very successful and makes a difference in a lot of troubled kid’s lives. We were the first corporation to work with Safe Place many years ago and it’s gratifying to see that others in our industry have become involved in the program over the past few years.”

I’ve heard chains say they would hold off on acquiring a store or building a new one if they didn’t think they could find an enough good employees to staff the store. Is this a similar concern for QuikTrip?
“We have worked hard to be an employer of choic
e, which is validated by being chosen as one of the Fortune Top 20 Companies To Work For. Therefore, we have a great pool of people to choose from for any new store we build. We love to open new stores because it provides opportunities for our employees to grow and succeed. By the way, providing that opportunity is our stated purpose for existence. It’s why I get up and come to work every day.”

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