It's In Their DNA


Family-owned Weigel's Stores shows no signs of slowing down as it celebrates 80 years

For most, it only takes a dollar and a dream to win the lottery. But for one Tennessee family, it only took a cow to hit the jackpot — well, six cows to be precise.

Convenience store chain Weigel's Stores, based in Powell, Tenn., is marking its 80th anniversary this year, tracing its beginnings as a family-owned business back to 1931. That's when current chairman and CEO Bill Weigel's father — then a 20-year-old farmer — bought six cows and began selling the milk to a nearby dairy. From there, his father began bottling the milk himself and eventually branched out to home delivery.

Today, Weigel's Stores' portfolio stands at 56 strong, with five more stores planned for this year. While 80 years in business is impressive, Weigel told Convenience Store News that what is even more impressive is that his family and the business' beginnings stretch even further back to 1847, when his great, great, great-grandfather immigrated to Tennessee from Germany.

After buying and then selling a small farm in a poor community, Weigel's ancestor set down roots on a farm near what is known as Forks of the River, outside of Knoxville. He and his four sons worked the land, as did the next generation, Weigel explained. Then in 1918, Weigel's grandfather bought a farm in Powell, where the family's dairy still stands today.

As the years passed by and World War II ended, home milk delivery started to become a thing of the past, as housewives stayed in the workplace, leaving no one home to take the milk inside. So the family business had to change with the times.

"To survive, we decided to sell milk through drive-thru stores," Weigel recalled, adding that in the 1960s, the family owned about 10 milk depots. However, it became apparent that more changes need to be made. "It's no way to make a living just selling milk."

In 1964, Weigel's Stores expanded to its first "walk-in" milk store. Around the same time, Weigel said he started hearing buzz about a new association of convenience stores — NACS — and traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend its third convention. "I discovered there was a new industry out there."

Ever since, the company's walk-in milk stores have evolved into more traditional convenience stores, and the family has continued to grow its presence. The five new stores planned for this year are "the most stores we've built in one year and we are planning to continue to grow," Weigel said. "We take everything we have and put it back into the company."

As for now, the end goal is 75 stores. "I always thought a good operating unit was 75 stores. That's a nice, tight concentric circle," he added.

Not straying far from its roots, all Weigel's Stores locations can be found in a 75-mile radius around Knoxville. The company is also staying close to its roots with its future succession plans. Weigel has three children — a son in the area, a daughter who practices medicine in Atlanta and another daughter in Charlottesville, Va. All three are heavily involved with the business and sit on the board of directors.

His son, Kurt, followed his passion and became a teacher and coach for 10 years before entering the family business. He currently works as director of recruiting alongside his father. As for his daughters, they are involved in the annual family business retreat, twice-yearly family meetings, quarterly board meetings and monthly conference calls.

But family runs deeper than blood. With a staff count of 539, some of the employees have been with the company so long, they may be mistaken for family. "We have a lot of employees that have been here 40 and 50 years," Weigel said. "One fellow, Red, started here when I was eight years old. He stayed with the company 60 years and retired in 2005." Sadly, Russell "Red" Knight passed away a few years ago.

Weigel's Stores operates in a highly competitive convenience store environment, with national chain Pilot and three regional chains dotting the market. Despite the competition, Weigel's Stores is going strong. "I think part of our strength came from our dairy and farming background," Weigel said. "We have a strong work ethic and a healthy background."

Weigel's Stores also has a strong relationship with the community. "We are serving the kids and grandkids of our customers," he noted.

The company's history is also filled with firsts in the Knoxville area. In 1935, Weigel's father bought a used pasteurizing machine, introducing pasteurized milk to the area. The stores also boasted the first ICEE machine east the Mississippi River; the first self-service gas pumps in Knoxville; and the first stores to sell cappuccino in the area. "Can you believe that before 1994 you could not buy a cappuccino in Knoxville?" Weigel asked.

He acknowledged that there is pressure when it comes to chains — pressure not to sell out to one of them. "It would be an end to what we do. We are a family company."

That has its advantages. For instance, he said, decisions can be made in a minute. And, maybe most importantly, it's the family's name on the building.

"You are going to do a better job," he said. "It is a different dynamic than profit and loss. A family business has a lot of pride; it's part of our DNA."

So with 80 years behind them, are another 80 in the future? Weigel sure hopes so. And he has seven grandchildren to carry on the family legacy.

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