July 29, 2021

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #78 – Building a Powerful Employment Brand, Part 1

By Rob Andrews

With paraphrased content from our interview with Chet Cadieux in August 2014

Every company has an employment brand, and yours is either an asset or a liability. Organizations with strong positive employment brands by and large have built them deliberately. They’ve built them by building strong cultures, clearly articulating the kinds of people who flourish in their organizations, developing strong pipelines of potential employees, developing relationships within the talent community, attracting and engaging candidates, and screening carefully for culture and performance.

When working with senior leaders in workshops and coaching sessions, we review real time examples of organizations who have strong employment brands and specifically how they’ve built them. There is no one right way to build an employment brand so we work with clients to co-create their own. One example I always site is QuikTrip. To date, we have examined 48 companies that currently perform at the very top of their sectors. I stress “currently”, because employment brands, like cultures are very perishable. It takes time to build an employment brand that sits at the top of a firm’s list of most important assets, and no time to destroy it.

QuikTrip, a privately held retailer, has the strongest employment brand I’ve ever studied. QT is known for unified leadership, being driven by a purpose greater than making money, incredibly disciplined human capital practices, measuring everything that matters, clarity in communications, a highly differentiated customer experience, exceptional cost leadership, engaging all stakeholder groups, and a leadership mindset that ensures they’re always ahead of the curve.

When I met Chet Cadieux at his headquarters in Tulsa in 2014, I instantly knew that he was a big part of QT’s employment brand and “secret sauce”. He says that there is no secret sauce behind QuikTrip’s wildly successful financial performance, enthusiastic employee engagement, bullet proof retention, consistently stellar store conditions, customer service and loyalty.  While QuikTrip’s “sauce” may not be secret, it is most certainly rare.

Convenience retailing is one of the most difficult formats around. In 2020, QT posted per store profit double that of the top quartile of its competitors. Most C store operators struggle mightily with brand differentiation, staffing, turnover, operations, inventory losses and crime. Not so with QT.

Some say QT is like a cult. Because QT’s purpose is providing opportunity for employees to grow and succeed; they must hire people who want to run hard, grow, and succeed. QT’s Purpose is proudly displayed on a thirty-foot tall banner in the company’s headquarters lobby. Now I know what you’re thinking…Yeah, I’ve heard stuff like that before. No, I mean it. QT’s purpose drives EVERYTHING. Store growth is driven by the number of store teams that are ready to advance, which is the total opposite to the way it typically works in this business.

QT hires great people, period. Their employment brand is so compelling and employee referrals so strong that they hire less than 1% of the people who apply. When it gets to the point where they’re hiring 2 or 3%, they hit the proverbial panic button and start adjusting. 3%? Are you kidding me? When I was in the business, even the very best of us were thrilled if we had three or four choices for every hire. This kind of hiring scenario where you’re hiring 1 out of a 100 is nirvana for the vast majority of retailers.

Internal advancement is a major driver of employee performance and QT worked hard to develop its employees. Store managers worked with their area supervisors to develop a promotion list of qualified workers. When a supervisory store position becomes available, the store manager travels to the division office to interview candidates from the promotion list selects the new hire. Promotion could be within a store with more responsibility (for example, from second assistant to first assistant) or to a new store that has higher customer traffic and sales and therefore the opportunity for a larger operating-profit bonus.

In established markets, it is not uncommon to find stores whose managers have been in position for twenty years and whose first assistants have been in position close to ten. QT finds these are some of their best-performing stores because they were run by proven managers who personally know most of their customers. Turnover for these positions is low because store managers and first assistants received high pay, weekends off, and longevity-based bonuses and perks.

Once an employee becomes a store manager, promotions become more difficult. The specialist positions in each division—training manager, division personnel manager, area supervisors, and division manager—were limited and rarely become available. Although QT filled almost all senior executive positions (including the president/CEO, the chief operations officer, the chief financial officer, the vice presidents of sales, marketing, operations, and store development, the director of construction, and the senior network analyst) with former entry-level store employees, the firm kept its top corporate management lean, so advancement opportunities are rare. Stay tuned for part 2 and the continuation of this post next week.

Each week, we deliver content intended to help 21st century leaders build cultures of peak performance, which fully engage and fulfill workers, engage all stakeholder groups, and deliver exceptional shareholder value. How are you doing on your journey? Let’s have a conversation and explore the power of your employment brand.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory