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11/07/2011

From Good To Great

Kangaroo Express transforms image with new systems, products and services

Like a phoenix that rises from the ashes, so, too, has Kangaroo Express emerged from a collection of almost 20 different convenience store chains scattered across the southeastern United States to form the largest independent convenience store company in the nation.

The executive team at The Pantry Inc., operator of Kangaroo Express stores, tasked itself with creating a new identity for the 1,655-store chain; identifying, establishing and building merchandising, marketing and technological programs to facilitate the chain's growth; and assembling a workforce that believed in the mission.

After two years, the chain found its base, said John Fisher, senior vice president of marketing and merchandising, specifically noting that the retailer has become very good at food, headlined by coffee — the company's Bean Street Coffee. He also noted that the chain has, over this short amount of time, demonstrated that its meal-on-the-go strategy works. The work ahead of the company is to build on its early successes and strengthen the Kangaroo brand, said the executive.

The company's mission statement is to “become an indispensable part of our guests' daily lives by always satisfying their on-the-go needs in a fast, friendly and clean environment,” said Fisher.

These three imperatives are taking root in the organization as demonstrated by mystery shopper scores. “The stores are not perfect yet, but we're making progress,” he said. “We've got to have great stores, one transaction at a time. That fundamental operating protocol is good, but it has to be great and we're getting to great.”

“Getting to great” means getting more aggressive, especially with employees by hiring the right associates that “add up to the Roo brand,” Fisher told Convenience Store News. The company's success is rooted in “the people,” he said. “This cultural transformation at Kangaroo Express is about people. It's most important that people understand where we're going and are focused along that clear path. It's about holistic brand building.”

According to the company, employees are embracing the new philosophy, paying attention to the coffee, its presentation, merchandise assortment and store cleanliness.

And the company mascot, Roo, has struck a chord with consumers that will be further developed.

The chain's Program Fresh initiative, which rolled out to stores in the third quarter of last year, is largely seen as transformational. It was conceived of and executed to be guest-driven and the foundation for corporate growth. The cornerstone of that program was the relaunch of the Bean Street Coffee program with accompanying condiment bar, fresh on-the-go meals and snacks, and more.

Promotionally, The Pantry aggressively engaged with customers via a number of marketing initiatives that revealed the company's new personality and produced better-than-anticipated results. The biggest success across all 1,655 stores in 13 states was the “Salute Our Troops” campaign, which was designed to raise funds for servicemen and women and their families. The program tapped a vein of support that surprised and heartened executives, bringing in two-and-a-half times the $1 million goal. The program spoke to consumers in the company's markets, which have a strong military connection. Approximately 25 percent of Kangaroo Express stores are within the service range of a military base. More than that, approximately 30 percent of corporate and store-level employees have a military connection, too.

For Kangaroo Express, the Salute Our Troops program was just one, albeit large, initiative to actively engage customers — and employees — as it helped identify the c-store chain in new terms to its customers. Company executives said there are plans to continue with successful promotional programs like this and expand upon them.

“This cultural transformation at Kangaroo Express is about people, it's most important that people understand where we are going and are focused along that clear path, it's about holistic brand building.” — John Fisher, SVP, Marketing and Merchandising

All of this, coupled with newly installed technology systems, has produced an operating model that is serving as the foundation for current operations and future acquisitions. Deal-making remains an important part of Kangaroo Express' strategy, as evidenced by last December's acquisition of the 47-store Presto chain. These units helped Kangaroo Express further penetrate toward the Midwest.

For Fisher, success comes down to leadership, and the executive team is “setting the destination.” He said the management team has to define for the company's employees what categories the retailer wants to be good at, what the brand stands for and who are the right people to make it happen.

The path to success also involves talking to consumers. Fisher said Kangaroo Express invested in formal brand equity research in the last year and learned a lot about where the company is going to take the brand and where the “white space” is. The management team is determined to make the chain with the funny name fun and a little bit different. “We are going to be the friendliest and best place to get a meal and snack,” Fisher declared.

EXECUTIVE SPOTLIGHT:

John J. Fisher, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Merchandising

Senior Vice President of Marketing and Merchandising John Fisher is responsible for marketing and merchandising programs at the company's convenience stores, as well as its 250 restaurants.

With The Pantry since March 2010, Fisher was previously executive vice president of The Linbeck Group, a privately held project and construction management firm specializing in facility design and project execution. Prior to that. Fisher spent 11 years at The Coca-Cola Co., lastly as senior vice president of marketing for North America Foodservice. He oversaw consumer and customer marketing responsibility for the Foodservice and Hospitality Division and was responsible for strategic planning, marketing, communications and sales execution for Coca-Cola's only direct-to-consumer operating group. He also led a 185-member team.

Fisher started his career as a manufacturing engineer at Colgate Palmolive Co. and advanced through several positions, eventually transitioning into brand management.

Fisher holds a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame.

The plan is to “go overt” with customers by expressing in clear terms why they should choose Kangaroo Express and drink the chain's specially formulated coffee, the benchmark product in the c-store business. “Our service is going to be better,” Fisher said. “We're right around the corner, and they're going to say it with fun.”