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Breaking The Glass Ceiling

Top women in the c-store business reflect on the strides made in what was once a male-dominated business, and offer opinions on issues facing the industry today

Flash back 15 or 20 years and take a look around the convenience store industry. Besides the absence of today's enormous credit-card fees and issues around PCI compliance, you will notice something else very different — the relatively small number of women in the business.

"I started with an oil company right out of college, and there were so few women in the industry at the time of my interview, I think they were worried about equal opportunity employment requirements to hire more minorities and women," said Julie Barnett, director of petroleum supply and distribution at QuikTrip Inc., based in Tulsa, Okla., who has been in the petroleum business for 32 years. "I was even told that if I was a hard worker, moving up would be easier because they did not have enough women in management."

The truth is, not many industries employed women 20 years ago, and those who were in the business, often encountered challenges. Wanda Sheffield, now the vice president of operations at Miller Oil Co., based in Norfolk, Va., began working for the company 26 years ago, and encountered a representative from a large petroleum equipment company who didn't want to consult with her because she was a woman. The CEO, Gus Miller, asked the representative to leave the office rather than let him deal with a man on the purchase of pumps and tanks for a new store being built.

"I have to admit, there were many challenges in the beginning of my career being a woman," Sheffield explained. "This is not the case at this day and time."

Andrea Jackson, president of Jacksons Food Stores in Meridian, Idaho, was just joking when she said the positive thing about being a woman in the c-store industry years ago was that "there were never any restroom lines at oil conventions to contend with." However, she noted it wasn't easy to find female colleagues to befriend. Today, though, the number of women in the convenience and petroleum market continues to grow.

In 2008, Sonja Hubbard, CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc. in Texarkana, Texas, became the first woman chairman of NACS — The Association of Convenience and Petroleum Retailing, and Jenny Bullard, CIO of Flash Foods Inc. in Waycross, Ga., was the first recipient of the Convenience Store News Top Tech Executive Award when the program launched seven years ago.

"Over the years, I have seen more and more women working their way through the ranks of our industry and becoming much more visible and viable members," said Hubbard. "I think this is, in part, due to the inclusiveness of the men in industry. I've not only been welcomed in most instances, but encouraged, supported and mentored."

At Flash Foods, the number of females working at the store-level is higher than the number of men, and there are more female managers in the stores as well, said Bullard, who has worked in the c-store business for 38 years. "Over my years in the industry, I have been able to witness the progression of a more inclusive role for females in executive management positions, not only in my company but in the industry."

Another technology executive, Kym Howe, senior vice president of information technology (IT) at Kum & Go LC, who started in the industry when she was just 18 years old, agreed that not only are there more women, but there are more females in the IT department.

"I do see that as a big change that occurred over the last 15 years," she said. "I remember when I was one of only a few women attending industry events, and now the group is much more diverse."

At Wawa Inc., Chief Marketing Officer Carol Jenson started a Wawa Women's Leaders organization, which welcomed Suzanne Keenan, CIO, when she joined the company two years ago after working in the cable and telecommunication industry.

"I would say the lack of industry experience was a bigger hurdle for me to overcome than my gender," said Keenan. "In comparison, when I first stated working in the nuclear industry as an engineer, there were so few women that I was oftentimes the only woman in the room — now that was challenging."

But today she said she's had nothing but opportunities at Wawa, and everyone on the management committee reached out to her when she started, offering advice and insight. She believes the industry is very inclusive today and becoming more diverse every day.

"This year, we added a position to the Management Committee called Chief People Officer, and Cathy Pulos was promoted into the role," Keenan noted. "We now have three women out of the seven members on the Management Committee."

Lily Bentas, chairman of the board at Cumberland Gulf, has spent her entire career in the convenience store industry, starting in the family business while in high school. "The business was started as a dairy farm by my parents, selling milk on house delivery routes," she noted. "They opened their first dairy store in 1957, and the company grew from there."

She was one of the first women on the NACS board, and found the challenges women faced in the convenience industry were similar to many other industries. "[Women] had to work harder to be accepted as peers among their fellow workers," she said. But like her colleagues, she believes it is much easier for women today. "It has changed due to the fact that bias against women advancing in the industry has disappeared with more women in leadership roles," she said.

A Woman's Perspective

No one can argue the fact that men and women have distinct personality differences and often look at situations differently, so it's only natural that women would carry over these unique aspects into their career — and in many cases, use them to improve processes.

"The diversity we as women bring to our roles, if properly applied, can help us better serve an equally diverse customer base," said Hubbard. From attention to detail and multitasking abilities to communication and cultivating relationships, women bring a variety of skills to the workplace, including the perspective of the female shopper.

"As a woman, I think I bring the female shopping point-of-view to our stores," said Sheffield. "The appearance inside and out needs to be a shopping destination, and we need to build community involvement by building shopping relationships."

Becky Shotwell, who started working in the family c-store business 44 years ago, has seen the changes over the years and the difference women can make. "I do believe women bring unique skills to leadership roles," she noted. Shotwell is the president of Stop N Go of Medina Inc., operating 10 stores in Ohio's Medina and Wayne counties. "I think we [women] are good multi-taskers, have a strong desire to get things done, and can read situations and people fairly accurately."

For Bullard, her role as the CIO for Flash Foods requires her to manage any new technology initiatives throughout the company, as well as oversee ongoing projects. Since most of the projects involve other departments, such as marketing, operations and financials, she believes as a woman, her detail-oriented nature and ability to communicate across departments is an advantage in her role.

"I think women bring a benefit to the details of business, and maybe help in the longevity of relationships with suppliers and customers," Barnett agreed. She also recommended women find the area of the business that brings out their passion. "It's so easy to balance your work and life issues when you love what you do."

Jackson follows the same philosophy in offering advice. "May you work hard, have fun and not know the difference between the two," she said.

Additionally, many of today's top women executives believe their experience working in all levels of the industry has helped them succeed. Growing up in the family business, Bentas worked in every job at the company, from store associate to CEO, giving her "working knowledge of all aspects of the business," she said. She recommends other women in the industry also familiarize themselves with all areas of the business. "Keeping up with regulations, new trends and ideas, and being involved with NACS and other industry-related groups is essential as well," Bentas noted.

Shotwell, who also grew up in the business, advised other women to "do their homework and surround themselves with good people." Keenan, who is still relatively new to the c-store industry, said women need to "learn as much as they can about the business. Understand how your company makes money — what is profitable and what isn't, as well as why, and understand who your key customer is."

Most importantly, women in the industry need to be themselves and believe in themselves, according to Kum & Go's Howe. "In my opinion, women are treated the same as men in this industry and you should expect equality in every situation. If you believe you are an equal, you will be treated as an equal," she said.

Industry Challenges

When asked about the biggest challenges facing the industry today, most women retailers cited channel blurring; government regulations and higher taxes; and interchange fees. And those involved in the technology field all noted the issue of PCI compliance.

"From a technologist role, the industry challenges are credit card fees, PCI compliance, customer loyalty and workflow efficiencies at our stores," said Bullard. "We are constantly seeking new technology that enables us to reduce credit card fees, and PCI compliance is an ongoing project for my department each year."

And as drug stores, supermarkets and other big box retailers continue to invade the c-store territory, channel blurring continues to be an issue in the industry, as retailers strive to stand out from the crowd.

"Sales channels are blurring with many pharmacies looking more like convenience retailers and large supermarkets looking to smaller box formats or petroleum retailing," said Bentas.

Competition is no longer with other c-stores, but is coming at the industry from every channel, according to Shotwell. "We must become very efficient operators in every aspect, and learn to execute better," she said.

As each channel continues to fight for the customer's dollar, convenience stores must continue to provide "unique value in the overall customer experience," explained Keenan, who believes it is this difference that will drive them into the c-store rather than to a wholesale or big box store.

Additionally, c-stores that were once reliant of tobacco and gasoline sales are now finding other outlets to create profit. "Margins were once generated by cigarettes and gasoline," said Sheffield. "Today the survivors have to learn how to deal with that change and find the products or mix of products that will be their margin makers."

Above all, one of the biggest issues operators face is dealing with government regulation — from taxes and tank storage to health care reform. "The government seems to thrive on challenging our industry with new taxes and regulations … every single day," noted Hubbard. "I passionately believe that we must make our voices heard and demand a level playing field. We can bring this country back to economic strength, but we have to be allowed those opportunities without constant road blocks."

Overall, women have made major inroads in the convenience store industry over the years, and the number of women in executive roles continues to grow. "There are several women friends in the business who I get to see very little, but when I do, it is like we saw each other yesterday," Barnett said. "I have had these friendships for 25 years. There is a bond that you make when you work in a man's world and succeed."

For comments, please contact Tammy Mastroberte, Executive Editor at [email protected].

"I have to admit, being a woman, there were many challenges in the beginning of my career. This is not the case at this day and time."

Wanda Sheffield, Miller Oil Co.

"In my opinion, women are treated the same as men in this industry and you should expect equality in every situation."

Kym Howe, Kum & Go

"I think we [women] are good multi-taskers, have a strong desire to get things done, and can read situations and people fairly accurately." Becky Shotwell, Stop N Go of Medina Inc.

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