Growing up during the Great Depression, Bob Seng learned to appreciate hard work, dedication and the value of an honest day’s work. It was those principles that guided him during his nearly 20-year career at Shell Oil, which began 60 years ago in 1949.
For Seng, now a spry 85 years young, the experience at one of the world’s largest oil companies proved to be the starting point for a career of cultivating, motivating and shaping the modern convenience store industry.
“I learned during my time at Shell that it wasn’t all about oil. It was about understanding people,” Seng said. “It was about making a connection and inspiring people to work hard and make good decisions.”
It was precisely this experience that Seng took to Reinhardt Oil Corp. in upstate New York in 1967. Recognizing the need to expand, the oil company took the bold step of converting its service station bays to convenience stores. It tapped Seng to oversee this development.
“I have to admit, I didn’t know what I was doing when we first got going,” Seng said of the first Busy Bee convenience store. “We had an idea of what we should offer and what the customers wanted, but not much else.”
Sticking With What Works
It’s been said of retail that there are few new ideas, just new ways to make old ideas work better. Following this logic, Seng set out to design the first Busy Bee store. “I went down to the local 7-Eleven in Rochester, N.Y., and diagramed the entire layout from front to back,” he said. “I then went back and copied it step by step.”
As Seng was refining his retail skills, the industry was forced to endure the energy crisis of 1973, which forced fuel—for the stations that had access to supply at all—to be rationed.
“Once gas rationing began, we needed something to supplement fuel sales so we decided that foodservice was the way to go,” Seng said. “We started making sandwiches and focusing on fresh food made fast. It was a new idea, but it caught on fast.”
The concept of fresh food attracted the attention of retailers across the country. “Chains like Sheetz and Wawa came up to see what we were doing,” Seng said. “In all, almost a dozen companies came up to look. It seemed to take off from there.”
As he was developing Busy Bee, Seng instilled a sense of trust and confidence in his employees. “My greatest success was recognizing talent, hiring the right people and training them properly. I wanted my people to know that if they didn’t agree with something that came down from headquarters, they could pick up the phone and tell me they didn’t like it, or it wasn’t working. To me, that’s how you develop talent, and it was one of the best things we ever did.”
An Association is Born
By the mid-1980s, the industry was growing at a rapid pace, especially in New York. Seng got together with Dick Warrandar, a local distributor, to form the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS). Seng served as its first president before turning the reins over to his dear friend, John MacDougall of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes.
Busy Bee grew to 30 stores and was sold to United Refining in 1990. Following the sale, Seng, with his beloved wife Emmy, moved south to Florida where his next project awaited, president of Pump N Pantry. He continues to serve as a consultant, mentor and friend to countless executives across the industry.
“I have been so fortunate to meet so many wonderful people and watch the industry flourish,” Seng said. “But there is still quite a bit of work to be done and I plan on accomplishing a lot more before I retire.”