It's seldom that you meet a person as humble, direct and transparent as Don Zietlow.
Zietlow announced his retirement last month after 52 years as the heart, soul and brains behind Kwik Trip Inc. (KT), the La Crosse, Wis.-based chain of more than 800 convenience stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.
Under Zietlow's leadership, Kwik Trip grew substantially in store count from its first c-store in Eau Claire, Wis., in 1965. But his greatest contribution is probably his vision of redirecting profits back into the company and its people to create a virtually self-sustaining cycle of success that gets stronger every year.
The centerpiece of Zietlow's reinvestment strategy is KT's massive Support Center in its hometown of La Crosse. Zietlow greenlighted major capital investments in the company's centralized dairy, kitchens and bakeries, which produce 80 percent of the products sold in its stores. In addition, the company has built an impressive central distribution center, as well as its own truck fleet to manage distribution of goods to the stores.
Like many retailers in the convenience store industry, KT increased its focus on foodservice in the early 2000s. With typical Midwestern stoicism, Zietlow was undeterred by the company's early struggles. They stuck to it, spent more time and money, and innovated until they got it right.
By 2019, KT had won its second Foodservice Innovator of the Year award. That year, the company was a key developer of the Fresh Blends self-service smoothie machine, launched Kitchen Cravings Take Home Meals in its cold cases, and teamed up with the Partnership for a Healthier America to provide healthier food options to its customers. KT also made one of its most significant investments by introducing fresh fried chicken into its stores.
Today, foodservice accounts for 30 percent of inside sales for Kwik Trip, and 40 percent of its gross profit dollars are from food.
Most impressive, though, has been Zietlow's relationship with his "coworkers." When he was inducted into the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame in 2015, he said: "I am not sure I am worthy of this award, but our people are."
Since the beginning, Kwik Trip has been sharing 40 percent of its pretax profits with employees — called coworkers — regardless of their rank or position within the company.
"Our coworkers are the greatest asset we have, they truly are," Zietlow said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. "Good customer service, clean stores and clean bathrooms don't happen without our coworkers taking pride in the company."
He joked with me once that he keeps sending money into the company to force the next generation of his family members to work at Kwik Trip. Now, it is Zietlow's son Scott who will carry on his father's legacy. It's a legacy that's unsurpassed in the convenience store industry.