Firefighting, Friends and Football

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Firefighting, Friends and Football

By Mehgan Belanger

Convenience Store News' 2009 Supplier Hall of Fame inductee Steve Wolke never viewed his career as vice president of industry relations for PepsiCo as work. "Every time I got on a plane, it was more like visiting friends," said Wolke as he described his daily job over the last quarter century as "making friends, having fun and putting out fires."

Wolke, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame during ceremonies in Dallas in late October, retired recently to "chase his passions," as he described it. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is one of those passions.

"I never had children, and I have a real special place in my heart for those people who will never have the opportunities in life that some of us have," Wolke said. "The other is a passion for college football. I'd like to get involved in some capacity in college football; not necessarily for a job or a career, but I'm looking for a hobby."

Wolke, who was arguably one of the few left in a dying breed of industry relations executives, spent 33 years working in consumer products, the last 25 of which were for Frito-Lay and later its parent company, PepsiCo.

It started in 1975 when Oscar Mayer hired Wolke after he graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. In 1983 he joined Frito-Lay's sales department and began a rigorous training process that is still in place today.

"We went through a very extensive training program, where I spent the first 12 months doing every job in the company leading up to the job for which I was hired," he said. "If you manage people, you have to understand what they go through every day. It felt like boot camp, but it was time well invested later in my career."

Under the training program, Wolke began his Frito-Lay career as a route truck driver.

"I remember driving the truck home and knocking on my neighbors' doors with this big Frito-Lay route truck and promising 'It won't be here long,'" he said.

Following the field training, Wolke assumed his position at Frito-Lay headquarters where he was in charge of convenience store sales. He held a variety of positions within the sales department for the company until 2002, when he moved to the parent company, PepsiCo, upon its merger with Quaker Oats.

"After the merger, we felt the need to have one industry voice for the convenience store channel," he said, noting his responsibilities then crossed all three PepsiCo companies -- Pepsi-Cola, Frito-Lay and QTG (Quaker Oats, Tropicana, Gatorade) -- and he dealt exclusively with the c-store channel.

Wolke acknowledged he was a rare breed in today's convenience store industry saying, "You don't see people staying with companies for 25 years." In addition, he agreed with the notion that his role within industry relations has been de-emphasized as technology and consolidation take hold of retail channels.

"I think it's sad, but it's a natural evolution of businesses. Things become more fact-based. Technology has changed things a lot," he said, adding the c-store industry is one of the few retail channels where his role is still vital, as the channel is more fragmented than others that have already consolidated, such as grocery and drug.

"If you think about supermarkets, if you call on the top seven or eight, you have 90 percent coverage. In the drug channel, you have three or four guys. In the dollar channel you have three guys," he explained. "The top 10 accounts [in convenience] are only 25 percent of our convenience store volume. Companies that don't pay attention to this channel from an industry relations point of view are making a big mistake."

His role was an important asset for both PepsiCo and its customers -- Wolke described it as a firefighter -- because it prevents small blazes from becoming disasters.

"When you are good at industry relations, you have the ability to put out the fire before it really gets burning," he said. "If you miss out on those opportunities, communications break down and then the problem does become a full fire. I think I had the opportunity to put out a lot of fires before they really got started."

One fire, Wolke recalled, put in jeopardy the $14 billion merger agreement between PepsiCo and Quaker Oats in 2002.

"This was sailing through [the merger process] and all of a sudden, some convenience stores voiced concerns to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that maybe if PepsiCo owned Gatorade, it could be too big," he said. To put the fire out, PepsiCo met with the NACS board of directors and sent a letter to every NACS member. It also met with concerned retailers and allowed retailers to provide sworn affidavits to the FTC before the merger was finalized.

No matter what type of problem erupted during his time in industry relations, Wolke always asked two things of his customers: access and the benefit of the doubt.

This strategy provided Wolke not only positive work relationships with the convenience store industry, but friendships as well.

"What I'll take away more than anything else, and what I'm proudest of, is not a list of all the things I can put on my resume, it's all the friendships I've made with people. These would be life-long friends from all around the country who I will continue to see," he said.

Beyond the friends he made, Wolke attained a number of accomplishments during his time at Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, including serving as executive director of the Convenience Store Education Council for three years and sitting on its board of directors for 15 years, as well as serving on the NACS Supplier Board for 12 consecutive years, and being its chairman in 2005. He noted it was his involvement in NACS that helped him understand the nature of the convenience store industry.

Working in such a close proximity to the convenience channel left Wolke with an appreciation for the trade and its ability to evolve as consumers change. One of the instances he cited was the 1980s trend of arcade games. "They had games in the store, and as soon as that died, they were out and onto the next thing. This industry is really defined by the entrepreneurial spirit."

Today, that spirit assists the channel in the fight for market share as well as for the convenience occasion from other channels. Wolke called it a "battle for survival," adding c-store owners are "being inundated from every angle. Everybody's trying to steal the convenience occasion -- whether it's quick-service restaurants, drug stores, Wal-Mart -- everyone is trying to get this consumer occasion."

Through PepsiCo, convenience store retailers have an advantage in the battle, according to Wolke, who noted the No. 1 reason people go into a convenience store is to get a beverage, and once customers are inside the store, the challenge for every operator is to increase the average transaction size. Wolke acknowledged c-store retailers should use PepsiCo's products to build sales in areas such as foodservice and take a page out of fast feeders' strategy books:

"If you look at Subway and McDonald's, when you go to buy a sandwich, you don't just order a Big Mac, you order a No. 1, and you get the drink and the accompaniment with it -- the French fries," he said. "PepsiCo is perfectly positioned to help the retailer, to become their French fry or meal accompaniment."

On top of increased competition from other channels, the economy is posing a challenge to convenience retailers, but Wolke was confident the industry's entrepreneurial spirit would endure. "Obviously we're going through some pretty tough economic times and convenience stores are going to have to survive the credit crunch. But these guys are used to it. There has never been a point in time where they haven't been threatened by something. They will figure it out, adjust and survive."

As for Wolke, he has retired from PepsiCo, and has decided to focus his energies on improving the lives of others. He currently works for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Austin, Texas, where he is certified to assist families and children in the program.

"I've had the most wonderful career, and I've always felt you need to leave the world a better place," he said. "I've decided that during the final trimester in my life, I wanted to just chase some passions."