Skip to main content

MotoMart: A Culture Of Winning


Family-owned independent takes on bigger brands with a focus on 'the little things'

When Rob Forsyth talks about his business philosophy, he sounds like most convenience store operators, dropping terms like “fast, friendly service” and “clean, inviting stores.”

The difference is his team at FKG Oil Co., the 56-year-old family-owned operator of 75 MotoMart stores, actually does what it says.

“We seek to become the highest-quality operator in each of our market areas as judged by customers, employees and competitors,” said Forsyth, president of the Belleville, 1ll.-based chain with stores in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Forsyth and other company leaders pursue that goal by paying constant attention to what is happening in the stores and being as flexible as possible.

“We believe if you pay attention to the little things, the big things — sales and profits — will take care of themselves,” he said. “Growing the company and the bottom line are no more complicated than the little things, and absolutely will never occur without the little things in place. Most executives tend to pay attention to the big things, and leave the little things to someone else. Our executives don't do this.”

Inside the stores, MotoMart sells typical convenience store fare. The aim is not to create a unique customer experience, Forsyth said, but to be very good at doing what customers expect and to create fans along the way.

“Like our best competitors, we have found that we need a very large and attractive offering in certain target categories: lots of gas pumps, lots of coffee pots, lots of fountain soda heads, lots of cooler doors, lots of roller grills,” the retailer said. “When the offer is very large, consumers conclude we are an expert in the offering. Then, they do us the favor of buying our products.”

After carefully defining “quality” — with a list that includes product; speed and accuracy of service; accuracy and readability of price; store cleanliness; in-stock position; display appearance; bathroom cleanliness and readiness; and other characteristics — the management team carefully measures quality and rewards every store employee when the team achieves a high score via a mystery shopper program.

“If every store employee is rewarded and the rewards are great enough — ours earn credits to hotels or a bike for their child, for instance — they are very engaged and monitor their colleagues and how they are performing too,” Forsyth said.

“This is how we align employee interests with those of our customers, stockholders and every other employee,” he continued, noting the company tinkers with the mystery shop form continuously, so it better measures MotoMart's definition of quality. “Executing on this type of strategy is difficult, time-consuming and never-ending. But the ship sails itself if you set your lines and rigging in this manner.”

Like most c-stores, MotoMart stores appeal mostly to young males and blue-collar workers. “They are our bread and butter and we love them and must always cater to them,” Forsyth said.

However, attracting a broader demographic, especially women, is also important. To do this, the chain rolled out a new store color scheme that evokes the feeling of Panera Bread. “Traditional c-stores, more often than not, have bright, contrasting color schemes and busy patterns that can be seen at a distance and call a lot of attention to themselves,” Forsyth said. “Our colors fit into the retail neighborhood and hopefully create a more relaxed and sophisticated environment.”

Forsyth believes lighting, product selection, cleanliness and friendliness are important to all customers, but especially to female shoppers. “Women react most strongly and positively when we get it all right,” he said. “But generally, as we get better in what we do, we will naturally attract a broader demographic.”

MotoMart offers branded fast food in a number of locations, including McDonald's, co-developed with the fast-feeder's corporate office and operated by a franchisee. The chain is a Subway franchisee at two locations and leases to a franchisee at a third.


At the pump, fuel is branded MotoMart; E85 is available at three sites. As an independent, the chain often has the opportunity to buy fuel at a cost lower than that paid by major oil jobbers. But the strategy can by dicey when there is a fuel shortage.

“In a short supply market, we have to scramble and often pay a premium for fuel,” the retailer said. “But, on average, we have dealt successfully with this risk and made our independence from major oil a significant competitive advantage. Some of the true heroes in our operation are those who buy the fuel we sell at a price that allows us to make good money. This allows us the flexibility to be the lean, mean company none of our competitors wants to compete with.”

Still, as a high-volume retailer, MotoMart can be hurt more than others when wholesale prices rise, as it sells its cheaper inventory faster. On the flip side, the chain has an advantage when wholesale fuel prices fall, because it can quickly sell off its more-expensive fuel, Forsyth noted. “It's a fascinating business and you have to love it, or you may get ulcers.”

Gasoline customers using the MotoMagicWand card, which activates PIN-based debit payments, save six cents per gallon and are eligible to win tickets to sporting events, $100 gift cards and other prizes. Drawings are held on the first and third Monday of every month.

“MotoMagicWand [prevents] MasterCard and Visa fees, giving us considerable savings, which we share with our customers via a cents-per-gallon rollback at the dispenser,” Forsyth said. The program also enables the retailer to collect e-mail addresses, so it can better communicate and send discounts and coupons.

“Most executives tend to pay attention to the big things, and leave the little things to someone else. Our executives don't do this.” — Rob Forsyth, F KG Oil Co.

“It's not your standard loyalty card,” he noted, “but believe me, loyalty is the result.”

Like the rest of the c-store industry, the MotoMart team is trying to lessen the company's dependence on fuel profits by selling more products inside the store. “As long as we make more progress in this effort than almost all of our competitors, we will be OK,” Forsyth said.

The MotoMart team makes use of Eby-Brown's Speed to Market weekly e-mail, which features hot new items just breaking into the market. “It's important to give new items a shot, even though the majority live a very short life,” said Todd Badgley, vice president of marketing and sales. “Consumers, especially 16-to 25-year-olds, [have] a burning desire to be the one in their group who has tried the new product first and [can] one-up their friends in the latest/greatest race. Marketing yourself as a retailer that consumers can count on to provide this is a winning formula.”

The Greening of MotoMart

Rob Forsyth and his team at MotoMart have been slowly going green for years, changing the way the company goes to market to help create a sustainable planet. Among the chain's environmentally friendly practices are more efficient lighting, fixtures and other equipment.

A MotoMart store was one of the first in the country to use all-LED lighting fixtures outside, which save money and reduce maintenance costs because they have longer lives than traditional bulbs. “We are green because it offers a good return on investment,” Forsyth said. “But we are not beyond attempting to bolster our reputation by crowing about it.”

Earlier this year, Forsyth and Daniel Duncan, vice president of facilities, received one of four St. Charles Employer of the Year awards for the company's achievement in energy efficiency.

MotoMart's New Town location in St. Charles, which opened last year, uses insulated translucent skylight panels that allow natural light in, energy-efficient air hand dryers and HVAC units with non-ozone depleting refrigerant. Energy-efficient parabolic lighting fixtures with electronic ballasts and T-8 lamps illuminate the sales area, while solid state LED technology is used outside. LED strip lighting is used along the cooler doors as well.

The 4,120-square-foot store saved more than 120,000 kilowatt hours last year, compared to a similar MotoMart in Springfield, III., with conventional metal halide fixtures. Those kilowatts equal the annual power savings of more than 11,000 gallons of gas — the equivalent of removing 17 cars from the road.

Beyond the cost savings, Forsyth said the green technology improves the appearance of the store, as the quality of light is crisper.

The chain is also an aggressive discounter on two-fers and large packages, and favors bundling to boost the average transaction.

The MotoMart story is promoted via YouTube, where the chain runs a video touting the MotoMagicWand card and posts videos of special promotions and store openings. On Facebook, the retailer posts casual comments up to twice a week to open up dialog with its customers. The company uses Facebook sparingly to let customers know of special promotions, such as its recent scratch card program, said Jeff Faulkner, director of advertising and promotions.

“We keep the sales pitches to a minimum, as the site is intended for social engagement,” he noted. Twitter is the chain's least-used medium; it Tweets bi-monthly.

To further appeal to customers, the chain's future capital investments will be toward new stores, new equipment and new foodservice programs. “We must be good at calculating and estimating the return for each potential investment,” the retailer said. “We fund the highest ROIs (return-on-investments). If we find a new foodservice offering that provides a higher return on investment than building a new store, we won't be building the store.”

“We pay more than almost any other competitor for labor.” — Rob Forsyth, F KG Oil Co.

The chain's conservative growth strategy is evident in its acquisition of three stores earlier this year. The stores, located in O'Fallen and Chahokia, 1ll., and St. Louis, were purchased from one of its best competitors.

“We have always said we need dominant store facilities in dominant locations,” Forsyth said. “These three locations met this criteria. Although these stores were sold for a reason, sales and sales potential were very high. We pride ourselves on being creative problem-solvers and we're confident and excited about the chance to show that. We would like to buy more stores like the ones we just bought whenever the opportunity arises.”


Forsyth and other company leaders have worked to create a corporate culture that emphasizes teamwork while playing to employees' strengths. Executives are loosely supervised and the chain's leaders meet every two weeks for a complete rundown on projects, issues, budgets and strategic planning.

“We trust in our executives' professionalism,” Forsyth said. “Culturally, we all understand that we must give each other the benefit of the doubt in all matters, but also look over each other's shoulders and not hesitate to ask to participate in decisions, or ask each other how and why certain decisions were made.”

Each department head has an open-door policy, especially to other executives. “We all welcome the opportunity to explain any decision made to anyone. No topic is out of bounds; no input is considered meddling,” Forsyth continued. “Our executives are humble enough to realize that the best ideas can come from any person within the company or any customer or supplier. We have no pride of authorship in any policy or program, and are willing to consider changes no matter how many times we have tinkered with or completely redesigned a program or approach.”

Top executives support the company's focus on customer service by spending time with customers and getting directly involved in solving customer issues. “Shoving this most important work to others within the organization creates aloof and uninformed executives,” said Forsyth. “Everyone is fascinated with 'Undercover Boss' [CBS' TV show in which a real CEO works undercover in his own firm] because ridiculously uninformed executives show they are miserably out of touch with their own customers, employees and operations.”

Forsyth believes no executive should be above setting shelves, mopping floors, picking up trash and knowing all sales associates by their names. “Every top executive should be the foremost expert in their organization on customer and employee experience — not theoretically, but from real-life experience,” he said.

MotoMart solicits customer feedback through a toll-free number, postage-paid mailers and its website. “Customer feedback is the lifeblood of our quality effort,” the entrepreneur said. “Without it, we're flying blind.”

Approximately half of all customer issues — good and bad — go to Forsyth, who not only solves the individual problems but looks critically at the entire operation to see if something has to change. “Each customer is the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” he said.

At the store level, employees are trained in writing, in person and by video, and tested. Associates are paid a wage based on surveys of wages offered by other stores vying for the same labor pool in each market. “We pay more than almost any other competitor for labor,” Forsyth said. “We pay bonuses to all employees, but we have learned employees should earn a bonus based only upon elements they can control. Otherwise, you are paying them for being lucky or punishing them for someone else's mistakes.”

Forsyth describes MotoMart as an employer that believes in giving people second chances. Rarely, though, does the company grant third chances.

“Not disciplining employees who are not holding up their end of the bargain is the biggest disincentive to those employees who are making the extra effort,” he said. “We believe most employees who are honestly and thoughtfully communicated to on a given shortcoming will change their behavior. Not confronting an employee with a problem is the least kind thing you can do, because firing them without giving them a chance to change is not kind at all.”

The company is now devoting resources to pulling some of the more “mundane” tasks away from store managers, giving them additional time to spend on areas more directly related to customer service, such as working behind the counter to provide speedier, polite service and providing a clean, fully stocked store.

“Our managers spend too much time on desk work,” Forsyth admitted, although manager turnover is lower at MotoMarts than at several competing stores. “Most of our managers have blessed our company with the decision to spend their entire careers with us. As a result, they are very knowledgeable and effective in their work. All I must do when I want to know how we can best run or improve our stores is to ask any one of our many, many veteran managers. If our company has a 'secret sauce,' our veteran managers are it.”

Executives should set shelves, mop floors, pick up trash and know sales associates by name.” — Rob Forsyth, F KG ON Co.

Perhaps as critical to the chain's success is the executive team's respect of and partnerships with suppliers. “We will never know how to sell beer better than MillerCoors or chocolate better than Hershey, or Coke better than Coca-Cola,” Forsyth said. “We solicit and invest in our suppliers' ideas to expand our sales. They are on our team and our interests are nearly totally aligned. They want us to prosper, and vice versa.”

The retailer said one key to success is delivering products to the public at a cost lower than the competition. The easiest way to become more efficient, he noted, is to spread the same costs over a higher volume of sales by adding stores or new sales revenue.

“But at the same time, you must have the operational discipline to not add costs as store count or sales revenue grows — which is much easier said than done,” he added. “New stores, new equipment or new services must serve to improve efficiency.”


Though MotoMart competes against larger chains and public companies, Forsyth and the other company owners have never been tempted to sell the business. Being privately owned gives the retailer a competitive advantage, he said, because the management team can take a perspective that is longer term than a public company's and can work toward goals without worrying about investors' short-term impressions or the market's short-term demands.

The owners have aimed to build a board of directors, largely composed of family members, who undertake high-level strategic decision-making. “Our board has made it very clear they are committed to building and operating a best-in-class convenience store chain and not selling out,” he said.

With a long-term commitment to a few charities, including YMCA, Boy Scouts and United Way, the chain's ties to its community run deep. “We never publish a press release,” Forsyth said. “We just give the money. We have had a charitable budget mainly for sponsorship of teams, especially if employees are on the teams or if the team buys from our stores.”

This year, the management team is asking employees to fund an account to benefit their peers who experience hard times through an unfortunate incident or event. A committee of employees will decide who receives funds.

Forsyth has the most fun, he said, working on the front-line, engaging employees and customers. “When I need to get energized, I don't go to the golf course; I go to the stores and help out. In this business you must love what you are doing or it will eat you up.”

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds