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TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #151 – Playing the Long Game – Words of Wisdom for Young People Just Getting Started

December 29, 2022

By  

Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from Melissa Kress’s article in Convenience Store News December 18th, 2022

The convenience channel is an industry where many teenagers turn for a first job. Most are looking to earn some spending money, save for college, or a stepping stone to another career. Few think of the C-Store sector as a long-term career. There are those who grow up in the industry, sweeping floors and stocking shelves in their family’s store, thinking of it as the first step to eventually leading that company.

For a few, like Brian Hannasch, president and CEO of Laval, Québec-based Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT), the journey to — and through — the industry was completely coincidental. At 16, Hannasch took a job in a convenience store, which he describes as a repair facility that sold candy and beverages out of a few coolers. Fast forward to today and he now leads one of the largest convenience and mobility companies in the world.

For his dedication and commitment to the industry, Hannasch is being honored as the 2022 retailer inductee into the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame. He was previously recognized as the 2019 Retailer Executive of the Year.

Finding the Right Path

As Brian told CSNews, a career in the C-Store industry was never the game plan. He was the first in his family to go to college and after earning a finance degree from Iowa State University, he took a job with a big company. His next step was to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the University of Chicago with his eye on Wall Street.

“I was lucky that as I continued working and doing my MBA at night, I realized I liked the operations side more than the finance side. I liked building things. I liked solving problems, and I liked working with people,” he recalled. At the time, he worked for Amoco and had the chance to pivot into an operations role on the convenience and fuel side. “I loved that piece and I never looked back at the finance side,” he said. “It got me on the right path.”

After approximately 12 years with Big Oil, Hannasch left for a smaller, more entrepreneurial environment. Nine months later, that company was acquired by “four guys from Montreal.” The 2001 acquisition of 225 Bigfoot stores from Johnson Oil Co. Inc. marked ACT’s entry into the United States. “That was a big piece of luck,” Hannasch said. “The company wasn’t very big at the time — less than a thousand stores — and it’s been a great journey to help build ACT into what it is today.”

Were it not for his pivot to the operations side, Hannasch would have taken a swing at Wall Street and likely would not have liked it, he admits. “I would have probably done ‘big company’ stuff and while we are a big company today, I like to think we have retained our entrepreneurial roots,” he explained. “Four guys started the company with one store in the early ‘80s and we try to keep some of those values and culture intact.”

Wall Street’s Loss Is the C-store Industry’s Gain

Since moving into the chief position at ACT in September 2014, the company has grown to be the largest in Canada in terms of revenue, and one of the largest convenience store groups in the world, operating in 25 countries. Under Hannasch’s watch, ACT has expanded through multibillion-dollar acquisitions, including Cary, N.C.-based The Pantry in 2015, San Antonio-based CST Brands, and Midwest-based Holiday Cos. in 2017.

“It’s been rewarding to be on this side, even though we have turned into a bigger company and all the good and the bad that goes along with that,” he said. “It’s been a good journey to try to make sure some of those things that were important to me when I shifted from a big company to a small company are still alive in the company today.”

Balancing Act

With growth comes the responsibility to stay true to the needs of existing employees and customers while expanding the network — something Hannasch acknowledges is a balancing act.

“I really think we have been thoughtful about how we structure the company. We are not as decentralized as we once were, but we still have very self-sufficient business units that stay close to their customers and their employees,” he pointed out.

With growth also comes the concern of becoming too big. “I fear it every day. It’s no secret that internally, my biggest fear is protecting our culture. It’s what has made us successful,” Hannasch shared. “We try to be humble, and we try to do the right thing. We try to believe that people get up and come to work wanting to do the right thing every day.

“As you get bigger, there is a risk that politics can enter the conversation, bureaucracy can slow you down, and you can lose sight of the customer and the store — which is why we are all here,” he continued. “It is a fight. We have a lot of conversations, and having those conversations is very important to making sure the friction stays there. It’s way up there on the things I think about.”

The key is not getting caught up in the short term. “We are good at not being short-term focused. We try to play the long game and stay focused on our people, focused on the customers, and understand that there is short-term volatility in the business,” he explained. “That has enabled us to make the right investments over time toward a strategic environment.”

The retail and mobility businesses, though, are hard and not without challenges, as they are both fast-paced and high-volume industries.

“It’s a lot going well every day, and it’s a certain percentage of things going wrong every day. Whether that is people getting injured on the job. Whether it’s a robbery. Whether it’s the challenge of hiring and retaining people in our industry at the wage level that is traditionally paid,” Hannasch said. Yet despite the challenges, the convenience business offers many rewards.

“For us, the growth and financial success has been great but, as I look back now, what I find rewarding is building a better company, a better brand and at the heart of that is the people,” the new Hall of Famer said. “Seeing people grow within their careers in the company over the 20-plus years I have been here, seeing them raise their families and put their kids through college. All those things will be what I look back on and value through the years.”

Changing Landscape

The convenience store concept has changed a lot since Hannasch’s first job at 16 years old, and he has had a front-row seat to the channel’s evolution.

“To look at where we are today within the industry is just amazing. You look at the development of the offer. You have great companies like QuikTrip, Wawa, Kwik Trip, QuikTrip, Sheetz. They have really innovated on the food side and given our industry some legitimacy as a place to stop and grab a quick meal. They set a high bar for the industry. The industry is gaining respect and gaining consumers’ stomachs and hearts, which has been great,” he said.

“Ultimately, what it boils down to is we sell time to people. I think the industry has done a great job of evolving over time and making sure we are fulfilling that need and giving customers a little bit of time back in their day,” he told CSNews. “There is not much we sell that Walmart doesn’t have, but our ability to do it in a friendly, fast way continues to be our differentiator.”

“It’s important for us to remember that we sell time to people, and we have a challenge to give our customers what they want from us when and where they want it, and that is not going to look the same as it does today,” Hannasch explained.

Words of Wisdom

So, what would the newest retailer Hall of Fame inductee tell a 16-year-old who is starting an afterschool job in a convenience store today?

“People who I look at who has been successful — either financially or raising families or having a lot of friends — tend to have very good communication skills and very good people skills regardless of the job,” Hannasch said. “It’s a tremendous environment to hone your people skills and to try to figure out what the customer wants, why they want it, what mood they are in, and how you can make it a little bit better. I think that is a skill set that will serve any young person very well in their life’s journey.”

Brian is one of the special people who decided early on to play the long game and came out on top. Still a young man, it will be interesting to see the long-term effects of Brian’s vision and leadership on his company and the industry. I sincerely hope this piece has been helpful. Give us a call and let’s talk about your long game.

Warmest Regards,

Rob

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory

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