November 21, 2023

TPL Insights #198 – How 2023 Retailer of the Year Andrew Clyde Leverages the Art of Asking Questions

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with italicized content from Linda Lisanti’s article in Convenience Store News on November 17th, 2023

I am constantly on the hunt for content that might help my readers think differently about the principles that build peak performance cultures. This article, taken directly from Convenience Store News’ Retailer of the Year feature is one such piece.

Murphy USA Inc. President and CEO Andrew Clyde asks a lot of questions and encourages his team to do the same. It is at the very core of his leadership style. He admits that when he first took the reins of the El Dorado, Ark.-based organization in January 2013, his fondness for asking questions took some getting used to among his new team members, but once they recognized there was good intent behind his questions and began to see how the insights gleaned formed into new ways of thinking and working, it started to become contagious.

“When you sit down and ask a store manager or a district manager or someone who’s been with the organization a long time how something works or how something could be better, the first thing you do is let them know you care about their opinion. Then, when you ask two or three follow-up questions, they realize, ‘Oh, you’re really curious about this. You may actually do something about this.’ All of a sudden, they start telling you everything they know because they know so much about it and they’ve just been waiting for someone to ask.”

Asking questions has served Clyde well in guiding Murphy USA to impressive results since its spinoff into a standalone public company a decade ago. During his tenure, Murphy USA has seen earnings grow fourfold, leading to a 600 percent return to shareholders over the period. The company, which employs nearly 15,000 team members, had annual revenues of more than $23 billion in 2022.

Under his leadership, Murphy USA has also expanded its network to 1,700-plus stores in 27 states across the Southwest, Southeast, Midwest and Northeast United States, growing close to 50 percent through new stores and its 2021 acquisition of 157 QuickChek stores in New Jersey and New York. Today, Murphy USA is one of the largest independent retailers of gasoline products and convenience store merchandise in the U.S. In addition to new store growth, it is rapidly rebuilding its legacy network of kiosks in front of Walmart Supercenters.

On the evening of Nov. 16 in Pittsburgh, Clyde was presented with the 2023 Convenience Store News Retailer Executive of the Year award, which recognizes a c-store retailer executive who exemplifies leadership, business acumen, dedication to the convenience channel and commitment to community service. The winner is chosen by a blue-ribbon panel of convenience channel executives that includes past Retailer Executive of the Year winners, and past retailer and supplier inductees in the CSNews Hall of Fame.

In an industry with so much innovation and so many outstanding leaders, Clyde said “it is truly an honor” to be considered in their company, and always special to be recognized by peers.

Of course, any recognition like this is really a tribute to the outstanding team that makes it happen, he noted. “Often, I like to think of my title as the chief storyteller. As a publicly traded company, we obviously have to communicate a little bit more than the private firms and thanks to our team, I always have an endless supply of accomplishments to share as we work toward achieving our ultimate potential,” he said. “So, I can’t thank them enough for making it possible.”

Establishing a Shared Vision

When Clyde took charge of Murphy USA 10 years ago, the company was at an inflection point.

“I would describe it as having great locations mostly in front of Walmart supercenters. However, these small, undersized assets were aging, our unit costs were rising, and our traditional growth opportunities building in front of Walmarts were dwindling. The everyday low price value proposition was being threatened by more competitors and promotional intensity with loyalty programs, which we didn’t have. There was also a leadership challenge in that there were quite different views before the spin on what the Murphy USA strategy should be and the direction the company should take,” he recalled.

Prior to joining Murphy USA, Clyde spent 20 years at the management consulting firm Booz & Co., formerly Booz Allen Hamilton, where he led the Dallas office and the North American Energy Practice. He served energy clients in more than 30 countries on six of the seven continents, while also serving multiple not-for-profit organizations.

One of those clients was Murphy USA. For a few years before the spinoff, Clyde served as a consultant to the company and during that time, he recognized that the organization had “incredible potential.” Its value proposition to the customer was clear, yet it needed to be honed and refined with greater discipline and sophistication, he recounted. 

“You had these incredibly hardworking store associates who are working their tails off, but they lack common practices, modern technology and consistent leadership. And at the home office, this lack of a shared strategic vision and overarching purpose created a lot of uncertainty, especially in the context of the spinoff from the parent company. So, that was kind of the environment I stepped into,” he explained.

Those challenges, however, played into his strengths and upon becoming CEO, Clyde immediately drew on his experience as a former consultant in terms of setting strategic objectives, framing the path to achieve potential, and aligning the team toward a common set of goals.

The five strategic pillars established at that time still guide the company today:

  1. Grow organically;
  2. Diversify merchandise mix;
  3. Sustain cost leadership;
  4. Create advantage from market volatility; and
  5. Invest for the long term.

“While they’ve evolved, we still speak to the same core five objectives we articulated to investors when we spun off. And that continuity — a decade of that continuity — brings a level of confidence to an organization that had endured multiple changes in leadership and direction before the spin,” said Clyde, noting that the team members who led the company through its early campaigns are now the ones leading the organization, and they are resetting the company’s potential through the capabilities they have developed.

He acknowledges that the idea of change was “a little hard at first,” but said the early wins helped build confidence. Today, the Murphy USA team embraces the need for continuous improvement, as well as change, given the highly competitive and volatile nature of its business.

“This is a really competitive industry we’re in and it’s always changing and so, we have to keep up,” the chief executive remarked. “…We work hard, we play hard, and we win together.”

Winning With the Value Customer

Reflecting on his tenure so far, the Retailer Executive of the Year says he’s most proud of the way the organization has embraced its differences and committed to “playing our unique game,” rather than trying to be a me-too or just following the herd. Murphy USA distinguishes itself in the convenience and fuel retailing industry with its everyday low price value proposition.

From its conservative balance sheet to the promotional sophistication of its new loyalty programs to the precision with which it sets prices, the retailer’s entire business model is designed, set up and optimized to win with the value customer regardless of the current environment.

“One of the things I love most about our industry is there’s multiple different ways to play strategically and win, and that creates a lot of different opportunities to differentiate. Our organization is absolutely passionate about delivering affordability to our customers and doing it in the most responsible ways,” Clyde said. “It’s all about affordability, and then winning with the customers helps us win with our suppliers, and that fuels employee engagement, which in turn creates the opportunity to give more back to our communities and to our shareholders.

“Unfortunately, more Americans are living paycheck to paycheck than ever before. So, I’ll tell you what, I guess what I’m most proud of is leading the organization to define our unique way to play and win in that space, and doing it the right way,” he continued.

Clyde doesn’t ever foresee value going out of style.

“The customer segment that always grows and disrupts the industry is the value segment,” he said. “And then, the value segment finds ways to deliver the same service at the same quality and it raises the bar for expectations. So, that’s really our goal. If we can deliver value with great service and great products, we’re going to be able to continue to grow.”

Staying the Course

As for what’s next for Clyde and Murphy USA, it’s continuing further down the path of the last decade. It’s working on a new set of campaigns to achieve the next wave of potential for the business. It’s evolving its store formats and the offers within to keep up with the times. It’s staying focused on serving that large and growing segment of customers living paycheck to paycheck.

It’s also continuing to ask questions and make sure all voices are heard at Murphy USA.

“I want people to speak up and I want to make sure their voice is heard, especially our store associates and field leaders. I really expect our leaders to be effective in raising the voices of their teams, while also cascading leadership messages to their teams,” Clyde said.

To collect feedback, the company recently completed its annual engagement survey, which once again had record participation at well over 80 percent of the organization. But even more importantly, Clyde stresses the importance of being out in the field and asking what’s working, what’s not, and creating that open environment where people share.

“I think we remain humble knowing that what got us here today may not be everything we need for the future,” he said. “And so we’re constantly asking ourselves that question: How do we need to get better? Where do we need to grow? What do we need to do differently?”

I hope this article helps, or at least reminds you of the importance of meaningful dialogue with your folks. Give us a shout and let’s talk about our comprehensive diagnostics that will enhance your communications with your leadership team and frontline employees.

Warmest Regards,

Rob