NACS SHOW REWIND: Creating an Employee-Centric Culture

Executives from Sheetz, Chick-fil-A and RaceTrac say employees are organizations' No. 1 source for innovation.
Danielle Romano
Managing Editor
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NACS 2023 employee culture session
From left: Stephanie Doliveira, Emi Gragnani, Jill Van Pelt & Eric Blumenthal

ATLANTA — Why create an employee-centric culture? For starters, there's the financial impact, and it's staggering.

Gallup's "State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report" found that $8.8 trillion is the estimated cost of low engagement to the global economy, or 9 percent of the global GDP.

Of those surveyed, 59 percent said they were not engaged (quiet quitting), 23 percent said they are engaged (thriving at work) and 18 percent said they are actively disengaged (loud quitting). More than half of those currently employed (51 percent) said they are watching for or actively seeking a new job.

[Read more: NACS SHOW REWIND: Despite Uncertainty, M&A Is Alive & Well]

When asked why they left their job, four of the most common answers survey respondents said were because of their companies' engagement and culture (40 percent), wellbeing (26 percent), pay (20 percent) and managers (14 percent).

"We can feel this in our businesses. It's the cost of retention. It's the cost of training and recruitment. This is a very real financial issue impacting us," said Eric Blumenthal, senior vice president, Foodservice Commercial & Growth for The Coca-Cola Co. and moderator of the "Cultivating an Employee-Centric Culture" education session at the 2023 NACS Show. "These are the four most common themes for leaving a job in 2022. In my opinion, three of which are solvable if we can create a customer or an employee-centric culture."

Intentionality of Building Culture

Oftentimes in business, company leaders tell their employees what their culture is when the reality is that its culture is going to be defined by what its employees and associates are telling them it is, panelists agreed. To gauge the pulse of an organization, employees should be tapped as the No. 1 resource.

Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. defines culture as what it's like to work for the convenience store chain from the employee's perspective. Twenty years ago, the retailer, which today employs more than 25,000 people, did significant research by talking to employees and asking them questions centered around what it was like for them to work at the company. The results helped formed Sheetz's DNA. At the center of DNA is respect, surrounded by six markers: driven to win, dependable, connected, real, high energy and pioneering.

[Read more: Sheetz Grows Its Store Count to 700]

"We recently did an exercise to identify our employee value proposition. We took the same approach. We went back and combed through all of our employee sentiment data and tried to come up with what it is about our culture that makes people want to stay," explained Stephanie Doliveira, executive vice president of People & Culture for Sheetz. "We heard similar things. That there was a connection to the family — not just the Sheetz family — but your work family, too. It was clear from our employees that they felt connected to their coworkers and to the communities in which we serve."

Similarly, when Chick-fil-A Director of Culture Emi Gragnani stepped into her role two years ago, the Atlanta-based restaurant operator was coming off the COVID-19 pandemic and had experienced considerable growth across the organization and at its support center. Gragnani would walk up to different employees and asked them how they would describe Chick-fil-A's culture.

"I found that if I asked 100 different people, I probably got 100 slightly different answers just because we had been separated for so long and life and work had gotten so hectic. That was a real eye-opener that we had to get back to basics," she told attendees.

Through extensive interviews with store owners and operators, executives and staff, the company collectively aligned on one common aspiration for culture: rooted in purpose, known by care.

"It really is about the fact that we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, that we all believe in what Chick-fil-A is doing and we want to be a part of that story. So, we're willing to maybe check our own personal ambition or egos at the door because we still believe in what is ahead of us," Gragnani explained. "And then known by our care, that just means that everything we do needs to be really cloaked in care and thinking about others and serving others, because for us to have that positive influence on all that's in our corporate purpose, we've got to go about what we do with care."

Bringing Culture to Life

The more intentional convenience retailers are, the more they can design their culture. This culture comes to life every day at the store level through osmosis. Tying this idea back to Gallup's finding that 14 percent of employees left an organization because of their direct manager, session panelists advised the c-store community to equip people leaders effectively.

"Whether you're in the support center and it's your people leader, or whether you're in a restaurant and it's your shift leader, that leader of yours is going to be about 90 percent of how you experience that culture," Gragnani said. "And so, we really try and invest in those leaders to make sure that they are creating a great culture within their team. We know subcultures are going to exist, but we want to make sure they're all built on the same foundation."

At Atlanta-based RaceTrac Inc., which is ranked No. 13 on the 2023 Convenience Store News Top 100 ranking, the "One RaceTrac Culture" is permeated throughout the entire organization, but plays out a little differently between the support center and its network of more than 570 convenience stores.

To fulfill its "We Are Better Together" mission, every associate at the support center sits in cubicles, from the CEO to a payroll clerk, so there is no reason to not talk to someone or innovate and create the next solution or next idea for the organization, explained RaceTrac Vice President of Human Resources Jill Van Pelt.

"It's a great element of our culture and I think it really does bring everyone together for that sense of teamwork," she said.

[Read more: RaceTrac Moves Closer to Entering Ohio Market]

In-store, RaceTrac's general managers are role models for living the "We Are Better Together" mindset by engaging teams on a regular basis with fun activities such as dressing up on Halloween, and friendly competition for which store in the region can be the cleanest, or who has the highest sales in a particular category.

In addition to activities like this, RaceTrac wants to make sure that it is bringing teams together and really listening to them, Van Pelt added. Which is why the company created general manager advisory councils that come to the support center and talk to executive leadership.

"We use them as sounding boards, but also we listen to them. We want to know what are we role modeling that maybe doesn't connect with how you're feeling? And I definitely listen to that," the HR executive said. "In some of our regions, we're setting up associate advisory councils and shift manager advisory councils to make sure that we're really listening to everybody and making sure that the culture comes out in the right ways for all of our employees."

Final Takeaways

When creating an employee-centric culture, Doliveira, Gragnani and Van Pelt had these final takeaways for the convenience store community:

Doliveira — Listen to your employees through surveys.

"Your employees have the best ideas. It's likely your next innovation is sitting with your employees. I would love to go out and talk to every employee one on one, and get their ideas and tell me what's not going well. That's just not feasible, so we do a lot of surveys around engagement, culture and benefits, among others," she said. "We also equip our managers, who our employees will see every day, with empathy and great listening skills. That is really incredible and can transform your organization."

Gragnani — Initiate a multifold hiring practice.

The labor pool in the last few years has been harder and harder to win over, so it's easy to try and lower standards and just want to fill a position. "But I think we've all probably seen that the headaches that can come when you do that make that not worth it," Gragnani pointed out.

Chick-fil-A has someone from its talent acquisition team who solely looks at culture and how an applicant will be a "culture add." Then, the hiring manager from the business looks for competencies, while a store manager will see if the applicant has a heart for service through behavioral cues.

Van Pelt — Measure culture through surveys and by walking around your stores.

In addition to using feedback from surveys to set foundational scores and seeing how they evolve over time, retailers can measure an employee's engagement and how they are living the company's culture by walking around the store.

"You can get a really good sense of what a company's culture is by how employees are responding to guests, how they're interacting with each other, how they're taking care of the store," RaceTrac's Van Pelt commented.

The 2023 NACS Show took place Oct. 3-6 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The 2024 NACS Show will be hosted at the Las Vegas Convention Center Oct. 7-10, 2024.