Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.
Phil Schwartz, a decorated U.S. Air Force veteran, retired after 17 years in the service at the youthful age of 38. Considering this, it was certainly unexpected that he would become one of the convenience store industry’s foremost technology experts, let alone the winner of the 2015 Convenience Store News Technology Executive of the Year award.
“The award is tremendously unexpected. I can’t believe it,” said Schwartz, manager of I/S credit card systems POS app support for Valero Payment Services Co. “I am truly humbled. I look at others who have been honored with this award and say ‘wow.’”
Schwartz’s entry into the c-store industry was definitely for reasons unlike any other before or since. After retiring in 1995 at age 38, he spent about six months hanging out at his house, spending time with his children.
One day, Schwartz’s wife (at the time, an active-duty member of the military) said, “You know Phil, I don’t mind supporting you. You’ve got your retirement [money], and although we are not bringing in the money we were, we have enough. But I’m not coming home to a dirty house one more day. So you have two choices: either you start cleaning this house, or you can get yourself a job and pay someone to clean this house.”
Schwartz, who despises cleaning, opted for the latter option.
“I actually started looking for a job so I could pay a housekeeper,” he joked. “After 20 years, I’m pretty sure I have enough money to pay a housekeeper for the rest of my life.”
Finding a job wasn’t easy at first, though. When he left the military in 1995, he was a major, earning a solid salary. One of the places he applied to was National Convenience Stores, which operated the Stop N Go chain, as a store manager trainee. Schwartz felt he would be a good fit as a store manager because he had lots of management experience and was armed with a master’s degree.
“I figured maybe I could be pretty competitive in moving up through their operational chain,” he recalled. “I went in person to fill out the application, but it asked what my previous salary was. I filled in that information and never heard back from them.”
Nonplussed, a month after receiving no response, he again saw a National Convenience Stores position posted and filled out an application online.
“It didn’t require salary history,” he relayed. “I got a call in less than 24 hours, asking me if I could come in for an interview. That was right before Thanksgiving in 1995. Within a week, I was hired as a store manager trainee.”
The week after Schwartz went to work for National Convenience Stores, the company was acquired by Diamond Shamrock, whose headquarters were in San Antonio, Schwartz’s current hometown. Diamond Shamrock merged with Valero later on.
Schwartz finished his training and became certified as a store manager, but fate led him in a different direction. “Diamond Shamrock decided they wanted to roll out a new, integrated computer point-of-sale system,” he said. “I was given the choice to be one of eight trainers for that, or be one of 260 store managers in the San Antonio area. I didn’t think it was a difficult choice. Within a week, I was the lead trainer for San Antonio. Within a year, I was on the corporate staff working on store automation.”
That’s when technology officially became Schwartz’s vocation.
In 2007, Valero decided to reorganize its retail division, but because the company valued Schwartz’s stellar work and didn’t want to lose the knowledge he had, it found another place for him, which was credit card processing. Schwartz has been in this role since.
“I work with point-of-sale vendors. I work with communication providers we allow on our network, and I work with First Data, which is our acquirer on the front end of the credit process,” he said. “So I’m involved with EMV [Europay, MasterCard and Visa] and PCI [payment card industry] compliance.”
After eight years in his current role, Schwartz is most fascinated by how much technology has advanced. “Today, your phone is your computer,” he stated. “I saw something recently that said your Apple iPhone 6 has more computing power than what we used to land on the moon in 1969. Even your car is ‘smart’ today as it talks to your phone. Most of these advancements have taken place in the past eight years.”
Mobile payment by providers such as Apple, Google and Merchant Customer Exchange has also advanced significantly in the past few years, Schwartz added. “There is a lot of stuff that has gone on and will continue to go on for the foreseeable future in terms of payment. It will not stay the same.”
CONNECTING THROUGH CONEXXUS
In addition to his outstanding work at Valero, Schwartz is also being honored with the CSNews Technology Executive of the Year award for his contributions to Conexxus, formerly known as PCATS. This trade group addresses technology standards to improve business processes, reduce costs and increase productivity for the convenience and fuel retailing industry.
“Our company is a member of Conexxus, so shortly after I moved to my current role in credit card processing, I would call in to committee meetings it had,” he said. “I happened to join three or four committees, but after sampling them, I gravitated toward data security. I would lurk on that committee meeting call and would sometimes voice my opinions.”
Schwartz took it one step further by attending conferences, where he became more involved in the trade group. Shortly after, the late Ann Seki, former PCI program manager for Chevron Corp., asked Schwartz if he would assume the role of chairperson of the Data Security Committee when her term ended.
Upon receiving corporate approval from Valero, Schwartz agreed. He considers Seki, who was posthumously inducted into the Conexxus Hall of Fame earlier this year, one of his greatest influences in the c-store industry.
Becoming chairman of Conexxus’ Data Security Committee was an excellent decision, Schwartz said. “It gave me the opportunity to serve on the board of advisors for Conexxus and to get intimately involved on decision making in technology and standards in the industry, as well as put together some good educational programs.”
Schwartz stressed that education is so vital in data security because although the biggest companies can have staff members whose job it is to focus on this technology aspect fulltime, smaller operators certainly cannot.
“I wanted to make sure we took complicated topics like PCI and try to distill it down to what they needed to know,” he said.
Schwartz later became a well-known name in the c-store technology industry by delivering speeches and moderating panels at several industry events. In fact, he will be presenting at the upcoming 2015 NACS Show in Las Vegas during an educational session on Oct. 11 entitled “Mitigating Card Systems Breaches.”
“Kara Gunderson from CITGO and I are going to talk about things you can do to secure your systems,” he said.
LIFE IN THE AIR FORCE
The Technology Executive of the Year award is not the first award Schwartz has received. He earned several while serving in the Air Force, where he also got his undergraduate degree in science in 1978. Upon graduation, Schwartz looked at what was most fun to him: security. So, he became a security police officer.
“As soon as I started working, I had 80 people working under me in the nuclear missile field in Wyoming,” he recounted. “I did that for 17 years until I retired. It was very rewarding.
“My last couple of assignments, I was a squadron commander,” he continued. “The last one was in Minot, N.D., where I commanded a unit of about 275 security specialists who were guarding nuclear assets around the state of North Dakota.”
Schwartz, who grew up in Milwaukie, Ore., with two younger brothers separated by just two years and 11 months, wasn’t born with a love for technology. That came later in life because technology was in its infancy during his adolescent years.
“I pre-date Bill Gates,” he said. “When I was a kid, my dad had to open the TV, pull the vacuum tube out, go to the hardware store and plug them into a tester device to see what was burned out.”
Schwartz also recalls the early days of computers, when nobody could imagine the wonders data could provide for the c-store industry. “I played football on the computer,” he remembered. “But then, you had to input text. So you had a list of plays you could put in and based on algorithms, the computer would determine you gained five yards. It was that bad.”
Schwartz now plans to retire for good in March. And yes, he still intends to keep his housekeeper. In addition to seeing his four children, Schwartz, who is about to celebrate his 23rd wedding anniversary, looks forward to spending more time with his 11 grandchildren, as well as having more time to watch his beloved San Antonio Spurs and Seattle Seahawks.
Once he retires from Valero, Schwartz said he will miss the people at his company and in the industry the most. He specifically mentioned Marvin Burns, senior manager, I/S at Valero; Ed Collupy, executive consultant at W. Capra Consulting Group; Jenny Bullard, chief information officer for Flash Foods Inc.; Avsha Klachuk, director of marketing technology for Alon USA Energy Inc.; Patrick Lewis, co-founder and partner at Oasis Stop ‘N Go; and Conexxus Executive Director Gray Taylor as among the many in the industry he will truly miss.
“I truly feel like I made a difference in the industry,” Schwartz concluded.
Before retiring, he will receive his Technology Executive of the Year award at the CSNews Fuels & Tech Summit on Dec. 7 in Riviera Beach, Fla.