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Fostering the Future

For most people, finding out their company had been sold would trigger panic and worry about possibly facing the challenge of finding a new job. But when confronted with this scenario 26 years ago, Greg Gilkerson turned down an offer to work for National Convenience Stores when it purchased his employer, Colonial Food Store, where he ran the IT and finance departments. Instead, he decided to start his own software company, PDI, at a time when the majority of retail stores -- especially c-stores -- didn't even own a computer.

"I remember taking an Apple II to a NACS Financial Management Institute meeting in Florida and showing a bunch of financial guys how to use a VisiCalc spreadsheet," said Gilkerson, noting this was years before Microsoft Excel. "I'm not sure anyone had seen anything like it, and about 20 of them went out and bought computers the following week."

And that's how Gilkerson began to gain the reputation as a leading-edge thinker and contributor to the evolution of technology in the convenience store industry.

"The vast majority of retailers in our industry are PDI customers," said Fran Duskiewicz, senior executive vice president of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, a best-in-class c-store retailer based in upstate New York. "They would not be scanning and using good data to make sound marketing and operational decisions without the system Greg designed and promoted over the past 20 years."

Gilkerson began his career in finance with a degree in accounting from Texas Tech University, but always had an interest in technology systems. He entered the c-store industry in 1979 after accepting an offer from Colonial to be their controller. In this role, he oversaw the development of the company's new retail system -- a system he negotiated the rights to when he left, which then became the basis for Professional Datasolutions Inc. (PDI).

"I put the closing documents together and asked Ray Hawkins, Colonial's CEO, if I could obtain the rights to the software, and he said, 'yes,'" explained Gilkerson, who was instrumental in working with the team of developers who put the proprietary system together a year and a half before Colonial was sold.

"Before I came on board, the company had tried twice to install a retail system and failed," he said. "After I was there for six months, I knew I had to do something, so I told the CEO it was time to upgrade."

Although Colonial tried to buy something already developed to fit its needs, there was not much in existence at the time, according to Gilkerson. So instead, the company decided to build its own system, and hired a consultant who helped them define what they wanted before going to a third-party custom development company to help build the system.

"We started with the core and they built it to our specifications," Gilkerson explained. The one catch was the computer developers didn't own a computer, so every day they drove 90 miles to the Colonial's headquarters to work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Gilkerson would go home for dinner and then meet them back at the office each night and work through the early morning. The process took about a year, but in the end, the system doubled the productivity of Colonial's accounting and IT staff, Gilkerson said.

"It allowed us to enter store paperwork into the system and edit it at the same time," he noted. "We used to check everything by hand with calculators, hand them to the auditor, who checked it again, and than gave it to the data processing department to enter into the machine. The new system allowed us to enter it all in one pass, taking a three step process down to one step."

Building the Enterprise
After the Colonial sale, Gilkerson joined with several former employees -- Mike Smith, a night operator, Ron Gay, the data processing manager, Joyce Weishuhn, the assistant controller and Sharon Hubbard, the store accounting supervisor -- and started PDI. Realizing they needed better tools, they made some software changes, and began attracting clients.

However, the software would only run on Texas Instruments (TI) computers, which became a problem when TI dropped its home computer.

"Even though our software ran on the larger business systems, nobody would talk to us," Gilkerson said. "Then a customer in Virginia heard we were going out of business, and said he wanted to help if we could get others involved. During the next 90 days, we were fortunate to put together a 21-company consortium to help finance the new system, and in one year we re-wrote it."

Smith, Gilkerson and a couple of others worked together to build a "more viable" system to run on UNIX and MS-DOS, allowing them to run on a number of different computers, including IBM, and "things pretty much mushroomed from there," he explained.

"We built the system to incorporate PCs at the store-level, but it was the late '80s, and only one or two companies had a computer in the store. There were others that had a store PC product, but we were pretty much the only one that could do it all with one system," he noted.

By 1989, Texaco became a PDI customer, and funded additional development. By the time McLane Co. acquired PDI in 1991, there were approximately 100 customers.

"As entrepreneurs, our strategic planning was one week at a time, so being part of a large company was very different and very positive," Gilkerson said. "As it turns out, no one could have drawn upon a better scenario for us. McLane has been incredibly patient and allowed us to make mistakes and learn from them, and we were very fortunate to retain the vast majority of our team."

More than offering leading-edge technology, Gilkerson's top priority was to build a reputation as a trustworthy company who treated customers fairly and respectfully. Being part of McLane made this even more important as "values really matter," at the distribution company.

"We put values above financial performance from the beginning," Gilkerson said. "I would rather go broke if we had to do it dishonestly. We build trust-centered relationships. We hold our customers' ability to process their financial records in our hands, and we take that very seriously."

By hiring the right people and encouraging the entire company to operate as a value-driven organization, people end up doing things better. "It becomes very synergistic," he explained. "The bottom line is always, 'What is the right thing to do?' You don't make it as a business for 25 years by only having the latest technology. It's also about consistently performing and your customers knowing they can trust you. I don't want anyone to ever say we didn't treat him or her fairly. We've worked hard for that."

Looking Ahead
More real-time access and even more automation is what Gilkerson sees as the future of c-store technology. Today, a company will post a day's worth of documents online to be downloaded and processed, but in the future, Gilkerson sees it all happening in real-time with transactions being settled as they occur.

"We just started integrating our applications to services in real time, and we will see more of that in the next five years," he said. "We now have the ability to look at data we have and summarize it. Also, today we are looking at individual sales transactions instead of daily summaries. In the past, c-stores found it cost prohibitive to store the data and use it for analysis. Now we're working with customers to mine sales transactions and analyze them, with a bunch of new ideas coming out of that."

Business intelligence solutions and dong business electronically is a main focus for c-stores, and this area continues to improve, Gilkerson noted.

"PDI has always helped customers do business electronically, but PDI/Enterprise takes it to a new level," he said. "We basically took manual things done in an office and put those steps into the software. At one time, office employees used to check every invoice, and now the system matches them up electronically. People only have to deal with the exceptions. We like to help people focus on the good and the bad -- the rest is just background noise."

Gilkerson said PDI's customers will soon see the company offer more services to the applications they deploy. "We will host their applications so they don't have to deal with the technical side," he explained. "We have been doing it since 2001, but are investigating it more for the small- to medium-size businesses."

And after more than 20 years in the industry, Gilkerson's favorite part is the people, who are not afraid to share and be creative. "If it hadn't been for our customers extending a lifeline, we wouldn't be here," he said.
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